Out of the blue last week I had a call from BBC Countryfile. They were looking at putting together some programming based on Dorset and wanted to meet with me. In particular they asked if I could give them a guided tour of some Dorset Holloways. I was glad to oblige and we duly met up last Thursday.
But first of all, what are Holloways? Well the term comes from the Anglo-Saxon term Hola Weg, meaning harrowed path or sunken road. And that is exactly what Holloways are – sunken paths!
Before the advent of tarmac roads, this country was criss-crossed by a network of paths and tracks – paths between villages and towns, drove roads, routes to markets, pilgrimage routes, paths to and from the coast, even smuggling routes. These were the ancient super highways of the past. Medieval motorways! Some of these crossed areas where the bedrock was soft, such as chalk, greenstone, malmstone, and the sandstone of West Dorset, and centuries of tramping feet, scuffing hooves and rumbling cart wheels gradually eroded the soft rock creating shallow furrows which would break up the surface, digging deeper into the rock to form a hollow.
In periods of bad weather, rain water running off the land would naturally find these gullies and turn them into mini rivers, eroding the rock still further and washing away loose sand and stones. Hundreds of years of heavy ‘traffic’ and weather caused these paths to sink deeper and deeper, sometimes reaching twenty or even thirty feet below the level of the surrounding land. And they would probably have sunk even further had they not come to the end of their useful lives with the advent of the railways and tarmac.
These days, most of these ancient routes are used only by casual walkers and riders and some have ceased even to do that allowing nature to once again reclaim the land as they become overgrown and impenetrable. One such Holloway was described well by Geoffrey Household in his book Rogue Male. The hero of the piece goes to ground in such a Holloway, disused and overgrown, such that no one save inquisitive children would dare to enter there. Indeed, these secret places could easily be used thus when footfall ceases and natures takes over.
Some Holloways are comparatively shallow, perhaps because harder rock was near the surface. Some are extremely deep, because the rock was particularly soft or some geological fault caused the surface to erode quickly. All are interesting to walk however as there is wildlife in abundance, the often dark and damp conditions encouraging lichen, fungi, harts tongue ferns, cranesbill, together with trailing plants and a wild, interlocking network of grotesque and exposed roots from the trees that line the tops of the holloway. And of course there are rabbit burrows, badger sets and fox holes, not to mention bats that circle overhead as the light fades.
It is of course the network of tree roots that in part holds up the walls of these sunken byways. The trees from which they come were probably planted originally to mark the route and provide some protection from the elements. Over the years original trees have died back and reseeded and now hang precariously on the edge of the rim. Their branches and interlaced foliage high above creates the feeling that when you walk these routes, you are walking underground as if in some giant rabbit warren that weaves in and out of a tangled mesh of roots. They are a mysterious underground world so dark and damp with a feeling of visiting the past so that you could almost expect to see a dinosaur appear at any moment or some other ancient and extinct creature.
But it is not only this feeling of walking a hidden underground world that makes these places so special. For many centuries people, animals and carts have passed along this very route and as you stand looking down the ‘tunnel’, you can almost feel their presence. Each meter of depth relates perhaps to 100 years of use so you stand in the midst of history. Who walked this route when it was up at ground level, who walked it when it was a meter deep, two meters deep, three meters deep…….? What atrocities took place here, what joys? What were their lives like? What would they say if they met me as I walked it today? And what was the purpose of the route initially? Some of these things are lost in the mists of time but as you stand in these awesome places full of intrigue, you wonder, and that wondering leaves you with a sense of being part of something vast and ancient. You are just one of perhaps billions who have walked this way before and you feel very insignificant!
On the day of the Countryfile visit, we talked as we walked these labyrinthine paths and the very presence of others gave the places a real sense of scale, bringing out the depths to which these paths have sunk. It was an overcast day and light levels in the hollows were low, adding to the feeling of being underground. A dog walker passed us by and made a comment about prehistoric creatures – clearly I wasn’t the only one to have made a pre-history connection.
Eventually our tour of these wonderful and quirky Dorset places ended and it was time to depart. Our Holloways had left an impression on my visitors and they were keen to know more but whether the programming goes ahead or not remains to be seen. The decision may be made by those who have not trod these ways and felt the unique and magical atmosphere of these hidden and secretive places.
I always come away from these places feeling richer for having been there and any walk I do that has a length of Holloway in it somewhere is better and more interesting for it. There are so many fascinating, quirky, historical or just plain beautiful places right near us if we will just get out and explore. And I don’t think anyone could fail to be impressed by our Holloways.
I enjoyed showing my visitors round these hidden parts of Dorset and I hope you have enjoyed walking it with us.
Thanks for stopping by.
Until next time,
The Dorset Rambler.
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