23 July 2017

An ancient holloway

I mentioned in a recent post on my nature blog, earthstar, that, when out square-bashing for biological records with my friend Hilary, we found an ancient green lane, and this is it.

A local man whom we asked for directions when our maps weren’t quite precise enough told us this was part of a Roman road but that didn’t seem likely so I did some digging. I found a document online that maps out the Roman roads in southeast Wales and this lane is not included. Also, Roman roads are known to have a certain physical structure, to have a humped profile for better drainage, and generally to have been well formed, and this green lane was nothing like that.

Though probably not Roman, I was still convinced this path was an old one. 

Tracing the line on a map, you can easily see that the people who lived in the settlement of Llanmartin might have used the path to access what was once the old Llandevaud corn mill. The mill was marked as disused on the 1882-83 OS map, which implies that both the structure and the lane leading to it would date to the early 19th century, if not earlier.

But I had a feeling that this path was even older. 

I knew about ancient pathways called holloways from Robert Macfarlane’s excellent book The Old Ways: A journey on foot (Penguin, London, 2012), in which Macfarlane explains that holloway ‘comes from the Anglo-Saxon hol weg, and refers to a sunken path that has been grooved into the earth over centuries by the passage of feet, wheels and weather.’

I dug deeper and found references to an article that had been published about the path we had found: ‘An ancient green lane between Court Farm, Llanmartin, and Main Road at Llanbeder, Gwent via Mill Lane’ by Dr Mark Lewis, Senior Curator: Roman Archaeology at National Museum Wales, in the journal The Monmouthshire Antiquary (vol. XXXIII, 2017, pp.43-50). 

Luckily, Cardiff city library had a copy of the journal.

Lewis’s research into the green lane was, as you might expect, very thorough. He notes that the depth of this particular holloway ‘evidences the combined action of traffic and water over a very significant period of time’ and that the holloway ‘predates historic adjacent field boundaries’. 

He also notes that the lane traces part of a line between the early medieval sites of Llanbeder and Bishton, both of which were ‘ecclesiastical, episcopal holdings, held by the bishops of Llandaff before the Norman Conquest’, and he further speculates that the lane could have formed part of a network of lanes allowing access between ports on the Severn estuary and the ‘major historic and ancient east-west communication routes (the modern-day A48 and the Wentwood ridgeway)’. Lewis concludes by saying: ‘A medieval or early-medieval origin is very likely. Roman or pre-historic origins are possible’.

Though its exact age can never be known, the holloway was certainly a magical place to walk. I had a very real sense that we had been transported back in time, that we were walking in the footsteps of the ancients.