Cowboy trails

Drover roads are living memorials to the wayward cattle drivers of Britain, writes Roger Dobson

There was something of the cowboy about them - certainly as far as the cattle-rustling, disease, robberies, romance, drunkenness and violence went. They were the cattle-drivers of the 19th century, who herded their animals hundreds of miles, from Wales across England towards London,

The drovers, or porthmyn, who carved out great dirt highways as they took their cattle to market, have been all but forgotten.

But reminders of them are everywhere. Pubs in north London called the Welsh Harp, the Welsh Drover and the Drover's Arms trace their names back to the cattlemen, and place names such as Drover's Forge and Drover's Pond are also littered around the countryside. And as the drovers diverted to avoid the turnpikes and toll gates that sprang up in the late 18th century, they helped to create the traditional meandering patterns of country lanes.

Around Cirencester, for instance, there is a lane called the Welsh Road, and another known as the Welsh Drove, which mark the way the drovers would have taken to avoid the toll.

Above all, you can get a feel for their epic trips on the great ways, such as Ridgeway across the Downs, which once stretched from Dorset almost to London, hugging the ridges of hills for security and for better grazing; while others, such as the Banbury Way and the Welsh Road, wound their way between scores of villages. More than a century after the last cattle passed, bracken still does not grow on either side of these roads.

It was the discovery of photographs of the old drover roads that inspired Michael Chaplin to write Drovers' Gold, a five-part series made for BBC1 by BBC Wales, which tells the tale of Welsh cattlemen who embarked on a cattle drive in 1843.

Mr Chaplin explains: "I was struck by the atmosphere of some of these places. These drovers led extraordinary lives: a Western story on our doorstep. The story is not based on a book; it's not English literature, and it's not about ladies with posh frocks.

"The series is about ordinary, working people and their very strange lives."

Professor Richard Moore-Colyer, a leading authority on agrarian history and an expert in drover roads, who is based at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, was brought in to advise the programme makers. He has spent years researching the old roads and mapping out their routes, revealing the huge distances that the drovers took their animals.

"What you had was a very complex network of drover roads which were used extensively in the 17th and 19th centuries," he says.

"In Wales and Scotland the terrain was primarily hilly, with poor pasture land and not very good climates. There were no artificial ways to improve the animal feed or the land in those days, and the land was good enough only for growing animals. To fatten them for the table, they had to be taken to the pastures of England, which had not then been drained and which were too wet for corn.

"As standards of living improved and the population expanded, the demand for beef increased and could be satisfied only by bringing animals from Scotland and Wales. The drovers would drive their herds maybe 200 miles or more to pasture, fatten them up, and then go on to market in London or Manchester or Birmingham. These drives could take several weeks, with around 250 animals being herded at perhaps 15 miles a day.

"The drovers were a pretty tough lot. The first reactions of people in the villages they passed through was to lock up their wives, daughters and animals," says Prof Moore-Colyer.

The arrival of the railways in the 19th century hastened the end for the cattlemen. Cattle markets began to appear, too, and farming methods improved much of the land and changed the face of agriculture.

Now only the drover roads are left as memorials to the two centuries when the Celtic cowboys came to town.

`Drovers' Gold' is shown on BBC1 on Fridays, at 9.30pm

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss