Setting the scene.

Since our ancestors, thousands of years ago, first hunted, then domesticated the horse, the nature of transport and trade changed dramatically. Horses, and later oxen, now allowed large loads to be moved both locally and over long distances. Over time  packhorse routes developed to convey all manner of commodities. The packhorse is rightly claimed to have sustained the British economy for centuries.

In Cheshire, the production and trade in salt became of historic importance. Even in pre-history  salt  was highly sought after and was sent far and wide.  Indeed, throughout recorded history, salt was carried by packhorses and, to a lesser extent, by oxen,  gradually declining with the arrival of turnpike roads, canals and railways during the 18th and 19th centuries.


Based on Crump, Saltways from the Cheshite Wiches

Saltways radiated from the Cheshire wiches;  a Saxon word for salt town. One such saltway passed through Hockenhull Platts and its famous Packhorse Bridge. Formerly, these bridges were made of wood until they were rebuilt in stone in the 17th and 18th centuries It is one of the few packhorse routes detailed in Cheshire, at least. According to Sydney Moorhouse, in Packhorse Roads of Cheshire (Cheshire Life, Jan.1941) the bridges formed part of a route running between Chester and Manchester.

‘The track appeared to run from west to east and passed through Cotebrook, Whitegate and Davenham on its way to the Peovers and then turned north-west to run south of Mobberley, and so into Wilmslow on its way to Manchester.

Here, as elsewhere, trade in salt and most other commodities reached its peak from about the 12th through to the 18th centuries.

Perhaps, the only early written evidence of packhorses in the salt trade appears in the Domesday Survey of 1086.


 ‘A man from another shire paid 1d for a packhorse load; but a                               man from the same shire paid 1 farthing.’

Nantwich and Middlewich;

‘Whoever carted purchased salt from these two wiches paid 4s in toll if he had four oxen or more to his cart, if two oxen, he paid 2d toll, if there were two packloads of salt.’

The King and Earl of Chester were basically the controllers of the salt trade. There was great wealth to be made and strict rules ensured no one profited at the expense of the nobility. Fines were severe and exclusions , even death for theft  were sobering penalties.

At the heart of the salt trade were the packhorses. Their impact soon went beyond salt and the bounds of local interests and geography.


The Packhorse

The map shows just how widespread the packhorse routes (blue dots) heading to London were. (Wheeled vehicles in red)

Packhorse journeys to London in the late 17th century

Imagine the number of packhorses travelling on a daily basis, not only to London but all the markets in other cities and towns. The packhorse really did sustain the economy of the country and their contribution must have been breathtaking both in organisation, effort and volume of trade.

It is reckoned up to 1000 packhorses crossed the Pennines in any one day and one wonders what the total would be across the country. This does not taken account of the thousands of livestock moving mainly from Wales into England. For instance in 1804, some 20,000 cattle from one Welsh livestock market were preparing to be sent along ancient drovers roads to England.

All of this mass movement was going on virtually day and night in some cases. The by-ways , saltways, packways and drove routes must have been a constant flurry of activity.

I will let Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, writing in 1685, offer his eloquent view of the difficulties travelling in those days.

‘On by-roads, and generally throughout the country, goods were carried by long trains of packhorses. These strong and patient beasts, the breed of which is now extinct, were attended by a class of men who seem to have borne much resemblance to the Spanish muleteers.’

These strong and patient beasts were mostly Galloway horses. Small, hardy and easily managed. Often they moved linked together with a large basket or pannier, on each flank.  There might be up to 50 horses with heavy loads and long journeys to make. Their task was not helped by the state of the roads even if ’causeys’ of flat sandstone flagstones helped crossing soft ground or rocky paths. Again, Lord Macaulay describes the scene:

‘…The great route through Wales to Holyhead [ Hockenhull being part of this, the King’s Highway] was in such a state that in 1685, a viceroy going to Ireland was five hours in travelling fourteen miles, from St. Asaph to Conway. Between Conway and Beaumaris he was forced to walk a great part of the way, and his lady was carried in a litter. His coach was, with much difficulty and by the help of many hands, brought after him entire. In general, carriages were taken to pieces at Conway, and borne on the shoulders of stout Welsh peasants to the Menai Straits.

Travelling by carriage was supposedly a virtue of those of means. Yet, as described, over much of the country the poor state of the roads was the norm. Many had such major potholes that carriages, carts and horses would fall into them, wholly or partly.

Will let Macaulay finish this introduction to the packhorse:

‘It was by the highways that both travelers and goods generally passed from place to place; and those highways appear to have been far worse than might have been expected from the degree of wealth and civilisation which the nation have even then attained. On the best lines of communication the ruts were deep, the descents precipitous, and the way often such as it was hardly possible to distinguish, in the dusk, from the uninclosed heath and fen which lay on both sides.’

Macaulay recalls what existed for centuries. The well-built roads of the Romans were long gone and nothing thereafter compared until the 18th century. The ancient trade routes continued largely as before but now serving a rapidly growing population. The packhorse supplied the needs of people and only the arrival of the  turnpike roads changed their role forever. Yet, in upland areas of the north and in Wales, packhorses continued  with the last trader thought to have been in Cumbria in 1910.

The coming of the turnpike roads improved roads considerably but at a cost and one that penalised the poor man and advantaged those who invested in their construction.  That scenario is one aspect of life that has not changed for centuries.

Read more in the dedicated pages.

NEWS: 19th May

Received email about detectorists finding lots of part and whole horseshoes in a field at the end of Platts Lane near to the eastern bridge. Could this be where the packhorses rested overnight? There may be loads more as the patch scanned was a small part of the field.  Some coins dating from the early 18th century and 19th century were found.

Another mystery to track!