Unlocking the Secrets of the Holloways: An Exploration of England's Sunken Labyrinths
Natural England is embarking on a journey to uncover hidden gems known as holloways tucked away in the English countryside. These paths, also known as sunken lanes, have a rich historical and cultural value that is waiting to be discovered.
According to the BBC, experts are conducting 3D surveys at Shute's Lane, a picturesque holloway near Bridport in Dorset, on the south coast of England. They are also studying the 300-year-old Hell Lane, a path that winds its way through Symondsbury and North Chideock. The goal is to create a map that will showcase the locations of these mysterious sunken lanes all across the UK.
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What is a Holloway?
A holloway is tunnel-like road, lane, or path that has become naturally sunken over centuries of repeated use. According to Atlas Obscura, in some places, the holloways in Dorset have receded as much as 20 feet below the land on either side.
The pathway is typically surrounded by tall trees that grow out of the banks on either side. They may have intertwined their branches forming a canopy over the road, creating the appearance of a tunnel through the dense foliage.
Hell Lane, near Symondsbury, Dorset. (Mike Faherty / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Long History of Sunken Roads
The English name "holloway" is derived from the Old English "hola weg" meaning a sunken road. Many of these ancient paths date back centuries, with some dating as far back as Roman times or earlier, with an age range of 300 to 3,000 years old. Holloways can be found all over the world and are often considered to be important cultural and historical landmarks.
The tunnel-like paths are formed over time by the movement of people, animals and carts along routes with soft ground, which causes the path to become deeply indented or "sunken" into the surrounding landscape.
Today, most holloways are no longer in use due to their narrow width and slow pace, which makes them unsuitable for modern modes of transportation. Additionally, they are too deep to be filled in and repurposed for farming. As a result, these paths have become a labyrinth of wildness, surrounded by heavily farmed countryside.
In England, most of these sunken lanes have become overgrown with nettles and briars, making them impassable and unexplored for decades. They offer a unique and integral part of the English landscape, providing a glimpse into a time long gone.
Holloways have been used for centuries, and many feature carvings. (Natural England)
Ancient Holloway ‘Graffiti’
These paths are not only steeped in history but are also adorned with ‘graffiti’ carved into their banks, depicting ghouls, gargoyles, and Celtic patterns that add to their allure. The carvings hint at a deeper purpose to the pathways - some experts maintain they were not only used as transportation routes, but also as sacred pathways, which were believed to have spiritual or magical properties.
Digitizing the Magic of Holloways
The 3D survey will provide detailed measurements and create a digital visualization that captures the mystery and magic of these holloways. Mr. Jefferies said, "Nobody knows the full extent of them right across the UK - so we are trying to collect them and create this map."
The initial project is set to be completed by the end of March and a report of the findings will be published through Natural England. But you don't have to wait until then to get involved, Natural England is inviting you to share pictures and details of your local holloways via Twitter using #sunkenpaths.
Top image: Shute's Lane Holloway, near Bridport, Dorset, England. Source: Natural England
By Joanna Gillan