Cornwall’s Oldest Road

The hedge towers above me, the moss is thick and bright green, lush ferns give the scene an ancient and almost topical feel. I am standing on Cornwall’s oldest ‘road’.

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The Giant’s Hedge

This route once ran for 10 miles between Lerryn and Looe and was in use around 4000 years old.

The road cuts so deep down into the earth that I am standing on bedrock and that bedrock has a channel worn into it from hundreds of years of rainwater wearing its own path.  The level of the field I have just crossed to get here is high above me, perhaps as much as 9 or ten feet, it is no wonder that these banks that mark the route’s way have become known as the Giant’s Hedge.

Discovery on Bodmin Moor

In 2013 the newspapers reported that Britain’s oldest pavement had been found in Cornwall.   A cobbled track leading to the Hurler’s stone circle had been uncovered on Bodmin moor during an archeologically dig. The papers described it as ‘one of a kind’ and this sparked my imagination. Might there be similar routes out there?  I dug out my maps and fired up the computer.  I didn’t have to look far.  The Giant’s Hedge is clearly marked on Ordnance Survey maps. Parts of it, near Looe, are even incorporated into public foot paths.  The section I visited however was completely cut off from the world. Sheep were my only companions.20160228_143441








Jack the Giant

The Giant’s Hedge was once thought to be some kind of boundary wall to protect the territory of a petty Cornish chief.  There is also a local rhyme about a giant, (which in Cornwall is hardly a surprise, we like a giant down here).

“Jack the Giant had nothing to do, so he build a wall from Lerryn to Looe”

But despite the folklore it really isn’t the wall that is important.  According to English Heritage the hedge simply follows the ancient track and as it passes beside a number of Bronze Age barrows archaeologists date it to that period. Over time parts of it have disappeared or been incorporated into later roads or field boundaries but the section I visited cuts clearly through the landscape for more than half a mile.

I will admit that perhaps there’s not much to see, this is no Stonehenge after all. However this road belongs to that time, around 2000 BC and I found it pretty impressive. Just imagining how many feet have passed by, wondering where they were going, what language they were speaking.  It felt like a haunted place. Sometimes it is the smaller fragments of history that touch us more deeply or connect us more clearly to the past.

Part of the Giant’s Hedge on the OS map

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Please note:

Much of the Giant’s Hedge passes through privately owned farm land, always ask permission if you want to visit.  As I mentioned the section near Looe is easy to access. While I was trying to find the Giant’s Hedge on the backroads between Lerryn and Lanreath I happened to meet a farmer who has part of it running across his land, he gave me permission to cross his fields to see it.  He also told me I am the first person ever to ask. (I replied that there is always one!)

Further reading:

Cornwall’s Prehistoric Holed Stones

Cornwall’s Oldest Tree

Boleigh fogou

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32 thoughts on “Cornwall’s Oldest Road

    1. oh I’m sorry Charles, no one has mentioned that before, are you reading on a full size screen? Not sure I can change the size, I’ll give it a go!

  1. I was trying to walk this the other day from the Lerryn end, almost impossible to find a bit not on private land, with no nearby farmer to ask. Glad you found one. 🙂

    1. I was very lucky, I was sitting in my car with a map out trying to work out where I could access and the farmer knocked on my window to ask if I was lost! When I said what I was looking for he was really taken back and said he’d been there 40 years and no one had ever asked to see it!

  2. Is that path an example of a doubled hedge path which allowed residents to escape from attack under cover? There are apparently only a few double hedged paths still in existence in England.

    1. I’m not sure Nick, as far as I understood the bank (hedge) came first and the route grew up along side it. Where are the double hedges that you mention? they sound interesting!

      1. There are two on the Lizard.

        One goes from the rough road leading to Caerthillian Cove and goes on towards Kynance. It got filled in a couple of hundred years ago to allow people to walk on top of it.

        The other is just down the road from Ruan Minor Church along what is known as friars’ Lane to the coast.

        Absolutely fascinating.

  3. Surely the neolithic Tinner’s Way in West Penwith is older than this? It isn’t paved though.

  4. Very interesting, I don’t think I’d be able to ride my Harley on that road!
    When we lived in Mid-Devon there was a similar ancient road just behind our village, fortunately a friend of mine owns the farm through which it passes and I was able to enjoy the old byway frequently.
    Keep up your tales of Kernow, always a good read!

  5. Hi Liz, just recently discovered you after watching your interview on Youtube with the history guys. You have a lot of interesting stuff on your site! I’m intrigued by the oldest road article. We have a similar bit of lane in Helston called Gypsy Hill, running parallel with the A394 towards Penzance. How would I go about finding out if it is of similar vintage?

    1. Hi Rob, I have heard to Gypsy Hill, my other half is from Helston/Porthleven.
      There are many ancient tracksways across Cornwall, I picked this one out because of the folklore etc attached to it. Craig Weatherhill writes about some in his book Belerion and Des Hannigan, from Penwith, wrote a book called Historic Tracks. The book covers the whole of the UK but the Cornwall section and the general discussion is really interesting I think.
      Other than that Kresen Kernow may have old maps . . .
      Hope that helps! 😊

    2. I find country lanes absolutely fascinating.

      I came across the term “double hedge paths” a long time ago which appears to have two meanings:

      The Saxon term referred to paths with high hedges on both sides which meant that those under attack could scurry up the lane unobserved and then be above their attackers. There are apparently only about six of those left and I have only visited one, in Ewenny in South wales.

      In Cornish terms, a double hedge path referred to two dry stone walls filled in with earth. At the Lizard, in the absence of lanes they were used as the way to cross the area avoiding the boggy areas. There are still some examples such as from Lizard Town to Caerthillian Cove and then on to Kynance.

      The windy country lanes are, in themselves fascinating, as the bends demarked different farms and provide a way for a horse and cart to reverse and return.

      Equally, we had the house in a day which were built by young couples. If they could construct a dwelling in 24 hours with a door, window and roof in 24 hours on the edge of some land then that became their property. Many of those homes (little more than buildings constructed with hay bales are now where we have laybys.

      Fascinating stuff.

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