A Ridgeway is an early trackway that tended to follow the high ground where possible to avoid thick woodland lower down. These only descended to lower ground when it was necessary to cross rivers at fords. They were in use from the Stone Age onwards as an important communication between tribes to trade stone axes, etc. From medieval times, livestock was taken to markets along routes known as drove roads. These routes generally kept to the crest of hills on old ridgeways, to give the drovers a clear view of where they were headed and also kept them out of the more crowded and busy valleys. Drove roads had wide grass verges, bordered by hedges, where the cattle or sheep could graze when they spent the night en route. Many of the routes were marked by frequent plantings of clumps of pine trees, such as those at Bromlow Callow. These could be seen for miles and made navigation easier for the drovers.
Droving was very hard on the animals’ feet, especially where the road was stony. Geese had their feet dipped in tar to harden them for the journey and cattle might be shod like a horse, except that the shoes would be in two parts because of the cloven hooves. Broughton Bank on the Shrewsbury to Wem road had a house known as the Bull shop, this was formerly a smithy where the shoeing of cattle was practiced. Place names often show the importance of drove roads, for example Welshman’s Ford at Ford. Other reminders include a large stone walled enclosure at Cowbatch Cross, between Caradoc and Hope Bowdler, which was once a drover pound where runaway animals were placed until claimed.
From the 13th Century onwards, the Portway over the Long Mynd was a route much used by drovers taking animals from Bishop’s Castle to Shrewsbury market. By the 17th Century, they were joined by cattle from South Wales and teams of horses taking wagons of agricultural produce to the market. The name occurs often in medieval documents, where it is sometimes called The King's Highway on Longmunede or Via Regalis. It became even more used after the old road through Stretton Gap was turnpiked in the 18th Century. It was only with the opening of the railway in the 19th Century and the metalling of the valley routes that its use declined. Although only maintained in isolated sections, it is still classified as a public road today.
Wrekin – Oswestry Trackway
The Roman road heading east from Viroconium mostly followed an existing broad, grassy track that had been used by the Britons for many years. It forded the River Severn at Wroxeter and continued to Oswestry, thus providing a link between the capital of the Cornovii tribe at the Wrekin with the Old Oswestry hill fort. This was probably an important trade route, initially in the Stone Age to trade stone axes, and then up to the Iron Age using horses and wagons. It is not known how far it went beyond the county borders to the east and north-west.
Stretton Wharf (SJ872107) – Wroxeter Ford (SJ561081)
From the county border, the route was overlain by the Roman Watling Street and then later by the modern A5 road. On its way it passed by the Wrekin Hillfort, to a ford over the River Severn just west of Wroxeter church.
Wroxeter Ford (SJ561081) – Sharpstone Hill (SJ492090)
On the west bank of the river, it headed for the ridge to the west of Cross Houses, which it followed north-west to Sharpstone Hill. There was a community here from the Stone Age onwards and it was probably here that the road joined the Portway. Excavations at Sharpstone Hill have revealed a 400m section of roadway that was metalled in the 1st Century BC (100 years before the Romans invaded). This shows that Iron Age inhabitants had the technological expertise to build a sophisticated all-weather roadway for wheeled traffic. This section is more than 1.5m high and 6m wide, constructed in three distinct phases and surfaced with imported river cobbles. The road foundations contained animal dung and dung beetles indicating that, prior to construction of the metalled road, it had been used in more ancient times as a livestock drove way.
Sharpstone Hill (SJ492090) – Old Oswestry Hill Fort (SJ295310)
The route descended Sharpstone Hill and forded the Red Brook at Washford (SJ480099) and the River Severn at Montford Bridge (SJ432152). It then headed north-west, following the high ground to the left of and parallel to the modern A5 road.
Old Oswestry Hill Fort (SJ295310) – County Border
The route onwards is not apparent but presumably headed in a northward direction to cross the River Ceiriog near Chirk.
This is an ancient trackway that joined the Kerry Ridgeway at the River Onny, running north-east along the Long Mynd and down to join the Wrekin – Oswestry Trackway at Sharpstone Hill. The close proximity of a number of round barrows along the Long Mynd suggests that these acted as route markers. It is also possible that the Portway formed a territorial boundary between two tribes and the location of the barrows indicated land ownership on either side of the track.
The route continues from the Kerry Ridgeway, at a ford on the River Onny, and ascends to the Long Mynd. It then follows the ridge line to a junction with the Burway at Boiling Well. It has been suggested that the former may have formed part of a ridgeway between Church Stretton and Welshpool but there is no evidence for this.
Boiling Well (SO418945) – Sharpstone Hill (SJ492090)
The route continues along the ridge to Robin Hood’s Butts, where it descends to Woolstaston. The route from here is not clear but it presumably followed the line of the modern A49, keeping to the high ground to the west.
This is an ancient trackway that joined the Portway to Kerry Hill and on to Sarn.
Plowden (SO379877) – Bishop’s Castle (SO325883)
The route continues from the Portway, at a ford on the River Onny, and passes around the south side of Oakley Mynd. From here, it follows the line of Stank Lane and drops down into Bishop’s Castle, where it meets the modern A488 road.
Bishop’s Castle (SO325883) – Offa’s Dyke (SO258896)
The route heads north-west along Church Street and Kerry Lane, becoming a holloway that is between 2-4m deep. It follows the minor road to Moat Hill (SO299896), where it turns west and follows the ridge line to the county border at Offa’s Dyke.
Clun – Clee Ridgeway
This is an ancient trackway that ran east-west across South Shropshire.
Gors Bank (SO165826) - Ludlow (SO501767)
The route is unclear but it followed the high ground east, before dropping down to ford the River Clun at Clungunford (SO394785). It then continued east to ford the River Onny at Onibury (SO453790) and the River Corve north of Ludlow.
Ludlow (SO501767) – Hartsgreen (SO805840)
The route continued east to ford the Ledwyche Brook at Henley (SO540763) and the River Rea at Prescott (SO661810). It then turned north-east to ford the River Severn at Hampton Loade (SO746865) before following the high ground to the county border at Hartsgreen (SO805840).