Routes & Trackways

It is clear that routeways must have existed through the Yorkshire Dales from prehistoric times although evidence for the earliest tracks is virtually non-existent. People and certain artefacts travelled long distances along the valleys and across the ridgeways of the area. Mesolithic hunters for instance, regularly travelled to Malham Tarn from east Yorkshire and the Neolithic axe trade from the Lake District left evidence of its passage along the Aire Gap, Ribblesdale and Wensleydale. Toward the end of the prehistoric period we find the first tangible evidence for routeways. The earth and stone banked boundaries of trackways can be seen in amongst the co-axial field boundaries discovered by archaeologists in Swaledale. Archaeologists have speculated that they were part of a boundary system, with stock being prevented from trespassing on other people’s land through this system of tracks running around the edges of holdings.


The first true roads built in the Dales came with the Roman Army. In an area known to be turbulent, a permanent garrison had to be established at its heart at Bainbridge with good road communications to other nearby forts. At least two such roads are known, one running from Bainbridge to the fort at Ilkley, the other running south-west via Ingleton probably to Overburrow and beyond. The roads were well engineered and still survive along several stretches. The Ingleton to Bainbridge route was known as the Devils Causeway in the 18th century, probably due to its superior construction and ignorance as to its origins. The military engineers laid their roads on a solid foundation of larger stones with a cambered surface made of gravel and smaller stones. Ditches were dug along either side if the ground was wet. A well-preserved section of Roman road on an embankment can be seen alongside Fairmile Road in the far north west of the national park, part of the road that ran from Ribchester fort to Tebay. Long straight stretches can also be seen on the Ingleton-Bainbridge road, but the engineers were pragmatic and also followed sensible and probably age old routes across fords and through river gaps.


Once the Romans and their central government had gone, their roads were left largely unmaintained. It is a tribute to their builders that many remained in use for centuries afterwards. The 1751 Richmond-Lancaster Turnpike for instance followed part of the original Ingleton-Bainbridge Roman road. As settlements and local markets consolidated during the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods, a network of local tracks joining them up would have been established through constant use. By medieval times in the Dales, longer distance routes were becoming necessary. Several monastic houses had acquired vast estates in the area and they needed roads to move their goods and raw materials as well as facilitate the administration of the estates. One such route was Mastiles Lane, part of a long distance route from the northern Lake District estates of Fountains Abbey to the mother house near Ripon. Mastiles was originally known as ‘Strete Gate’ with the word ‘gate’ deriving from the Old Norse word for road, ‘gata’. Mastiles may have an even earlier origin since it passes right through a Roman marching camp near Malham Tarn. Fleeces and other products like ewes-milk cheese were carried along this route from farms on Malham Moor down to Fountain’s grange at Kilnsey, supplies for the shepherds travelled the other way.


From 1555, each parish in the country was made responsible for the maintenance of its own roads. This often proved beyond their capabilities and for centuries most of the roads in the Dales were probably in an appalling condition, particularly in the winter. Where routes became too muddy, especially on hills, a new route next to it would be started. Over time, rain and the passage of travellers have worn these out as ‘holloways’. A particularly good example of several adjacent holloways can be seen above Grinton.


There is some evidence that even from medieval times, heavy loads were being transported by ox-drawn carts in the Yorkshire Dales. The oak roof timbers for Castle Bolton were cut in Engleby in Cumberland and are recorded as being hauled to the castle by oxen. However, the steep gradients and treacherous going of many of the cross country routes in the Dales, meant that most goods had to be carried by packhorses rather than wheeled vehicles. This was the case right up until the middle of the 19th century. Long trains of packhorses would have been a common sight from monastic times onwards. The sturdy horses used were Galloways and Jaggers and the routes they trod are often remembered by the names they gave to them such as ‘Jagger Road’ crossing Whitsundale above Swaledale and ‘Galloway Gate’ on a route south from Kirkby Stephen to Gearstones in Ribblesdale. The horses only needed a narrow path to follow, but this meant that when two trains met, they needed fair warning in order to find a passing place. The lead horses were therefore equipped with collars of bells, one of which can be seen on display at the Dales Countryside Museum.


Packhorse routes usually ran east-west through the Dales, carrying wool, lead and coal to markets outside the area and bringing necessities such as salt back in. Several packhorse routes can still be followed on the ground, such as the Craven Old Way running from Dentdale to Ingleton. The lead industry relied on packhorses probably the longest since they were the most efficient method of transport in and out of some of the more remote mining areas. Moresdale Road above Arkengarthdale probably started as an ancient ridgeway route, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, packhorses carried lead from the northern Dales along it all the way to the east coast. Salt from the Durham coast came back the other way.


Long distance routes required overnight stabling for the horses and room for the train leaders who were also known as Jaggers. Few of these stage houses have survived, but the name of the village of Horsehouse in Coverdale derives from its position on an important packhorse route. Tan Hill Inn is on the site of another stage house. Its remote position belies its importance. It serviced packhorse trains carrying coal from local coal fields as well as cattle drovers travelling down from Scotland in the 18th century. Later it found itself on a turnpike route while today, its location on The Pennine Way long distance path, assures it of a continuing supply of customers.


Drovers were the other great users of long distance routes through the Dales. The movement of meat on the hoof started in medieval times but became particularly important from the 16th century onwards reaching a peak in the early 19th century just before the arrival of railways killed it off. The growing industrial towns of the north needed more meat than could be supplied locally, so Scottish drovers started bringing herds of cattle and sheep down to take advantage of the ready market. Some cattle were walked all the way to London. Many passed through the Dales and several important cattle fairs were held here, such as on Malham Moor and at Appletreewick. Drover’s Roads tended to run north-south through the park. Up to around 200 cattle or 2000 sheep might be driven at one time and the routes naturally went through unenclosed upland areas to avoid damage to enclosed farmland and crops lower down. The routes established could be quite wide and when Parliamentary Enclosures were undertaken in the late 18th and early 19th centuries they were walled and are recognisable by their very wide verges.


A particularly important drove route ran down from Kirkby Stephen to Gearstones in Ribblesdale. Part of it can still be followed, for example along Galloway Gate and Driving Road. The inn at Gearstones relied heavily on the business of passing drovers and held weekly markets and a regular fair. An 18th century traveller, The Hon. John Byng, later Viscount Torrington, was horrified when he visited: “Crossing a ford, Mr Blakey led me to a public house – called Grierstones, the seat of misery, in a desert; and tho’ filled with company, yet the Scotch fair held upon the heath added to the horror of the curious scenery: the ground in front crowded by Scotch cattle and the drovers; and the house cramm’d by the buyers and sellers most of whom were in plaids, fillibegs etc.”. From Gearstones, the drovers followed several routes south to markets in Lancashire.


Parliamentary Enclosure of the late 18th and early 19th century also led to the creation of many local routeways allowing communal access from villages to peat grounds or quarries, over the newly created enclosures. These roads are very characteristic in the landscape since they are usually laid out ruler straight. Their names also give them away, such as Occupation Road in Dentdale. The pre-parliamentary enclosure of fields created a different sort of pattern. Around many villages in the Dales, one or more funnel shaped fields often with footpaths in them can be seen leading into the settlement. A good example runs from Gunnerside to Lodge Green and beyond. These were the routes along which the community’s stock were driven to and from their outlying grazing pastures.


The ever-increasing need to transport heavy goods over long distances meant that eventually packhorse and drovers routes were simply not adequate. Hard surfaced roads, passable all the year round were needed to carry wheeled carts and wagons. The solution came with the setting up of Turnpike Trusts in the 18th and early 19th century. Acts of Parliament allowed private entrepreneurs to build and maintain turnpike roads and extract tolls from travellers in order to pay for them. These new routes often took advantage of earlier ones particularly along valleys. They were resented by the packhorse and droving trade as well as many locals quite content with their familiar tracks. Many packhorse routes quite clearly took detours in order to avoid paying tolls. In spite of this, turnpikes did their job and several were built through the Dales. One of the most important was the Richmond to Lancaster Turnpike, built in 1751. Toll houses with gates were built along the route of turnpikes to collect money from travellers and a few of the buildings have survived, for example Ellerton Toll House in Swaledale and Punchard Toll House in Arkengarthdale.


From the late 19th century the county councils took over the building and maintenance of the county road system and the turnpike trusts came to an end. Methods of surfacing roads have continued to improve and the muddy highways of the past are long forgotten. During the 20th century the increasing demands made by visitors in cars meant that more and more roads were metalled and now need to be maintained to a high standard. At the same time, ancient drove and packhorse routes along with hundreds of local paths were enshrined as part of the public rights-of-way network that brings so many visitors to the National Park. In 2004 the historic roads that remain unsurfaced are faced by a new threat, from four-wheeled drive and trail bike owners who sometimes return them to an impassable condition when the weather is wet.



Fleming, Andrew (1998) Swaledale. Valley of the Wild River Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Hallas, C S (1996) ‘On the hoof: road transport in the Yorkshire Dales 1750-1900’ The Journal of Transport History Vol 17:1 pp20-42

Moorhouse, Stephen (2003)‘The anatomy of the Yorkshire Dales: deciphering the medieval landscape’ in Manby, T G et al (eds) (2003) The Archaeology of Yorkshire: an assessment at the beginning of the 21st century Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 3 pp298-362 [‘Routeways’ pp319-320]

Muir Richard (2000) The New Reading the Landscape Exeter: University of Exeter Press [Chapter 4 – ‘Routeways’]

Raistrick, Arthur (1976) Monks and Shepherds and the Yorkshire Dales Bainbridge: Yorkshire Dales National Park Committee

Raistrick, Arthur (1991) Arthur Raistrick’s Yorkshire Dales Clapham: Dalesman [‘Pack-Horse Ways’ pp19-24]

Sheils, William (2003) ‘Communications’ in Butlin, Robin A (ed) (2003) Historical Atlas of North Yorkshire Otley: Westbury pp126-133

White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books [‘Roman Roads’ pp38-40]

Wright, Geoffrey N (1985) Roads and Trackways of the Yorkshire Dales Ashbourne: Moorland Publishing