The Sunken Lanes of Europe

Feb 2, 2017 2 comments

Appearing as trenches dredged through the earth or tunnels cleared through forests, these ancient pathways called holloways or sunken lanes are found all across the European countryside. They originally began at the ground level, but over the centuries, under the tread of a million feet and hooves encompassing thousands of journeys, the floor of these roads have worn away and eroded down to the bedrock, creating ditches that lay beneath the level of the surrounding landscape. With high banks on either side, many of these ancient thoroughfare then became temporary waterways during rains, which further deepened and widened the paths making them permanent features of the landscape. Some of these paths are twenty to thirty feet deep, and look more like gorges than roads.


A hollow way (chemin creux) at La Meauffe, Manche, France. Photo credit: Romain Bréget/Wikimedia

Holloways are only found in those regions where the ground is soft, such as the chalk and sandstone rich counties of southern England, for instance. The county of Dorset, in particular, is rich in holloways.

Although a holloway can develop within a decade or two, as evident from those along the old Oregon trail, worn down by endless wagons as the settlers moved west across North America, those across Europe are definitely ancient, with some dating back to the Roman or Iron age. Others are more recent, but at least three hundred years old.

During the First and the Second World War, a couple of these naturally made trenches, such as the Sunken Lane in Beaumont Hamel, France, were used as shelters or defense strong points. Most holloways are too narrow for modern use, but some are used for foot traffic and a few wide enough for the passage of a single vehicle are still used today.


A sunken lane in Ille-et-Vilaine, Bretagne, France. Photo credit: Olybrius/Wikimedia


A sunken lane in Nantes, France. Photo credit: Jibi44/Wikimedia


The Washwell Lane in Wadhurst, England. Photo credit: FraserElliot/Flickr


The Washwell Lane in Wadhurst, England. Photo credit: FraserElliot/Flickr


Mill Lane, in Halnaker, England. Photo credit: Bethany Ciullo/Flickr


A paved sunken lane near Washford, West Somerset, England. Photo credit: Dave_S/Flickr


A cobbled sunken lane in Clovelly, England. Photo credit: Andrew/Flickr

Sources: The Dorset Rambler / Orion Magazine / Atlas Obscura / Earth Story


  1. So strange they know where these holloways are but still can't find Natalee.

  2. Lovely, the feeling of ancientness (is that a word?) is amazing, just how many thousands of feet over thousands of years have made those. It makes me feel so insignificant.


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