Pathways > The Pathways book > Packhorse routes
Packhorse trains were the long-distance lorries of yesteryear. Before the advent of canals and trains, goods of every conceivable kind were carried strapped on the backs of horses and ponies. Running a packhorse train was a regular source of extra income for farmers.
The iconic mark of a packhorse trail is the packhorse bridge. Very simply constructed, narrow and with low parapets so as not to impede the bags hanging from the animals, they are regularly found in Britain's hills (and in many places abroad).
The Edale packhorse route 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.
Before the improvements to the road network in the 18th century, which allowed wheeled vehicles to reach the major points of population for the first time, most goods were carried by packhorse. In the Lake District, for example, no wheeled vehicles could travel west of Keswick until after 1750. The packhorse train was as vital to the economy of the 18th century as the TIR lorry is to today’s. It was a common sight, especially in mountainous areas.
Packhorses were a flexible and reliable means of transport, able to carry up to about 400lb (180kg) each. Goods were carried in panniers slung on either side of the horse from wooden pack frames. To allow clearance for these panniers, the parapets of the bridges were very low, often alarmingly so to a modern walker.
Various breeds of horse were used. One favourite was a sturdy animal derived from a German hunter called a Jaeger; another was the Galloway from south-west Scotland. In the hill districts of Dartmoor, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, locally bred ponies were used. They travelled in trains of up to forty animals. Thomas Bewick, in his General History of Quadrupeds (1790), commented: “In their journies over the trackless moors, they strictly adhere to the line of order and regularity custom has taught them to observe: the leading horse, which is always chosen for his sagacity and steadiness, being furnished with bells, gives notice to the rest, which follow the sound, and generally without much deviation, though sometimes at a considerable distance.”
The packhorsemen were given the name “jaggers”; the name deriving either from “jag”, meaning “a load” in old English, or from the breed of horse. Jaggers often did the packhorse work as a sideline to earn extra money, seasonally or when times were tough. Many jaggers were farmers who depended on this contribution to their income; they seldom travelled beyond the market town a day or two away.Much short-distance carrying was undertaken in the slack spells before and after the hay harvest when the tracks were normally dry and firm.
Packhorse trains were rather slow, travelling perhaps 15 miles a day in hilly country and 25 miles on the flat. Thus the journey from Manchester to Sheffield, about 37 miles, probably took a couple of days with an overnight stop in Edale, roughly in the middle.
Many packhorse routes survive. They are easier to trace in hilly areas, notably in the Pennines and the Lake District, as they are mostly on the higher ground and are less likely to have been overlaid by turnpike or metalled roads. These newer roads tended to follow the valley bottoms, where they called for more frequent and substantial bridges.
Packhorse routes were not usually engineered or metalled, except where conditions were difficult, such as across boggy ground or steep slopes, in which case they were roughly paved with large sandstone slabs. Steep slopes were often overcome by the use of zigzags.
A frequently surviving part of a packhorse route is the packhorse bridge. They were built because it was unsafe to drive a heavily laden horse with a valuable load across a stream. Packhorse bridges are easily recognisable, being narrow (one horse at a time) and having low parapets to accommodate the loads slung on each side of the horse, although higher parapets might subsequently have been added (which a close inspection of the stonework might reveal).
A single arch is the basic building block of a packhorse bridge: it is a simple and strong structure. If held between immovable abutments it is virtually indestructible and is capable of carrying enormous weights. It is also relatively straightforward to construct, and is usually of “rustic” construction, probably built by a farmer with a knowledge of dry stone walling rather than a professional stonemason.
The only danger to the bridge is a lateral force from an abnormal flood, especially if an obstruction develops across the arch from an uprooted tree. Of course there are limits to how far a single arch can span, usually not more than 20 feet, so the bridges tend to be over smaller mountain streams.
Packhorse routes sometimes overlapped with drovers’ roads. However while a drovers’ road required a broad swath to allow the passage of a large herd, packhorse routes were generally narrow, just one horse wide. Consequently, many packhorse routes have happily transitioned into leisure paths across the moors and fells.
For those path detectives who are less perambulatory, another way of hunting down an old packhorse route is by the names of pubs: Packhorse Inn, Bay Horse, String of Horses, Nag’s Head and Woolpack are all pub names that suggest you should take a closer look at the contours, bridges and paths to see if there is an old packhorse route running close by.
Edale to Jacob’s Ladder in the Peak District
The major era of the packhorse in the Peak District was the 1650s to the 1750s. Of the dated packhorse bridges in Derbyshire, the earliest is from 1664 and the latest from 1734. Packhorse business was at its busiest when the towns and cities that surrounded the Peak District were beginning their expansion as industrial centres. Significant cargoes included lead and tobacco from Liverpool heading east; corn, textiles, cloth, salt and Sheffield cutlery heading west.
The woollen industry on both sides of the Pennines generated a large amount of packhorse traffic, with raw wool, yarns and woven pieces all being carried this way. Many of the first textile mills, sited in the hills to take advantage of water power, could receive and dispatch goods only by horse.
Edale, today a popular walkers’ destination, was a convenient stopping point on two significant packhorse routes. It would have provided an overnight break for packhorsemen and their horses, with accommodation and a smithy.
One packhorse route headed south towards Casterton, with one fork then veering west at Mam Tor towards Chapel-en-le-Frith. The other packhorse route made for Manchester to the west and Sheffield to the east, running along the contour of the valley. As well as taking materials and finished products from the larger conurbations, it served cotton mills along the way. The nearest was Nether Booth, a couple of miles east of Edale, built in 1790 on a site originally occupied by a corn mill and tannery.
It is on this second packhorse route, just to the west of Edale, that the picturesque Barber Booth bridge is to be found. When you first spot it in the distance you imagine it will get bigger as it gets closer, but it never does. With a modest span of only 12 feet and a width no greater than a narrow footpath it is typical in scale for a packhorse bridge. It is situated at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder, a fabulous example of the use of zigzags to navigate a steep slope. This bridge and zigzag climb epitomise the era of the packhorse.
Nicholas Rudd-Jones and Peter Raffan, a friend from Stamford, walk this route on a glorious May day.
Not surprisingly perhaps, our walk begins at a packhorse pub, the Nag’s Head Inn in Edale, which is on the packhorse route that runs east to west, and also on the start of the Pennine Way running north. Today the back yard is full of backpackers enjoying a pint and some pub grub, about to set out on their journey or just returned. The scene must have been pretty similar 300 or so years ago when it was the “jaggers” taking a break. The Nag’s Head, built originally in 1577, was formerly the village blacksmith as well. It would have been ideally placed to serve the packhorse trains as they passed through the village.
Before exploring the packhorse route itself, our path takes us up the delightful Grindsbrook Clough, clough being the local term for a small valley. Throughout the Pennines it was streams such as this, feeding the mills situated at the foot of the valleys, that helped create the products that were transported out by the packhorse trains.
After a steady climb along the valley bottom, we come out onto the moor, where large stone slabs have been laid in the past few years to make the going better underfoot and to limit erosion. These are similar to the slabs that were used on packhorse routes back in the 18th century to make it easier to traverse wetter land: a large stone slab was just wide enough to allow passage for a horse. A notable surviving example of these packhorse “causeys” or causeways is Reddystore Scoutgate from Littleborough to Todmorden, which has large stone flags for much of its length.
Our route soon reaches Crowden Tower, the first of a series of impressively large and fantastically shaped gritstone outcrops: the Wool Packs (with echoes of the packhorse loads), the Pagoda Rocks (resembling a Chinese pagoda), the Pym Chair (looking like a seat) and the distinctive Noel Stool (anvil-shaped and near a large cairn). To the north of these stones is Kinder Scout, scene of the mass 1932 trespass to campaign for the right of access to moorlands (see Chapter 19).
The path swings back to the top of Jacob’s Ladder and joins the packhorse route running from Hayfield to Edale. We take a short detour here to the Edale Cross, an ancient monument that once marked a boundary of land ownership and is one of the many guide stones on the packhorse routes of the region.
In the drive to improve communications, a 1702 act of parliament required such stones to be erected. The 1709 Derbyshire Order Book for Quarter Sessions (county courts held four times a year to hear criminal cases) includes the following entry: “It is herein Enacted for the better convenience of travelling in such parts of the Kingdome which are remote from the townes… that there shall be in every Parish or place where two or more Cross Highwayes Meet, Erected or fixed by the Surveyors of the highways… a Stone or Post, with an inscription thereon in large Letters, containinge the name of the next Markett Towne to which each of the said Joyning highways Leads…”
One cannot but think of the similarities to the government edict in the late 1960s that highway authorities should signpost paths where they left metalled roads, and waymark rights of way along routes. This was in recognition, as would have been the case with jaggers passing through a region, that paths were not used only by locals with intimate knowledge of the way.
If you have the time you can follow the packhorse route east from Edale Cross to Bowden Bridge on the edge of Hayfield and stop at the Packhorse Inn in the middle of the village. Staying on our planned route, however, we descend Jacob’s Ladder and reach the picturesque Barber Booth or Jacob’s Ladder packhorse bridge.
In the later 18th century a man called Jacob Marshall occupied Edale Head Farm, the ruins of which are just up from the bridge along a track heading west. He kept a small enclosure for packhorses to graze in and is credited with constructing the steep direct path up the hillside to give the jaggers a respite while their horses took the longer zigzag route; hence the Jacob’s Ladder name.
The path then continues along the contour of the valley, through Lee Farm where the National Trust has an interesting interpretation centre and a wood-turning workshop. Here there is a delightful water trough, now a haven for ferns but in former days no doubt a much-needed refreshment stop for the horses.
The path undulates only slightly as it progresses along the side of the valley back to Edale, with glorious views south towards the Iron Age hill fort of Mam Tor, and an ancient ridgeway track running east-west. Looking west, we spot the entrance to the Cowburn rail tunnel, over two miles long and connecting Manchester and Sheffield. When it was opened in 1891 it would have made Jacob’s Ladder redundant at a stroke.
Shortly before reaching Edale, the path becomes a sunken holloway – a pathway worn down over the centuries by animals’ hooves or water erosion so that it is lower than the surrounding land. Imagine the impact of 160 or so horses’ hooves tramping down the ground every time a packhorse train passed. Holloways are a feature of many packhorse routes for that reason.
The path disgorges us in front of the Nag’s Head Inn and the end of our seven and a half-mile walk. But before we pop in for liquid revival, we take the few extra steps to another packhorse bridge, this one across Grindsbrook. It’s an evocative spot to dwell a while and imagine the clattering of horses’ hooves as they hurry up in anticipation of fodder or a rest.
Again, if you have time, you can continue on the packhorse route east, reaching Jagger’s Clough after a couple of miles. There are also packhorse routes connecting south – one heading for Castleton via Hollins Cross and the other via Mam Tor due south, where another east-west track is joined.
Sipping our pints, we reflect on a fabulous walk and take our hats off to the jaggers who blazed these trails across the peaks, expertly choosing the most efficient route to minimise the gradient and make the passage as easy as possible for their beasts.
Other packhorse routes to explore
Packhorse routes can be found wherever the terrain was too hilly for wheeled carts to transport goods. Today they are most easily traced in the Lake District and the Peak District, as well as on the chalk uplands that straddle Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset, and on Exmoor and Dartmoor.
In the Yorkshire Dales the main packhorse routes run east to west, bringing staples like salt in from the north-east and carrying out coal, wool and lead. The Craven Way can be traced along the side of Whernside (one of the Yorkshire “Three Peaks”), joining Dent and Ingleton. This route is unusual in that it is oriented north to south and so may also have been used by drovers bringing animals down from Scotland.
Reddystore Scoutgate from Littleborough to Todmorden is a good example of a “causey”, having large stone flags for much of its length. Other flagged pathways (referred to in Chapter 6) are found across the North Yorkshire Moors, mostly likely used by packhorse trains carrying fish from port to market (quite possibly along with a bit of contraband).
On Dartmoor, there would have been several packhorse routes for transporting peat, minerals or stones. One, the Blackwood Path, is located on Ugborough Moor, three miles north-east of Ivybridge, and once used by peat cutters for the carrying of peat. The remote routes across Dartmoor were first marked by stone crosses, and later by wayside stones, many of which still survive. On this route you can see the granite Spurrells Cross, dating back to the 14th century and notable for its spurred arms (only one of which survives).
Visiting many parts of the world without a developed road network you can still see goods delivered on packhorse trains. Most of the trekking routes in Nepal, for instance, double as packhorse routes and give a glimpse into what it must have been like in much of Britain a few centuries ago.
Below is a list of other packhorse routes:
This 10km walk takes in some wonderful Peak District views, a fairly steep ascent of Jacob's Ladder - an old packhorse route - and an even steeper one down Broadlee Bank Tor. Walk featured in the 'Pathways' book.... More info
A relatively easy walk, comprising field, track, some woodland and moorland, passing close to the 'The Nine Ladies' stone circle on Stanton Moor. This is not so impressive as it may seem as the stones are less than one metre high. Much of this area... More info
An easy walk except for the distance, mostly along former packhorse trails and quiet roads, including some short sections on both the High Peak and Tissington Trails. There is some field- and valley-walking too, with a short section in Biggin Dale.... More info
This route has some steep climbs and descents, mostly on the return route. Some parts are not often walked and stiles can become overgrown, though paths are easy to find and all stiles were in place when last walked. Visits Packhorse Inn.... More info
A Dartmoor walk with a difference, encompassing wild, open moorland, brook crossings, a packhorse trail, and some very typical moorland bog and mud. There is a detour via a tussocky area to visit the shortest stone row on Dartmoor and a Bronze Age... More info
A quiet ridge walk in southern Snowdonia National Park providing magnificent elevated views of the Dyfi Estuary, part of Cardigan Bay, and Cadair Idris and surrounding hills. The walk follows a former packhorse route for some of the way. Access and... More info
A four-mile walk from the medieval village of Dunster, visiting the iron age hill forts of Bat's Castle and Black Ball camp and the 15th Century Gallox packhorse bridge.... More info
This is a clover-leaf (ish) circular walk featuring the best that the Yorkshire Dales has to offer. The charming villages of Clapham and Austwick have food outlets, pubs and public facilities all available, whilst the countryside between is simply... More info