Before the advent of GPS and large scale Ordnance Survey maps on mobile phones, the humble sheep trod used to be the bane of walkers’ lives. These paths criss-cross moors and upland pastures, and quite often appear better used and more inviting than the public right of way.
Without the aid of a satellite, I sometimes found myself forking off the route I had been tracing over rough ground to follow in the hoofsteps of millions of sheep, on paths which according to the Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen have been in use for centuries.
These days, I still regularly encounter well-established sheep trods, most recently above Marsden in the Colne Valley to the west of Huddersfield and near Buckden in Upper Wharfedale. I would guess that if there are 140,000 miles of public rights of way in England and Wales - “human trods” we might call them - there could easily be many times more miles of traceable sheep trods on uncultivated land.
The definition of trod varies in different parts of the UK. An internet search reveals that in the West Country a trod is a “straight line or fairy path in the grass of a field with a different shade of green from the rest.” Apparently it was dangerous to use them in case a supernatural procession happened to be following the trod at the same time. It was also said that anyone suffering from rheumatism might find pain relief by walking a trod.
In Yorkshire, a trod is one of the names name given to an ancient paved path. Others are “causey”, probably an abbreviation of causeway, and “pannierway” after the panniers or itinerant hawkers who used them with their pack horses to travel from market to market centuries ago. I recently came across a splendid example of one across the skirts of Addingham Low Moor.
In the North York Moors, there is a paved trod that is so well preserved that a quarter-mile stretch has been given the Scheduled Monument status which is used to protect important archaeological sites. Known as the Kirby Bank Trod, it is part of a network of such flagged paths in the National Park, which has more surviving trods than any other area of the UK.
In a fascinating blog, the park’s archaeology officer Nick Mason describes the typical trod: “Flagstones, some carved, sometimes rough, are laid end to end in single file between two points. They are frequently made of stone from nearby quarries, and are usually no more than half a metre - or 20 inches - wide. Surviving examples today often have a wide concave groove worn along the centre of the path, indicating how much traffic they have supported over the years.”
Many trods were built by monks, and the Kirby Bank Trod is thought to have been constructed from Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley to the River Tees, along which came supplies of salt and fish for the monastic community.
Sadly, around 80 per cent of trods known to exist in the 19th century have disappeared, mostly under grass and gorse.