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The History of the Ridgeway

The Icknield Way is reputed to be the oldest road in Europe, having been in constant use since the Stone Age (1). From the South Coast, the road passed through Dorset to Stonehenge and then along a chalk ridge; hence the name RIDGEWAY. It crossed the Thames at Streatley and continued along the Chiltern escarpment to Grimes Graves in Norfolk, a Neolithic flint mine, and onto the East Coast at the Wash. When the road was in its earliest period the English Channel did not exist and it is probable that from both coastlines it extended to the continent. This would explain the similarity of the Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Brittany and those along the Icknield Way. It would also account for the vast amount of trade which the Icknield Way is known to have carried. Successive archaeological digs have uncovered goods which have come from as far away as Egypt.

The Upper Icknield Way follows the Spring line along the Chiltern escarpment. As the risk of attack lessened, people left the protection of hill forts to form villages around these springs. The lower Icknield Way travels in almost a straight line below the escarpment, some distance from the ancient settlements. It is believed that this is a later road, probably formed by the Romano-Britons during the Roman occupation. Although not a Roman road, there is evidence in places of surfacing of a type used by the Romans. The most likely explanation is that the Britons continued to use the well-established Icknield Way, but with a peaceful occupation by the Romans, created a more direct and easier route along the plain, using the techniques used by the Romans to overcome the muddier stretches.

The name Icknield is thought to be derived from the Celtic Iceni tribe of Norfolk, though many believe that the name is much older than this and could be the oldest name still in existence today. In the later years, the upper Icknield Way formed part of a drover’s road and one of the cottages here which make up the hamlet of Hempton Wainhill was once a drover’s house called ‘The Leather Bottle’. Some of the gardens stem from the original sheepfolds.

Today it is fitting that the Upper Icknield Way forms part of a long-distance trail. Preserved from the ravages of the motor car, walkers can experience Britain in the same way as the Ridgeway’s earliest users and hopefully appreciate what so many others have forgotten.


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Copyright © Adrian Windisch 2004