The High Weald has a unique, radiating network of ancient routeways and tracks.
These routes were first formed when early settlers from the surrounding lands began to exploit the area’s woods as a seasonal source of food for their animals: for, as well as timber and fuel, the woods held another important resource – acorns!
Domesticated pigs, being descended from wild boar, enjoyed acorns as a natural food. From as far back as the Neolithic period (c.4300 – 1400BC) or even earlier, farmers from the South Downs, North Downs and coastal plains would drive their pigs into the woods each year to fatten them on acorns and beech mast.
This happened in late summer or early autumn and is known as pannage.
Routeways are a key component of the High Weald’s natural beauty. Policy objectives for settlement are set out in the High Weald AONB Management Plan, pages 36-39.
A stronghold for pigs!
The Weald was the stronghold of pannage in Britain. In 1086 – when the practice was already past its peak – Domesday records indicate that around 150,000 pigs would have been driven to and from the woods of the High and Low Weald!
Farmers from a particular village returned with their pigs to the same woodland place year after year. These woodland pig pastures were called dens.
The frequent passage of pigs being driven to and from the dens formed tracks known as droves, connecting the dens to their parent villages – often as much as 20 miles away.
Over time the dens became settlements in their own right, and the roughly north-south droving routes remained, and can be seen today in the pattern of lanes, bridleways and footpaths radiating away from the High Weald.
Centuries of use by many trotters, feet, hooves – and, later, cartwheels – have worn the soft ground away so that, today, many of the routes have deeply sunken sections.
In spring and summer, the High Weald’s narrow, sunken lanes with their ancient, wooded banks are transformed into shady ‘tree tunnels’.
Many are lined in places with wildflower-rich verges, important wildlife refuges – some even designated as ‘Roadside Nature Reserves’.