Freckley Hollow: A Route Past Catsfield?

Rebecca Welshman

Freckley Hollow: An Ancient Route past Catsfield to Beech Farm?

A number of sources state that William caught Harold and his army unawares, and this is discussed by Simon Coleman in his case for the battlefield at Beech Farm. If William did leave his camp in the Telham Hill area, to go to meet Harold on the hill above Beech Farm, he would have had to choose a route that afforded at least some concealment if he was to succeed in surprising his enemy. Although a conventional road – either a Roman road, or a well-used stone track – would have allowed for smoother and swifter passage, the most obvious disadvantage of the roads would have been the clip-clopping noise of the many hundreds of horses’ hooves, which would have easily alerted enemy scouts of their approach. The horses’ hooves were shod with metal shoes – we have proof of this in the Bayeux Tapestry where on most of the horses depicted the shoes have been carefully crafted on to each hoof in a different coloured thread. Sound would have carried a long way on the cold autumn air, especially if there had been a frost.[1] The noise of thousands of Norman cavalry travelling along a road in the early morning would have been an immediate giveaway.

So how does William move thousands of soldiers through the landscape towards Harold’s hilltop position without being detected? One solution could have been to use a track that was wide enough to move quickly, but which allowed for maximum concealment. An old hollow way, or sunken track, would have offered such protection. Hollow ways have existed in England since at least the Iron Age, and are better known as lanes characterised by their roofs of interlocking trees that protect travellers from sight and from the weather. For these reasons there were also once used by smugglers.

“HOLLOWAYS: from the Anglo-Saxon hola weg, meaning a “harrowed path,” a “sunken road.” A route that centuries of use have eroded down into the bedrock, so that it is recessed beneath the level of the surrounding landscape. Most holloways will have started out as drove roads, paths to market. Some as Saxon or pre-Saxon boundary ditches. And some, like the one near Bury St. Edmunds, as pilgrim paths.”[2]

No one ever engineered a holloway — erosion by human feet, and horses or cattle driven alongside, combined with water then flowing through the embankments like a gully, molded the land into a tunneled road. It’s hard to date them, but most are thought to go back to Roman times and the Iron Age, although in the Middle East some are believed to stretch back to ancient Mesopotamia.[3]

If the Normans did approach along an old route from Catsfield, then they might have made use of the sunken lane now known as Freckley Hollow that passes close to Burnt Barns Farm, and runs south east to north west.[4] This route has cliff-like sides in places and is overhung with trees, many of which are beeches.[5]

Freckley hollow follows high ground

Freckley Hollow follows high ground

Freckley Hollow as seen on Google Street View

Freckley Hollow as seen on Google Street View


Many hollow ways became metalled roads, and retain ‘hollow’ in their names. An article about country lanes written for the Surrey AONB describes these ancient routes:

“Many country lanes, along with other routeways, such as bridleways, byways or footpaths, are important historic landscape features which can still retain much of the atmosphere of times before the invention of the combustion engine. Frequently associated with country lanes are old sign posts, milestones, former drovers’ ponds, roadside quarries for stone to repair the track, and ancient pollarded trees. The last often mark where parish, manor or ownership boundaries cross routes. Country lanes are commonly narrow routes bounded on either side by hedges, shaws or fences, sinuous in form as they link farm to farm and hamlet to hamlet. A particular characteristic feature of the Surrey Hills is the hollow way, or sunken lane. The relatively soft geology together with the general steepness of slope and the passage of feet combined with natural water erosion of the sands and chalk has produced these deep narrow lanes bounded by high banks. The tops of the hollow ways are often enclosed by ancient beech, yew and oak trees.” [7]

Of particular significance here is the reference to ‘ancient pollarded trees’ as parish and manorial boundary markers that cross over routes, and the hollow ways being enclosed by beech. Freckley Hollow is a very deep sunken lane, with banks so high, that even now, hundreds of years later, it can easily conceal a rider on horseback. At one point it becomes a cutting deep in the hillside, and is marked as such on the OS map (see image below). If the floor of the track had stones that would have made a noise when struck by hooves, at that time of year in October the path would have been carpeted in leaves, and may have muffled the sounds.

once composed of sandstone

There is suggestion that the floor of Freckley Hollow was once composed of sandstone, so the route surface may have been composed of silt and sand. A geological study of the banks in 1987 recorded the presence of fine sandstones: ‘The banks of Freckley Hollow, northeast of Burnt Barns Farm, show an almost continuous section, on the dip-slope, of well bedded, very fine-grained sandstones with silt lenses and partings.’[6] Obviously a sandy surface would have been an excellent choice for a quiet approach.

Harold_s hill in the Bayeux Tapestry

In this scene depicting Harold’s hill in the Bayeux Tapestry, fringed with beech trees (see ‘Beech Trees in the Bayeux Tapestry), there is an English soldier looking out over the edge of raised ground. To his left are two beech trees that seem to lean in to each other, forming a hollow or enclave between their trunks. Teresa Cole has noted that:

“there is a delightful scene in the Tapestry where soldiers from each side spot each other through a screen of trees and this is very likely what actually happened. The two groups would have been only about a mile apart at this point, far too late to avoid an encounter or choose a different meeting place. They would have to make the best of where they were.”[7]

But is it really just a ‘screen of trees’? The arrangement of these trees leaning over towards one another seems to be suggesting the presence of a hollow way, or tree-lined track, formed by overarching beech trees, in very close proximity to the battlefield.[2] This tapestry scene is very important as it shows the point at which the two armies are in view of each other.

trees lean over the holloway

In this pencil drawing the trees lean over the holloway at an angle similar to those depicted in the tapestry picture. From

The hollow suggested by the tapestry trees might refer to Wadhurst Lane, which has high banks and trees growing from its banks, or it might represent a hollow way that was in view of the English position, some distance away on the other side of the valley, where the Normans emerged. The latter possibility would have afforded the Normans time to assemble before charging over the uncultivated ground towards the English hilltop position. It is also possible that in order to facilitate the movement of so many troops the Normans might have taken more than one route past Catsfield.[9]

Robert Macfarlane notes that hollow ways tended to avoid woodland, and to follow the curves of hills, valleys, and rivers. As we don’t know how much of the landscape was wooded, cleared, or recently cleared it is difficult to speculate about how the length of the original holloway near Catsfield. The ‘field’ part of Netherfield and Catsfield refers to clearings, and the edge of the Weald was estimated to reach the upper land above Beech Farm. A hollow way could conceivably have existed from Wadhurst Lane, leading up the hill opposite Beech Farm, and connected with what is today known as Freckley Hollow, and even continued along what is now Skinner’s Lane running east to Catsfield.

The images below show the entrance to Wadhurst Lane from the B road. Directly opposite, just across the road, in the woods, there is suggestion of the continuation of the track, or the remains of an old watercourse, with high banks either side.

Looking north east up Wadhurst Lane

Looking north east up Wadhurst Lane

Looking south west across the main road B2096

Looking south west across the main road B2096

A close up of the woods across the B2096

A close up of the woods across the B2096

Part of Simon Coleman’s argument for Beech Farm as the battlefield is that ‘Harold’s choice of battlefield would have taken into account the fact that more troops could have been expected to arrive. His position, therefore, needed to be close to tracks/roads through the Weald.’ He adds that ‘it is important to note that the traditional site at Battle Abbey would have been a less favourable battlefield for Harold, simply because reinforcements would have had further to travel.’ It is also worth considering that as William was informed by scouts as to Harold’s position on the day or evening before the battle, and given information about Harold’s imminent arrival, he might also have known that Harold did not have his full army with him. It is quite possible that well-trained scouts, knowing of Harold’s previous fight at Stamford Bridge, would have either observed Harold’s other forces arriving late, or have heard about their imminent arrival. As the majority of Harold’s troops were arriving from London, from northerly and possibly north-easterly directions, it would make sense for William to have avoided these routes and to have chosen a route to the battlefield that avoided being seen.


[1] Sound travels faster in warm air, but further in cold air:

[2] Robert Macfarlane, Going to Ground: Britain’s Holloways, Orion Magazine,

[3] Allison Meier, ‘Holloways: Roads Tunneled into the Earth by Time, 25 September, 2014.

[4  This could have been approached via Skinners Lane.

[5] See ‘Beech tress in the Bayeux Tapestry’ re beech trees colonising the ground over time to the exclusion of other trees.

[6] Robert Denis Lake, ‎Ernest Roy Shephard-Thorn, ‎R. A. B. Bazley (1987).

[7] For more on pollard beeches in the Bayeux Tapestry see the Beech Trees article on this website.

[8] Teresa Cole, The Norman Conquest (2016).

[9] Another parallel route that goes past Catsfield by Tellis Coppice may also have been an option.


Author: Dr Rebecca Welshman

I write about literature, environment, and the mind. My publications include various articles on Richard Jefferies, Hardy, and Virginia Woolf, and a contribution to the Green Letters journal about reading, literature, and sustainability. I have published creative non fiction in the magazines Earthlines, the Island Review, and This England. Moments of Place is a blog for my non-fiction writing about nature, landscape, and place. I manage the blog for the Victorian author and naturalist Richard Jefferies that can be viewed here, with Simon Coleman: Simon Coleman has been a member of the Jefferies Society since 2000. He is interested in Jefferies' writing on place, his use of Greek ideas of natural beauty and the union of mind and body, and in promoting his value today as a writer who brought a spiritual dimension to human interaction with nature. Simon's other interests include Walt Whitman, and mythology (especially Celtic, Greek and Norse).

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