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Guest author essay: Pack horse transport

Author: Joan Featherstone (2004)

Ancient trackways going back to prehistory have been used for centuries to transport goods across the land. Traders from overseas, monks, drovers, soldiers and pack horses have followed these routes; some are still grassy tracks, others have become motorways.

Along the Ridgeway or over the Downs, down muddy lanes and dusty roads strings of pack horses struggled with their loads of wool, pottery, lead, coal, textiles, salt, wine and so on.

Places were named because of them, the Salt Ways for instance, and inns called "The Pack Horse" or "The Golden Fleece". Pack horse bridges can still be found in some places; they were narrow with very low parapets to give clearance for the panniers as the horses crossed in single file. Many of these old bridges have now been widened.

The pack horses carried heavy loads and travelled about 20 miles per day (though some routes were shorter) with the lead horse wearing a bell to warn of their approach. The man in charge was called a jagger. The goods were carried in baskets on panniers on either side of the horse.

In the 17th century Thomas Pickford from Cheshire was using pack horses for carrying goods, and possibly started the removal firm of that name that is still in operation today.

And of course smugglers used pack ponies to bring their contraband brandy, lace, etc. from the small boats crossing the channel from France to be taken quietly inland and hidden in cellars and churches in the area of Romney Marsh on the Sussex/Kent border. Wool was smuggled illegally in the opposite direction.

Gradually, as roads improved and wheeled wagons became more widely used, pack horses became less common but they were still in use into the 19th century in hilly and remote parts. The coming of the railways in the 19th century took over from the wagons for long journeys, and now motor lorries have largely taken over from rail.

Examples of pack horse bridges in the Herefordshire Historic Environment Record

Risbury Bridge, Stoke Prior (HER number 5250): 6½' causeway, 3' above field level, with two rounded arches.

Pembridge (HER number 31738): a stone one-arched crossing of Tippet's Brook.

Stretton Sugwas (HER number 6294): This bridge is thought to be of 14th century date. It is constructed of roughly-dressed sandstone blocks and is carried on a segmental pointed arch. With a span of approximately 2.5m the bridge is small, at only 5.2m wide and 1.4m high.

Marstow (HER number 31810): A bridge crossing the Garron Brook is called Pack Saddle Bridge on the 1955 Ordnance Survey map.

Pack horse trails often had muleries along the way. These were open stables to house the mules and pack horses. A article written in the 1930s refers to the memories of a local man named Rollins. He remembered ore being brought on pack horses from Wales to a forge near Pembridge. (George Marshall, "A Pottery Site at Pembridge" in Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, Volume for 1930, 1931, 1932, Part II (1931), pp. 78-79)

© Joan Featherstone, 2004