On the cold winter's day that I walked along the byway, the ground in it’s centre was frozen hard and slippery, the ruts on either side were deep and full of thick mud slurry or solid ice. The verges on either side were overgrown or fell away into murky ditches. It was as good a reminder as anything of the reason why the turnpike roads were first introduced - wheeled vehicles, be they steel 4x4 monsters or wooden wagons make unpaved roads of Leicestershire clay virtually impassible in winter. It was a dull day in a bleak landscape, with a biting north wind that blew across the moor, and I found myself cursing the off-road drivers who through their selfishness had spoilt the byway for other folk.
Some time before 1789, John Throsby the mayor of Leicester passed through Hugglescoat, just a couple of miles from this spot. There, he met higglers of which he wrote, "All the way on this road you meet with the greatest slaves, I think, in the creation, burdened with coals, whose owners seen possessed of less of the most amiable part of human nature than the beasts they so unmercifully punish. Among these groups of crawling beings, enfeebled by oppression, and often sinking under their loads, subject to the execrations and violent kickings of their masters, you find the once-famed hackney, the stout hunter, sometimes the worn out racer, and the now contemptible little animal on which the Son of God once rode, amidst "Hosannas to the Highest". I left here a wretch, with much disgust, beating one of these poor blind creatures, which had just dropped under it's load, any remonstrances to whom would have subjected me to insult." It would have been a cruel existence, carrying heavy loads along a track which would only get worse as the winter progressed.
Eventually, after much slipping and sliding I reached Ibstock. Here, in the 18th century there had been a thriving framework knitting industry, however a slump in the market had left workers starving. Not without coincidence, Ibstock became a recruiting centre for the Leicestershire Yeomanry when there was fear of an invasion by Napoleon. Around 1867 and as a result of the Napoleonic wars and with the discovery of diamonds and gold in Africa, full scale war took place between the British and the Boers. The 1870s saw a slump in the coal trade and this time it was the Ibstock coal miners that suffered. Eventually, in 1902 a treaty was signed in Pretoria and the conflict finally ended. It is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine fresh conscripts from Ibstock, who had once sought to make their living in the coal mine, walking along the Pretoria Road at the start of a long journey to the battlefields.