No project about long-distance routes would be complete without looking at the role of the packhorse. As part of the original research for ‘A Way Through’ we kept this 2018 article about the semi-wild Cumbrian Fell Pony published in the Countryfile Magazine. It’s very likely that this breed is descended from the Galloways and Jaggers used in the packhorse trade. From medieval times until the arrival of the turnpike roads of the eighteenth century, packhorses were the main carriers of trade goods through the mountains of Cumbria and the Dales. With their sure feet they could carry loads on their backs up narrow hillside tracks where no wheeled vehicle could go, and their stamina was legendary.
Maggie B Dickinson writes that packhorses “…could travel at three miles an hour, sometimes in strings of up to twenty-five ponies. They would maintain that steady pace for around eight hours, and few breaks were necessary.” Maggie B Dickinson (2017) ‘Galloway Gate’ Cumbria (March edition) pp32-36
Packhorses carried all sorts of long-distance trade goods from producers to their markets, from salt and lead ingots to coal and knitted goods. Anything that could be slung over a horse’s back in panniers or packs was carried.
A wonderful eighteenth century painting owned by Kendal Museum shows one of these sturdy beasts laden with what looks like a large bale of cloth.
Notice also the strap of bells around her neck. Meeting and trying to get past a long train of packhorses on a narrow path could be quite an issue so the bells warned approaching traffic to take evasive action if necessary. When the packhorse trains eventually ceased, there are stories of thousands of these bells being sold as scrap. In 1897, Speight wrote that, “…when the packhorse traffic ceased, hundreds of these sonorous bells were sold for old metal, and the brokers’ shops were for a time full of them”. We are lucky to have a surviving collar of packhorse bells in the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum.
Six of the bells are inscribed ‘RW’ (Robert Wells, 1764-1799, a bell founder of Aldbourne, North Wiltshire) and another has GT Wigan. They were added to the collection at a very early date as this note supplied by the museum describes:
“The history of the Dales Countryside Museum goes back to 1941 when Marie Hartley an artist, writer and local historian was working with Ella Pontefract. On 5 November of that year the auction sale of a private museum at Leyburn was advertised. Over the previous ten years, Marie Hartley had often visited the Horne museum and was anxious that many of the fascinating artefacts she had seen there, of significant local interest, would disappear from the Dales area after the sale.
With amazing foresight, she attended the sale with Ella. Everything from the shop was assembled on the cobbles and as Marie describes, they “bought thirteen lots quite haphazardly”. One of the lots was the packhorse collar with seven bells featured here. Bought for £3 15s, it was one of the first things to enter the Marie Hartley collection. This unique collection grew over several decades and can be seen today at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.
Packhorse collars were usually worn by the leading pony of a pack train. Distinctive bells, attached to a collar, warned other pack trains to wait in passing places on the narrow packways. They also announced the arrival of the train, loaded with goods to sell or trade, to their customers. “Rumble” bells had a loose piece of metal inside and made a continuous “chuckle” as the pony moved along.”
The physical evidence for long-distance packhorse routes though Westmorland is fragmentary. The so-called packhorse bridge with its low or missing parapets to allow horses with side-slung loads to pass unhindered is one thing we will be looking out for during this project though many have now been altered beyond recognition. This bridge spanning Crook Gill in Wharfedale is a good example of the type of single-span packhorse bridge we will be looking for.
So far we have identified four probable (and one possible) packhorse bridges in the Westmorland Dales area:
- Roman Bridge crossing Dale Beck in Great Asby (possible)
- Artlegarth Beck Bridge in Ravenstonedale
- Smardale Bridge over Scandal Beck, south of Smardalegill viaduct
- Packhorse Bridge over Rais Beck, North-east of Fawcett Mill in Orton
- Stennerskeugh Bridge south of Ravenstonedale
These bridges presumably all lie on packhorse routes, so that’s one way of identifying such routes. Another would be by surviving names such as ‘Jagger Road’ after the packhorses or their leaders (Jaggermen) or ‘Galloway Gate’ after the geographical origin of both the ponies and cattle up in South-west Scotland (gate is from an Old Norse word for ‘way’). A twelfth century example of the latter was known as Galwaithwaite Gate and ran south from Westmorland towards Kirkby Lonsdale. However, Maggie Dickinson (ibid) describes the main ‘Galloway Gate’ route from Scotland as running down from Carlisle to Shap. An alternative way split after Eamont and went via Crosby Ravensworth and Orton before rejoining the Shap route at Tebay.
Both cattle drovers and packhorse teams needed overnight stopping places, and one aspect of the ‘A Way Through’ project will be trying to identify old packhorse and droving inns in the project area. We don’t seem to have any ‘Drovers Rests’ or ‘Packhorse Inns’ so far but we live in hope!
< Previous ‘A Way Through’ blog post Research into droving history
Next ‘A Way Through’ blog post The M6 and the Lune Gorge >