I still nurse a childhood fascination with drovers and the romanticised images I held of these men as they tramped along the ancient walkways that cross-hatched the British countryside, etching them deeper and deeper into the land as they escorted their charges to market, to summer pastures or sheltered locations for overwintering. The census of 1890 lists the details of young men who worked as ‘ankle beaters’, using a sharp rap with a stick to drive the livestock forward towards market.
As a child I read The Woolpack by Cynthia Garnett and thought about the sheepy-smelling wool merchants of fifteenth-century Cotswolds as they smuggled, double-crossed and pirated their way into actions that reverberated across Europe. I explored the wool towns and villages of South Suffolk- Lavenham, Long Melford, Sudbury and Hadleigh -where wooden frames houses line narrow streets which wend their way towards ornate, dramatic churches constructed with wool money, imbued with lanolin and self-importance.
These sheep, which dotted the fields and pastures of Suffolk, earned the county untold wealth and influence. The animals moved from field to field, farm to farm and their fleeces and cloth were sold in local markets or transported overland or by river barge to the North Sea via Kings Lynn, along the river Stour at Sudbury, or taken to London and transported onto mainland Europe and beyond. Suffolk wasn’t strictly all things ovine although records of 1440 show that around Bury St Edmunds, the profits from the rearing of sheep had superceded those of cattle. The annual cattle shows in villages such as Melton, Hoxne, Woolpit and Woodbridge drew the attention of Scottish cattle farmers in the early 18th century who sent down animals in fine condition although there is evidence that cattle have been driven to England as far back as the fifteenth century. These could fetch prices as high as seven shillings for a handsome short-horn. Suffolk and East Anglia as a whole were geographically convenient, being within reach of the London markets and home to some of the best ‘finishing’ grazing where cattle could fatten up and rest after the long and arduous drive from the Scottish highlands and lowlands.
East Anglia had adopted Flemish methods of livestock farming which included supplementing grazing with the feeding of fodder such as clover and root-vegetables- highly attractive to cattle farmers wanting the best return on their livestock. Indeed, Daniel Defoe (in the quote below) had remarked that East Suffolk became the first English district which fed and fattened its sheep and cattle in this manner and by the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south from Scotland. His account mirrors modern day food debates about the merits of grass versus grain-finished cattle and their respective flavour and textures and it is also thought that the Red Poll breed that came out of Norfolk and Suffolk is most likely a result of polled Scottish red Galloway bulls being put to local cattle.
“This part of England is also remarkable for being the first where the feeding and fattening of cattle, both sheep as well as black cattle with turnips, was first practised in England, which is made a very great part of the improvement of their lands to this day; and from whence the practice is spread over most of the east and south parts of England, to the great enriching of the farmers, and encrease of fat cattle: And tho’ some have objected against the goodness of the flesh thus fed with turnips, and have fansied it would taste of the root; yet upon experience ’tis found, that at market there is no difference nor can they that buy, single out one joynt of mutton from another by the taste..”
The feet of turkeys would be tarred and sanded to protect them on a journey that could take up to three months (according to John Chartres in Chapters from The Agrarian History of England and Wales: Volume 4) and a typical journey in 1696 saw turkeys driven from Newmarket to Epsom, whilst cattle were fitted with iron shoes. Geese would have iron booties making me wonder whether the term ‘a gaggle of geese’ accurately described what must have been an infernal racket as they clattered and scuttered across the landscape on route to market.
Suffolk cattle drovers would place notices in the local press during the month of January, advertising where they would be present to collect stock to drive onto London’s Smithfield Market. They gathered at Oulton Blue Boat Inn and Rushmere Hall, at the Ufford Crown, Martlesham Red Lion and the Woolpack at Pakenham. In Cockfield, a large parish lying between Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds, the drovers assembled at The Greyhound Inn and records by the Suffolk Institute mention a Mr James Howlett of Brome who took a ‘more westerly route’ which included Bury St Edmunds on the traditional Wednesday market day. On this day, he could be assured of like-minded company, a place to gather and catch up on all the news and seek lodgings should he require it.
These Scottish cattle droves were mightily impressive with each drover responsible for fifty or sixty heads which comprised herds over two hundred, reaching paces of between ten to fifteen miles per day. As in classic American Western style, a mounted topsman would ride on ahead, operating as an alert system and charged with securing night-time pasture, water and shelter. Paid approximately twice the going rate for a farm labourer (3/4s per day, 10s for their return journey), this had to cover their lodgings and their food. As the time of the fairs approached, local village lanes and pastures were hemmed in by herds of steaming, snorting beasts, tended by drovers in their hundreds and picked over by local graziers looking to add to their stock. The hostelries and local businesses ramped up their hospitality, serving meals and advertising the time and location of these. Indeed, the Melton fair was held on land next door to the local inn.
Suffolk and Norfolk are watery counties and maps show a lattice of rivers and streams, marshes, bogs, creeks and man-made drainage channels. As many a would-be invader found to their cost, navigating the region was complex and attempts to replicate the flight path of a crow were doomed to failure. Whilst navigating on water might seem as simple as building a craft fit for the purpose of carrying humans, fitting hundreds of heads of cattle, sheep and flocks of stroppy, birds onto one is an entirely different matter. Trying to ford what appears to be a shallow body of water with livestock in tow or mounted on horseback can swiftly go very wrong indeed as William Camden wrote in 1582 after trying to ford the River Wharfe “…for, it hath such slippery stones in it that a horse can have no sure footing on them, or else the violence of the water carryeth them away from under his feet.”
Therefore, a drover generally needed to travel around or over water and when time is money (packhorse transport was considerably more costly than horse-towed barges on water), going around might necessarily involve considerable added mileage. So began the construction of packhorse bridges along main routes at a time when the large-scale trading of livestock and their produce began to factor greatly in the regional and national economy. Dating mostly back to the seventeenth century, packhorse bridges were largely used to transport wool, cloth, sheep and cattle. Designed to be narrow in width with low parapets to allow clear passage of the heavy, goods laden panniers that were carried on the backs of animals, these bridges began life as planked-in wood with supports constructed of logs. Later on as the design was improved, the wood was replaced by piers and arches made in the local stone and some of them were widened to allow safer and more efficient passage of the significantly more wide bodied cattle. By the eighteenth century, the construction of turnpikes (after the 1773 Turnpike Act) rendered some of the bridges obsolete although away from the ‘main drags’ they continued to be used to navigate free routes. Drovers did much to create the seemingly meandering patterns of lanes in our countryside as they tried their best to avoid costly turnpikes and toll-gates, most of which straddled the straighter routes between markets, ports and towns.
The village of Moulton is four miles east of Newmarket and has its own Packhorse Bridge. The village is recorded in the Domesday book although the settlement of Moulton predates 1086 and is older than the its much larger neighbour. The name is Old English for the Farmstead of a man called Mula although an alternative explanation suggests the name may be derived from the Old English words ‘Mula’ plus ‘Tun’= as a place where mules are kept.
Bounded by meadows and farmland, the River Kennett runs south-north along the eastern borders of the meadows, carving a gentle pathway through a chalk landscape which folds itself into two hills, Primrose Hill to the east and Folly Hill and Thrift Covert to the west. The parish is bordered on its north side by the prehistoric Icknield Way which went on to be modified by Roman engineers to follow the chalk uplands which bisect England from the Wash to Wiltshire. The Icknield Way was one of the longest used drover routes and a popular route for merchants travelling between the towns of Royston and Newmarket, with higher vantage points at Gazeley and Dalham. Although its name is suggestive of a single defined route, it actually grew from a medley of braided tracks, lanes and greenways which lie above the lowland chalk that runs underneath Breckland, past Newmarket and onto Knettishall Heath, ten or so miles from Thetford. The Roman route of Peddars Way continues on from Knettishall to the red sandstone layers of Hunstanton’s cliffs on the North Norfolk coastline.
Out driving last week, I crossed and recrossed the borders of Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire and I encountered the 15th century Pack Horse Bridge quite by accident after getting lost trying to find my way to Newmarket from Sudbury via the back roads and lanes. The bridge itself traverses the old Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds packhorse route, one of the main arterial runs for the latters wool trade which, by 1440, had outpaced cattle farming in revenue and if you draw a straight line from Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds, it passes straight through Moulton. Stockily built in local flint and stone and spanning twenty metres, the bridge possesses the classically low parapets although it is wide enough to allow the passage of smaller carts. As you walk over, the view ahead is of acid-jazz fields of oil seed rape, a road snaking its way up a hill and scudding clouds. The curve of the bridge is far less gentle underfoot than its appearance from the roadside might suggest and after a week of torpid sun and a night of rain, my sandals scudded across its gravelled surface in their search for traction, and I imagined the slip and flinty clatter of horses or mules hooves as they struggled to gain momentum, panniers laden and possibly pulling a cumbersome cart behind them too in trains of up to fifty animals. The surface most certainly would not have been user-friendly gravel back then and surely must have been made more treacherous from animal manure and other detritus.
The vantage point is a gift that keeps on giving: views of the old rectory school on your right, dating back to 1849 and beyond that lies the churchyard and St Peter’s church set above the river. The west face of the church presides over fields dotted with copses and the misty silhouette of Ely Cathedral lies on the horizon amid the low-lying Cambridgeshire fens. Ask an East Anglian about ‘The Ship of the Fens’ as we call the Cathedral and many of us will be able to name our favoured spot where we go to gaze upon its spires from a distance. This is now mine. Gazeley Stud lies beyond (this is prime horse country) and nearby pastures are home to some of the best horseflesh in the world.
The road by the bridge was dry when I visited although a few days later the skies dumped a months worth of rain in one night but I didn’t go back to see if anything had changed. Back in February (2014), heavy rainfall did cause flooding and the bridge was once again fording torrents of water as the Kennett burst its banks and the environment agency issues flood warnings from Ousden to Freckenham. The River Kennett is home to kingfishers, egrets and the healthy chalk favouring stickleback population which feed them and further downstream, a similar old flint footbridge curves over the waters which have shrunk somewhat since the bridge was first built. The size of this bridge shows us this because had the Kennett been a small narrow stream back then, a single arch would have sufficed. However the Moulton bridge has a series of four smaller arches which allow for a gentler slope towards its apex instead of the steep slope a single arch of the size needed would have resulted in and each arch, shaped like a bishops mitre, is faced with brick as are the cut water buttresses. The arches were constructed via the creation of a timber framework to provide a template for their shape and form and support for the brickwork. Once the bricks had been laid in place, the supports (formers) were taken away. The bricks are rayed outwards and bedded down against knobbly flints and rusty red sandstone rubble.
I was able to walk underneath and alongside the bridge because a concrete surface, like a platform, has been laid down alongside and over the top of the stream. A close look at the undersides of some of the arches revealed a micro climate: slightly steamy and dank, feeding and housing the lichen, ferns and moss which like to lodge themselves in all the damp places. When I pressed my hands against the flint and stone rubble, water leached and seeped through my fingers and my childhood self, enchanted by the subterranean and grotto-like atmosphere, would have fashioned a world of water fairies on leaf boats with beds of maidenhair fern and toads as friends and guardian of the arches.
The edges of the stream had all the verdancy you would expect from a Suffolk waterway in July. Rushes and reeds, rosebay willowherb, ferns, trefoil and clover, potentilla, flag irises and water hyacinth, flattened down in places here and there; possibly because of the passageways of voles and rats and perhaps, otters which have been returning to our local rivers. Waterways overlaying chalk (which the Kennett is) are vitally important for local widlife: sometimes intermittent in nature, they possess clear, pure, oxygenated water with a relatively even temperature all year round and would be especially useful to drovers, who were always on the lookout for water sources for their livestock and themselves. Additionally, the abundant fenlands that are proximate to this part of East Anglia are dependent upon lime rich waters which feed and support their unique biodiversity.
I wasn’t singing this, but the Song of the Skewbald was recorded under the middle arch of the Moulton PackHorse Bridge. There’s a wealth of local folk songs that are most appropriate for humming under ones breath or listening to on an ipod should you want a musically immersive experience. This Moulton and three churches walk is a pleasure to do as is this walk. The Moulton Packhorse Inn is next to the bridge and locals speak highly of it for ambience, food, beer and location.
Thank you to Dr Harvey Osborne, senior lecturer in History at University Campus, Suffolk for his generous help in locating primary and secondary sources.