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What are sunken lanes?

Written by
John BoardmanGeomorphologist, University of Oxford
A leaf-littered sunken track with banks on both sides in woodland at Leigh Hill, Surrey
Autumn woodland at Leigh Hill, Surrey | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Sunken lanes are roads or tracks that sit below the general level of the surrounding land, often by several metres. They’re formed by the passage of people, vehicles and animals – as well as the action of running water – over time. They may be currently active (incising) or inactive and they’re often hundreds of years old. You can see examples of this at many National Trust places including Dunstable Downs and Leith Tower Hill.

Location and origin

Sunken lanes are found throughout Europe. In general, they’re associated with areas of soft rocks and a long history of human occupation. They’re particularly common in areas with soils derived from wind-blown dust (‘loess’).

In France, they’re known as ‘chemin creux’, and in Germany as ‘Holweg’. 'Holloways' is also a common name for them in England.

In southern England, they’re impressively developed on the Bridport Sands around Yeovil and on the Lower Greensand in Surrey and Sussex.

How old are sunken lanes?

It is difficult to date sunken lanes. Those around Midhurst in West Sussex appear to connect valley-bottom villages at crossing points of the River Rother with upland areas that would have been a timber and pasture resource. The movement of animals from winter grazing in the valleys to summer grazing on more upland areas – known as ‘transhumance’ – and is practised globally. The villages in the area are of Saxon origin, which suggests the lanes are at least 1,500 years old.

Historic importance

Sunken lanes have acted as strategic routeways in times of battle. They are repositories of geological information (exposures in roadside banks), and provide habitats for animals such as badgers, foxes, rabbits and birds as well as routeways for bats.

Sunken lanes in the South Downs National Park

Gilbert White, vicar of Selbourne, was well aware of sunken lanes in the South Downs, and wrote about them in a letter to celebrated naturalist and traveller, Thomas Pennant, in the mid-1760s:

‘Among the singularities of this place the two rocky hollow lanes, the one to Alton, and the other to the forest, deserve our attention. These roads, running through the malm lands, are, by the traffick of ages, and the fretting of water, worn down through the first stratum of our freestone, and partly through the second; so they look more like water-courses than roads…In places they are reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields.’

Ecological impacts

One of the main routes between fields and rivers is via sunken lanes. Sediments travel along them from valley-side sources (mainly arable fields) and when it reaches the rivers it can lead to problems for fish breeding and invertebrates, as has been seen in the River Rother. At times of heavy rainfall, muddy flows can move more quickly down sunken lanes and cause repeated flooding of villages, as has been seen in the village of Easebourne in West Sussex, before reaching the river.

Sunken lanes – why should we care?

Sunken lanes are much neglected features of our landscape. They form essential networks for rural communication created over hundreds of years of human, vehicular and animal movements and aided by running water. They’re of interest to both geologists and ecologists, and in certain areas they’ve had a profound impact on patterns of flooding and river pollution.

Trusted Source

Written by John Boardman, a geomorphologist at the University of Oxford who has worked on land degradation and soil erosion in both the UK and South Africa for 40 years.

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