The Dorset Rambler

Holloways and Sunken Paths, the Mysterious Ancient Highways

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There are thousands of ancient paths criss crossing Dorset’s wonderful countryside but none more fascinating than these labyrinthine paths like the one in the picture above which goes by the interesting name of Hell Lane! These are known as Holloways, although they do have other names such as shutes, bostels or grundles depending on the area they are in, and they are only seen in areas where the bedrock is soft – West Dorset is predominantly sandstone and therefore has many Holloways.

So what are Holloways?

Well the name Holloway comes from the anglo-saxon word which literally means ‘sunken road’, and they date from at least 300 years ago, many going back as far as the iron age. They started life as either drove trails used to move cattle and other animals from farms to markets, routes from inland to the sea ports, pilgrimage routes, or simply boundary ditches. I am not sure whether the term Holloway would have been applied much when the usage of these ‘highways’ was at its peak – I suspect they might well have been referred to as simply ‘lanes’.  Holloway, as a name, seems to have come much more to the fore in recent years having been popularised by Dan Richards’ and Robert Macfarlane’s book of the same name.  In terms of literature, they also feature strongly in Geoffrey Household’s book Rogue Male, where the main character fleeing his pursuers goes to ground and hides out in a disused Dorset Holloway.

They certainly wouldn’t have started their lives as Holloways because most would have initially been at ground level but centuries of use by cattle, carts and people gradually eroded the soft surface creating a ditch which was then deepened and widened by yet more ‘traffic’ and also by water running off the surrounding land as the ditch became at times a river. Eventually, many have become as deep as 20 or 30 feet creating in effect gorges rather than paths.

Holloways, and indeed all the ancient byways, are a record of the habits of our ancestors with hundreds of years of repeated use and that makes them rich in heritage and mystery……which is why I love walking them. With walls towering on either side and trees growing out of the top with their network of roots holding the walls in place, these paths have a real air of mystery. You feel like you are walking a natural and secret tunnel as the mesh of intertwined trees and branches above makes you feel shut in.  And there is lots of wildlife too! Gilbert White, a pioneering naturalist from the 18th century once said that to walk the holloways was to ‘Access a world of deep history, an unexpectedly wild world, buried amid the familiar and close at hand’. He wasn’t wrong!

I have a number of regular walks that take in one or more holloways and they are always a delight to walk. On a grey, stormy day you could almost fear to walk them as the gloom and darkness created by the high walls and overhanging branches creates a feeling of shadowy threat. On a bright sunny day with lovely dappled light filtering through the trees, they take on an altogether different feel!  But always secret and mysterious. So where are these Holloways?  Well the truth is they are many and varied, ranging from the gorge-like to simply shallow sunken paths, worn by feet, wheels, and hooves.

These are a few I have walked.


Hell Lane, Symondsbury

Hell Lane is perhaps one of the most impressive and interesting.  With Shutes Lane it connects Symondsbury with North Chideock, climbing up over the ridge near Quarry Hill.  It is interesting because the eastern part is much more gorge like than the western half – to walk from the ridge down to North Chideock is a bit like walking a shallow river bed!  The reason for this difference might well be the fact that the church and other buildings at Symondsbury were built with stone from the quarry.  You can just imagine how the constant traffic of heavy laden carts running between quarry and village would have considerably deepened that part of the track to the gorge it now is.


The Winneford Valley – the Holloway runs into the trees, top right

There are others in this area, tracks such as the one, now part of the Monarch’s Way, that climbs from North Chideock, through the Winneford Valley up over Coppet Hill.


On Henwood Hill

And a smaller, but none the less beautiful, path that runs across the ridge at Henwood Hill.  This is a lovely path to walk in spring when the bluebells and wild garlic are in flower.


Coombe Down

Moving away from this immediate area, there is a fine Holloway that climbs from the A3066 south of Beaminster up over Coombe Down.  This is deep and wild with gnarled tree roots growing out of the steep sided walls, holding them in place.  It is a well walked path, forming part of The Jubilee Trail.


Near South Poorton

Another smaller lane (or is it a river!) runs from the road at South Poorton and drops down to the nature reserve.  With it’s fern lined walls and it’s stony, waterlogged bottom, this is a lovely haven for wildlife and this, together with the nature reserve beyond, makes a delightful walk.


The track drops down steeply at West Milton

And there is evidence of further Holloways at the other end of the nature reserve as the track drops down to another interesting village, West Milton.


Lewesdon Hill Lane

One further path that I feel is worthy of inclusion is Lewesdon Hill Lane, although this is not perhaps a Holloway in the true sense.  I include it because it is ancient and sunken and a beautiful track to walk – it has even been suggested by some to have been part of the Ickneild Way, that ancient super-highway.  With moss covered banks on either side and surrounded by ancient woodlands, there are some wonderful views from this path.


The access road down to Stoke Abbot

If you walk Lewesdon Hill Lane, you may well eventually reach the track that drops from the ridge down to the delightful village of Stoke Abbot.  It really is worth walking this part as the deeply cut access road that leads to the village is a Holloway in itself, and of course the village with its pub is a pleasant detour.


Near Chetnole – this section is fairly clear but later it becomes overgrown
Cutty Stubbs

Sadly, not all of our old sunken byways have been well maintained and with the development of other forms of transport many have fallen into disrepair.  The pictures above show sunken paths at Cutty Stubbs and Chetnole – both are now impassable.  At Cutty Stubbs, I couldn’t even find the entrance to the sunken path and had to ask the farmer for permission to cross his field to find it!  I did once question this with the authorities in an effort to have them cleared and reopened but sadly they ‘fall between stools’ and no-one has a budget that they wish to apply.  The reason is that these are often Byways Open to All Transport (BOAT’s) rather than footpaths and responsibility for these falls with the Highways authority.  The Footpaths authorities have a budget to maintain footpaths and Highways have a budget to maintain roads and BOAT’s………but naturally their funding is always exhausted keeping the roads in reasonable repair, with nothing left for our ‘off-road’ tracks.

Holloways may have been popularised by more recent writings but justifiably so.  They are ever changing, ever different, ever mysterious, but always delightful! And as is often the case when I walk, I travel along them wondering about those who have trod that way before – were they early drovers, were they pilgrims heading for one of the Dorset abbeys, were they smugglers, were they just ordinary people making their way to the port perhaps to emigrate to other lands!  Who were they and what was their purpose in travelling these ancient routes?  If only the walls could speak! These days walkers and wildlife are the companions of the Holloway and to go there is to enter another world.

Thanks for stopping by.

Until next time,

Your friend The Dorset Rambler.

All photographs, poems and words in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and must not be reproduced without permission.

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