The Drovers Roads of Pembrokeshire

By Terry John Calendar

November was, and is, a busy time on the farms in the parish of Newton North, where Bluestone now stands. Houses and outbuildings had to be prepared for rough weather during the winter. Chimneys were swept, for a shaft clogged with soot might be ignited by the constant fires burning on the hearths below. Farmers would carefully examine their sheep and cattle, choosing which ones to keep through the coming hard months. Those destined for destruction would provide nourishment through the winter, but the meat had to be smoked or salted to preserve it. Any surplus would be sold to the local markets.

Hard frosts would break up the soil, so it was time to clear the outside privies. The contents would be removed and ‘buried in garden, in trenches a-low, shall make very many things better to grow’. The harvest of grain was stored in barns and outhouses, to be threshed as needed. Unthreshed grain was considered to keep better, so the supply was eked out over the winter, topping up the wheat bins, or arks as they were called, on a regular basis. There was also a belief that as the straw dried, the remaining sap it contained would drain back into the grain, providing a slightly heavier flour which produced a better bread. As porridge was a staple diet in many poor rural households, a fresh supply of oats lasting through the winter was much appreciated. Regular threshing also provided fresh chaff for the horses and loose pieces of grain that could be swept up to feed the poultry and pigs.

A familiar sight on the roads around Narberth during the summer and autumn months would have been the drovers, experienced men who took large herds from the farms and villages of Pembrokeshire to sell at local fairs or to destinations much further afield.

These herds included not only cattle and pigs, but sheep and geese and usually consisted of the livestock that their owners had bred for sale.

The sending of animals to distant markets was a long established and profitable custom. One of the earliest records of droving dates to 1312, when Welsh cattle were purchased for the household of King Edward II, though unrecorded transactions may have been taking place long before that. In the early 15th century, Henry V ordered that as many cattle as could be collected from Wales should be driven to ports on the Kentish coast to supply his armies in France.

George Owen, a Pembrokeshire landowner writing in 1603, records that over 3,000 young people were employed in herding cattle within the county. He lamented the fact that they were put to this occupation at the age of ten or twelve, when they should have been at school and so remained uneducated. He even went to far as to remark that the consequence would be ‘to bring them all up among beasts to be a beastly people.’ Even worse, they were ‘turned to the open fields to follow their cattle, when they are forced to endure the heat of the sun in his greatest extremity to patch and burn their faces, hands legs, feet all in chinks and chaps…and being thus tanned with the heat of the sun and dried up with the heat and cold…that they never come in shape, favour, or comeliness to be accounted among the number of personable young men.’

A harsh judgement, and these were the people who worked locally, probably watching the flocks during the year on the hills and fields of the county and driving them to local markets in Haverfordwest, Cardigan, Tenby and Narberth. Other drovers travelled much further afield.

The men who took herds on the long trek into England were usually upright, responsible characters. They had to hold a licence in order to drive cattle and this was awarded at quarter sessions only to those who were over thirty years of age and were householders in the locality. They had to be trustworthy, as they sometimes acted as bankers between the farmers and the merchants who bought the livestock. They were also empowered to buy or sell animals on route. 

Usually, four or five men on horseback were employed to drive the animals eastwards. Most drives did not contain a mixture of animals, because of the different speeds at which cattle, pigs and geese walked. Also, there were differences in grazing habits; animals that grazed low to the ground were often sent off after a herd that fed higher. Pigs, which grubbed around for coarse weeds and roots, went on separate routes to geese.

A good supply of water was essential on every stage of the journey. For that reason, routes tended to run close to rivers, lakes and specially constructed ponds, though marshes and flooded areas were avoided. A few troughs filled with water were of no use, as thirsty animals might stampede to get to the water and cause injury to one another.

It was also necessary to shoe the cattle, even though they were never ordinarily shod. Rough terrain would harm the feet of the animals, so special smiths were employed to shoe the beasts. They used iron shoes shaped into half moon shapes known as cws or cues, one to each side of a cloven hoof. On the longer routes, there were smithies close to the regular halts. Drovers often carried an extra supply of iron shoes in case of emergencies, wrapped in greased cloth to prevent them from going rusty.

Even geese were shod, their tender feet being tarred to protect them from rough ground, but this might have to be renewed several times on a long journey.

A report written in 1850 gives an idea of how a drive was organized. The animals were to be fed early in the morning and the journey should begin in midday in winter and in the afternoon during summer. They should be encouraged to start walking at an easy pace, though to begin with they might go too quickly, but they would soon settle to a proper speed, about a mile an hour. The first day’s journey should be a short one, four or five miles at most. Once they were well along the route, a distance of eight miles a day should be achieved in the winter and about ten during the summer.

If sheep were being driven, then it was best to try and employ the shepherd who normally watched over them, as the animals would know and trust him. A drover of sheep should have his dog with him, not a young, excitable dog, but ‘a knowing, cautious tyke’. The drover should carry a stout crook, which was useful in turning a sheep attempting to break away from the flock. He should also gave a sharp knife with which to trim the hoofs of sheep which might be causing a difficulty in walking. A conscientious shepherd would also have tucked away somewhere on his person a small bottle containing a mix of tobacco-liquor and spirit of tar, and some cloth and twine, in order to smear and bandage a sheep’s foot. He should also have a basic knowledge of how to treat various sheep ailments that might affect one of the flock during the journey.

By the 1850’s, hired drovers were being paid 2s 6d a day, besides travelling expenses. They were also entrusted with cash to pay market, road and bridge tolls, ferry costs and to buy food such as bread, meat, cheese and butter for their daily meals. A drover was also wise to drink water from the streams and wells he passed, though ale and porter were acceptable during the daylight hours. Spirits were best consumed at night, when the day’s journey was over.

Sometimes, in remoter areas, the drovers were unwilling to pay the tolls levied on the main roads. In such cases they would, if possible, find a route that ran parallel to the road, and keep to that. In the same way toll bridges were avoided and rivers were crossed where shallow fords existed.

The time spent on the journey varied according to the type of animal being driven and the weather. Unexpected delays might also occur, so it was advisable to add a few extra days to the timetable and to get to the destination at least a day before the market began, to rest the animals.

A number of drovers roads crossed southern Pembrokeshire, converging on Narberth and Whitland. One route ran from Angle and another from the farms near Bosherston and then through Hundleton to Pembroke. The town served as a collecting point for the whole of the Castlemartin peninsula and the herds would have been driven on towards Sageston, where they joined other herds brought up from the Tenby area. It has been suggested that the lanes around Jeffreyston were used by the drovers, as these trackways avoided some of the toll houses on what is now the A4075. At Narberth, they joined the herds coming from Haverfordwest and just beyond the town, at Caermaenau Fawr, was the first shoeing station. The iron cws had been prepared beforehand at Bryn Hill, to the south of the town.

Fairs at which animals were sold were being regularly held at Narberth during the 19th century. In order to save the cattle drovers from having to carry large amounts of money to the English markets, the Narberth and Pembrokeshire Bank was set up in1811. The bills it produced could be exchanged for cash after the cattle were sold in the English markets. Each note depicted two oxen striding forwards.

The Narberth fairs were used by local farmers to sell their stock. In the late 19th century, local schoolchildren were given the day off school to help to drive the animals into market.

For drovers taking their herds into England, the route now headed for Whitland. From the shoeing station at Caermaenau Fawr, the tracks led towards Lampeter Velfrey and then clambered up the slopes of the hill to the east of the village. The drovers, especially if they were local men, would have been well aware that, whatever the Bible said, that hill was the spot on which Noah’s ark came to rest after the great flood.

The track reached Whitland by a route well to the south of the main road, thus avoiding the toll gate at Pwll Trap. From Whitland, the herds would have travelled slowly on to St Clears and Carmarthen before making the long trek towards England.

Most of the old drovers roads are now no more than muddy lanes, little used and almost forgotten. Others have disappeared beneath modern highways. Here and there however, dedicated walkers may come across lanes with wide grass verges, and it is easy to imagine the great flocks of sheep which nibbled at the greenery as they meandered eastwards under the care of their watchful shepherds.

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire, Winter


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