The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about sheep along the Trail to help us create a community Top 50!

Imagine meeting thousands of sheep walking along The Ridgeway on their way to London or to the huge fairs at East Ilsley in Berkshire…..this quirky short film made by central government to promote The Ridgeway attempts to show what a drove may have looked like on the Trail (start at 1 minute 20 seconds), although drovers were male. Watch out for the highwayman! Read on below to find out more….

Banner image ‘Sheep fair at East Ilsley’ by Henry Taunt. Credit Oxfordshire History Centre, Oxfordshire County Council.

As an old droveway, The Ridgeway was once busy with sheep, cattle, pigs, donkeys, turkeys and geese walking towards London and other markets under the watchful eyes of drovers and their dogs. This was because the only way to get meat to market before the invention of refrigeration, trucks and trains, was to walk animals to urban centres, although ducks, hens and rabbits were carted to markets in specially constructed horse-drawn vehicles. In the third quarter of the 18th century, the annual sale of sheep at Smithfield market in London averaged 750,000 sheep! Imagine the noises, mud, dung and dry dust kicked up by all these animals along the way.

Men were licenced and paid as ‘drovers’ to take animals to market, on behalf of farmers, between April and October. The drover would lead on horseback and ‘drivers’ followed behind on foot, accompanied by dogs. A single drove of sheep would be 1,500 to 2,000 strong, picking up more animals along the way. Drovers had to keep an eye out for rustlers looking to steal animals and, on their return journey, there was the risk that highwaymen and footpads would rob them of the money they carried from the market! Along The Ridgeway, The Hangman’s Stone near Upper Lambourn in Berkshire stands as a warning not to steal sheep.

Some animals would perish on the journey and lean animals could be bought for ‘fattening’ (to graze pasture) close to market before being sold for meat. Sheep droves travelled around 12 miles a day and, with a rest allowed every three days, it would take 8 days to travel from Gloucester or Hereford to London, for example. Their overnight resting place could be a hedgerow, barn, haystack or farmhouse and their animals would be fed, watered and sheltered. Some farmers took to planting Scots Pine trees along droveways in places where they were happy to provide ‘overnight stance’ for drovers. Along The Ridgeway, Scutchamer Knob south of East Hendred in Oxfordshire is planted with Scots Pine which may indicate such a ‘stance’?

Welsh mutton was sought after in the 19th century and so sheep from as far afield as Wales regularly moved through the area. Favoured routes were wide to provide space for the animals to move and verges for grazing – at Bury Down near West Ilsley in Berkshire, The Ridgeway is 40m wide! Droves would join The Ridgeway at different points including Avebury and Liddington Hill in Wiltshire and Red House Hill near Wantage in Oxfordshire. Halfpenny Lane near Blewbury, Oxfordshire, was used to reach the Thames crossing point at Moulsford and is so called because there was an overnight pound where a drover could rest his sheep for the price of half a penny per beast per night. The long track of Old Street, north of Newbury in Berkshire, was a key route for sheep being driven to East Ilsley.

Some say East Ilsley in Berkshire was once second only to London’s Smithfield market and the number of village inns reached 12 in order to cater for the influx of drovers, farmers and sheep shearers from as far afield as Scotland. Its first recorded market was in 1222 and, between 1620 and 1934, up to a quarter of a million sheep were traded annually. Eighty thousand sheep were auctioned in a single day in 1844! Sheep would arrive into the village through the day and night and were held in pens temporarily erected along the High Street and in an adjacent meadow known today as Pen Meadow (as shown in banner image above). When trains were operating out of nearby Compton station, sheep would be transported in special trains of 30-40 wagons and a big wagonette known as ‘The Queen of the Road’ would transfer them from the station to East Ilsley.

Surrounding The Ridgeway, sheep once grazed grassland stretching for miles across the downland and their bells, hanging round their necks, would help the shepherds and their dogs take care of them. At the turn of the 16th century, there were three times as many sheep as people in England – around 8 million sheep. Village flocks along the western half of The Ridgeway would have consisted of a thousand of sheep or more and they were breeds that are now extinct –  ‘Berkshire Knott Wether’ or ‘Old Berkshire’ and ‘Old Wiltshire’.

Historically, wool and cloth was an important trade item for England and places such as Newbury in Berkshire, near The Ridgeway, thrived as ‘wool towns’. The work required in the Medieval period to make clothes from a sheep’s fleece is described here, from shearing to carding to fulling. In the early Tudor period (mid 16th century), there was a famous cloth merchant called John Winchcombe, now popularly known as Jack of Newbury, who made ‘Winchcombe kersey’ and owned grazing land around The Ridgeway at Lockinge, Oxfordshire and Farnborough, Berkshire. His kersey was recognised as the best of its kind at home and abroad and, valued for being hardwearing and waterproof, was used to make everyday garments such as coats.

Today, sheep farming can still be seen along The Ridgeway but there is far more arable land than in the past and moving sheep along the route is an unusual sight where farmers need to move sheep short distances around their holding. Farmers play a critical role in keeping traditional land management practices alive. Sheep are important for conserving chalk grassland flora and fauna along The Ridgeway because they prevent scrub and tall vegetation from smothering low-growing native wildflowers.

Ridgeway visitors can help livestock and farmers by keeping their dogs under control so that they do not worry or attack sheep. Buying local produce in local farmshops, pubs and cafes is another way to support people and places of The Ridgeway – now there’s an excuse to enjoy a pub lunch!


Much of this information has been drawn from East Ilsley Local History Society’s booklet ‘Far famed for sheep and wool – a history of East Ilsley’s markets and fairs’ by Nigel Wardell (2006).

More information about food, farming and industry along The Ridgeway is available in other Top 50 entries.

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