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Tracks and Roads across
the Cotswolds
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ARTICLES BY RALPH GREEN FORMER ASSISTANT AT THE VISITOR INFORMATION CENTRE STOW-ON-THE-WOLD

Morris Dancers

Stow on the Wold

Deserted Cotswold Villages

Cotswold Place Names

The Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold 1646

Tracks and Roads across the Cotswolds

The Cotswold Lion

An Early Cotswold Visit

The History of Bourton-on-the-Water

Cotswold Roofs

Cotswold Dry Stone Walls

Cotswold Ridge and Furrows

The Rollright Stones

The Gypsy Horse Fair at Stow-on-the-Wold

The Cotswolds - In the Beginning


Ralph Green

Ralph Green lives in Bourton-on-the-Water and used to work for many years at the Stow-on-the-Wold Visitor Information Centre.

For more Cotswold Articles:-

Tracks and Roads across the Cotswolds

10,000 years ago the ice that covered Britain began to recede. What remained was a harsh tundra landscape where humans lived and hunted. Over time as the climate continued to grow warmer, the forest started to grow and began to advance northwards over hill and valley. The valleys became boggy and overgrown so people wishing to travel about the landscape did so along the ridges of the higher ground where the land was better drained and progress easier. Over time the forest was cleared as people changed from hunters and became farmers. However, in our part of the Cotswolds the hill top tracks continued to be used and formed the basis of our local modern road system. Of the eight roads that radiate from Stow-on-the-Wold for instance, most make good use of the high ground, following the line of very ancient Neolithic and Celtic tracks.

Roman roads in England started on the south-east coast of England before running to London . From here the roads fanned out to all areas in support of the garrisons and to aid in the rapid deployment of troops. One road was an exception. The Fosse Way ran from Exmouth and Exeter in a north-easterly direction to Lincoln and was initially built as a border or frontier road between Roman Britain to the east and Celtic Britain to the west. The Fosse Way runs the whole length of the Cotswolds in an amazingly straight line and makes a fine epitaph to Roman engineering and this is especially so as the road runs across the ‘grain' of the country. It is said that the road was built by two columns of men digging parallel ditches and throwing the soil into the centre to form a mound. The top was flattened, and then rubble and boulders laid down to be covered by finer gravel. The ditches provided drainage and its height gave an advantage to the solders if they were attacked. The word ‘fosse' means a ditch or trench hence its name. This frontier road didn't remain long; Roman ambitions soon lead to expansion. So the Fosse Way became the route of merchants and was to become an economic artery rather than a military road. Today it is one of our primary roads and can still be enjoyed by modern motorists. As I drive up and down the Fosse Way I occasionally wonder what might be buried under the road surface. Twenty years ago, when a bypass was being constructed round Northleach the road builders had to cut across the Fosse Way . Below the present day surface they found the original stone work laid down by those columns of men nearly two thousand years ago. An elderly resident of Broadwell near Stow-on-the-Wold told me that when he was a boy at the primary school, he remembers a teacher bringing his class up to the Fosse Way to show them the original Roman road in the rough ground to the side of the present road. The area he described to me is now very overgrown but the road must still there.

   

After the Romans left England the roads decayed into dirt tracks. Early in the 18 th century the government passed an Act that enabled these tracts to be franchised out to private companies who improved the surface and charged a toll to travellers. They were known as turnpike roads perhaps because the gate that barred the road carried upright pikes along the top to deter a horseman from jumping the barrier and avoid paying the toll. An employee of the company would be responsible for the maintenance of a certain length of road and he would make his summer camp at the road side. His job was to pack stone and gravel into pot holes that might start to develop on his stretch. As winter approached he would return to his family in the local village. Over time, the roadman would create a small vegetable garden along the roadside and start to build a slight curve in the road to enable him to expand his area. In some cases, the amount of ground ‘reclaimed' enabled the roadman to build more permanent accommodation and remain on the sight throughout the year. In certain places in the Cotswolds, it is still possible to see a solitary house and garden with the road making a slight curve round it. In our area the stone used to pack the road consisted of lumps of limestone. In the wet winter months the village roads became sticky white quagmires which is why my mother-in-law always wore ankle length boots as a girl, as did everyone else. In the dry summer months houses on the road side were covered inside and out in a fine layer of white dust. In our village lived Mr. Lake, a lovely man with a wealth of stories about Cotswold life. He had spent his working life with bicycles and motor cars and to enter his workshop was a wonderful experience, a real step back in time. He told me about the steep road that runs down through the village of Little Rissington and how it was always washed away in winter by rain and melting snow. In the early 1900s a decision to rebuild and seal it with bitumen was taken. Every Sunday afternoon the Bourton-on-the-Water villagers, dressed in their ‘Sunday best' would walk out to look at this wondrous black road. He called it a Sunday Promenade. Mr. Lake's workshop is now the Perfumery and much of the contents of his workshop can be seen in the Motor Museum .

From early times, professional drovers brought livestock from Wales and the Marches across the Cotswolds and on to London . Hundreds of cattle were spectacularly driven up the Cotswold escarpment in a journey that would take weeks. Livestock was driven along wide tracks which carried plenty of feed to support the cattle and the use of these green lanes, as they were called, was regulated to prevent overgrazing. In times of drought and little feed, the drovers had to negotiate with land owners along the route. In order to get the best price for the livestock at their destination, the drovers had to drive the cattle at just the right pace to arrive quickly, but not too quickly that they lost condition. Their destination was the open paddocks of Smithfield which incidentally, was the scene of the murder of Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

In certain places along the route the livestock was rested in large paddocks and even today the improved soil fertility still shows, especially from the air. The drovers stayed well away from the turnpike roads to avoid paying the toll, and several of these roads with there wide grass verges can be seen today to the east of Cirencester and around Fairford and Letchlade. As London 's population expanded so the drovers became important figures who not only had to be hardy but trustworthy since they carried large sums of money back to the farmers. My brother, who keeps sheep on Black Mountains in South Wales and uses Welsh Corgis dogs, told me the drovers used Corgis to assist in driving the cattle. They were quick, nimble and being quite small, didn't eat too much. On the return journey when passing through Oxfordshire and approaching the Cotswolds, the dogs would take off and head for home. When small groups of unattended dogs were seen passing through the farms and villages, Cotswold people knew the drovers were only a day or so behind them. When the dogs arrived home the families expected their men folk to be home, with their pay, in about three or four days time.

Salt was a very important commodity in the preservation of food and London needed large amounts. Mules were used to carry it down from salt mines in Cheshire to the River Thames and then on to London by boat. From very early times Lechlade had been the destination of the mule trains and to get there they climbed the Cotswold Escarpment near Winchcombe. The track they used is still known as Salter's Lane today. The narrow lane that crosses the Cotswolds is high and lonely even today, and passes through very few villages as it makes its way to the Thames . It is still known as the Salt Way . The qualities needed of these men were much the same as the drovers, hardy and trustworthy with an ability to live and work with just a few friends for long periods in harsh conditions. The demand for salt grew in proportion to London 's expanding population so in the middle ages a purpose built dock was constructed at Radcot, 4 miles down stream from Lechlade. The overgrown ditches that held the docks and the quaysides can still be seen close to the old bridge. Incidentally, this beautiful stone bridge is the oldest over the River Thames.

Every road, lane and track has a story to tell. As we drive, ride or walk along them we are literally travelling in the footsteps of our ancestors. Today we might do this for pleasure but in times gone by, crossing the Cotswold Hills , for a Roman Legionnaire, a drover of cattle or a driver of mules loaded with salt, this was a very serious business indeed.

   

Interesting Articles about the Cotswolds
by Ralph Green