After watching Tony Robinson’s recent TV programme about the Icknield Way, I turned to my copy of Shirley Toulson’s East Anglia: walking the ley lines and ancient tracks to see if I could find out more about the Icknield Way in Norfolk.
The Icknield Way claims to be the oldest road in Britain – ‘old when the Romans came’ – and runs from Norfolk to the Dorset coast. The derivation of the name is generally considered unknown, although some (and it seems plausible to me) say it may take its name from the Iceni tribe and it is true that it connects the Iceni base in East Anglia to other parts of Britain.
In many places the route is not particularly well-defined and various alternatives are claimed. In Norfolk several places have been suggested as its terminus including Caistor-by-Norwich (site of Venta Icenorum, Roman town and capital of the Iceni) , Yarmouth and Hunstanton. Evidence for the latter comes from the 13th century road names at Dersingham: Ykenildestrethe and Ikelynge which were identified by W G Clarke in In Breckland Wilds. And this western route was the one chosen by Tony Robinson’s programme. The interest for Beachamwell is that this route is claimed to pass through the parish along what are now Bridleways 3 and 18. The Connecting Threads project on footpaths in Beachamwell researched this and you can read more at:
Returning to Shirley Toulson’s book we find that she chooses to refer to the local section of the Icknield Way as the Puddingstone Track. The route of the Puddingstone Track (and its name) was suggested by Dr. Ernest Rudge during the 1940s and 50s. He thought that it was the remnant of a route used by flint traders in the late Palaeolithic period, stretching all the way from Norfolk to Stonehenge. According to him the route was marked out by a succession of marker stones consisting of a type of ‘puddingstone’ or conglomerate rock. This distinctive rock is a conglomerate sedimentary rock composed of rounded flint pebbles cemented together by a younger matrix of silica quartz.
It is largely confined to the county of Hertfordshire, which, as we shall see, causes some problems for Rudge’s claims.
In Norfolk Rudge identified a series of stones marking the track south of Heacham. Unfortunately Toulson reports that she was unable to find most of these when writing her book (published 1979). One stone she did find was the Cowell Stone which lies on the boundary of Beachamwell parish at its north-west corner, at the side of Bridleway 3 where it crosses the A1122. The problem for Rudge’s thesis is that the Cowell Stone is not conglomerate rock. Continuing south there is another stone at Drymere. This was moved (in the 1970s?) from a position on nearby Forestry land to its current position at the side of the road, just to the east of BR3 – the putative Icknield Way or Puddingstone Track.
But once again this is not conglomerate rock but another glacial erratic (sandstone?). The next stone mentioned by Rudge is further south at Cranwich. No individual stone has been found here, although Toulson notes that the base of the round church tower is decorated with a ring of gritty carrstone which Rudge may have claimed as puddingstone.
Thus it seems that the puddingstone theory doesn’t come to much. Apart for the lack of puddingstones, there are many glacial erratics and similar rocks around and some are bound to be on any route you choose. (Compare with the ley line fallacy which is amusingly debunked by Tom Scott on his Magical Mystery Ley Line Locator.) But whatever we call it and however the route was established and marked, it seems likely that our ancestors have been walking through Beachamwell en route to distant places for several thousand years.