Track or Fiction? – The Icknield Way

Icknield Way : anemoneprojectors

The pony galloped as fast as it was able to without losing its footing. The rhythmic thud of hooves upon the frosted ground reverberated through the early morning mist that sent nearby birds scattering into the sharp, frosty wind which cut through the air like a knife.

The riders face was set in a determined stare, well aware of the importance of the message he was carrying, and that the lives of every man, woman and child depended on him reaching his destination. The track was well known and worn, as the miles flew by, man and pony as one; they passed the monuments to his ancestors, but he did not notice. The future of his tribe was all that mattered now, and at the termination of this track were the only people who could help.

There are many ancient tracks criss-crossing Britain, some known, others lost to the annals of history. Well known ones have been used through the ages and improved upon by the multitude of people who have been born, migrated to, and invaded the British Isles.

The Icknield Way is commonly known and referred to as an ancient track that stretches from the Wessex Downs to Norfolk. Accepted as being one of the original Green Roads of Britain it is believed to date from the Neolithic period and associated with trade, exchange and long distance communication. But is this road really just a myth that has grown up around a legend, and through the process of time and historical Chinese whispers, been turned into something that never actually existed?

Sarah Harrison (2003) in her paper, The Icknield Way: Some Queries shows how, over time, perceptions and thinking can change, and along with it, the notion that although backed by early archaeological evidence, the scientific discipline is keeping an open mind in relation to new findings that may debunk earlier opinions.

So what is the Icknield Way and where does the story of its existence originate? In the nineteenth century, Guest (1857) stated it appears in Anglo-Saxon Charters. Harrison (2003) looked at the Medieval sources, and notes that the Icknield Way, appears first in the Medieval literature as part of the fictional ‘Four Highways’ story in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (c.1131). The gist of the story at this early stage was that the four highways – the three Roman roads, Ermine Street, Fosse Way and Watling Street, together with the Icknield Way – were constructed ‘by Royal authority’ across the island of Britain, ‘on which no one would dare attack his enemy’ (Harrison 2003,1)

Roman Fosse Way : Wiki Commons

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his work, Historia Regum Britannie (c.1136), identifies the Four Highways as being part of the story of the mythical King Belinus, (Lay & Vance 1999, 59) but only names the Fosse Way, and Cooper (cited in Harrison 2003) calls the Four Highways a ‘twelfth century myth’.

If the road was only added to the King’s protection due to it being associated with a legend, then this may be the reason why the Fosse Way, Ermine Street and Watling Street were all incorporated and used by the Romans and later generations as identifiable cross-country routes, but the Icknield Way was not. However, the fact that it was named at all shows there must have been a road or trackway already in existance, possibly with that name.

With Geoffrey’s work being considered mostly mythical in itself, was the Fosse Way only mentioned to place some element of truth behind his writing and making it more acceptable as fact?He cites Anglo-Norman attempts to discover the laws of Edward the Confessor which William had promised to uphold, a developing romantic interest in England’s past, and more prosaically, legal disputes over the extent of the via regia, since in this period the matter of jurisdiction was often hotly contested (Harrison 2003, 3).

The medieval period is also responsible for the stories of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table which people still believe today to be fact and go in search of evidence to prove just so. But what facts can be brought to light to demonstrate that the Icknield Way did indeed exist as an ancient cross-country trackway?

Reed (1997) explains, ‘Law books of the twelfth century list Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, and Icknield Way as being Royal roads, Chimini regales’ Reed (1997, 268). The special protection meant that people were able to travel safely along the route without fear of being ambushed or attacked, and if a person was, then it would be ‘considered to be an offence against the king himself’ (Messchaele 1997, 196).

During the thirteenth century road crime appears to have still been present for during this century more laws were being enforced which led to the Statute of Winchester in 1285, declaring the rights of way along roads and byways,

[The King] Ordered that highways leading from one market town another should be broadened so that there was neither dyke, tree nor bush where a man could lurk and do harm within 200 feet of either side of the road (Reed 1997, 268).

The clearing of the road sides for up to 200 feet would leave some evidence of clearing, however, with the amount of agriculture and general disturbance over the centuries there would be virtually no archaeological evidence to show this.

The oldest map of the route is mentioned by Guest (1857) as an ‘Extremely rude map, which professes to represent the courses of the Four Roads…. it carries the Icknield Street from Bury St Edmunds to Salisbury’ (Guest 1857, 109). We are told that the map is part of the Cotton Manuscripts dating from the thirteenth century. Unfortunately copies are not available, and if we could obtain one how could we be certain that the track illustrated actually followed an original route? Or would its course be as mythical as the tale told about its origin like King Belinus? Peake (1939) informs us that ‘there are not, nor ever were, four Royal roads’ (Peake 1939, 445).

The citing of the Four Roads in literature has become known as fact down through the ages, however, in the nineteenth century some started to question them. Beldam (1868) in The Archaeological Journal states there are ‘numerous roads of ancient, though often uncertain origin’ (Beldham 1868, 21) and he goes on to add,

Many of them have undergone such changes from the lapse of time, the occupation of later races, or the encroachments of modern civilizations, that the original marks and traces are often almost obliterated (Beldam 1868, 21-22).

This leads to an understanding that only the best known and well-worn routes were kept over time. In 1897, Green, in his book, The Making of England states, ‘It was along the Icknield Way, therefore, that the West Saxons would naturally have pushed into the heart of the island’ (Green 1897, 122). Here we have an author who has totally believed that the route existed as a means of crossing the country to reach an inland destination. However, in the early twentieth century Belloc (1907), comments in the Historic Times that,

For the Icknield Way was but a vague barbarian track, often tortuous in outline, confused by branching ways, and presenting all features of a savage trail (Belloc 1907, 42).

Ermine Street : Wiki Commons

Although there were questions being posed about the Icknield Way, throughout the twentieth century support for it as being one long continuous track began to take hold, and Feldman (1988, 105) commented in The Cambridge Law Journal that the Icknield Way was one of the four great Roman roads.

The native roads that the Romans paved and made their own, as already mentioned were the Fosse Way, Ermine Street and Watling Street. Surely, if the Icknield Way existed at that time as a major cross-country route, it would have had the same fate as the others. But it does not and this begs the question as to why?

The Icknield Way is known to make use of the chalk escarpments for most of its route, and also along these areas are the remains of hillforts, tombs, barrows and burials. This evidence has given weight to the belief that a route existed.

Archaeological evidence is not very convincing as lines can be drawn between any number of areas and statistics can be made to fit around anything. Fox (1923) was wary about relating finds to the Icknield Way,

But in a countryside so fully occupied from earliest of times the evidential value of the majority of the finds cannot be rated very highly (Fox 1923, 147). The placing of hillforts ‘along’ the Icknield Way merely show that the chalk uplands were defended; barrows and tombs were placed in prominent positions as a reminder to people of their ancestors, were they could be viewed,

That the Icknield Way was used even more extensively during the Bronze Age is apparent from the way in which round barrows occur on either side at intervals over almost its whole length (Grinsell 1953, 198).

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This can also be described as being the place favoured for the burial of ancestors and those wishing to visit them, resulting in movement between lowland areas and the uplands. Grinsell (1953) believed the barrows to be proof that the trackway existed, however, Harrison (2003) states,

There is even less in the way of excavated evidence for the route ….By the late twentieth century the idea of zones of communication had become accepted and modern archaeologists were thus removed from the immediate problem of having to find the route  (Harrison 2003, 11).

The above demonstrates the frustrating issue of having to explain the existence of the route when there is no concrete evidence that it ever really existed. So how do we actually know it did exist as some of the earliest written evidence comes from a mythical legend?

There is no definite answer. People have, and are entitled to, their own views and beliefs. For one person to say their way or belief is right and everyone else is incorrect, needs to develop an open mind. The Icknield Way may have grown up out of a legend, and trackways linked to try and prove its course, to satisfy the roads protected by the king,

This way, I conceive, was known by some general term such as “ox-drove” in the language in use at that time, and this term, much corrupted no doubt, became converted by the Saxons into the Icknield Way (Peake 1939, 446).

Wroxeter Roman City - Viewed from the original Watling Street

Others believe the Icknield Way exists due to its name, it was the trackway of the Iceni tribe of Norfolk (Marr 1904; Guest 1857; Beldam 1868; Lydekker 1909); some that as similar cultural material has been found at either end that it confirms it existed.

Yet this may demonstrate that there were links between the two tribes, possibly through marriage arrangements or trade (Morris & Jordon 1910; Fox 1923; Grinsell 1953; Poole 1987; Blair & Keynes 2003; McDonald 2004; Ackroyd 2011); Sayles (1950) describes it as an invasion route used by the Saxons coming in through the Wash and heading inland to the Upper Thames; Fanthorpe and Fanthorpe (1999) believe it to have possibly been used by Boudicca when she rebelled against Roman rule; and two authors (Robbins 2005; and Webb (2000) describe the route as being a Pilgrim Way ‘servicing turnings for both Ely and Bury St. Edmunds’ (Webb 2000, 229). Each of these authors put forward their views as to why they believe the Icknield Way does exist.

Reasons given by others not convinced of one continuous track from Norfolk to the Wessex Downs include the lack of towns that usually show up along major route ways (Guest 1857; Harden 1956); a number of roads exist with the same name in different counties (Ogilvie 1952; Cameron 1961); the road has been referred to by different names with different spelling in the counties it runs through leading to a confusion of names and spelling (Bayley 1919); in some areas there are two parallel tracks with the same name (Walker 1953); the Icknield Way is not mentioned on early maps (Birkholz 2004); the course of the track is unclear (Hippsley Cox 1914); and there is a distinct lack of direst evidence (Darvill & Darvill 2009).

The amount of writing and discussion around the Icknield Way shows that there is an interest to find whether the road existed as one continuous track, if it was a number of tracks joined together, and what its possible uses may have been. The fact that it is named in the Anglo-Saxon Charters gives one the impression that it must have existed. However, in Medieval times the roads origins are placed in myth and legend, and people have been trying to locate a route.

The fact that it was not taken up and used by the Romans throws some doubt about it existing at the time of the Roman period, hence questioning its age. The first mention of the track in the Anglo-Saxon charters, makes one believe in its existence, however, having it mentioned as coming from a mythical legend in the Medieval time places an element of doubt as to its authenticity.

We will probably never know the true answer and as with most archaeology where there is no concrete evidence, we can only hypothesise – there is no right or wrong.

Written by Sue Carter

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases


References and Bibliography

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Nick Balmer
Nick Balmer


In all the literature concerning the Icknield Way I believe there is one consideration that people have missed.

This is that the Icknield Way is in origin not in fact human at all, and that it is in fact very much older in its origins than recorded history.

We now know as recent research on Dogger Land shows that before about  
6,500 or 6,200 BCE it was possible to walk across what is currently the North Sea to mainland Europe.

Most people are aware of this, and any consideration of how you would have done this evokes the response that you walked from Dover to Calais.

In fact this is actually wrong.

If you look at mapping produced showing the North Sea bed and work out where the River Thames came out, there was a very wide river mouth some where off Margate or Harwich.

The Rhine and the Ouse met somewhere north of a line drawn from Kings Lynn to Rotterdam.

What shows up is that there is a route along the ridge line between these two watersheds and that it leaves the north Norfolk Coast at or near Cromer, and that it runs across the bed of the north Sea in a large arc heading first northeast before turning east and them heading south east towards a point in Holland near Flushing, or a little to the north of Flushing.

Consider then what the climate was like 8 to 12,000 years ago across northern Europe. In the winter it got to -19 degrees C in the day, and -29 at night. The winter lasted until say 1st May. There was little if any grazing until June.

Here in the UK our coldest current winters (increasingly common in the last decade) are those caused when the Continental High pressure builds up to such a strength that it "jumps" the North Sea, as it often does to Kent and as it sometimes does across the South of England bringing us our worst and coldest winter weather.

When it does this it "pushes" back the Oceanic currents from the west which maintains our climate at a warmer temperature than is normal at our northly latitude.

Without the North Sea that acts as a high store and barrier these continental highs would be able to extend over Britain much more often than they currently do. It would have been a lot colder in Britain, and probably even colder than it is today in Central Europe in places like modern Poland and Hungary.

At this period the numbers of humans would not have been very great, and the large herbivores were the key drivers of landscape formation. As anyone who has seen elephants at work altering the flora of their home range will know, or seen the way cattle, horses or sheep affect fields in different ways will know these animals change geography.

In climates with wide variation in climate between winter and summer large herbivores often move over large ranges better summer and winter grazing grounds.

The best winter grazing in North West Europe in winter would have been in the south west of what has become Britain. The coastline was up to 120 feet lower than it is today, but it was in substantially the same location it is today, except in areas of shallow gradients like the Bristol Channel.

I believe that the 
Icknield Way was the western end of a very much longer trans-humance route that ran deep into Germany and possibly Poland.

It was the route that large herds of animals like deer, reindeer, bison and there associated predators followed as they made a twice yearly move from summer to winter grazing.

The chalk ridge along which the Icknied Way runs is very interesting to consider from the point of view of a herd.

I speak here especially of the bit in North Hertfordshire, but it is similar elsewhere.

If you are a herd moving in autumn you have a lot of young with you. You fear predators. You need good vision.

The chalk ridge gives you a kilometre or so vision dead ahead, and often more than a kilometre to ethier side. If the chalk is heavily grazed (as it no doubt was) there is very little scrub or tree cover for predators to hide in, allowing for fast movement in good security.

As a herbivore I need food and water.

The chalk ridge is hundreds of miles long. And yet within 500 metres or less in either direction to the north or south you move into the southern dipslope on peri-glacial clays which are heavily wooded and which have many springs and the headwaters of lots of rivers like the Miram, or Rib, etc.

To the north are the Gault Clays and another wetter and often (pre land drainage) boggy valley containing rivers like the Ivel, Cam or the Cat.

It makes the most idea "cattle droving route" imaginable.

Tagging along behind these herbivores are the predators, Sabre toothed tigers, wolves, dogs, hyaenas (oh, and humans.

As we all know humans are an opportunistic lot. Get a good barbecue going and a good pig roast and you can eat yourself silly and sleep it off for a few days eating the left overs. We also like our summer migration and seafood.

I believe humans followed in these migrations much as the Laps do today, or Sami peoples. They probably used many of the same stopping points along the way. Some may not have travelled all the route, but much like bears in Canada with salmon migration, may have known that some time in October the bison will arrive coming west with the first of the winter frosts.

I expect that they sat on the hill at Therfield or Barley eagerly watching out to the north east for the arrival of the herds. Get a few as they passed on towards Inkpen and Dunstable they could feast and build up a supply.

Of course the terrible day came when the flood cut off the herds. It must have been a terrible time as they had to adjust to the turning upside down of their annual cycle.

They probably had to adapt to much smaller herds of slightly different herbivores. They may have continued to follow the herds for many more centuries but over the truncated route that has come down to us as the Icknield Way.

As your article makes clear the Icknield Way is not in most places a single track. The bits I walk are an upper and lower track, one on top of the chalk ridge and another along the foot of the escarpment of the Chilterns on the northern slope at just the point where the springs at the discontinuity between the Gault Clays and Chalk occurs.

If you watch a flock of sheep move they too follow the top or bottom of slopes, when moving fast, or spread out across the slope as the slow down or get hungry. 

The Icknield Way has no clear start or end. The northern one at Cromer is not of course the end if I am correct. The southern end beyond Wiltshire was probably a huge fan shaped sub-tracks leading along watersheds into the many Southwest catchments used by sub-herds moving away from the main herds.

Like most of the pre-enclosure lanes of Britain that were designed by cows and sheep, as anybody who has driven them will appreciate, I believe that the Icknield Way was our first motorway designed up to 40,000 years ago by migratory herbivores from central Europe. 


Nick Balmer