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Material from a Talk given to L.H.S. Nov 2003


Original article with added map


Roads, Tracks, Lanes, Footpaths and Stiles

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Article on the historical development of Roads, Tracks, Lanes, Footpaths and Stiles


The article with an added map is attached below

Roads, Tracks, Lanes, Footpaths and Stiles

When we turn to Roads and Footpaths we turn away from the writen archives and read instead the Record as writen in the landscape and its features

Newton and St.Margarets have a surfeit of Roads and Lanes. These often confuse the casual visitor and some wonder how it came about that there are so many.

In the very early days when most of the area was open common or pastoral waste and farming was at the subsistence level; i.e. when the farm produce was for the consumption of the farmer and his family, there was very little need for roads or made track-ways. Traffic was mostly within the immediate area, between farmsteads and to the churches, and was by foot or by horseback. People just went from place to place across the open land, and with one or two important exceptions, hard or surfaced ways were not required. What was not needed was not created.

Perhaps the main exception was for the short distance transport of heavy materials that could not be carried on the back of a horse. Of these, building materials of stone and timber are the most obvious. From perhaps the fourteenth Century onwards the primary material for house building was local stone, heavy stuff! For this one needed to open a quarry and extract it. Building stone of various grades is widely available throughout the area and when required for a building was dug out as near the site as possible. Most of the older farms and building have the remains of a quarry close by. Some are still there, others have filled with water and become ponds, and some have been back filled, often with rubbish, and covered over.

When a better quality of stone was required e.g. for paving, floors or roofs, then the stone had to be obtained from special quarries at some distance from the building. This needed cart transport; heavily loaded carts soon rutted the way and required a hard surface to be of use. Fortunately the solution was at hand; in extracting stone from a quarry, for every ton or measure of good stone there is always at least an equal measure of stone waste. This waste was at hand and was the ideal material for filling the ruts and making a hard track. Thus the first of the surfaced ways was created; they went from quarry to quarry or from quarry to farm site. Many of our present roads follow these routes and it is no coincidence that old quarries mark their ways and often are to be detected at road junctions.

For foot and horse, the direct cross-country route continued to serve. These became the forerunners of later footpaths and lanes. As areas were taken out of the waste and enclosed for arable or meadow usage, the path which now would be a “Right of Way” would be diverted to keep it where possible, on the open ground. Thus footpaths often skirt the fields which were created earlier. When the alternative re-routing was not available the ways had to be preserved by a new lane or footpath. Footpaths crossing meadow or arable need devices to prevent grazing cattle or sheep entering and so hedgerows with stiles became necessary. Informal stiles would no doubt be of timber, but when something more permanent was appropriate stone was used. Hence our local speciality of the stone slab stile. At Lower and Upper Maes Coed enclosure was piecemeal and progressive over a long period and a formal pattern is less pronounced.

The enclosure of the Middle Maes Coed was a much more planned and controlled affair. There was an enabling Act of Parliament in 1816 and Commissioners were appointed to plan, control, and oversee the enclosure. Surveys were made and the enclosure drawn up on plans, new roads were included of a specified width. They are still discernible as mainly straight sections with wide verges, the Commissioners requiring 20 feet from hedge to hedge. Some new access lanes were included, these often not being necessary and becoming defunct and over grown. Footpaths to preserve the rights of way were put down, again with stone slab stiles. All this and the Commissioner’s services cost money, which the Commissioners raised by selling off much of the newly enclosed lands.

When we walk a footpath or see one marked on a large-scale map, old or new, we note a way across lands with fields and hedges, often with gates, stiles and signs. We need to realise that not all these features have always been there or are of the same age.

The land in its present form with its springs and rivers has existed for thousands of years.
Originally it would have been covered with woods and open rough scrub.

People used the scrubland for the grazing or pasture for their cattle, sheep, pigs and geese. It came to be known as Common because of this use. It was not the tidy green area that most think of as 'Common' these days. Legally it was ‘Waste’ since there was no taxable income from it.

The early farmers needed areas for arable crops, wheat, oats, barley and roots. They also needed land for orchards and meadows to grow hay for winter use. It is necessary to keep stock off these lands for a big part of the year so some areas were “enclosed” and the first fields were made with their hedges to contain them. All hedges are man made.

Ways in the form of lanes and footpaths were formed and became established as “Rights of Way.”

Farms still used the open common for daily grazing of stock. They were put out each day, often supervised by the very young or infirm. Each night they returned to the farm fold. The farm site needed to have direct and convenient access to the common and tracks from farm to common became worn and sunken.

As enclosure continued footpaths kept where possible to the open unenclosed land. Where this was not possible they were accommodated with stiles.

Farming expanded to provide food for a growing national population and lands became enclosed to also serve as pasture.

A few of the original wooded areas remain.

So in terms of age, the land form came first, then the woods and open waste, then the early farms each with a few fields, the rights of way, then progressive further enclosure, with isolated settlements on the commons, the stiles, and finally the signs.

And so we arrive at what we see today.

From this understanding, a careful consideration of road, lane and footpath positions, relevant to field boundaries can be informative about the enclosure pattern and its progress over time. 

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