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

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