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Retracing London’s Drovers’ Roads
by Howard Miller and Rowena Hay

I have a book called Drovers’ Roads of Wales by Fay Godwin and Shirley Toulson published in 1977, which has always fascinated me. “Through the heart of Wales run innumerable centuries-old tracks — many still traceable and open. They are the Drovers’ Roads. For hundreds of years — from the Middle Ages to the victory of the railways around 1900 — they were trodden by tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and even geese being driven — at an average of 2 mph — to the markets of London. The drovers — many of them now Welsh folk legends — avoiding the main roads, walked their flocks through villages, lively market towns, sometimes following Roman and even earlier highways, passing ancient sites and megaliths and through some of the most dramatic landscapes of Wales” as it says on the back cover.

English: Drovers' Road, and Forestry on Bryn M...

English: Drovers’ Road, and Forestry on Bryn Mawr, Ceredigion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having come across references to them in various places I have visited in Wales I was intrigued when I saw a drovers’ walk in London advertised as part of the Chelsea Fringe festival taking place accompanying the Chelsea Flower Show.  It turned out to be based on one of the shortlisted entries for the Highline for London competition held recently. This was organised by the Landscape Institute and the Garden Museum as a call for ideas in response to the New York Highline walkway re invented on an old overhead railway line (coincidentally used for transportation into the meatpacking district). The London competition was asking for ‘green infrastructure‘ for any specific site in London and all the entries can now be seen on a web site called http://www.newlondonlandscapes.org.

Hackney was the starting point, and we were to follow a route ending at Bishopsgate, symbolising the entrance to the City of London. Misty Hay and Howard Miller, who designed the route, were our drovers. They had been intrigued by how a desire line existed along Broadway Market and Columbia Road in East London, which cut across the main road pattern and seemed to link up a back route through the city, which could be a ‘green’ route. It could be seen to have a food connection too as written about by Carolyn Steel in her Hungry City book:

Look at the plan of any city built before the railways , and there you will be able to trace the influence of food. It is etched into the anatomy of every pre-industrial urban plan: all have markets at their heart, with roads leading to them like so many arteries carrying in the city’s lifeblood. London is no exception.

A closer reading of the map reveals how food once reached the city. London’s sheep and cattle, many of them from Scotland, wales and Ireland approached from the North, streaming down country lanes to Newgate, where the ancient city’s livestock market was held. During the 9th century, the market expanded to a ‘smooth field’ (Smithfield) just out side the city gate where a meat market remains to this day.

This ties in coincidentally with my recent post on the Smithfield area.

So armed with our beautifully designed map (packet of seed bombs attached) we leave the palm trees of Hackney Town Hall Square and go through Grove Passage (no trees) along the side of London Fields (no documentary evidence for grazing by drovers but could be possible) heading for Broadway Market. Howard tells us about the design strategy for the route – low key, piecemeal, grass roots and interactive rather than imposed in a bombastic fashion. We help by throwing a few seed bombs as we go to bolster biodiversity. These include plants used as fodder, with animal names, folklore associations, and or seeds transferred by animals – Shepherd’s Purse, Lamb’s Ears, Cow Parsley, Cowslip, Teasel, Cock’s Foot etc. Permeable paving, replacing broken paving stones as necessary, with flags with hoof shaped holes to allow soak-away drainage; trample tolerant species of plant such as Pineapple Weed; occasional markers, natural and planted; lighting in trees. This suits the spirit of the drove, slow, as green as possible, avoiding the hard busy paved roads.

We find old markers: Lamb Lane, Sheep Lane, the Cat and Mutton pub which used to be the Shoulder of Mutton. Broadway Market used to be called Mutton Lane until it was broadened in 1811. Rowan trees were apparently good luck in drover folklore.

Straight on down Goldsmiths Row to the entrance to Haggerston Park and a route via a stile (alternative gate available!) through the wonderful Hackney City Farm for some live animals (and an award winning cafe).

In Columbia Road I find some traces of Wales and animals but alas the route is now less green. We look in vain for way finding devices such as trees which the drovers used, often manipulating and contorting them to make them more obvious. A case for some tree planting, included in the scheme.

Along Virginia Street we reach Shoreditch High Street and come to Bishopsgate. As Scots Pine were used to mark a pass by the drovers the proposition is to plant Scots Pines in the canyons of Bishopsgate interspersed with wooden butchers’ block markers, symbolising the end point for the animals. At the city limits the drovers would have handed over the drove to another set of drovers licensed by the City of London Corporation, so we end our drove here. The introduction of the railways and transportation of fresh meat by rail put an end to the drovers.

Thanks to Howard and Misty for the walk and for giving me their notes!

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