Ancient Sunken Roads Are Literally Putting Symondsbury On The Map

It seems that one of Symondsbury’s best kept secrets is now attracting interest nationally and internationally, from as far away as Canada. Shute’s Lane and Hell Lane are at the forefront of a fascinating project to examine the historical, ecological and cultural value of the ancient ‘holloways’ which criss-cross the country – with these two ancient sunken lanes being named as some of the most impressive holloways there are.

It is understood that the term ‘holloway’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hola-weg’, which means ‘sunken road’, but no-one knows how many of these tunnel-like roads exist in Britain. The hope is that this project will also make it possible to create a map that shows the location of sunken lanes across the UK.

Andy Jefferies, Senior Advisor Citizen Science for Natural England is spearheading this activity and has carried out a survey of Shute’s Lane and Hell Lane which run between Symondsbury and North Chideock using a 3D scanner. This was placed at 5m to 10m intervals along the Lanes, with between 4-10 million data points being registered at each survey spot. A drone was also used to survey them from above so that a 3D digital model can be developed.

Hundreds of years in the making
Holloways are particularly prevalent in the South West because the underlying rock in the area is often soft sandstone which is easily eroded over the years. The church and other buildings in Symondsbury were built with stone from the local quarry so traffic from the heavy-laden carts is likely to have considerably deepened the tracks, along with the hooves of cattle and other animals being moved from farms to market.

Other factors at play are the weather, with the deep sides of the Lanes acting as a funnel for the rain, plus it is suggested that they may have been used both as a pilgrimage route and to transport goods to and from the ships in West Bay harbour.

                                                                                                   A magical place to visit
However, it is not just the historical importance of Shute’s and Hell Lanes that captures people’s imagination. They are also magical in terms of the flora and fauna that can be found there. They provide essential protection to many birds and small mammals that never venture more than a few metres from cover. Plus, they create a unique temperate environment which make it possible for rare plants such as naval wort, bellflowers and hearts tongue ferns, lending a curious, ‘Middle Earth’ feel to the paths.

The mysterious nature of the holloways is also heightened by the many carvings that have been cut into the sides of the tracks over the years, including elaborate Celtic patterns, ghouls and gargoyles.

It is hoped that the 3D scans will make it possible for people to explore these ancient semi-subterranean tracks virtually. However, to truly experience the natural wonder of the holloways there is nothing like seeing them for yourself.

Shute’s Lane and Hell Lane are easily accessible from the Symondsbury Estate carpark. If you want to explore them, just pop into the Visitor Centre on the Estate and ask for a map – our Visitor Centre staff will be happy to show you where to go.



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