Holloways Of Calderdale

The ancient routes in the Calder Valley connecting us with history
Steven Harrison
April 19, 2024

One must have a willingness to tread lightly, strike the earth with reverence; tap your feet as if measuring the pace of history that has shaped and scoured these creases into the landscape. They have been worn down by ceaseless stomp and stamp; clump and clomp; trudge and tramp of foot, hoof and wheel. These cocooned time tunnels; these Holloways-hollow-ways-sunken paths-routes harrowed out of the land by generations of foot fallers. This ancient arterial network of tracks and paths have connected people to place through the passage of time.

In the Calderdale Valley some of these unique landscape features still exist. Hollowed out tracks that have been worn down by the traffic of ages and the gorge of water. Holloway is derived from “hola weg”, meaning sunken road in Old English. They form part of old trading routes that criss-crossed the Calderdale area; linking place to place – hamlet to village – village to town with churches en route to service the spiritual needs of the journeymen and women. Parts of these routes have taken on a mystical life of their own, having sunk deep into the ground; making them significantly lower than the land on either side, giving the effect of an underworld cloaked and sheltered from sight.

A Holly Holloway
A Holly Holloway

Living in between the River Calder and the Calder and Hebble Navigation near Halifax, going up to get out is embracing a valley life: to walk up the incline through a holloway is a mind-altering experience. My nearest holloway worms its way up the valley side to Norland Town, a truly magical trudge into a secret world of dappled shade in summer and cool sheltered winters, creating a damp, half lit cradle full of tongues of fern, legs of bramble and moss painted stone; canopied by a hug of treetops.‍

Sentinel trees stand either side of the holloway’s entrance like some kind of ancient gate keepers protecting a hallowed place. The spring-water cascades over my feet, cleansing and washing through a sense of deep connection with the land. I feel as though I should pay coin to enter this sacred place. As I wade into the flow I follow in the footsteps of stompers from down the ages.

An imaginary door closes behind me as I cross the threshold between inside and outside. A connection is made between myself and the other souls who have trodden this path over previous centuries. The mysteries this place holds are of the ordinary conversations of toil over adversity; the working men and women stopping to rest the aches from calf and thigh; exchanging news, telling stories, singing songs. An arterial life flow of humanity sheltered from the elements in these leafy cocoons.

Majestic oaks, ash and sycamore tower over this “hola weg”; interweaving branches locked in an embrace, protecting the hollow tunnel from the scream of the elements; protecting the foot sloggers that have passed this way. The ancient past inhabits the present here, so tread lightly; this place is full of stories. The trudgers, and foot strikers have left a residue of their lives on this ancient strip of sunken track.‍

The Upper Reaches Of The Norland Holloway
The Upper Reaches Of The Norland Holloway

Further up the valley side, the holloway opens out and deepens, the banks on either side are held together by a grotesque tangle of living, tentacle-like tree roots grasping the earth and rocks with a time lock grip. This living arboreal passage eventually connects with a narrow metalled road; old and new spliced together, holding past and present in a collusive grasp.

Further along the Calder Valley near Copley, is a more intimately enclosed holly holloway; an evergreen hidden portal to the underworld. Walking through this dark underspace, you can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding; a trickle of unease, a prickle of the skin moment. A primal enlightenment glows within this secret lane; a hidden history is carved into the atmosphere of this holly shrouded track. A chronicle of past narratives have flowed through this veiled pathway; the holly trees protected the weary plodder against the weather and safeguarded them against the forces of evil that plagued the souls of the medieval travellers.

East of Halifax lies one of the best preserved mediaeval holloways in West Yorkshire; now saved from the cutting edge of the plough by having gained ancient monument status in the 1980s. Dark Lane once carried traffic between Halifax and The Manor of Wakefield, forming part of what is known as The Wakefield Gate, or “Magna Via”. (in Latin The Great Way).‍

Magna Via: Wakefield Gate
Magna Via: Wakefield Gate

Walk into Dark Lane and feel the atmosphere start to cling to you, weaving historical threads around you: the puffing and snorting of a packhorse train, snatches of conversations of parliamentarians shuffling back home to Halifax after battle - all reverberating in this echo chamber of bygone days.

These Calderdale holloways are cultural and historical landmarks that thrive in the present through the trudge, plod and slog of today’s travellers. These secret “Northern” passageways thrive on being used, making new memories for future generations to experience. Seek them out and leave behind a little of your story.