The Ancient Pack-Horse Trade – Its Routes and Bridges

Pack-horse bridge

On 21st April Maggie Dickinson gave a fascinating talk to 34 members and guests of LAS.

She explained that, for over a thousand years, pack horses were used all over the country in areas where wheeled traffic could not go. In theory pack horse trails became obsolete first with the coming of turnpikes and then with the coming of canals and railways. But, in fact, the last photograph we have of a pack horse trader was taken in 1910. Cumbria and Pennine Lancashire continued to use pack horses throughout the nineteenth century.

She showed illustrations of pack horse saddles and the harness with bells on which rang differently on the right to the left. Galloway ponies, which are between twelve and fourteen hands high, were widely used because they could carry up to twentytwo and a half hundredweight. It is thought that this is the origin of the place name ‘Galloway Gate’ (two Galloway gates meet at Tebay). Fell ponies and sometimes donkeys were used. Dentdale is associated with the breeding of pack horses.

She went on to show pictures of pack horse bridges. They tended to be less than six feet wide with no parapets – they would impede the saddle packs – but with kerb stones on each side. They were always sited next to a ford, so presumably the bridges were only used when the river was in spate. Interesting examples of pack horse bridge include: Shireburn, Sawley Abbey, Wycollar, Smaithwaite, Seathwaite, Crosby Ravensworth, and one over the Keer close to Borwick Hall which still has pack horse stables.

It is well worth visiting bridges on pack horse routes as, when examined from below, it becomes apparent that pack horse bridges have often been subsequently modified to take wheeled traffic by making them wider and adding parapets.

So what was being transported? General goods were taken to markets and fairs. A thousand pack horses a day passed through Clitheroe carrying lime and wool. In the heyday of the wool trade two hundred pack horses a day passed through Kendal. Celia Fiennes’ journal comments that she saw no carts in Kendal, only pack horses. Furness Abbey used several pack horse teams a week in the transports of haematite and corn. The output of copper mines near Coniston and plumbago mines near Seathwaite were transported by pack horse.

Salt was transported from Nantwich to Carlisle, starting in Roman times. There is a salterwath at Low Borrowbridge. Similarly there are salt pans along the Solway coast. It is said the smugglers used pack horses over Hard Knott Pass to and from Ravenglass to avoid paying salt tax.

Surprisingly corpses were transported for many miles along pack horse routes. Although there were outlying chapelries in remote moorland areas, the mother church reserved the right to hold burials (and collect the fees). So, for example, the inhabitants of Mardale had to bury at Shap

Posted by Andrea Rollins

Photo by Maggie Dickinson

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