Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

Neolithic trackways criss-cross our ancient landscape. The Neolithic period, dating from around 4100 – 2500BC was an era of change in the British Isles. It saw the adoption of new ways of life and the construction of major monuments and walkways.

While many of Britain’s ancient Neolithic trackways have been lost over the centuries, the remnants of some still remain today.

Dating from thousands of years ago, these ancient trackways give an insight into the life and activities of the people of ancient Britain. Neolithic pathways offer clues into the customs and practices of those in the Neolithic period and indicate the paths of ancient trade routes across the country. 

Bronze age burial mounds
Neolithic trackways criss-cross our ancient landscape

For the avid historian, it is still possible to walk in the footsteps of our Neolithic ancestors, with extensive hiking routes and smaller trails now in place along the routes of ancient pathways.

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While it’s likely that extensive networks of Neolithic trackways once weaved across the British countryside, there are only a few cross country routes still known today. However, timber pathways that are recognisable as Neolithic constructions can be viewed in select areas in what were once the marshlands of England, notably in the Somerset Levels. 


Who Were the People of the Neolithic Period?

The Neolithic period was marked by the adoption of agriculture and the emergence of a less nomadic way of life across Britain. The people of Neolithic Britain began moving away from a hunter-gather style subsistence to establish farming settlements.

This lead to the formation of larger communities in more fertile agricultural areas, such as in and around Wessex, Essex, Yorkshire, Orkney, the Boyne and the Upper Thames. The adoption of farming practices meant Neolithic diets became relatively reliant on cereal grains, including wheat and barley, supplemented with wild game and flora. 

Neolithic sweet track

Houses and other buildings were usually constructed with wood, and as such there are few surviving remnants of Neolithic buildings still standing in the British countryside. However, the people of Neolithic Britain are also known for having constructed impressive megalithic structures, often incorporating or made entirely from stone.

Neolithic Trackways

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These structures likely held religious or spiritual meaning, as can be seen with the construction of megalithic tombs and famous stone circles. The emergence of a more sedentary and agricultural-based lifestyle saw dramatic changes to the natural landscape, with forest clearing taking place to make way for new farmland.

Alongside clearing woodlands for farmlands, wood was felled to facilitate the construction of a wide range of structures. As well as buildings, many ancient trackways were made from timber. 

Sweet Track 

Located in the Somerset Levels, Sweet Track is thought to date all the way back to 3807 BC. Built by the people of the Neolithic period, this wooden trackway is considered the second oldest timber trackway in all of the British Isles.

Neolithic sweet track
Sweet Track

The track reaches just over a mile, linking high ground at Shapwick and what was an island at Westhay. It has been posited that Sweet Track is just one pathway in what was once an extensive network of walkways that reached across the Somerset Levels. The track is thought to have been well used in the Neolithic period and a number of ancient artefacts have been found along the route. 

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It is believed that the trackway was constructed by a Neolithic farming community that settled in the area roughly a hundred years prior to the building of Sweet Track. The wooden path was created with predominantly oak planks supported by crossed ash, oak, and lime pegs that were embedded into the peat.

Neolithic sweet track


The planks, some of which were up to three metres long, were cut from trees that were four centuries old at the time of felling.

The track gives insight into the daily lives of the people of Neolithic Britain. It provides an example of construction methods from the Neolithic period, as well as giving evidence of the tools used in this era. Despite the undertaking of creating the trackway, Sweet Track was only actually used for about a decade.

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After this time the track would have been flooded by rising water levels on the Somerset Levels. However, while it was in operation, it was an important part of life for those living in the area, and it is believed the track was used by the community on a daily basis. 

Hatfield Trackway 

After being discovered in 2004, Hatfield Trackway in the Hatfield and Thorne Moors, quickly came to be considered one of the oldest ancient timber trackways in England. Also referred to as the Lindholme Trackway and the Oliver Trackway, this ancient pathway is thought to date back to around 2900-2500BC. 

Hatfield Trackway
Credit: Historic England

The trackway was constructed during a time of environmental change in the British countryside, with the area in which the Hatfield Trackway was constructed becoming increasingly wet and acidic. 

The Hatfield Trackway was made from timber felled from the local area, including birch, and is only 50 metres long. However, the pathway is particularly significant for the fact that it has been suggested that it wasn’t used as a travel pathway, but rather as a structure used to perform ceremonies and entertainment.

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The idea for this alternative use for the Hatfield Trackway is due to its unusual placement. The raised timber pathway runs parallel to a dry ridge, sparking the idea that it was designed as a platform that could be viewed from dry land, rather than a track with the specific purpose of linking areas of dry land.

However, the true use of the Hatfield Trackway and whether it was used as a performance platform, or simply to facilitate easy travel over wet and boggy land is still the source of debate. 

The Ridgeway 

Often referred to as ‘Britain’s Oldest Road,’  The Ridgeway reaches over eighty miles across Southern England. The track is thought to have been in use for over 5000 years, and is still used as a hiking trail today.

Dorset Ridge way
Valley of the Stones, Dorset.

A valuable historic trading route, The Ridgeway is thought to have once stretched all the way from the Dorset coast to Norfolk, allowing the movement of goods and people, and facilitating trade across the country. The construction of the track along a high Ridgeway provided a natural advantage for travellers. It reduced the chances of floods or rising rivers and streams blocking the route, and gave a good vantage point to reduce the risk of potential thieves or attackers along the path. 

Wade’s Causeway 

While there is some debate about the exact age of Wade’s Causeway in North Yorkshire, it may have been constructed up to 6,000 years ago. The ancient monument stretches just over a mile, but once may have been part of a larger pathway reaching up to 25 miles in length.

Wade's Causeway
Wade’s Causeway is a sinuous, linear monument up to 6,000 years old in the North York Moors

Folklore stories have arisen around Wade’s Causeway, with myths that it was created by a giant from Germanic mythology. The structure leads over the Wheeldale Moor, however the exact purpose for its construction is still unknown. There have even been theories raised that it isn’t a road at all but rather the remains of an ancient fort or boundary wall. 

Beckhampton Avenue

While only 120 metres long, Beckhampton Avenue, dating from the late Neolithic to early Bronze Age, is an intriguing discovery from ancient Britain. More than just a simple track, the pathway was once a curving avenue, defined by large stones, that ran from Avebury to Beckhampton in the county of Wiltshire.

Beckhampton Avenue
The stone in the foreground forms part of the stone row and the one beyond part of a setting. The double row once extended from here to the henge at Avebury. Image Credit: Sandy Gerrard

It is thought that the avenue had cultural and religious significance, although the exact meaning behind its construction is not known. While today, only one stone, known as the Adam Stone, remains, it is possible that the avenue once consisted of a double row of stones positioned fifteen metres apart.

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The avenue may also have once extended far beyond Beckhampton. The idea has been raised that Beckhampton Avenue was constructed to form part of a giant structure in the form of a snake, with the head of the snake including Avebury Monument and being placed at The Sanctuary. 

Beckhampton Avenue has been noted to have distinct similarities with Kennet Avenue, another Neolithic construction in the same area. 

Following Neolithic Pathways 

While many Neolithic pathways have been lost to time, there are still some that can be seen and even walked along today. At the Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve sections of the Sweet Track have been replicated and can even be walked along. Part of the Ridgeway route is now a popular hiking trail, known as The Ridgeway National Trail.

neolithic track
Many Roman roads were built on Neolithic trackways

Covering over eighty miles between Ivinghoe Beacon and Overton Hill, the modern hiking route can be enjoyed year round but is most recommended between Spring and Autumn. The historic remnants of Beckhampton Avenue can also be visited as a notable tourist destination. 

Pathways Through an Ancient Landscape 

Ancient trackways dating back to the Neolithic period in Britain offer a glimpse into the lives and communities of ancient settlements and populations.

Some are shrouded in mystery, leaving modern historians to question the exact meaning and purpose of trackways, while others had more straightforward purposes as trade routes and ancient travelling pathways. The Neolithic period was an era of change in Britain with the significant transition from a largely hunter-gatherer society to the adoption of largely sedentary farming communities.

The era saw people build vast track networks and megalithic structures that indicate the religious and cultural practices of the era, the creation of trade routes and migration of people across the ancient landscape. Today, people can only imagine what life thousands of years ago may have looked like as they walk in the footsteps of the Neolithic people along these ancient trackways.