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Packhorses and their routes

Thursday 6 February, 2020, by Karen Griffiths

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.

An image of the 'The Belle Mare' painting from 1757, seen in the Kendal Museum
Tebay, Robert (1757) ‘The Belle Mare’ Kendal Museum

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.

An image of an old packhorse collar with bells as seen in the Dales Countryside Museum collection
Packhorse collar with bells. Dales Countryside Museum collection

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.

An image of the Crook Gill packhorse bridge, near Cray in Wharfedale
Crook Gill packhorse bridge, near Cray in Wharfedale

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
An image of the Smardale Bridge over Scandal Beck
Smardale Bridge (c) YDNPA 2020

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 >

Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


8 Replies to “Packhorses and their routes”

  1. Melanie FitzGerald says:

    Thanks for this. I am a volunteer for a National Heritage Lottery Project called the Lakeland Project based in the dams area to the west of Sheffield in South Yorkshire. The bit I am involved in is called Heritage Highways and we are trying to research and find the old pack horse routes. We have three pack horse bridges, but very little knowledge of this part of our working history. The bridges are all defined on the OS map as foot bridges, which they are not, and what I think should be bridleways have become footpaths. I would be very interested in what you find in your area which may help us too. Two of our very steep narrow lanes and very old are called Jack Lane and Jackey Lane and I wonder if this is derived from the word Jagger. I am also interested in the ponies, I own a Dales Pony which are also, like the Fells, descended from the Galloways.

    • That sounds like a really interesting project and how lucky you are to have a Dales pony! I will email you some contacts which might be useful. Thanks for getting in touch

  2. alastair Clark says:


    This is a great resource. I am pulling together an online session called ‘ What do we know about pack horse transport in Britain and I will reference your work

  3. Prof Paul A. Carling says:

    I have been conducting a geological survey of the region roughly between Gaythorne, Shap, Kendal and south of Tebay, which involves walking the whole region. In doing so, I have noted archaeological features as well. I have become interested in the old packhorse routes and the early road network so proffer the following observations.

    The huge enclosure above Orton scar on Gaythorne Plain is called Pickering Close. As the Pickering family were not active in the area until early 16th C it is possible the fold dates from 1500 onwards. It seems unusually large and the walls substantial, so may have been used to pen cattle. Does anyone have any information?

    The bank leading down to the Galloway Stone from Oddendale is deeply rutted by sunken ways so there was likely a drift at that location. The Galloway Stone would then be a route marker designating where the drift coming north from Tebay turned up the fell to Oddendale and also indicated where the turn to Salterwath occurs. ‘wath’ means a gap and not a ford as some online statements imply. Today the field walls still indicate the open drift (gap) between improved and enclosed land north and south of Salterwath. Possible sunken ways eroded by cattle herds occur just east of Salterwath. The prominent bridge just north of the former ford has no side walls so is a possible packhorse bridge. The route west of Salterwath climbs up towards Packhorse Hill where it meets the old road from Shap to Kendal. Just below the Shap summit there is the ruin of a single room building called Deming House. This mean building, has no water supply (for permanent habitation) and I wonder if it was a road house offering shelter and sustenance to travellers. Just north at Packhorse Hill there is a substantial ‘sheep fold’ dug into the hill side which is hard under an outcrop providing shelter from SW winds. Similarly, to the south just west of Demings Moss there are two substantial platforms built on a steep hill side. Both these structures may be sheep folds but seem unnecessary massive to contain sheep. Why build a fold on a steep hillside? I wondered if these where shelters for drovers? Just south is Pipers Hill – note that drovers often played a pipe. The ruins of a similar one room building called Knott House occur on the eastern side of Breast High alongside the horse trail. Once again it is a strange location, exposed and with no ready water supply. Knott House was occupied until the end of the 18th C.

    The inscribed Branrith Stone originally stood at Gallopers near Old Tebay. Although antiquarians presume it was a marker of a former border between Scotland and England, local legend has it that drovers latterly met there to trade stock. The red sandstone Stone was around 1m high and later was incorporated into a drystone wall as a stile. It survived until the coming of the motorway but was presumed lost to construction. If anyone has any information on its fate I would be interested to hear.

    • That adds a great deal to the previous blogpost I wrote about ‘Medieval Trade Routes in Westmorland’ and ‘Early Trade Routes through Shap’ – thank you. As for the Brandreth Stone – many people have mentioned its disappearance during the building of the M6 and since no-one has owned up to having it in their garden I have to assume it is underneath the motorway now

  4. Chris Hamlin says:

    Interesting that Prof Paul A. Carling has given Wath to be gap, not a ford. Surely the term could encompass both – a way through or a way across. Having just read Ella Pontefracts’ ‘Wensleydale’ where she describes ‘Slape Stone Wath’ , a ford near Redmire (?).

    Also on Googling, Wikimedia has “English: Slapestone Wath. ‘Wath’ is a northern term for a ford, and this is a relatively shallow point on the Ure.”

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