Speaker: Tim Healey
Subject: Drovers’ Roads in Oxfordshire and Beyond
Tim’s talk described how in centuries past cattle drovers made epic treks from the far reaches of West Wales to London’s Smithfield Market, passing through Oxfordshire on the way. His talk described the drovers’ lives and the tell-tale marks they left on the landscape.
This was another successful evening for the society, enjoyed by 50+ members and guests, and we are grateful to Tim for a lively and richly-illustrated presentation.
Tim’s talk focused particularly on the cattle droving from West and North Wales through to London and the Southeast which invariably covered routes through Oxfordshire. Cattle droving (and the movement of sheep and other animals) has a deep history, covering the country as far north as Skye and particularly the Great North Road. Records exist for example of Welsh cattle driven to London for the coronation of King John, and it is known that Welsh beef fed the army at Agincourt, and over time the burgeoning trade became subject to licenses and controls by the time of Henry 8th and Elizabeth 1st.
He showed images of typical drovers’ tracks, with lush borders and tunnels created by hedgerows – all a consequence of the rich soils fertilised by centuries of passing cattle. Tim quoted from Thomas Hardy as an illustration of how the presence of the drovers over centuries had become embedded in the consciousness of people of the countryside ” They wandered up the slopes till they reached the green track along the ridge, which they followed to the circular British earth-bank adjoining, Jude thinking of the great age of the trackway, and of the drovers who had frequented it, probably before the Romans knew the country.” – Jude the Obscure: Chapter 8
We had insights into how a token system to replace cash transactions was developed. Eventually new banks were opened to meet the need for control over the handling of cash for the sake of security and for the sake of avoiding criminality amongst the drovers themselves. The first of these, David Jones of Llandovery, opened in 1799. His brand was a black ox, which became over time the black horse of Lloyds Bank.
The effects of the development of the Turnpike system in the 18th century had a huge impact on the economics of the business, culminating in direct action epitomised by the so-called Rebecca riots.
Some compromises were made with a system of special passes at reduced costs, but more crucially, the drovers found new routes away from the Turnpike roads, which created their own networks in the landscape. Tim’s talk covered some of these networks, and particularly the routes from North and West Wales through Oxfordshire and to the markets in London, further into Kent and Sussex, as well as southward to Salisbury and beyond.
Some typical reminders of these routes are to be found in place names such as “Coldharbour” – from the Norman French “Cul d’Arbre” – a sheltered spot beneath a tree, or “Little London”. Other reminders are in pub names, streets and lanes, and the wide verges on many roads, which allowed grazing “on the move”. Along the Ridgeway, other evidence of these drovers’ routes is found in the Scots Pines, a non-native tree, which were planted by drovers as a long-term marker for future generations.
With Tim’s accompanying map illustrations of these routes, we learned much about the reception of local people to the drovers and stockmen – most of whom spoke only in Welsh.
Among many other topics, we heard of the Lurchers and other dogs who worked the herds, the special shoes made for the cattle for the long journeys, and the transport back to Wales of Windsor chairs in flatpack form.
Tim also covered something of the cultural legacy of the drovers’ roads and livelihoods, which is only rarely reflected in true folk tradition, although reference is made in work by Alfred Williams, and an opera by Vaughan Williams.
For those interested in some in-depth research on the drovers roads, here is a useful link : Welsh Cattle Drovers in the Nineteenth Century
About Tim Healey
Tim Healey is a freelance writer and broadcaster who has presented many programmes on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4. A frequent contributor to the Oxford Times he has a special interest in the landscape and heritage of our county.