In Praise of Hollow Ways

A few days ago I finally finished my dissertation, and at the fleeting click of a button I submitted my work and completed my degree. It’s going to take a while to sink in, but for now I’m just pleased to be able to kick back and relax for a bit. The first things I wanted to do were to get outside and roam the ancient landscape again and, of course, to go to a castle. So with a castle visit arranged for the near future, I began my downtime by going for a rather beautiful historical walk. Well, it wasn’t a walk as such, more like a series of little strolls, but this was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I set out to locate and wander along as many hollow ways as I could find in a day, and I was in for a scenic trip into history.  

An example of a hollow way that I often tred on one of our favourite local(ish) walks in Wooton Wawen in Warwickshire.
This one shows how the water can run into the ditch from the surrounding land.

To me, hollow ways are some of the most captivating and secretive relics from our ancient past.  The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon hola weg, meaning a sunken lane, and they can be found in their thousands across the soft stone terrain of southern England. Many are medieval, while some are even older, dating back to the Iron Age. But it’s how they were formed that intrigues me most, because these ancient trackways were not created by the picks and shovels of ancient ditch diggers, but are the result of hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of erosion by human and animal feet and the cartwheels that accompanied them. A hollow way could have started life in one of several different guises: as a drovers’ trail for the movement of livestock to new pastures or to market, as a pilgrimage path or a route to and from a sea port, or even as a boundary ditch leading from a village to the outlying fields. Over time, the very footsteps of our ancestors wore away the path, sometimes aided by water draining into the ditch from the land, and the constant march of ‘traffic’ through time left banks either side at the level of the surrounding ground. Some of these tantalising paths are relatively shallow, some several metres deep, but all are permanent markers of centuries of human activity carved indelibly into the land from a time before our modern roads.

For my day of discovery we began close to home, dropping by the deserted medieval village of Willaston, not far from Bicester. Such villages, either devastated by plague or cleared out by landowners wanting grazing pasture, now sleep beneath the soil, leaving only hints of their former lives as lumps and bumps in the landscape. But sometimes an old main street can still be discernible and these also qualify as hollow ways, the result of centuries of villagers coming and going about their business. Look closely and you can still walk down a medieval thoroughfare alongside the former residents.

The lumps and bumps of the deserted medieval village of Willaston in Oxfordshire

Signs of a hollow way in Willaston that would once have been a bustling village thoroughfare…

After exploring Willaston we headed out towards the Chilterns, a particularly good region for hollow hunting. The first stop was Dunstable Downs, where we found a delightful tree-lined early medieval drovers’ way. This runs along part of an even earlier track on the prehistoric Icknield Way and leads to the area around Whipsnade, forming part of a network of paths and lanes around the medieval market town. On the other side of Whipsnade we were able to pick up the hollow way again as it branches out in the direction of Ivinghoe Beacon, and here the canopy of trees and hedges lining its banks made for a pretty, sun-dappled stroll. Then it was off to the next location to find some of the best examples the Chilterns have to offer.

An early medieval drovers’ way etched into Dunstable Downs

Picking up the trail: enjoying a sun-dappled wander along the hollow way the other side of Whipsnade

For my money, a hollow way will enhance any walk, and if it happens to be set within a beautiful piece of woodland, so much the better. I’ve always found wooded places rather magical, and I can’t help feeling that in a quiet forest you could be what I’ve always referred to as ‘anywhen’, with the possibility of coming face to face with a medieval peasant with his timber-laden cart or a travelling knight atop his fine steed. Luckily, woodlands seem to be quite a common setting for sunken lanes around the Chilterns, so the next stops on the trail were a particular joy. There were treasures to explore in the depths of Hale Wood near Wendover in Buckinghamshire, where our pathway meandered downhill to emerge into a vista of rolling emerald hills. Nearby we found Cobblers Pits woodland, where we ambled along another sunken lane that ended by the Wendover arm of the Grand Union Canal.

The sunken lane in Hale Wood near Wendover…

…and the view that awaits at its end

The hollow way in Cobblers Pits – also near Wendover – that emerges beside the canal

Then we enjoyed a series of three sunken tracks nestling in the shade of Pulpit Hill, an Iron Age hillfort near Princes Risborough.

One of the three hollow ways beneath Pulpit Hill in Princes Risborough

Wandering with the ancestors…

But we saved the best ‘til last, discovering a perfect example in Piddington near the small Oxfordshire town of Watlington. This long and enchanting wooded ravine was once part of a main route to Oxford, and is infinitely preferable to today’s A40!

The best ’til last: the stunning hollow way at Piddington in Oxfordshire. You’ll have to indulge me here…

…I was in hollow heaven!

The way to go… give me this over the A40 any day!

So having bagged a respectable number of these special time capsules hidden in the landscape, we rounded off the day’s trail at a local hostelry before wending our weary way home. Over a glass of wine I reflected on all I’d seen, and I couldn’t help but wonder at the ancient secrets these mysterious pathways are guarding. Every person who trod the paths had their own story to tell, their reason for travelling and a destination to reach. I wondered what might lay concealed beneath the deep-set surfaces; what belongings may have been dropped along the way, becoming melded into the earth by innumerable feet and carts, just waiting to be found. And it’s satisfying to know that so many of these tangible links with the past remain untouched by the horrors of modernity, and that by tracking them down I have made my own mark on the sunken earth, adding my footprints to the never-ending story of the hollow ways.