Drove roads once crisscrossed Britain. With the advent of motor vehicles many became tarmacked roads but some still remain as footpaths, bridleways or green lanes. Barton Bendish has its own ‘Green Drove’ which forms part of the parish boundary with Beachamwell. So what were drove roads?
There has always been a need to move livestock from one area to another and from Roman times until the mid-19th century, when the first railways appeared, driving them across country was the only method. The men who undertook this were known as drovers. My husband David’s father could remember driving sheep from Barton to lamb sales held at the Newton George pub, Castleacre. Across Britain there was a network of drover’s roads taking the most direct route across country. They were wide, between 12 and 27 metres, so that they could accommodate the large herds or flocks which were being moved. Wide verges offered grazing and were known as ‘long acres’. A distance of about 12 miles a day could be covered and droves could take weeks or even months to complete. Between May and October cattle were driven from numerous areas of the Scottish Highlands to gather at Crieff before setting off for England. In 1359 Scottish drovers were licensed to drive their stock through England. Many Scottish cattle were driven down to Norfolk to fatten on the lush grazing of the coastal and Broadland marshes. In 1745 Thomas Bell organised taking over 1,000 cattle south to the East Anglian markets when an outbreak of distemper wiped them out. The panicking drovers abandoned their charges leaving them dying in the lanes. He wrote ‘We have over £1,000 charges to pay in this country and not a shilling to pay it with’. Rail transport resulted in decreased demand for drovers which, by the end of the 19th century, had become almost non-existent. Many went off to Texas and became cowboys working the cattle trails; some even became ranchers themselves. One such local man was ‘Teddy Blue’ Abbott who was born at Cranwich Hall and became a ‘cowpuncher’. His life story is brilliantly told in the book ‘We Pointed Them North’.
The drovers themselves were skilled and knowledgeable men but mostly illiterate. They were usually on foot and used dogs to guard and help drive the livestock. Sometimes, when they reached their destination, they would send their dogs back home on their own with a note attached to their collars. The dogs knew they would be fed if they stopped at certain inns and the inn keeper knew the drover would reimburse him for doing so.
It wasn’t only cattle and sheep that were driven to grazing areas or markets. Even in those days East Anglia was a prime area for raising turkeys and geese. These too would be walked to Smithfield Market in London which 17th century author Daniel Defoe described as being the ‘greatest market in the world’. It was said that 150,000 turkeys were driven there from East Anglia each year.