We have seen how the packhorse dominated the medium to long distance carriage of goods for several centuries up to the onset of the industrial revolution and the development of turnpike roads. But what about the tracks on which they travelled?
These ancient ways had in many cases seen continuous use since prehistoric times. They tended to follow the contours of the land, avoiding the boggy valley bottoms. In hilly districts such as around Blackburn and Darwen, packhorses could travel across the moors far more easily than a lumbering waggon. Many of the moorland paths that still exist as the favourite haunts of walkers and ramblers were originally packhorse ways.
In some areas, such as Tockholes, stretches of packhorse track were even paved with stone slabs to make the going easier. The keen-eyed walker may still be able to spot some of these paved ways on the surface, although much more must still exist beneath the turf.
Another characteristic feature of the packhorse ways were guide stones or 'stoops'. These were predecessors to the milestones which became a familiar site on turnpike roads. Guide stones were usually located at the junction of several tracks. Carved upon them were directions to local market towns, sometimes with mileages indicated. The official mile only went onto the statute books in the early 19th century, so the distances found on guide stones are 'customary' or 'Lancashire' miles, often grossly underestimating the true distance. Of course, packhorses were not fitted with odometers, so the precise distance they travelled was of little consequence - the guide stones simply provided a guide, providing the traveller with a rough idea of where they were in relation to the other places listed on the stone.
Sadly, very few original guide stones still exist in this area. Many were reused as gate posts, or destroyed by over-zealous Home Guard units during the Second World War.
By Nick Harling
Have you ever wondered why old 'packhorse bridges' have such low parapets? The reason lies in the method of loading each individual horse with its cargo. Each beast had a pair of wide panniers or baskets slung across its back, one on each side, which would have made negotiating a narrow footbridge impossible unless the parapets were reduced in height.
The actual goods carried by packhorses varied as much as the materials produced and traded in any particular area. Even aggregates such as coal and limestone could be carried by the packhorse, although this would obviously put a great strain on the animals - the average packhorse could carry 2cwt (about 100kg) of burden. Referring to the trade between market towns between the medieval period and the onset of the industrial revolution, Bird notes that:
"The amount of traffic was vast for so small a population, but nearly all of it went on foot; or rather on hoof, trotter, paw, claw and paddle. In addition to loads as diverse as fish and flowers, lime and leather, bricks and barometers, cucumbers and coals, which were carried by strings of pack-animals (and the packhorse was still the principal vehicle for coal delivery in some districts until the 19th century) prodigious herds of cattle, sheep pigs, geese, turkeys and other livestock were driven along the roads" (A.Bird, 'Roads & Vehicles', Longmans 1969).
Bird's description of 'strings of pack-animals' gives us an idea of how a 'train' of packhorses would have looked in the landscape. Each team consisted of between twenty and forty horses. The individual animals each carried panniers as described above and were characteristically of a small but strudy breed of about fourteen hands high. The train was under the charge of a driver (usually on horseback) and a couple of attendants on foot. The leading pony carried a bell which helped keep the whole entourage together and gave warning to travellers from the opposite direction - particularly important at narrow bridges.
By Nick Harling
Before the mid-18th century, the roads in this area of Lancashire were 'miry ways', unmade packhorse tracks and drove roads which criss-crossed the high ground of the region. Narrow, steep and winding, they were totally unsuitable for wheeled traffic. The few market waggons that ran between the local towns had to toil along the appalling valley roads, deeply rutted and floating with mud in winter. Evidence for these early routes can still be seen in the form of 'hollow-ways' descending from the moors into the valleys, deeply scored into the landscape by centuries of packhorse traffic. River crossings were vitally important, from fords and narrow 'clapper' bridges to more substantial arches.
The Highways Act of 1555 established that the repair of roads was the responsibility of the parishes through which they passed. Each parish had to appoint a 'Surveyor of Highways' who had the thankless task of arranging statutory labour and materials for the upkeep of the roads. The maintenance of major bridges remained the responsibility of the whole county, reflecting their importance. However, despite regular indictments at the Quarter Sessions, parishes were neglectful of their duties and the roads remained in a poor state.
By Nick Harling