The Old Ways

There’s a network of hidden tracks in the UK which is thousands of years old yet which remains invisible to most people.

Holloways are deep trenches – sometimes about fifteen feet deep – which look like mere lines of hedges from the fields but become visible from the air. They’re old drovers’ routes and trade paths worn deep into the soil and the sandstone by the constant movement of cattle and people over millennia. Some date back to the Neolithic.

As the tracks eroded into gullies, they created a unique temperate ecology in the sunken depths that allows rare plants such as spreading bellflowers, naval wort and hearts tongue ferns to thrive.

Many of the holloways have legends attached. Robert Macfarlane tracks along some of them in his book The Old Ways and there’s a certain frisson to realise you’re following in 2,000-year-old footsteps.

The name comes from the Old English ‘hola weg’ which means ‘sunken road’. This week Natural England embarked on a survey to quantify all the holloways, many of which have not been recorded. There are hundreds in Dorset alone. Many are overgrown with nettles and briar and have been impassable and unexplored for decades.

Nobody knows the full extent of the network, but the 3D survey will map it and also record the rich hidden environment the holloways maintain.