This ancient trackway crosses Norfolk from south to north. Some people state that it is pre-Roman, but the extreme straightness of the route suggests that it is definitely Roman, at least in its current form. What puzzles me about Peddars Way is not where it begins, near Thetford, as where it ends. Why does it stop near Hunstanton? Not for the town itself, surely?
No, this part of the coast was certainly the starting point for the sea journey to Lincolnshire. In Roman times, and indeed for centuries thereafter, the Fens were impossible as the route from Norfolk to Lincolnshire. They were an all-but impassable maze of marshes and lakes, only accessible to local Fen Tigers who knew the way. From Norfolk a number of routes would take you to the south but to go to the north (or indeed the east to even the west) inevitably meant a sea journey.
Peddars Way was in Roman times the main road in Norfolk, the equivalent of the modern A11. An indication that the track is older than the towns which now populate Norfolk is that the track does not go through any of them. By contrast the A11 went right through the centre of every town and village on the way . This was true even as recently as when I was a young man. This made sense until the coming of the internal combustion engine increased the number of travellers exponentially, while shortening their journey times. Each of the towns and villages I mentioned had at least one coaching inn where travellers could break their journey for a drink, a meal or a night’s sleep.
There must originally have been similar stopping places on Peddar’s Way. Roman travellers would have need their own inns to break their journeys. The fact that we now do not know where these resting places were suggests that it has not been used by long distance travellers since the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. These settlers from Europe imposed their own topography on the land. For many centuries Peddars Way has been no more than a series of farm tracks although the fact that it retained its name suggests that a distant folk memory of its former importance remained. Only in the last century has it seen a resurgence in its use. The growth of leisure walking has revived this track as a National Trail long distance footpath. Even so the walk is more popular as an aspiration than as a fact; my wife Molly recently took our dog along a length of Peddar’s Way near Swaffham and met not a soul. Nor have I ever met anyone on the lengths of the track that I have walked in the past.
If it is true that Peddars Way fell out of use with the coming of the Anglo –Saxons, what does this tell us about the Fens? They must still have been very difficult to cross once the Romans left. For some reason it became less important to go from East Anglia to Lincolnshire. Could it be that under the Romans Norfolk and Lincolnshire were both regions of one empire, while under the Saxons East Anglia and Mercia were separate kingdoms, often at war? The passage of legions and administrators along the straight roads and short sea crossings were no longer part of the transport needs of Britain. So that the Fens, instead of being a barrier to transport to be traversed became a defensive feature against attack.
By the way, in case you were wondering, Peddars Way runs from Knettishall Heath in the south to Holme-next-the-Sea at the northern end.