Byways or Minor Roads


As well as hosting a roman road, during the Saxon and Medieval periods the present network of lanes evolved. These wound from settlement to settlement, often along river valleys. The King’s Special Peace was granted to the main crossing streets in villages and market towns during the 11th Century. On a map by Cary in 1787 the Bath Road is shown clearly to the north of the Kennet with a junction leading to Fyfield and routes on to Lockeridge from where routes branch to West Overton, and Alton Barnes in much the same manner as they do today. In 1792 roads are shown leading from both Lockeridge and Fyfield to Clatford, and George Lane in West Overton appears crossing the Kennet to join the main road. The road from West Overton crossing the river to the Bell is shown on Greenwood’s map in 1820. Some of these roads are now only footpaths e.g. footpath 16 from Lockeridge to Fyfield having been super-ceded by a new road from Lockeridge to the housing development at Priest Acre and a new junction with the A4 in the 1930’s.
Footpaths and Bridleways
Footpaths and bridleways – public rights of way – have evolved over not just hundreds but thousands of years. Prehistoric tracks and paths would have been formed by herds of migrating animals. They would have taken the easiest routes, with due regard to forage and water, and these in turn would have been followed by the earliest human inhabitants, hunter-gatherers. These routes gradually became established paths, the chalk ridgeways being among the first of these. The boundaries of the Saxon estates described in the 10th Century land charters probably followed pre-existing drove roads, many of them going back centuries before that, and very likely marking the limits of even earlier estates. These ways continued in use when the Saxon estates were replaced by medieval tithings and now by our civil parishes. Many of the old boundaries are gone but their lines can be traced in our highways, byways, footpaths and bridleways. Bridleway 20 (Spud Lane) connects Lockeridge Green with the West Woods along a tunnel of old hedge. This was once the boundary between old East Overton and the estate of the Knights Templar at Lockeridge.
The Romans brought with them organised road building, and some of their roads which fell into disuse have also become byways. Other routes were taken over or made by the Saxons which still exist today, for example, the Herepath or Green Street, between the northern edge of Marlborough and Avebury, now labelled as bridleway 5. Herepath refers to a military way. We cannot tell whether the route was really used as such in Saxon times or whether they gave it the name because of the legends that preceded them. It is certainly much older, it leads directly to Avebury. It served as the old Bath Road over Fyfield and Overton Downs. This is the route taken by Samuel Pepys in 1668 “with some trouble for being out of our way over the downes where the life of the shepherds is in fair weather pretty”. Looking west towards the Ridgeway from below the Delling a succession of deep ruts shows where carts and carriages laboured over the incline. Traffic returned to the route of the old Roman road with the arrival of turnpikes during the 18th century.
From late Saxon times until the Norman Conquest there was a network of roads and paths adequate for national purposes, to which little would have been added until the days of turnpikes and enclosures. In 1555 an Act of Parliament made each Parish responsible for the maintenance of highways within its boundaries, but for the next 300 years very few repairs were carried out, except to main roads. Tracks and byways remained very much the same, though many changed from cart ways to footpaths to bridleways.
In those far off times when global warming led to the first trickling away of the permafrost and the stripling river Kennet turned East instead of West, it established an important East-West corridor across the country. The North-South routes were just as important, however, as the earliest inhabitants turned to herding and farming. Flocks and herds were moved in a cycle from winter to summer pastures. There are threads of the drove roads still running through the landscape, some are forgotten, others still used, one such from the withy beds in West Overton across the river and then the main road by Grey Wethers, up the bank to the footpath which follows the boundary hedge between East and West Overton. So far the way is clear, but beyond Down Barn, on the open downlands to the North, there are only signs of the old drove road among the lumps and bumps of ancient field systems, if you know where to look. In the opposite direction, the route continues. Bridleway 19 (West Overton) marks the boundary between old West Overton and East Overton. Leaving the river to the north it skirts the withy beds and continues south along Frog Lane and Knights Close before crossing the down and descending to the Alton Barnes road. Then it continues uphill to the West Woods. Along its route is the primitive sarsen bridge in the withy beds and the Meux estate boundary stone marked HM near the West Woods where the bridleway still divides land holdings.
Notice, too, that section of bridleway 24 in West Woods, as it climbs to the south, away from the main forest track in the valley floor. To the side of it, there are the holloways made by earlier travellers repeatedly avoiding the mud, just as we do today, if we can.
Footpath 11 (Fyfield) follows the boundary between the modern civil parishes of Fyfield and Clatford. From north to south it links the West Woods with Clatford bottom west of the Devil’s Den crossing the river and the A4 on the way. Before 1905 this was the route to work tramped by the men working for stonemason Cartwright of Fyfield employed to cut sarsen in Temple Bottom and Wick Bottom.
Today the more famous and lasting of the North-South routes is the Ridgeway, byway 1, hardly needing a description, for surely all people from our villages have trodden its length at least once. Maybe it is one of the oldest roads in the country. Again it served as a boundary for the land-holdings from Saxon times and in all likelihood earlier. It served too as a herepath, for the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that in 1006 the Vikings came down the Ridgeway to be met by Saxons at the battle, or skirmish, of East Kennett ford.
Sources include
The Development of the Public Rights of Way Network by Mrs. D. Chandler, Rights of Way Officer, WCC.
The Land of Lettice Sweetapple by Peter Fowler and Ian Blackwell, ISBN 07524-1415-1.
Roads and Tracks of Britain by Christopher Taylor, ISBN 1-85797-340-2.
The highways today
As we travel along the highways in this parish it is noticeable that they fall into two main categories ‘open’ and ‘enclosed’ be they busy or quiet.
The ‘open’ roads are by and large on the higher ground, with low or no hedges at all. So that travelling through the countryside with the sky in your lap, and open vistas of rolling grass and arable land, distant tree clumps or belts, the feeling is, of space, emptiness and washed out colour.
The meadow lanes in the river corridor with their bridges and railings, glimpses of river or flood water, moor hens and swans or grazing sheep, have a neat manicured feel.
The ‘enclosed’ roads are the highways and lanes tunnelled by overarching trees, hedges and ivy. Raucously active in early spring, dappled and green in early summer, cool dark and quiet by late summer, with seasonal falls of twigs, bird droppings, conkers, beech mast and leaves.
The sweet smell of summer comes to all our roads with the Hawthorn and Cow Parsley adorning every length of verge and hedgerow, followed by Mallow and finally the waving waist high dry grasses and hedgerow berries, shining against deep blue skies. Later skeletal trees and clipped hedges increase the bleakness of the winter landscape.
Too many traffic signs, concrete curb stones and black and white marker posts etc detract from the rural setting.
Unsympathetic timing for cutting of verges and hedges lead to loss of wild flowers and birds.
Larger vehicles make passing difficult on narrow roads leads to erosion of verges.
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