Holloways are a common feature of the Chiltern landscape, cutting into the chalk escarpment as they rise up to the plateau from the Aylesbury Vale. The volunteers are familiar with the pathways around the Beacon skirting Piccadilly Hill, in use until the road arrived around 1830 – they are regularly to be seen clearing out the scrub to keep them open for the wild flowers to bloom in profusion.
The oldest holloways date back to the Iron Age. None are younger than three hundred years old – some of them more ravines than roads. They began as ways to markets , to the sea, or sites of pilgrimage.
Holloways are part of England’s ancient arteries but are not marked on maps as legal rights of way. Used by pack trains, travellers, pilgrims, livestock and farmers, church goers, coffin bearers and as boundary markers, they are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness. Like creases in the hand or the wear on the stone step of a doorway, they are the result of repeated human actions that no longer connect place to place or person to person.
The Ashridge drove-ways as the name implies were for the movement of livestock – particularly cattle. Drovers moving herds from Wales to the markets and fairs of southern England over the centuries, or Francis the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater sending his cattle from Worsley to Ashridge in the 1700’s – they all wore metal shoes for the journey which scoured out the drove- ways. This is not widely understood as Natural England are still informing the public on their notice boards that the holloways were created by the passage of sheep.
Further south on Duncombe Terrace and Old Copse drive the holloways are steeper, deeper and overgrown. The deep-set pathways too narrow for carts, with their duvets of tree foliage have lain untouched for a century or more – last used by the drovers and locals one hundred and fifty years ago. These leafy cocoons of country paths so engraved by centuries of footfall have become part of the forgotten skeleton of the countryside – like waterless streams cut into the chalk.
There was talk of clearing out the holloways around Aldbury and returning them to their former state as open common land. Although there are now more trees growing in England than for centuries, removing healthy trees is a cardinal sin – the villagers turned down the idea. Restored open holloways have a micro climate offering a rich habitat for flora and fauna, rather than the sterile woodland floor covering of the overgrown pathways.
Few holloways are in use now – they are too narrow and slow to suit modern travel, too deep to be filled in and farmed over. They exist – but cryptically. They have thrown up their own defences and disguises, nettles and briars guard their entrances, and the trees have taken over.
Thanks to Robert Macfarlane for his contribution.