Ancient, Landscape

Ridgeways, our Prehistoric Road System Before Roman Roads

Ridgeways: The word ‘ridgeway’ comes from Old English, with hrycg meaning ‘back of a man or beast’ and weg meaning ‘road, path, or course of life’.

The term originally referred to ancient tracks that ran along the ridges of connected hills. They were unpaved, relying on hard ground and good drainage to make the surface suitable for travel and therefore required little upkeep.

The high, dry ground meant that such routes could be used in most weathers, and the elevated position afforded the opportunity to foresee potential attacks.


Formation of Ridgeways

Ridgeways were one of three types of prehistoric roads. Firstly, the ridgeways followed the ridge of connected hills, or sometimes a line below the ridge but above the spring line, to afford some protection from the elements.

Secondly, some causeways ran across bog and marsh and were susceptible to flooding. Finally, there were the trackways that ran through the valleys.

Neolithic long barrow
The long barrow, situated along the modern Broadmayne-Bincombe road, along the South Dorset Ridgeway. The barrow stretches approximately 180 meters in length, although its eastern portion has been affected by road construction. Standing at about 2 meters in height, it boasts a flat top and steep sides, while remnants of an encircling ditch can still be discerned.

Ridgeways often turned into established tracks naturally with use. At the ridge of a hill, the natural drainage provided by gravity and exposure to the elements provides a firm surface where vegetation tends to grow more sparsely. Vegetation would be further suppressed by heavy footfall and the passage of wheeled vehicles and animals.

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Travellers using the track after rainfall would further compact the surface, making it firm and easier to travel. At the time when ridgeways were first in use, there would have been little in the way of large settlements. When settlements began to appear, they would be away from the ridges, near springs or rivers.

Celtic field system
Prehistoric field systems

As people travelled to access food and water, and later to trade goods, repeated use of this network of paths would lead to the establishment of more formal roads.

However, there were downsides to these valley routes, which had to find ways to cross or circumnavigate the waterways. Or to avoid dense vegetation and woodland, often leading them to take more circuitous routes.


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While often paved, these valley routes were also more susceptible to flooding and required intensive work to set up and maintain. There were, of course, disadvantages to ridgeways too, with some sections of track running alongside a steep or sheer drop, some steep gradients and some narrow pathways.

The valleys were often wet and unpassable

However, the view from this high point afforded protection for the traveller and the direction of travel would have been easy to navigate, following the line of hill ridge far into the distance.

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Furthermore, the natural drainage provided by gravity and exposure to the elements meant these routes were useable in most weathers and required minimal upkeep.


Evidence of the use of ridgeways dates right back to the Neolithic period, with the remains of a great many long barrows (communal burial chambers) and causewayed camps found close to ridgeway routes. It is also likely that the firm, stable ground of the ridgeway routes would have been used to transport the enormous sandstone blocks used to build the many stone henges of Britain.

West Kennet Long Barrow
West Kennet Long Barrow

The proximity of several of these, such as the Avebury Circle and Stone Henge, to a significant ridgeway adds weight to this theory. The ridgeways must have continued to see heavy use throughout the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, particularly for the transportation of goods.

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From the Bronze Age, evidence exists of round burial grounds and remnants of prehistoric field systems. Evidence of Iron Age use persists in the form of hill forts. Their purpose is disputed, perhaps to protect and control trade routes, as a symbol of power by local chiefs, or as a place of protection for people and livestock. Some state their use as hubs for the community, where tribes could gather to worship, feast and trade.

The Romans, the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings would all have used ridgeways for moving armies. Many Roman forts were along ridgeway routes, such as Hod Hill and Waddon Hill in Dorset. From the medieval period onwards, ridgeways would have been used as drovers’ roads, for moving animals to market.

strip lynchets
©Andrew Smith

Along many ridges there would have been strip lynchets, used in the medieval period to enable the ploughing of steep hillsides, and where the land has not been disturbed by modern ploughing practices, these can still be seen.

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Most ridgeways would originally have been composed of a network of paths along the ridge. However, following the Enclosure Acts of 1750, earth banks and hedges would have been used to define field borders and would thus have highlighted the main path, leading to a single consolidated path.

Many sections of ridgeway have been converted into highway. However, in the 1800s, many sections that had not been put to such use were adopted by walking groups and tourism boards for use as scenic trails.

To be used for walking, cycling and horse riding. Indeed, some routes were created along ridges that had no history of being used as a pathway, opening up fresh routes for recreational use.

Greater Ridgeway

In Britain, the best-preserved example of a ridgeway is the Greater Ridgeway (also known as the Great Chalk Way), a long-distance footpath that stretches approximately 362 miles (583 kilometres) from Lyme Regis in Dorset to Hunstanton in Norfolk.

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The Ridgeway
The Ridgeway is generally regarded as England’s oldest road, dating back to the Bronze age and probably before. The open and well drained chalkland country was ideal for a trading route which can be traced across Wiltshire, the Berkshire Downs and probably as far east as Norfolk. Credit: Gordon Hatton

This route is comprised of the Wessex Ridgeway, The Ridgeway National Trail, the Icknield Way Path and the Peddars Way National Trail. The route has been used by people for over 5,000 years and is thought to be the oldest road in Britain.

It would have offered a reliable trading route to both the Dorset coast in the southwest and the Wash in Norfolk to the northeast.

Peddlars Way

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Fortification took place during the Iron Age, with hillforts built along the ridgeway to protect this valuable trading route. The Peddars Way is referred to by many as a Roman road, but this was likely an ancient trackway, adopted and remodelled by the Romans.

It stretches for 46 miles (74 km), runs from Knettishall Heath in Suffolk to Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk and was designated a long-distance path in 1986.

The Icknield Way Path follows the general line of the original ridgeway between Ivinghoe Beacon, near Tring, Buckinghamshire to Knettishall Heath, near Thetford, Norfolk, though in places the path diverts from the original ridgeway in sections where it is now used by tarmacked roads.

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The Icknield Way Path covers 110 miles (177km) and was opened as a long-distance path in 1992.The Wessex Ridgeway was opened in 1994 and covers 137 miles (221 km) from Lyme Regis, on the Dorset coast, to Marlborough in Wiltshire.

While it mostly follows the chalk ridge, there are sections where the continuation of the path necessitates coming down into the valleys. 

The Ridgeway National Trail

However, the first section of the Greater Ridgeway to be designated a long-distance footpath, and probably the best-known part of this extensive path, is that known simply as “The Ridgeway”.

It stretches from Overton Hill near Avebury, Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon near Tring, Buckinghamshire and covers a distance of 85 miles (137km). In 1973, the route was among 15 to be recognised as a National Trail and continues to be a public right of way.


The path takes you through two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: the North Wessex Downs and the Chilterns. The path’s surface varies along the Ridgeway, including sections of farm tracks and green lanes to small sections of paved road.

While most of the path is designated as bridleway, some sections are also designated as byway, though this is mainly only for the use of the farms that live along the route.

Read More: Strip Lynchets Medieval Features in our Landscape

Along the route, you can visit many significant historical locations. These include the Avebury Bronze Age stone circle, which is a World Heritage Site and one of the largest prehistoric monuments of this type in Europe.

Close by, there is Silbury Hill, which is the largest man-made hill in Europe, dating back to the Stone Age.Further along the trail in Oxfordshire, there is the famous White Horse, and atop White Horse Hill is Uffington Castle, an Iron Age Fort.

Other Ridgeways

While the Greater Ridgeway is the most well-known, there would of course have been a great many ridgeways across Britain, likely along all the hill ridges. Like the Greater Ridgeway, many of these, or at least sections of them, are now used as pathways.

Kerry Ridgeway
Kerry Ridgeway at Block Wood The Kerry Ridgeway/Ffordd Las Ceri is a brilliant high level route, part minor road, part bridleway which runs for about 30 km from Bishop’s Castle to near Dolfor. Much of the ridge has been forested.

Examples include the Harrow Way, which runs from Seaton in Devon to Dover in Kent, and the Kerry Ridgeway, which runs from Kerry in Powys, Wales, to Bishop’s Town in Shropshire. Many ridgeways have been converted to tarmacked roads, such as the Cotswold Ridgeway.

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This ridgeway runs from Crickley Hill, near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire to Banbury in Oxfordshire. The route can be navigated along a series of minor roads and can be enjoyed by car or bicycle.


Equally, many ridgeways have lost their status as a unified route, with sections that are used as pathways, parts that have been converted to tarmacked roads, and stretches where the route is lost entirely under dense vegetation.

South dorset ridgeway
Tracking down a Neolithic dolmen along South Dorset Ridgeway. Modern day power lines hangs across this prehistoric route. Also some very interesting gates along here.

One such example is the Jurassic Way (not to be confused with the long-distance pathway of the same name), an ancient track which would have run from Lincoln in Lincolnshire to Avebury in Wiltshire. Due to lack of use, it is difficult to trace the exact route, particularly where the path meets with Roman or medieval roads.

And much of the original route is now lost under dense woodland or is used for farm tracks of tarmacked roads, though there are several walkable sections, such as that from Ashby St. Ledgers to Braunston in Northamptonshire.