ONCE UPON A THORNCOMBE ROAD
The network of footpaths which criss cross our parish are an important part of Thorncombe’s historical heritage and are clues to reconstructing its foggy past by linking fragments of evidence from various sources and as W.G. Hoskins, the father of contemporary local studies recommends, using your eyes.
The track linking Sadborow to Saddle Street was once one of Thorncombe’s roads. It is recorded on the earliest ordnance survey map of Dorset 1. England’s southern coastal strip was mapped in 1806 by government surveyors in fearful anticipation of the Napoleonic invasion and marked the birth of the ordnance survey maps we use today. The purpose of the 1806 map was to identify thoroughfares of potential strategic use for military purposes. The track is also clearly marked as a side road on the 1811 OS map which indicates that at the beginning of the nineteenth century if not for several centuries before, what is now a bridleway and part of The Monarch’s Way was once a well used local thoroughfare 2.
Starting opposite Sadborow Pound you can still follow this historic byway today.
Notice the width between the ruts, possibly made by cart wheels and more recently
worn away by tractors and agricultural machinery. Circumstantial evidence suggests
that was part of Thorncombe’s original road network may have been used by drovers.
Their job was to herd cattle and sheep to market from other parts of the country.
Hired by farmers, they were responsible for ensuring their charges arrived in tip
top saleable condition. The trade was at its height between the seventeen and nineteenth
centuries as the population increased, particularly in towns and demand for meat
The coppiced tree lined parallel tracks running alongside Horseshoe Road and elsewhere in the parish are said by some to be indicators of farm animals being herded through the parish to be sold at local cattle markets 3. As they still do today, farmers have been breeding, fattening and selling sheep in this valley for centuries. The state of the roads and the extent of the traffic was such that alternative routes away from main thoroughfares for sheep and cattle were essential to ease a herdsman’s progress,
In 1808 Charles Vancouver in his General View of Agriculture of the County of
Devon describes the parish roads around Axminster as, ‘very indifferent, nay very
bad indeed.’ He comments on the ‘height of the hedge banks, often covered with a
rank growth of coppice wood, uniting and interlocking with each other over-
Continue along the track towards Saddle Street, to just above the self catering
units at Yew Tree Farm. The track links to a footpath which travels north-
Another clue to the track’s possible use by drovers are Scots pine trees, still growing along the Causeway and clearly visible across the valley. Like holly or hollin, which often still marks the crossing of footpaths on old field boundaries, these easy to spot trees are also ancient waymarkers. Natural regenerators, these venerable trees appear to be ancient survivals of a world where few people could read and write, besides which there were few accurate maps until the first ordnance survey. Groups of Scots pines planted at the top of farm tracks are said to have been a sign to a drover that he could rest his valuable charges overnight and find hospitality in the farmhouse 4.
3. Bonser, K., (1972), The Drovers …, Newton Abbot, Country Book Club
4. Mabey, R., (1998), Flora Britannica, London, Chatto & Windus
For a more detailed account see also Higgs, E. (2012) ‘A Thorncombe Bye-