THE OLDEST ROAD IN BRITAIN, RIGHT HERE

The Harrow Inn in Knockholt marks the route of an ancient east-west route that ran from the Channel coast of Kent through to Wiltshire. It was known as Harrow Way, which translates as ‘Old Way’. Which indeed it was, being a Neolithic trackway and as such described as ‘the oldest road in Britain’.

RD-20 map.JPG

This east-west route is associated with the term ‘Pilgrims Way’, with its supposed use by pilgrims travelling form Winchester to Canterbury. In recent years much doubt has be cast upon the authenticity of the pilgrim tradition.

This does not of course affect the importance of this prehistoric route which can be traced almost continuously for its whole length, following as it does the lower terrace of the North Downs escarpment. It’s just that it didn’t originally go to Winchester or Canterbury.

Curiously, this preoccupation with the trackway at the base of the escarpment - the lower Terraceway - is not matched by similar attention to the more ancient trackway at the top of the escarpment - the Ridgeway. The route that this upper trackway followed hardly needs explaining, as it unerringly keeps to the ridge-line. It remains marked out for its entire length by parish boundaries, tracks, footpaths and roads, many of which remain in use today.

For mile upon mile, the Ridgeway and the Terraceway run parallel and remarkably close to each other. Close they may be, but these two ancient trackways occupy very different landscapes.

The lower Terraceway borders highly cultivated land with busy farmsteads and villages at regular intervals, whilst the Ridgeway runs through wild and lonely country, with dense woodland covering the steep escarpment to the south and filling deep valleys that run towards the north. Importantly, the Ridgeway rests on clay soils that in winter are less suited to wheeled traffic, whilst the lower Terraceway rests on drier chalk soils that provide a much more favourable surface.

RD-201 p20 with Harrow Way.JPG

These pronounced differences probably explain why the lower Terraceway became the more prominent with the passing of years, and why the Ridgeway is now a derelict and forgotten track. In prehistoric times, however, it was the other way round, for it was the Ridgeway that was the preferred route. 

This may have been because the Ridgeway enjoyed wider look-outs, more advantageous elevation and fewer surprises than the uninhabited and densely-wooded landscape below. Alternatively, it may have been that it was simply more difficult to get lost on the Ridgeway, with the escarpment continuously and immediately to one side

It’s the Ridgeway, not the Terraceway, that crosses the southern part of the Parish of Halstead.

RD-14 with Harrow way.JPG

This ancient route, still marked today by a public footpath, begins its descent into the Darenth Valley just north of Fort Halstead, the steep descent itself corresponding roughly with the alignment of Old Polhill Road, eventually crossing the River Darent at Filston Mill, and returning to the ridgeline again above Otford Mount.

In Neolithic times the last piece of high ground on the west side of Darenth Valley would have been a prominent feature on this roadway. It is difficult to imagine that the vantage point that we know as Fort Halstead would have been left unexplored and unused. This piece of land has, no doubt, a longer and more celebrated history than we realise.