Droving in the Brecon Beacons National Park
2 September 2021 | By Brecon Beacons National Park Authority
Image | A hollow way in the Brecon Beacons National Park
Intangible Cultural Heritage type: Traditional Craftsmanship – Agricultural and farming
Droving is the ancient process of driving cattle to market by foot. Droving livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs, turkeys and geese) from the Welsh hills to the English markets is a process that has gone on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Normans were responsible for establishing important meat and cattle markets, the most famous of these being Smithfield in London a market established over 800 years ago. Indeed, Smithfield was such an important and lucrative destination for Welsh farmers and drovers that even today Welsh farmers still use the term “Smithfield” to mean a cattle market. Welsh livestock reared on coarse mountain grass were hardy and strong. They endured the long journey well and fattened up readily on lush English pastures, so were ideal for droving and made good prices at market. Some drovers became very wealthy.
The journey from Wales to London and other important markets such as Hereford and Banbury was long and could take several weeks. Routes from west, south and mid Wales (even from Ireland) may have used routes through the Brecon Beacons. Some signs of droving activity remain in the landscape, some place names and street names give hints to droving activity and a number of droving inns remain and even some of the banks that we use today have plaques telling of their droving origins.
The most evocative features of droving that can be seen today are paths called ‘hollow ways’, often hidden away running between field boundaries. These hollow ways can be over two metres lower than the surrounding fields. They are distinctive by their rocky, stony beds and the ancient trees that line them. These often occur on steep slopes where the topsoil has been churned up by the passage of live-stock over the centuries – single larger droves could have consisted of several hundred cattle or a thousand or so sheep. Rain would wash away this topsoil in a process of erosion that led to these magical sunken ways.
The routes the drovers took often followed ancient routes established in Roman times, the Iron Age or even the Bronze Age. Some of these routes were upland ridges that provided good visibility and less risk of ambush from robbers and cattle rustlers. They were also easier to navigate and would provide grazing for the livestock. The knowledge of droving routes was passed from drover to drover or drover to son and sometimes changed to take advantage of new quicker turnpikes and sometimes to avoid them because of the high tolls. Drovers in the Beacons adopted the practice, used by Scottish drovers, of planting groups of Scots pines (usually three) as way markers. Indeed, it is thought the Scots pine, once extinct in England and Wales, were reintroduced by drovers. These pines were easily recognisable all year round and in poor light. Clusters of pines could simply indicate the best route through difficult terrain, maybe a junction or river crossing but also flag a droving inn or friendly farm that would provide overnight shelter for the drovers or secure grazing for the livestock. These drovers’ signposts are still visible in the Beacons landscape and contribute to its unique character.
If you know a little Welsh, you will realise how readily the Welsh place names on a map tell a story of the terrain and what went on there. An example of this is the village of Pengenfford (where there is an old droving inn) is contraction of Pen (top) Cefn (ridge) Ffordd (road) – a welcome stop for the drover. There is farm above Brecon named Tir (ground) Ciw (shoe) where there is evidence of a “gore” (a small triangular field used to isolate a head of cattle for shoeing). It’s believed that this place may have been where cattle were shod for with special shoes (ciws – thin metal plates for each bit of the cow’s cloven hoof) that would protect the cattle’s hooves on the long journey and protect them from the harder metalled surfaces of the turnpikes.
Another example is Rhydspence, (rhyd= ford), the old droving inn here was situated at a ford across the River Wye. The “pence” in the name is a down to the penny, halfpenny and farthing fields that that referred to the overnight charges for penning and grazing cattle. Place names that include “gyr” (drove road) such as Rhongyr (drove road end) are sure indication of droving route.
Street names can also tell stories: the translation of “Ship” St in Brecon is Heol y Defaid (sheep not ship street!), Newgate St is a reference to the turnpike that was there, in Builth Wells you will find Smithfield St. Just over the bridge from “Ship St” in Llanfaes you may spot a house named Ty’r Porthmon (The Drover’s House).
The Welsh banking system has its origins in droving- carrying cash was a risky business for the drovers who were often robbed so finding ways to avoid this was important. In Llandovery the Bank of the Black Ox was established in the Kings Head Inn by drover David Jones. In Brecon Wilkins’ Bank was established to “… finance the activities of the drovers…” (now Lloyds Bank).
The drovers’ days were numbered though. From their peak in the late 18th century activities were affected by the advent of the railways. Later larger motorised lorries took their place with refrigerated transport being the final nail in the coffin allowing the meat to be kept chilled and transported quickly. The last recorded drove in the Beacons was from Tregaron to Brecon in 1953. However, droving has left its mark in our landscape, customs, and culture. The routes they trod are still with us buried under our main roads, in sunken hidden lanes between fields and high up on upland ridges.
Blog by Mark Davis, www.glanpant.com – Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales