FREE Chapter from English Place-Names Explained

FREE Chapter from English Place-Names Explained

Communication: Tracks, Ways & Roads

From earliest times people have been on the move. They have travelled in search of new lands to settle; they have transported goods for the purposes of trade; they have journeyed to find personal or spiritual fulfilment. They have travelled for work and for pleasure. As a result, Britain is covered by a dense network of paths, tracks, lanes and roads.

Some of these are national routes, producing countrywide patterns, others are local, just linking village with village, or town with countryside.

Nearly all of these routes have a name - or rather, have two names. There is usually a generic name which describes the type of route - its purpose or its character - and an identity name which distinguishes one route from another - its unique personalised name. Thus we may have 'Roman roads', which are different from, say, 'drove roads', and we may have 'Watling Street' which is a different Roman road from 'Ermine Street'. All these names, of course, have a meaning and origin.


Before the Celts and the Iron Age - back in the Bronze Age or even the New Stone Age - the first trackways developed. The earliest tribes and the earliest invaders sought lands to farm and sites to settle. Britain in those days was densely forested and so these early travellers moved across the hills and mountains, where the soils were less marshy and the forests less impenetrable. They lived, mainly, in the uplands of Northern and Western Britain, and on the escarpments of Southern Britain: in Scotland and Wales, Cumbria and the Pennines, Dartmoor and the Cornish moors; on the chalk and limestone ridges of the Chilterns, Downs and Cotswolds. The Salisbury Plain was especially well-populated and it is no coincidence that here is the site of Stonehenge. Many of the most well-known trackways dating from these pre-Roman centuries radiate out from this part of England.

English Place - Names Explained

Icknield Way: This prehistoric trackway follows the line of chalk which runs from Wiltshire to the Wash via the Chilterns and East Anglian Heights. Part of it is now also called the Ridgeway. The name comes from a much later period. In the 10th century AD it was known as 'Iccenhilde Weg' - a Saxon name. It was once imagined that this derived from the Iceni tribe of East Anglia - the same that was led by the British Queen Boudicca in the 1st century AD - but this has now been doubted. The villages of Ickleford and Ickleton, both sited on the Way, are derived from the personal name 'Icel' and so the name of the trackway may be similarly derived. Alternatively 'Icknield' could be a Saxon corruption of an ancient Celtic word whose meaning has been lost.

Pilgrims Way: This route ran from Wiltshire to Dover along the North Downs. It acquired its present name during the Middle Ages when pilgrims travelled this way to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. There is no record of what this trackway was called in earlier times but its western section in Hampshire, is now called Harrow Way. This derives from the Saxon 'Haerg Weg' meaning 'shrine way'. The 'shrine' here is not, of course, Canterbury but Stonehenge.

Our ancient routes go back into pre-history and evolved naturally as early peoples found their way across the landscape. These routes tended to follow the hills and ridges which gave access across and above the marshes and forests of the impenetrable lowlands. The Ridgway (a continuation of the Icknield Way) runs from Ivinghoe Beacon in Hertfordshire to Avebury in Wiltshire. Here it crosses the Marlborough Downs close to the famous Hackpen White Horse, cut into the hillside in 1838 to celebrate Queen Victoria's coronation. The Abbots' Way, which crosses Dartmoor from Tavistock to Buckfast, was used by Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages but its route probably goes back to earlier times. Here it runs through Princetown, which grew around the prison (built 1808) and was named after the Prince Regent (later King George IV).

Jurassic Way: This ran from the Mendip Hills to the Humber along the Cotswolds, Northamptonshire Heights and Lincoln Edge. The name is a recent one and derives from the type of limestone of which these hills are made. Geologists call this soft, honey-coloured rock 'jurassic limestone' because it is also found in the Jura Mountains in Switzerland.


Celtic Britain, when the Romans invaded, was not an uncivilised, subsistence-based country. It was well farmed and industrious. Indeed, it was for this reason that the Romans came: there were minerals and agricultural produce here which the Roman Empire needed. The ancient trackways already in existence were busy trade routes: tin from Cornwall and Devon, iron-ore from the Mendips and Weald, wheat from the fertile lowlands of southern England were all carried across country to ports on the east coast to be exported to Europe.

So the Romans maintained these ancient ridgetop tracks, improving them where necessary and paving those sections where traffic was especially heavy. But the conquerors also built new routeways - long straight ones, mostly radiating out from London. In the four centuries of Roman occupation over 5,000 miles of main road were built, all paved, ditched on either side and cambered.

Roman roads were straight not just because such alignments were easiest to survey and build, or because they represented the shortest distances between points. They were straight because the Romans had a telegraph system. Wooden towers were built at intervals along the roads so that smoke or fire signals could be transmitted. Straight roads, constructed across well-forested country, provided essential sight-lines.

As for the names of these Roman roads, one important point should be remembered. They are not the names that the Romans themselves would have used but the names that the later Saxons gave them. No records survive which indicate what the Romans called their roads. If they did call them anything - and such is by no means certain - then they may have named them after Emperors, Governors or Gods, or else merely after the towns they served. Thus 'Via Caesar' or 'Via Castra Legionum' might have been the name for the London to Chester route.

When the Saxons came to christen Roman roads they distinguished between a 'street' (Saxon word 'straet') and a way (Saxon word 'weg'). The former was used for any road artificially made - normally paved - and the latter for any route which had evolved - normally a wide grassy track. Also, they tended to use general terms for roads and not specific ones: 'hrycgweg' was a common name for any ridgeway, 'portweg' was commonly used for any road or path leading to a town or a market.

Watling Street: This ran from Dover to London and thence to Wroxeter via St Albans. Only the stretch through the latter town was originally called Watling Street, after the Waeclinga tribe which lived thereabouts. In Saxon times St Albans was called 'Waeclingaceaster' and the Roman road here 'Waeclinga Straet'. Only later, in medieval times, did the latter become the name for the entire length.

Ermine Street: Here again, this name originally only referred to a short stretch - that through Cambridgeshire. It was during the Middle Ages that Ermine Street was used for the whole length from London to York via Lincoln. The Earninga tribe lived in the East Midlands.

Stane Street: This road from London to Cirencester was merely called 'stony street' from the Saxon 'stan' and 'straet'.

Akeman Street: Since this road led from Bicester to Bath the Saxons called it 'Acemannes Straet'. 'Acemannes' was a corruption of 'Aquae Sulis' the Roman name for Bath.

Fosse Way: This is probably derived from 'fossa' meaning 'ditch'. The road, running from Lincoln to Axmouth, had a ditch on either side (as did all Roman roads). Early records just refer to 'Fosse' and later it was 'Fosse Street'. Only since the 15th century has it been Fosse Way.


From earliest times to the coming of the railways all overland trade took place by hoof and foot. Packhorses and waggons were used, and since most roads and tracks were merely grass-covered ways, transport was extremely slow. For this reason most trade took place over relatively short distances - between towns or from country to town - and most of the routeways to evolve were local in character. Only important goods were carried over great distances along major thoroughfares.

The different kinds of local tracks, to be found radiating out from every village or town, are far too numerous to mention here. For the most part they were simple farm tracks or market ways serving their immediate surroundings. They have survived as country lanes and bridleways, or as footpaths and field edges. Many may have started as 'drift-ways' for cattle or as 'back-lanes' for villagers travelling between cottages without having to use the busier routes.

Nearly all these little tracks have local names. Many of these are self- explanatory - 'Cattlegate', 'Mill Lane', 'Well Lane' - many others derive from Saxon descriptive terms. 'Port weg' (portway) would have been a market lane; 'maer weg' (mereway) would have been a boundary lane; 'bridel weg' (bridleway) would have been a route used by horse traffic. 'Jagger Ways' and 'Galley Lanes' are especially common in northern and southern England respectively, indicating pack-horse routes. The names derive from two Saxon words 'jaeger' (a peddlar) and 'galley', a shortened form of Galloway, a small and strong breed of horse, once used for load- bearing. Other local names for small trackways include 'broad way' (widened by constant use), 'hollow way' (deepened by constant use or sunk into a valley for shelter) and 'ridge way'. In northern England the word 'gate' is often used for a road, derived from the Danish 'gata', and the name 'outrake' is commonly found, indicating a route by which sheep in the hills were brought down to the shearing sheds. In lowland areas 'causeways', 'carseys' and 'carsels' often cross marshy areas on raised embankments or 'caucies'.

The more important trackways which crossed England also have names which are often self-explanatory - drove roads, salt ways and so on - but here it is more difficult to date an origin. Since trade has always been the reason for such routes, their names are apt to change with each period of use. A good example is Peddars Way in East Anglia. This name derives from Saxon 'peddere weg' meaning literally 'traders' way' or 'peddlers' way', but it was certainly used earlier by the Romans who paved and straightened it. But since it links the Wash and Thames without connecting any major Roman settlement the chances are that it is Celtic in origin, or even earlier.

Drove Roads: These evolved to enable cattle and sheep to be taken to market 'on the hoof'. The Saxon word 'drove' meant 'herd' and thus 'drover' meant 'herdsman': animals were driven along wide grassy trackways along which were opportunities for overnight grazing. From about the 10th century onwards two sets of drove roads developed: those from Wales to southern England and those from Scotland to central and southern England. Each route, and even each section of each route, was given a local name: 'Welsh Road', 'Green Lane', 'Hog Way', 'Sheep Street' and so on. Whether these drove roads used existing routeways or created their own new ones is not clear, probably a bit of both.

Salt Ways: These were commonly found everywhere and have origins, probably going way back to Celtic times. Salt was highly regarded then

- indeed, it was essential for preserving and cooking purposes. Such was its importance that Roman soldiers were paid a salt allowance - a 'salarium' (from Latin 'sal' for salt) from which we get our modern word salary.

All around Britain's coastline old 'salt ways' led inland, enabling the sea salt produced from evaporation lagoons to be carried to the main towns for subsequent redistribution. There were also numerous salt ways in the Midlands, spreading out from the salt mines in Cheshire and Worcestershire. Droitwich was the main centre for salt extraction (it was once called 'Saltwich') and became the hub of the salt way network.

Lime Ways: All sorts of trackways developed in Saxon and medieval times for specialised traffic: there were peat ways, sand ways, iron ways, lead ways, tin ways and many more. But perhaps the most widespread were the lime ways. Lime was a commonly used fertilizer and was carried from the limestone hills of midland England to the surrounding clay lowlands. The lime carriers travelled in groups or 'gals' - giving rise to such road names as 'Gal Way' and 'Gal Gate'.

Smugglers' Ways: Illegal trade routes developed in the late Middle Ages as taxes began to be imposed on imported goods. Most coastal areas have their smugglers' ways, often indicated by such names as 'Brandy Lane' and 'Kegway' (since alcohol was a common booty). Not a few 'wool lines' and 'cloth ways' can also be traced back to smuggling, since England's wool trade was subject to protective trade registrations. Other goods carried along such routes included tobacco, spices and tea.


Prehistoric tribes had their processional ways, to places like Stonehenge and Avebury, and the Celts had their trackways to shrines and hill-top forts. The Roman roads, of course, were built partly for military reasons - to enable the legions to move rapidly across country - and the Saxons constructed 'herepaeths' or 'hare straets' as army roads to help in their defence of England against the Danes. So non-trading routeways are not new. However, since the Norman Conquest such routeways have certainly become more common, and all over England names suggest their alignments and former functions.

Abbot Ways: As Christianity spread from late Saxon times onwards so the power of the Church grew. Monasteries sprang up all over the country and monks acquired ever larger estates. By the 15th century the abbeys of England, collectively, were the largest landowners under the Crown. Fountains Abbey, for instance, in the Yorkshire Dales held property throughout the northern Pennines and into the Lake District. There was much contact between the various monasteries and so special routeways developed, linking them together. One such track was the Abbots' Way across Dartmoor, which linked the Cistercian Abbeys of Buckfast, Buckland and Tavistock. Its alternative name is 'Jobbers' Path' - indicating that the monastic yard jobber used it for his wool pack-horse train. Wool was the basis of Church wealth throughout the Middle Ages and many of the abbot ways were used for its transport. Other names which might indicate an abbot way include 'Church Way', 'Holy Way' and 'Nun's Way'.

Pilgrim Ways: Medieval Christian belief relied heavily on 'relics', shrines, holy wells, miracle sites and religious symbols. Accordingly places of pilgrimage appeared all over the country, some of minor or local significance, others of national, or even European importance. Amongst the latter were Glastonbury, which was linked with Joseph of Arimathaea as well as King Arthur, and Canterbury, scene of Becket's murder in 1170. St Albans, Bury St Edmunds, Knaresborough, Chester, Shrewsbury and Evesham were amongst others. The routes taken by pilgrims naturally became 'pilgrims' ways', 'St Thomas ways', 'Shrine ways' and so on. Usually such ways followed existing roads and tracks, but some created their own routes across the countryside. One of these was the 'Pilgrims' Way' across Breckland, running from Brandon to Walsingham; another was 'Jugglers' Way', in Wiltshire. The latter commemorates the entertainers who used to accompany pilgrims, lightening both their cares and their pockets.

Military Roads: King Henry I built a new road over the Wenlock Edge, Shropshire, to speed troop movements, and Edward I, during the 13th century, built many new roads in Wales to enable his conquest of that country. But it was General Wade who built our most famous military roads. The one that follows the line of Hadrian's Wall from Carlisle to Newcastle-upon-Tyne (where Wade had his headquarters) is still called 'Military Road', and those which cross the Scottish Highlands are still, collectively, called the 'Wade Roads'. The General was given the task of suppressing the Scots following the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, and saw the construction of wide, well-surfaced roads as an essential element in the fast mobilisation of his English troops. More recent military roads can be found in regions where army ranges have been allowed, on Dartmoor, the Salisbury Plain and in Dorset for example, and around military camps and airfields.

Burial Ways: Throughout the Middle Ages only parish churches were allowed to have graveyards. This meant that, in areas where parishes were large, the dead might have to be transported over long distances. In places like Dartmoor and Cumbria ten mile trips were common, coffins being strapped on horse-backs. The paths linking outlying hamlets to their parish churches and used for this purpose were called 'lykeways' in southern England and 'corpseways' in the north. 'Lyke' was the Saxon word for a dead body. Local names for such ways include 'Dead Man's Lane', 'Bury Lane' and 'Old Corpse Road'.


Britain's modern road network dates from the 17th and 18th centuries when, for the first time, roads were built and named with a view to a national system. Road maps began to be published and transport services began to be organised. Road surfaces began to be improved and Parliament began to take responsibility for highway repair.

In the early 17th century a network of post roads was established and coach services were started up on a regular basis. Existing roads and tracks were linked up to create countrywide routes and such names as the 'Dover Road', 'Great West Road' and 'Old North Road' were first used. At the same time - in 1625 - John Norden's set of maps was published, An Intended Guide for English Travellers, and these indicated the existence of such routes.

As coach travel increased so the need for better road surfaces grew. The first toll road appeared in Hertfordshire, along a section of the Old North Road, as a result of an Act of Parliament in 1663 which gave companies permission to repair highways and levy tolls to pay for the work. Further Acts of Parliament followed, through the 18th century, and increasingly longer stretches of road were resurfaced.

The first toll roads had turnstile barriers with spikes set into the central pillars. These tapered wooden or iron spikes could be turned round upon payment of the toll. And so the term 'turnpike' roads was born. Subsequently, 'Turnpike Trusts' were set up and it was under their auspices that most of our major trunk roads were created.

Thomas Telford and John Macadam were the two most famous road builders. The former used a surfacing method based on large stones but the latter pioneered a more successful method using small surface stones watered and rolled into smooth layers. These were called 'Macadam surfaces'. Much later - at the beginning of the 20th century in fact - the same method was used with the addition of tar, to bind the stones together. This produced 'Tar-Macadam' surfaces and gave us our modern abbreviation 'tarmac'.

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  • Rory Batho
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