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.

51 thoughts on “In Praise of Hollow Ways

  1. What a magical day that was, it did very much feel like we were walking in the footsteps of our ancestors and adding our little bit of history to those ancient ways – the hostelry was good too!

    Another fabulous post my love, and a huge congratulations on finishing your degree – I’m very proud of you. Now go and put your feet up ❤ ❤ ❤

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  2. Particularly LOVE that last photo! What a great idea for a set of walks!

    Well done on finishing your degree – I hope you get a superb grade!

    And you hear all about the Highland Clearances but no-one really gives much thought to the same kind of thing going on here in England do they? I always found the old cleared clachans (small villages) in Scotland very atmospheric – I never felt like I was alone while walking alone in them. A very friendly feeling – I used to love it. The Baddoch Burn south of Braemar was one of my favourites for atmosphere. One of the reasons I like to walk alone a lot is that I find you can sense atmosphere so much better alone.

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    • Thanks Carol, it’s great to be finally emerging back into the world again after spending months buried under books. Haven’t had much of a chance to relax so far as it’s been straight into a manic half term. Still, there’s next week…

      Good point about the Highland clearances, and I can imagine the atmosphere in the old clachans. I’ll have to go and seek them out one day. Sounds wonderful.

      Hope all’s well with you, and I’ll be catching up with my friends’ blogs over the next few days. Looking forward to it. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed the hollow ways – and that last pic!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The whole pandemic has been a very emotive subject, and very divisive too, but we’re all allowed our opinions, and we’re allowed to voice them. I’m sure your readers will realise this. 🙂

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      • That’s fair enough then, but I’m sure they’ll all come flocking back to your hiking posts. They’re too good to miss. Covid is a very divisive issue, but it’s not worth worrying about now. What’s said is said, and with any luck the damned virus is on it’s way out now. Either way, it won’t last for ever, so we’ll all be able to put it behind us and move on. Just keep looking forwards, and those stunning hills and fells. 🙂

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  3. Congratulations on finishing your dissertation and your degree! You put in a lot of hard work. That is really fantastic! Great job!
    I really enjoyed learning about the hollow ways. I agree that learning how the paths were formed makes them extra special to find and think about all that has traveled the path prior to your visit. So intriguing!

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    • Thanks Robyn, I do rather feel as though I’ve been off the planet for a few months! Looking forward to catching up with my friends’ blogs over the next few days, and hope all’s well with you and yours.

      In the meantime, glad you enjoyed the hollow ways. They really are quite haunting and beautiful links with the past. 🙂

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    • Thanks Albert, so glad you enjoyed the hollow ways. Still can’t quite believe the degree is all over now, but in truth I haven’t had much of a chance to relax yet as it’s been straight into a manic half term – roll on next week!

      Look forward to catching up soon, and thanks for your lovely comments. 🙂

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    • Thanks John. Still can’t believe it’s over, and I’m still looking forward to relaxing – unfortunately the end of the degree turned out to coincide with the start of a mad half term! Roll on next week, and look forward to catching up with my blogging friends. In the meantime, hope all’s well with you and that you’re getting out and about much more now.

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  4. Many congratulations on finishing your degree Ali. I bet it must feel a little strange not to be working on it any more?

    I loved this post – both text and photos really conjure up the mystery of these ways and the people who walked them in the past and made their small mark on our landscape. How do you find the hollow ways? Do you just know where to look or is there some sort of guide available? I’d like to hunt a few out myself 🙂

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    • Thanks Sarah, I still can hardly believe it’s all over, and I’ haven’t got much relaxing in yet as it turned out that my degree finished just as a mad half term began! Can’t wait for next week now… 🙂

      So glad you enjoyed these magical hollow ways, even more so if it’s inspired you to go on a hollow hunt too! As to a guide, I don’t think there is one as such. There is a book called Holloway by Richard Mcfarlane et al, available from Amazon about their visits to those in South Dorset, but nothing broader than that, so maybe I should write one! They really are worth exploring though – a true link with the past, and often beautiful. The way we found them was a mixture of ones we already knew from a couple of localish books of ‘walks into history’, others such as Willaston that we sought out in the local area, and the following website that gives details of quite a few in the Chilterns: https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/theme/tbc126

      I’d suggest the best thing to do is to Google ‘hollow ways’ in your county or region and it may yield a similar site to the one above. They’re more common in the southern part of England, but they can actually be found all over Europe. I hope to catch up next week with my blogging friends, but in the meantime – Happy hollow hunting, and thanks for reading! 😀

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      • Hi again Sarah, just as an add-on to the Chilterns hollow ways, if you wanted to see that last gorgeous one at Piddington, there’s a pdf of a walk that takes it in on the Chilterns Society website. I can’t get an online link to it, but if you Google ‘Bottom Wood Walk Piddington’ it should come up. You can get to the hollow way easily from the pub at the start of the walk so you don’t even need to do the whole walk. It’s really worth a stop if you’re in the area though. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Martha! Just trying to catch my breath after all the work and a very busy half term school holiday. Glad you enjoyed the hollow ways – they really are special, and very haunting. Look forward to catching up with you very soon – at last! 🙂

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  5. First, congratulations. I know a lot of people who just never managed to finish their dissertation. Life got in the way or they lost interest or it was too hard. Good for you!

    I have read about those paths in other places. I always wondered if they occurred naturally from so many feet treading on them or were dug for some reason we don’t know.

    Again, congratulations! Why do I think I sense an author in you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Marilyn! 😀 And thank you also for the reblog – I really appreciate it.

      I can hardly believe I’ve finished my dissertation either – especially as I haven’t had much time to relax yet, having gone straight into a very busy half term school holiday. Oh well, there’s always next week… 🙂

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the haunting hollow ways, and a massive thank you for the biggest compliment – I’d love to be an author. I guess we’ll have to see what the future brings now.

      Looking forward to catching up with all my blogging friends over the next week, and in the meantime, take care and thanks again. 🙂 ❤

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    • Wow – the Indian pathways sound good too! Probably very similar to our hollow ways, and probably just as intriguing. 🙂

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  6. Congratulations on your degree. It is wonderful to read another post from you. How absolutely fascinating to learn of these hollow ways. I loved your history lessons and photos in this post

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    • Thanks Suzanne, that’s very kind. Glad you enjoyed the hollow ways, they are rather spellbinding. Looking forward to catching up with my blogging friends now it’s all over – at last. 🙂

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      • Your account of the Hollow Ways fascInates me for I have ‘invented’ something simiIar in a novel I’m attempting to write. I was calling them Wanderer Ways. I thought I made tbem up but maybe I heard about them In the form of Hollow Ways at some time. This part of my stoy only exists as notes and a poem at this stage but I wanted to let you know just in case I ever finish this novel and you read it. 😊 Your post has given me further inspiration so thank you for that. I posted the poem on my blog a while ago and can send you the link if you want.

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      • That sounds wonderful, Suzanne, and I’m so pleased my post has helped in your writing. I’d love to see the link to your poem, if you could send me it. 🙂

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  7. Congratulations on finishing your degree. ☺ The Hollow Ways sound fascinating. And the pictures of them are beautiful, what a contrast to modern motorways! I could also imagine them being time travelling portals. I’ll have to see if there are any up North.

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