Sunday 15 August 2010

In search of the drovers

As I don't have to nip back to Scotland for work, and it's less far to London than I thought (but still more than the milestone said if you go the way I'm going), I could easily be in Smithfield at the end of next week. Except there's no point me getting there until Chris can come and pick me up, and as he's driving Jake and his horse Bonnie Prince Charlie to the tetrathlon championships at Hartpury in Gloucestershire next Thursday, they can't come to London to get me until the following Wednesday. Pah. Which just rubs salt into the wound about the fact that had things been different, I could have ridden to St. Faiths and several times around Norwich and still been there by the 25th.

Inspired by a pep talk from my sister Bea, I realise that I shouldn't be whinging about lost opportunities, and oh woe is me, but making the most of the extra time I find I have. When I get back home, there'll be precious little chance to do anything I want, and here I am, with time on my side, doing exactly what I want.

I hatch a plan to find somewhere to leave Micky and Magic at grass for two days, while I hire a car to go back to St. Faiths to poke around and see what I've missed, and to visit all the other places which I'd marked on my map as potentially of droving interest but which I couldn't hope to include in one single trip on horseback. Having failed to find anywhere else for them, Rachel Wilson who had so kindly been persuaded by Phyl to put me up on Friday night, agreed to keep the ponies over the weekend while I took off behind the wheel of a hired Toyota, which is not dissimilar to my ponies but with six gears. It's brakes, like Micky's, are not as sharp as I would like, and like Magic it is prone to intermittently and inexplicably stalling.

For the past two days I've driven around Norfolk, and back around Lincolnshire, in search of the drovers. It's been an interesting contrast to travelling on the hoof. So easy to cover the miles, but so much more detached from what I'm driving through and what is going on around me.

At Horsham St. Faith's I laid my demons to rest by proving to myself that there really was nothing more to see than the roadsigns for Bullock Hill and Calf Lane, which I've now satisifed myself by walking along. I was pleased to see that the village sign has a drover and two cattle on one side, but there is no other sign or mention of the village's significance in the history of droving. The village pub is called not the Drover's Lad or Highland Coo or whatever else I might have expected, but the Black Swan. And on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, no-one in the village was the least bit interested, or aware, of bygone happenings.

South of Norwich, I have visited all the villages which my research identified as featuring on the drovers' onward route to London, or which had markets and fairs at which Scottish cattle were sold: Long Strtaiton, Tivetshall St. Margaret, Dickleburgh, Scole, Wortham, Botesdale, Brockdish, Hoxne. The pubs, which many suggest are a good way of tracking droving, are called irrelevant names like the Dolphin, the Mermaid (why, so far inland?) or the Blue Boar; the attractive village signs bear no relation to droving and there is no whiff or sign that the drovers were ever here. Only in Harleston, where my mother's great grandfather was a butcher in the 1860s, presumably butchering Scottish cattle, do I find Bullock Fair Close, now the home of Budgens supermarket. The only other thing I notice is that in villages such as Walsham le Willows, another at which Scottish cattle were once traded, there is no longer a village shop yet there is a large butchers.

Today, Sunday, I've spent the day tracking back up the Harling Drove which runs up through Hockwold cum Wilton to Southery and Downham Market, which always seemed offline for the Scottish cattle which purportedly were driven east from Spalding to Wisbech and Setchey. I wonder if it was more important for cattle from other sources, such as the Midlands, headed for the rich East Anglian grazing.

I felt when I rode east from Gosberton that I had come too far north, and perhaps should have been further south, closer to Spalding and Wisbech. Rachel's son, an engineer who works for the Environment Agency who is responsible for many of the sluices and drainage controls on the Fens, told me on Friday night that he thought they might have had to come that way to stay on the higher ground as so much of the ground to the north would have been under water. So today I have driven all around the routes the drovers might have taken, and through the many villages which hint at past droving history, including Parson's Drove, Holbeach Drove, Whaplode Drove. Each had plenty of roads with interesting names such as Dog Drove East, Drove Road, Chapel Drove etc., but other than that there was no more sign of droving there than where I had ridden through, and many of the old drove roads I'd identified on early maps now had plain boring road names, with nothing whatsoever to differentiate them physically or in any other way from any other road, modern or old.

Coming over the Highlands, and down through the Borders, the sound of the drovers and their cattle was still on the wind, the remains of the drystane dykes and the places they stayed all adding to the picture. Here on the flatlands, so very much has changed that it's hard to get any sense of who has gone before, and I find myself somewhat like a fish out of water, longing for the hills of home. The somewhat incongruous picture of Highland cattle grazing around a sea loch which hangs on the wall over my bed in the faceless B&B in which I am staying tonight near Wymondham serves only to remind me where my heart lies. I wonder if the drovers felt the same.

I'm sure there's plenty more I could find out given time to dig deep into records, but for now at least I've satisfied myself that I lost nothing by taking a more pragmatic route slightly north, which in places was in fact only a mile or two from where I've searched today.

And I've proved that it was a wise decision NOT to have diverted miles out of my way on horseback just to take in Black Horse Drove because I liked the name. What a disappointment. I arrived in my car to find no sign of black horses, or anything to do with droving, just a ribbon of houses sandwiched between fields of wheat, linseed and sugar beet in the middle of the Fens.

Tomorrow we head onwards, to pick up the Icknield Way, the oldest route in Britain. I'm looking forward to being back on a real ancient track again.


  1. Vyv - you, Magic and Micky are a trio of heroes. Doogs and Yeoman very envious... me too Kate xx

  2. Good Luck - nearly there.In fact at the time of writing you have probably finished - so well done. Sore bum?