Pathways > The Pathways book > Drovers' roads
Before refrigeration there was only one way to get fresh meat to market and that was alive. The drovers were trusted with enormously valuable cargo; they had to keep their herd of cattle, sheep, geese healthy and under control. They also had to deal with the financial aspect of the transaction at their destination. Some of the first banks were set up by drovers.
Because of their status they could also be entrusted with human charges. The offspring of the wealthy were sometimes sent to the city in the company of drovers. Drove roads are marked by their width and their orientation from the stock producing lands of Scotland, England and Wales towards the big towns and cities where the fresh produce was needed.
The Welsh drovers' road walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
From the time of the Norman Conquest to the middle of the 19th century when the railways arrived, any traveller in Wales might find his way blocked by hundreds of cattle, sheep, pigs or even flocks of geese, on the way east to the markets in England. This same pattern was repeated across mainland Britain, as animals were moved from highland areas to lowland markets, towns and cities. The high point of activity was in the 18th century with the growth of demand from the cities and the lack of alternative transportation, and it is from this period that we have the most substantive records of their activities.
These herds were controlled by drovers, the cowboys of yesteryear – tough men who knew their minds and were well rewarded for their efforts. Their status in society was enhanced because their role went well beyond the droving of animals. They were relied on as news-carriers between farms, were often asked to take on financial commissions and were sometimes even requested to chaperone youngsters down to London, making the journey safer for the sons and daughters of well-to-do families.
To reconstruct the network of drovers’ routes is something of a detective task today, since many of them are now metalled roads. Often the easiest clues to find lie in the overnight stays. In the open country a farmer who wanted to let the drovers know he was willing to provide food, accommodation and grazing planted three Scots pines. These were visible at a great distance, and the drovers used them as waymarks. Field names are also a useful way of tracking down old inns. A halfpenny a night per beast was the standard charge for grazing in the 18th century, so Halfpenny fields are likely candidates, sometimes found behind a building that served the double purpose of inn and smithy.
Drovers’ routes are spread throughout Britain, heading generally from hilly regions in the north or the west towards a market or a large conurbation, especially London. There are many to be found in Wales and Scotland, as these were the most concentrated cattle-rearing regions of the country. And they are often easier to trace than those in the lowlands which have been built over or become part of a larger, metalled road.
The Scottish network extended from the Highlands and Islands with a multitude of tracks heading across the hills, aiming for various cattle markets. There were essentially two main streams: one from the west coast and Skye, and the other from the far north. In the early days, these streams converged on Crieff, where the most important cattle fair was held in the early autumn each year; after 1770 it was transferred to Falkirk. At these Trysts many of the cattle were bought by English dealers, and then driven southwards. Defoe, writing in 1726, noted that some cattle were driven all the way from Caithness to East Anglia, a distance of around 600 miles.
The Welsh network has three main strands. The northern drove roads typically started on the fertile plains of the coast, which were well suited to cattle breeding, and headed towards markets in Wrexham and Shrewsbury. The central strand led to Birmingham. The southern strand, passing just north of Llandovery, headed towards the towns of central and southern England, notably Hereford and Banbury.
In England, the Hambleton drove road in Yorkshire is one of the best preserved lengths still to be seen. It is part of the route from Durham to York and passes over the western end of the Cleveland Hills, reaching a height of over 1,000 feet. It is a good example of the drovers’ use of a hill track rather than the turnpiked road in the vale below.
Northern Ireland is also dotted with drovers’ roads in its many upland areas; an especially good place to look is the Antrim Hills, where the tracks lead down the valleys to Antrim and then south to Belfast.
Wherever they were, a traveller would not come on droves unexpectedly. They would be heard long before they could be seen, from two miles or more away. It was a deliberately noisy cavalcade. The drovers, walking or riding horses at the side of the cattle, would give warning of their coming with cries of ‘Heiptro Ho!’ When the farmers of the neighbourhood heard that shout, they rushed to pen up their cattle, to prevent any beasts from joining the drove.
Corgis were often used to keep the herds together. These dogs are so low on the ground that they can snap at the heels of a beast, and be well out of the way of the ensuing kick. There are stories that, on arrival at the drove’s destination, the dogs were sent back home alone, stopping at pre-arranged places where their food was paid for. Evidence for this practice is scant, but it makes a good tale.
At the end of a droving season, the men’s journey home was liable to be more leisurely, with or without their dogs. Usually they formed groups of two or three and rode back the way they had come. Sometimes they sold their ponies at their final destination and walked back. One imagines they had a lot of fun on the way home and arrived back somewhat the worse for wear.
From the 1700s onwards a man could only apply for a droving licence if he was over 30, married and a householder. Drovers were well rewarded for their skill, typically being paid two or three times as much as a humble labourer. They appear to have had several roles beyond transporting animals.
Until the 19th century the few roads that existed in Wales were impassable for most of the year, so there was very little communication between the scattered hamlets, and the drovers were relied on as news carriers between the farms. Legend has it that it was from drovers returning from London that the Welsh learned of the victory at Waterloo in 1815.
Drovers often acted as bankers. Well-to-do families regularly asked the drovers to undertake financial commissions in London; and many a rich man’s son, making his way to a career in law at the Temple or the Inns of Court, would rely on money brought by the cattle men to settle his lodgings account. Yet movement of cash is always a risky business in wild country. To avoid the risk of loss, the drovers started an effective banking system at the end of the 18th century. Anyone wanting a drover to deal with a financial transaction in London put the money into the drover’s Welsh bank. The drover then paid the London bills in cash out of the sums he realised on the sale of the cattle.
They also acted as guardians. Because of the dangers faced along the way, from both man and beast, many people chose to join up with the drovers. According to Shirley Toulson, in her excellent book The Drovers’ Roads of Wales, ‘the trip took on something of the nature of the European Grand Tour for the sons of rich landowners, who rode along with the drovers for the adventure. And the responsibility could even extend to women. Jane Evans, who is commemorated by a plaque in the chapel at Pumpsaint, went along with the drovers in order to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses in the Crimea.’
The droving culture began to fade with the onset of the railways and of refrigeration, which meant that animals could be butchered before being transported, but lasted in a few places until the early years of the 20th century.
From Bontddu towards Harlech in west Wales
Nicholas and an old school friend, Oliver Quick, do this walk on a (you guessed it) very wet and windy Welsh day.
The drovers’ route that we explore is exceptional because the route is largely intact, and has many interesting features including a packhorse bridge and in several places stone slabs underfoot. It is the old road from Harlech to Dolgellau over the hills, which became disused when the marshland around the estuary was drained to provide a better route, so it was never obliterated by a made-up road. It takes a neat line through a mountain pass. It is easy to imagine the drovers looking down on the Mawddach Estuary and calculating the hours remaining in the day before they stopped for the night.
The area is a magical combination of seascape and hillscape, with the wide Mawddach estuary leading down to Barmouth and the sandy beaches, and hills to the north and the south, including the impressive Cadair Idris on the south side. Today the area is a haven for outdoor activities, with the disused railway line on the south side of the estuary converted into a cycle track (the Mawddach Trail), and a circular walking route taking in all the hills around (the Mawddach Way, a 27-mile route taking three days). There are also plenty of bucket-and-spade activities down on the beach, and in the summer it has the feel of old-fashioned family holidays.
But in the past the area must have felt very different. Alison Gilbert, who contributed this walk to the Walkingworld website, writes: ‘Standing on the main A496 road in the village of Bontddu, it is hard to imagine that this was, not so long ago, marshland. If you wanted to travel from here to the west coast, you had to take to the uplands – and that is exactly what you're going to do now. This route, in 1800 a modest turnpike road, was used even before that by the drovers, herding their vast flocks of lowing, bleating, squealing stock from the west coast to Dolgellau and beyond. Today this is a journey into the peace and silence of the mountains, where skylarks trill and a glimpse of the occasional soaring buzzard is not unknown.’
If we had been drovers waking up on the morning of this eight-mile walk we would have been decidedly disgruntled. The rain is lashing down, visibility is poor and I have a slight headache from the excellent hospitality of the night before. Still, we shouldn’t complain. After all, we don’t have a herd of animals to feed and are almost certainly better protected from the weather than our drover forebears.
Shirley Toulson, an expert on drovers’ roads and the people who worked them, writes: ‘Drovers wore the traditional farm labourer’s smock, which, even in high summer, was likely to be perpetually sodden at the hem. To protect their trousers from the wet, they covered them with knee-length woollen stockings. These were knitted during the winter evenings in the farm kitchens. The stocking was protected, in its turn, by leggings, which in the 19th century were made of good stout Bristol brown paper, made somewhat waterproof by being rubbed with soap.’
Clad in our technically advanced waterproof layers and boots, we climb up from Bontddu alongside a deep ravine through woodland. We are still very grateful for the protection it provides from the elements. As we come out on a track higher up the valley, we are surprised to see what look like miniature rails in the ground. We follow them along to discover a series of dilapidated workings, which we subsequently learn were once a small gold mine. Gold was apparently first mined here in Roman times. The mine was developed again in the 1862 ‘gold rush’ and continued as a major operator until 1911, producing nearly 80,000 troy ounces of gold in total. Since 1911 the mine has been reopened several times for smaller-scale operations. It last closed in 1998, but is still owned by a local exploration company, no doubt with half an eye on the ever-increasing price of gold. When in production the mine used the 2ft-gauge railway that we had stumbled across.
Climbing gently from here to the end of the made road, we find ourselves slipping back into the past, for at the top of this road is an ancient milestone. The faded inscription marks a divergence of the ways. One side indicates the route north to Harlech, while the other shows the path for Tal-y-Bont, five miles away.
We have read that in the 17th century this route north to Harlech via Pont Scethin was the scene of many highway robberies. Our walking poles would have provided little defence, but our drover forebears would have carried weapons if the route held any dangers from man or beast. There might be as many as a dozen drovers in a drove with 400 head of cattle, and they would be armed if there was a chance of attack. They received an exemption from the Disarming Acts of 1716 and 1748. Occasionally, they employed armed escorts, particularly in the Scottish Highlands.
As for ourselves, we decide on the safer option and take the left track towards Tal-y-bont. As we follow the well-marked track towards the airy heights, we realise that we are walking on stone paving slabs sunk deep into the ground – a legacy of the days when this road was better used. Before too long we spy, on the horizon, the deep notch of Bwlch y Rhiwgyr, marking the pass through the upper reaches of Llawlech. And the weather, which up until now has been foul, starts to improve and we glimpse a dash of blue sky.
A drover at this point must have felt a burst of elation as the weather became more agreeable and the high point was attained, particularly if he was coming towards the end of his day. A drove typically proceeded at about two miles an hour and covered 15-20 miles a day: it was important throughout to keep the beasts in good condition, so it was not a journey that could be rushed.
The view from the Bwlch itself is a mountain dreamscape. Looking back towards the south, the Mawddach Estuary twists and shines between its sandbanks. Beyond it is the dark, rounded, hunched-up shape of the great throne of the giant Caider Idris, and over to the west are the pale sand-dunes between Barmouth and Harlech.
Beyond the pass you might find further inspiration in the wealth of ancient settlements scattered on the high ground. As we enter civilisation again, to a huddle of stone cottages and farmhouses among the trees, we cross Pont Fadog, an old packhorse bridge whose worn inscription you just might be able to decipher, though we could not. One of the cottages here was probably an emergency stop-off for re-shoeing the drovers’ horses.
Just beyond the bridge, we come across a well-preserved stone chamber right beside the road (Gors-y-Gedol Neolithic burial chamber) and there are other rather less obvious cairns and circles to explore if you have the archaeology bug.
There are a couple of options from here. If you have done enough walking, head down to Llanbedr for train or buses back to Barmouth. Alternatively, take the bridleway right shortly after the burial chamber and head to the Standing Stones and the isolated Pont Scethin, and then along another old Harlech-to-Dolgellau route. Watch out for the brigands!
Below is a list of other drovers' roads:
Argyll and Bute
This varied and undulating walk follows a well-defined track round the south of the island, with good views out to sea, makes a detour to visit Glyen Castle, before cutting over the hilly interior on an old drovers' road to return to the ferry... More info
This is the fourth stage in a 122-mile long walk which starts in Prestatyn. This section begins at the old drovers' village of Llandegla and crosses the hills to Llangollen by the Horseshoe Pass.... More info
The walk is entirely to the north of Ruthin. Once the town has been left, by a path along the sports fields, there is one short climb to a level walk through pastures. A descent follows to a limestone gorge through which runs Lady Bagot's Drive and... More info
The walk is based on the Drovers' Arms in the village of Rhewl, just north of Ruthin. It begins with a steady climb on a rough track through woodland, very easily followed, before a descent to another track. This follows a river through a limestone... More info
The walk has three main sections: first a walk along the banks of the River Clwyd north of Ruthin to the village of Rhewl where there is a pub, The Drovers' Arms; then a steady climb through the woods of Nant Coed with a drop to a river. The last... More info
The walk begins by following the River Clwyd northwards to the village of Rhewl and the Drovers' Arms. From there a track leads up into woodland and then down again to Lady Bagot's Drive alongside the Afon Clwyedog to the hamlet of Bont Uchel. A... More info
A spectacular walk over the Chinley Churn moors to join the old drovers' road to Hayfield, joining first the Sett Valley Trail followed by The Goyt Way and taking in Torside Park in New Mills. It finishes along the canal towpath to the car park at... More info
A pleasant afternoon's stroll, starting from the pretty village of Winster and on to scenic hilly country through fields and woodland, also goes partly along an ancient drovers' route. The walk will be muddy in parts in the winter months.... More info
A picturesque walk through Shincliffe Village with its 19th Century church, along riverbanks and ascending through beautiful woods to an old drovers' route, returning to a friendly village public house.... More info
For hundreds of years, vast herds of sheep, cattle and even turkeys were driven by drovers, on foot, from the hill country of Wales to the markets of Eastern England. Some of these roads are still traceable today. This walk invites you to tread... More info
A walk along an old drovers' road, climbing up onto Hatterrall Hill and along Offa's Dyke path before descending Black Darren. There are wWonderful 360-degree views.... More info
From the tiny village of Alwinton, this route follows the ancient drovers' road of Clennel Street. Passing Kidland Forest, a stretch of wild moorland with panoramic views leads you to 'The Castles' and the winding route home.... More info
A circular walk from the popular and very picturesque North Pennine village of Blanchland, on quiet lanes and in part along an old drovers' road and then a riverside path. In addition to the walk, allow time to explore Blanchland itself.... More info
This walk in the Wye Valley starts with a quiet walk along the Wye, before rising to Mynydd Fforest, with its far-reaching views. Visit Brechfa Pool, a lovely visit for birdwatchers, particularly in autumn and winter. A steep descent on an old... More info
The walk is just north of Grantham and uses an old drovers' road-cum-quarrymen's track for the most part. It is fairly level with few stiles and has broad views of the Rutland/Lincolnshire countryside. A particular feature was the number of badger... More info
Splendid downland views abound on this walk. Leaving the sleepy village of Broad Chalke, cross Gurston Down to reach the old drovers' trail between Shaftesbury and Salisbury. Walking along this you can picture what it must have been like to travel... More info
A moderate walk from the North York Moors National Park Centre at Sutton Bank near Thirsk. The route takes us across the top of the White Horse of Kilburn and then below the horse to the village of Kilburn itself. After passing the former home and... More info