Craignant Tower – commemorating Offa’s Dyke

In a previous post, I noted the recent commemoration of the line of Offa’s Dyke as it crosses the Clywedog west of Nant Mill. At that point, a tree has been carved with a sculpture commemorating Offa and ‘his’ dyke.

Here I wish to report on another ‘modern’ feature marking Offa’s Dyke. It is probably not insignificant that it also defines the historic border between England and Wales, close to where the dyke descends from the western slopes of Selattyn Hill to cross the Morlas Brook at Craignant. It is of further significance that the monuments lines a roadside that transects the line of the early medieval linear earthwork: roadsides are the stereotypical location for many 19th-century memorials, and so the monument achieves its purpose of being seen, and marking the dyke.

The feature is a masonry tower with a plaque on the north-facing (road-facing) side inscribed ‘Offa’s Dyke’.

I would like to learn more about this feature: a monument to a monument. PRN 130440 in the Clwyd-Power Archaeological Trust’s Historic Environment Record, the ‘Craignant Tower’ is described by Jeff Spencer as follows:

A square masonry tower built into Offa’s Dyke where is it cut by the B4579, on the border between Wrexham County Borough and Shropshire. At the top of the tower, on the side facing the road, is a stone plaque inscribed ‘OFFA’S DYKE’.

The record also quotes the anonymous 1868 A Handbook for Travellers in North Wales in stating that the tower was built to mark the course of Offa’s Dyke by one ‘Mr West’.

This is evidently therefore an early/mid-19th-century folly. However, it is more than just a tower and a marker, it is a ‘fortification’. In symbolic terms at least, it evokes medieval architecture in crude terms, and thus the popular 19th-century idea of the dyke as a wall, akin to Hadrian’s.

Indeed, contrary to the HER description, this isn’t an isolated tower, but it seems to be part of a wall which looks broadly contemporary, that tops the dyke for a stretch as it navigates diagonally the steep slope up the hill to the west of the road. A further wall adjoins the tower and follows the road westeward. Therefore, from the road and approaching from the Welsh side, one encounters a tower and the early medieval dyke emphasised by this stretch of walling conjoined to it.

As a monumental building to commemorate a far greater monument, it is an unoccupied tower with a stretch of masonry walling appended to it and thus it seems to have been built to enhance the ruinous appearance of a dyke that failed to look ‘ruined’ enough for 19th-century tastes. In other words, it failed to display dilapidated stonework, and so this feature creates the sense of it.

Indeed, it might have also been intended to imply ruination by its partial character. The wall doesn’t stretch far. Moreover, as a monumental gatepost, was it intended imply a lost twin on the other side of the road?

Marking the road and the dyke, Craignant Tower is a rare example of a 19th-century monument commemorating an early medieval monument.

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Pen-Y-Gardden hillfort and Offa’s Dyke

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The western denuded earthwork preserved in the modern field boundary between the lane and the field

Re-posted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

Recently, I went on a walk to check out Pen-Y-Gardden (Y Garden) hillfort to the west of Ruabon. The hillfort is presumed to be Iron Age. It is itself is on private land but the public right of way follows a lane around its western and north-western sides. The interior is fields and woods, the line of the earthworks almost completely covered by vegetation and modern field boundaries.

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The north-western defences of the hillfort

The HER record suggests that it may have originally been a bivallate hillfort. On its southern side, it strikes me as perhaps once being a trivallate hillfort. I say this because while I couldn’t fully investigate due to heavy vegetation, there seem to be two banks but a ditch upslope of the top one: perhaps a third bank existed above this and is now denuded.

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Offa’s Dyke near Pen y Garden

The Relationship with Offa’s Dyke

For much of its line, Offa’s Dyke follows topography that affords it long-distance views to the west. Y Gardden is a challenge to this situation, because the spur blocks views from the Ruabon section of Offa’s Dyke, downhill to the east of the hillfort. Hence, this hillfort has been the subject of considerable discussion given its close proximity to the west of Offa’s Dyke. Why did the late eighth-century Mercian frontier work go east of this prominent and defensible pre-existing earthwork?

  1. Was it because the site was an early medieval stronghold of Welsh forces and held against the Mercians, so there was no option of including it?
  2. Was the line of the dyke agreed in negotiation between the Welsh and Mercians as Fox suggested, and therefore it respected pre-existing boundaries?

In both the above scenarios, the dyke can be explained as Fox (1955) suggested when he stated that ‘The alignment of the Dyke here is the first indication met with which suggests that the designer had not an entirely free hand in its selection…. The simplest explanation is that the Welsh held Pen-y-gardden, and that the plans of the Dyke builder were conditioned by this fact, whereas he had a much freer hand S. of the Dee (Fox 1955: 81). Fox notes the proximity of the dyke here to the ninth-century Pillar of Eliseg as further evidence in his support (Fox 1955: 82)

There are two further scenarios worthy of consideration.

  1. Was it a compromise for the Mercians to leave the hillfort and its prominent spur to the west of the dyke, so that longer-distance trajectories for monument could be established between the Eitha and Dee to the south and the Pentrebychan Brook and Clywedog to the north, without the earthwork being diverted (i.e. was it seen as a necessary compromise that the Mercians left this feature to create a blind spot in surveillance westwards)? Yet, as the maps in the latest book on the dykes by Ray and Bapty make clear, the dyke’s route bends considerably eastwards to avoid Pen-Y-Gardden.
  2. A fourth option to consider is whether prominent points were established both west and east of Offa’s Dyke as beacons and lookout points, in which case was Y Gardden actually reoccupied by the Mercians as part of a zone of defence of which the dyke itself was but one element? Only a small presence on the hill-top would cover this blind-spot and allow surveillance of those approaching the dyke for long stretches north and south. At present, I’m inclined to this view.
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View west of the hillfort

What is striking is how flat the land is to the west of the hillfort, which makes me wonder how much advantage would have been gained by occupying it in relation to the dyke, other than to view along it and to prevent its occupation by enemies of the dyke’s defenders.

I’m reading the new book Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britainand hope to refine my views as I do.

What is sad is that this site, as discussed previously, has no surviving heritage interpretation.

Incidentally, we met some friendly horses and cows…

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Offa’s Dyke from Carreg-y-big to Craignant

Offa’s Dyke is alive and well, but often found snoring deeply in slumber beneath the surface of modern culture and politics.  To use another mildly implausible analogy, the early medieval linear earthwork, regarded as built by the orders of the Mercian king Offa, is like an iceberg, or perhaps a dormant volcano. It is seemingly untouchable, immovable and with hidden roots and dimensions. It lurks on the border like Grendel in the landscape and perception modern England, and is a defining characteristic of Welshness over 11-and-a-half centuries since its construction.

Looking south along the line of Offa’s Dyke to Carreg-y-big farm, with Baker’s Hill behind on the left

Today, most avoid it or pretend it isn’t there, neglecting it or simply reutilising it for long walks. Welsh and English nationalists alike occasionally drive ships at it in the hope of cracking it or steer it in one direction or another (if you want to go with an iceberg analogy) or pour waters on it (if you see it as volcanic). Still it survives, dormant and monumental.

Offa’s Dyke is inexplicable to many, unknowable to the majority. In places it is too denuded to be appreciated, elsewhere it is completely lost.

Looking S at Carreg-y-big farm, Offa’s Dyke is partly obscured in the modern farmyard, and is a denuded earthwork upon leaving the farm. It then survives better as it enters an historic hedgeline

Yet simultaneously, even where it survives best, it is simply too big to look at for most and even professional archaeological surveys have been conducted along only very short stretches of its length; something which is shocking to apprehend in 2017!

Some see it as a visionary military and political achievement, a few regard it as a folly and a delusion. Some even deny it exists as a coherent monument at all.

Looking N along the western face of Offa’s Dyke, Carreg-y-big farm

Offa’s Dyke and the modern border of England and Wales weave alongside each other from the Severn to the approaches to the Dee estuary. Yet, there are actually only 4 significant stretches of the known line of the 8th-century linear earthwork known as ‘Offa’s Dyke’ that closely coincide with the modern English-Welsh border. Only 4, although there are multiple places where they intersect or run in close proximity for short distances.

Looking S along the western face of Offa’s Dyke where it navigates a small stream

These 4 sections are important for understanding the early medieval earthwork. The coincidence with the modern border not only reveals shared topographical dimensions (following ridges and rivers), but also long-running, complex, varied, but still historical, political relationships between aspirations of the 8th century and the present. Running from aspirations to create a ‘Mercian March’ (using Ray and Bapty’s 2016 book’s term), Offa’s Dyke seems rapidly to have been abandoned, but was succeeded by many subsequent aspirations to control and consolidate a frontier between the Dee and the Severn through the later Middle Ages to the present day.

Offa’s Dyke operating as a water course, north of Carreg-y-beg farm

Taking these from south to north, the 4 areas of coincide between early medieval and modern frontier are:

  1. following the River Wye from Chepstow to Redbrook, and then again up to  Symmond’s Yat and Welsh Bicknor. I will discuss my recent visit to this section in a future post (disputed by some as part of Offa’s Dyke but reinstated in arguments by Ray and Bapty, 2016);
  2. a straight stretch to the east of Montgomery across the Vale of Montgomery from south of Pen-y-bryn Hall to the River Camlad;
  3. a very short stretch of the monument as it rises up from the Severn onto Llanymynech Hill (while modern boundary and extant earthwork hardly coincide, they both utilise the hill);
  4. The northernmost is a stretch west of Selattyn Hill, from Carreg-y-big farm, through Orseddwen and Craignant to Bronygarth.
Looking S along Offa’s Dyke, west of Selattyn Lodge

I wish to address aspects of the last of these. Having previously walking north from Craignant to Bronygarth, I recently walked south from Craignant to Carreg-y-big before retracing my steps north from Craignant. The dyke here is frustrating for the visitor/walker because:

  • there are sections where the publicly accessible Offa’s Dyke path diverts from the earthwork, so there are sections not accessible to the public, including where farms sit upon the dyke;
  • as is so often the case, public access is to the uphill eastern side, making it frequently difficult to appreciate the monument’s appearance and interactions with topography from the west (downhill) ‘Welsh’ side;
  • it enters woodland in places, making it difficult to apprehend its character and topographical relationships;
  • it survives to various states of monumentality – some variation might be to do with historical variations in land-use, others clearly related to differing performances of the dyke in the landscape.
An arboreal bridge: a tree fallen, presumably in Storm Doris, if not before, over the line of the dyke from ‘Wales’ into ‘England’

Despite these challenges, this stretch allows the visitor to appreciate its careful emplacement in the landscape as the dyke negotiates the steep terrain from the Morlas Brook around the western slopes of Selattyn Hill and Baker’s Hill. In doing so, it responds to topography. Also, it was built in linear stretches which link together key angles where the monument shifts direction.

Looking N along Offa’s Dyke towards Orseddwen, with Selattyn Hill in the distance, near Selattyn Lodge
Unquestionable quarry ditches behind (on the E side) of Offa’s Dyke. Looking S along its line as it overlooks Craignant Wood and the Morlsa Brook

One can see quarries to the dyke’s east, seemingly unsurveyed, that were used to create the bank, while material from the ditch might have also been used, as well as to create a counterscarp bank apparent in places.

A tributary of the Morlas Brook, navigated by the dyke as it adapts its route to approach the stream perpendicular to its course. When it gets to the stream it runs straight down to the stream on both sides (just to the viewer’s R of the bridge)

It is possible to see how it boldly negotiates two minor water courses; a tributary of the Morlas Brook, and another short-running stream, where the dyke’s ditch actually because a modern water course.

Looking S along the dyke from atop its bank: west of Selattyn Hill. A clear counterscarp bank is visible beyond the ditch

It is also possible to see its prominent counterscarp bank in places, and strikingly monumental form as it navigates around Selattyn Hill.

‘Cairn’, west of the dyke, west of Selattyn Hill. Significantly, this survives just where the dyke makes a significant angle turn. North of here, it runs SSW-NNE to Morlas Brook. S of here, it runs NNW-SSE to Orseddwen.

The wider interaction of the monument with the landscape is also key here. As discussed for the line north of the Morlas Brook towards Bronygarth and Chirk, the dyke has restricted views west, but key visual interplay with prominent hilltops to the west. Near Selattyn Hill, this includes a prominent prehistoric burial mound west of the line of the dyke and a potential lookout place for anyone approaching or guarding the dyke.

The Wrekin as seen from Offa’s Dyke near Orseddwen

A further dimension is that, for large parts of its distance, the dyke enjoys striking views east over the Cheshire and Shropshire plains towards the Wreckin and Long Mynd, allowing ready communication over large tracts of ‘Mercian’ territory. Presumably beacons on the top of Selattyn and Baker’s Hills could readily communicate along the dyke and back from it.

Brian and Ben – the Scooby and Shaggy of Chester’s archaeology postgrad community – kindly joined me for the walk and for a celebratory KFC afterwards

Finally, the dyke runs towards Carreg-y-beg farm from either side at an angle, enhancing its visual command of land to the west. It is this location which Ray and Bapty speculate might have been an historic gateway through the monument. Indeed, this farm is the present-day crossroads of routes converging from both west and the east. Its significant change in direction at this point does indeed suggest it might have been a key node of controlling movement through the landscape along and across the dyke.

In summary, this walk reveals many of the key landscape and design elements discussed by Ray and Bapty in their recent book. The fact that its line is the present-day border at this location adds significance to these features, and how they matter for understanding landscapes past and present.

Offa’s Dyke from Chirk to Craignant

Re-posted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

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View along Offa’s Dyke near Craignant as it descends towards the Morlas Brook with Selattyn Hill behind, view from north

Offa’s Dyke is a late 8th-century linear earthwork (Britain’s longest), attributed to the Mercian ruler Offa (r. 757-796). To understand it, one has to have a copy of Sir Cyril Fox’s 1955 book, the last and only time the monument has been surveyed from one end to the other. This post reflects on my own observations and what Fox has to say.

Last weekend, in cold and wet weather (but not as wet as this weekend), I went to explore a part of Offa’s Dyke I hadn’t visited before. It was a rare opportunity to get out into hitherto unexplored territory without kids in tow, so I decided to get out relatively early and explore some rather steep and muddy hillsides, in places still covered in a very thin layer of snow.

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Offa’s Dyke descending the southern (north-facing) slope of the Ceiriog valley, as seen from the west

The section of Offa’s Dyke I walked runs south from the Ceiriog valley at Chirk Mill (Wrexham) to Craignant (west-north-west of Selattyn, Shropshire). This section is particularly interesting because of the dyke’s relationship with the Ceiriog Valley at Castle Mill – the Gate of the Dead – and the fact that it traverses a steep ravine of the Nant Eris and crosses the Morlas Brook on its route to Selattyn Hill.

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Offa’s Dyke walk signposts

This was also intriguing for me since for almost all of this distance, the dyke had unusually restricted views westwards over the territory it was built to defend against and dominate. Fox (1955: 79) refers to the general tendency of the dyke to follow western edges of plateaus, ridges and knolls, but also there are ‘remarkable examples of indifference to tactical position’. However, Fox did not see examples of this south of the Dee, where he regards that ‘practically all advantages offered by the terrain were seized’ (Fox 1955: 79) so that the power ‘occupying the lowlands desired to include within its territory key positions giving visual control of this part of the mountainous borderland’ (Fox 1955: 80).

I wanted to get a sense of why Fox felt this applied to the Chirk-Craignant section when views were so restricted westwards from the line of the earthwork.

This relates to my research interests in the linear earthworks, which I have discussed most recently when I visited both Offa’s and Wat’s dykes near Ruabon. The trip was also useful to reconnoitre ahead of potential future student trips.

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Looking north along Offa’s Dyke from the bank with the V-shaped ditch well-preserved on the left (west)

I walked from south to north (the direction of description preferred by Hill and Worthington but counter Fox) and photographed over 2km of the dyke as it rose up from crossing the Morlas Brook at Craignant northwards uphill to Plas-crogan farm and then downhill to cross another steep ravine of Nant Eris. Then it rose again over a second hill before beginning its final descent, first gradual, then steep, down to the Ceiriog at Bronygarth.

Fox (1955)

In terms of Sir Cyril Fox’s 1955 survey Offa’s Dyke, this stretch corresponds to his not-so-succinctly titled sections:

Fig. 23  The southern end of Chrik Park to the Crogen wood-mound wood area; through the parish of Chirk, Denbighshire, and on the boundary between Denbighshire (Glyn Traian parish) and Shropshire (Weston Rhyn parish). pages 56-58

and his:

Fig. 24 The N. flank of the Morlas brook valley to the plateau S. of Orseddwen farm: on the boundary between Denbighshire (parish of Glyn Traian), Shropshire (Weston Rhyn and Selattyn parishes) and through Selattyn parish.

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The last point that Offa’s Dyke is visible descending the northern side of the Ceiriog valley: the ditch to the left (west) is enhanced to by the line of a stream, giving it today an impressive profile. However, downslope of that point, towards the photographer, the dyke disappears towards the oak at the Gate of the Dead

Fox’s notes how the dyke disappears on the steep scarp descending to the Ceiriog valey bottom. It remains lost in the Ceiriog valley bottom but then identified it for the first time in gardens and closes of Pen-y-bryn hamlet. Rising up the southern valley-sode, Fox describes how increasingly well-preserved this section is. From here to the Nant Eris stream, he describes it as having a ‘striking profile’ in places.  Fox also notes an ’embayment’ to the west of the dyke, created by its diagonal ascent up the slope, affording ‘magnificent’ views up the Ceiriog valley.

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Offa’s Dyke views from west , just north of the Nant Eris

Further up, onto moorland pasture, the bank often retains its steep slope and its ditch retains angular contours. In places damaged by rabbits and foxes, it has been lowered by cultivation between the road and the Nant Eris ravine.

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Well-preserved ditch and bank of the dyke south of the Ceiriog valley

Fox also discusses the ‘remarkable appearance’ of the dyke as it rises steeply from the stream of the Nant Eris up the wooded scarp of the ravine with an ‘immense V-shaped ditch on the W. side silhouetted against the southern skyline’.

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Offa’s Dyke descends upon the steep north-facing slope of the Nant Eris, view from the north-north-east

Further south, around Plas-crogen, the bank is less impressive since it has been built of soil that has slumped but the ditch has remained intact, in some places over-deepened by water action as it descends to the Morlas Brook.

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Offa’s Dyke from east: seen crossing the Morlas Brook at Craignant

Hill and Worthington (2003)

Hill and Worthington note a specifically important point about the choice to cross the Morlas Brook where it does: to be downstream of a confluence with another stream. For this section, their commentary does not contradict that of Fox.

In addition, they conducted one excavation in this section, when Fox had conducted none (his nearest was north of Chirk). This is Hill and Worthington’s Site 63, Woodside, Selattyn – where they recorded a partial section of bank that had become exposed in the rebuilding work near a cottage cutting the east edge of the dyke’s bank.  Half the width of the bank was exposed and a layer of large stones was noted at the base of the bank, with a layer of hard-packed clay with some overlying stones , all covered by looser clayey material (Hill and Worthington 2003).

My Perspective

Based on these sources alone, I think I gain a sense of the narrow line of the earthwork itself and, in crude terms, a sense of its varying levels of survival. However, I don’t get a sense of how it was surveyed, organised and maintained. In particular, I think there are addition things to say about views from and of the dyke, and gaps in it. To do this, we must begin to look out from the dyke; considering the wider topography both west and east.

Gaps

I have now personally witnessed the gaps in the dyke required by the passage of streams at Plas Power (Nant Mill) and in this section at Morlas Brook and Nant Eris and can confirm that Fox was right to say that they were only a few yards across.

The absence of the dyke at the base of the Ceiriog valley therefore must be, as Fox suspected, the result of alluvial action over the millennium since. I’m not convinced it was never there, seeing the nature of the earthwork coming down the sides of the valley and the breadth of the space left open were it to have not existed.

Views East

One point of important that I haven’t seen observed by others is views to the east. While Offa’s Dyke held views west, it also afforded views east over the Cheshire and Shropshire plains. In the key stretches on this section, views were afforded north-east to the Mid Cheshire Ridge and south-east towards the Wrekin. Was the dyke positioned as much to communicate east – forewarning these territories of unexpected movements of people, as much as dominate the west?

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Views east-south-east from the dyke near Plas-crogen. You can see the Wrekin, partially in cloud

Views West

Having walked this section of dyke, I am convinced that it cannot have made any dominant presence in the landscape to its west apart from its bisection of key valleys/ravines where it does, of course, block and dominate those approaching from the west.

I would argue that this stretch of dyke is therefore an area of compromise between the need to retain the dyke’s long-distance orientation and trajectory and simultaneously maintaining long-distance views to the west. To retain longer distance views, the dyke would have had to have detoured significantly westwards to take in higher ground.

Fox identified other sections like this to the north of the Dee. Yet I am surprised he didn’t discuss this stretch in a similar light as a part of the dyke that fails to achieve westerly views.

Views Along the Dyke

These sections, do, however, enjoy views along the length of the dyke itself, allowing communication with possible lookout points just behind its line. From parts of these upland sections, the dyke was observable, and communicable from any lookout point or fortification on the sites that were to later become Chirk Castle. Likewise, were there any station upon Selattyn Hill, approaches to the dyke at points where its view was restricted westwards would be flanked.

I think that more attention is required to the importance of viewing along and behind the dyke in communication systems that helped defend it.

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Chirk Castle from the dyke
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Views of Chirk Castle from the dyke near Ty’n-y-coed Farm

 

Viewing from the West

As Keith Ray has recently discussed in lectures I have attended, and discussed in the imminently published book by Ray and Bapty, when approaching river crossings, the dyke bends to show off a united front to those approaching from the west. This is very clear on the slopes down to the Ceiriog near Bronygarth and must have been the case for the Morlas Brook, south of which the earthwork bends westwards to navigate Selattyn Hill and therefore overlooks those approaching along the valley from the west. In both instances, Fox does not fully recognise, as Ray and Bapty are now suggesting, the importance of display and reconaissance in the line of the earthwork when it enters valleys.

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Offa’s Dyke descending in a clear curve into the Ceiriog valley with Chirk Castle behind, thus showing itself off to anyone approaching along the valley bottom and valley sides
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Offa’s Dyke on the slopes of the Ceiriog valley, view from south-east

In summary, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Offa’s Dyke. Offa’s Dyke has been destroyed or depleted over large sections. Without trespassing, there are large sections that have no public access and public footpaths run far from it. Where it is accessible to a footpath, on this section in particular, for large parts it runs behind the dyke or on it, thus facilitating only particular senses of the monument and how it operates. There are relatively few places I could easy get to see it from the west and appreciate how it was intended to look when approached by those wishing to move eastwards. I think these are some of the reasons why it still remains under-appreciated by the public and scholars, and its character and function, even if it is a unified frontier project as Fox says, are a challenge for us all.

Sources

Fox, C. 1955. Offa’s Dyke: A Field Survey of the Western Frontier-Works of Mercia in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD, London: British Academy.

Hill, D. and Worthington, M. 2003. Offa’s Dyke: History and Guide, Stroud: Sutton.

Ray, K. and Bapty, I. 2015. Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth Century Britain, Oxford: Windgather.

 

Offa’s Dyke and the Clywedog

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Offa’s Dyke descending on the north side of the Clywedog
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Offa’s Dyke crossing the base of the Clywedog valley in Plas Power Woods
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Offa’s Dyke and the Clywedog

I have a long-standing interest in early medieval kingship, kingdoms and communities and their monumental expressions, but very little time and effort spent thinking about and exploring linear earthworks. Hence, my recent conference presentation and ongoing research on Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes in the vicinity of the Vale of Llangollen is a new departure for me. I also confess that I have traversed only minor stretches of either dyke and I have little interest in walking its length (where it is possible) simply for leisure.

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Offa’s Dyke at the top of the southern bank of the Clywedog. I am standing on the dyke on the northern side of the river here.

I recently went to Nant Mill for the first time. Later, I returned and I explored a short stretch of Offa’s Dyke where it crosses the Clywedog in Plas Power woods and I learned a couple of new things about the monument.

I approached from upstream (from the west) and hence I encountered the earthwork within dense woodland as it followed a steep ravine down to join the Clywedog on its northern bank. The monument looms, like a celebrity, familiar and yet distinct in this context. There is something eerie about seeing something one recognises in a place one hasn’t been before. What specifically did I learn by doing this? I learned;

  1. how the monument operates to block and frame movement;
  2. how the monument makes subtle use of the existing topography;
  3. how the monument does exist on valley bottoms where circumstances allow its survival.

I also learned some practical things about appraising the monument. I learned:

  1. To photograph the dyke in woodland and on steep slopes is truly near impossible
  2. How panoramic shots are better than standard photographic focal lengths.

In both practical and intellectual terms, my previously stated point still stands: Offa’s Dyke is often just too big to apprehend and comprehend. I clearly have far more thinking to do about this monument and look forward immensely to the new book by Keith Ray and Ian Bapty on the subject.

There is also a heritage point to be made. The line of Offa’s Dyke here hits Plas Power woods: a tract of wooded valley managed by the Woodlands Trust and of significance for its industrial heritage, its use as a recreation area for local communities. There have been efforts to connect history and conservation.  There is also a wooden sculpture of King Offa close to the monument bearing his name. For me, it is the linkage to local communities and these linear earthworks that fascinates me, more than their significance as long-distance footpaths, often going nowhere close to the early medieval monuments.

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From the top of Offa’s Dyke where it crosses the narrow Clywedog valley bottom
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Looking over the dyke as it follows a steep ravine down to the Clywedog
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The front of the dyke crossing the Clywedog valley
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Walking with kings
An dyke in the hand with worth two in the bush
An dyke in the hand with worth two in the bush

Offa’s Dyke at Chirk Castle

Re-posted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog

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Offa’s Dyke – a broad low denuded bank in the parkland landscape of Chirk, but one drives over it to enter and leave the National Trust car park beside Home Farm
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Despite this being a map of the ‘Time Trails’, Offa’s Dyke isn’t marked as existing beside the carpark and through Home Farm, only denoted with an ambiguous drawing at the no. 1 in orange, on the path down to Crugen

I’ve just finished reading Keith Ray and Ian Bapty’s fascinating new book: Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain, published by Oxbow. Hence, Offa’s Dyke is foremost in my mind. The monument is under threat of destruction along its line – from ignorance, neglect and irresponsible (sometimes criminal) behaviour. It is still misunderstood by many early medieval archaeologists, let alone the general public, and Offa’s Dyke is poorly served by heritage professionals and organisations. In many parts of its length, there is no, or very little, or very poor, heritage interpretation and on each side of the modern border, archaeologists have fought a long rear-guard action to conserve the monument. Offa’s Dyke is hindered, not helped, by its historical interweaving with the Welsh-English border. This is of course, a perverse state of affairs and underscores the importance of ongoing efforts to research and engage communities with this important monument.

I’ve previously blogged about how the monument runs through a range of different landscapes, often without any clear heritage interpretation, and sometimes with woeful out-of-date or damaged heritage boards. See my previous posts:

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Beside the dovecote: Offa’s Dyke has no signposts and is thus ‘forgotten’ in plain sight

I’m a regular visit to Chirk Castle and its gardens and previously I’ve posted about its canine commemoration. The site is great, the staff are great. Because I’m such a fan I’ve tried to hold back on this rant, until now. However, Chirk Castle woefully present their oldest and greatest feature: Offa’s Dyke. While heavily denuded near the car park and Home Farm, it is a key component of this landscape as it faces higher ground and then the steep northern slope of the Ceiriog.

Almost every one of the thousands upon thousands of visitors Chirk Castle must receive each year drive over Offa’s Dyke to get to the main National Trust car park. They then cross its line again on the walk up to the castle. They might stop and let their kids play upon it in an adventure play area beside the small cafe at home farm. They might encounter its earth and bank and cross its line if they detour to visit the dovecote and kitchen gardens. There are two longer walks within the grounds that allow visitors to see better-preserved sections of the Dyke, including the walk down to the Ceiriog. Then, on their way out, they have to cross it walking back to the car and driving off.

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Heavily wooded, Offa’s Dyke descends to Crogen from Home Farm. Note: this is not on NT property: this is a permissive path.

Now I accept that the website for Chirk Castle does give a brief mention to the fact that Offa’s Dyke runs through the NT site as follows:

Bisecting the estate is a section of the remarkable 8th century defensive earthwork Offa’s Dyke, built by King Offa of Mercia to mark the ancient border with the kingdom of Powys. When you drive into the car park at Chirk you will cross Offa’s Dyke, although you may not notice – William Emes levelled vast sections of it as part of his uncompromising work on the parkland. A fantastic section of the dyke still exists in the medieval deer park, which is accessible from March to September along a permissive path.,and that visitors will cross it. Also, the map vaguely shows the dyke with a near-illegible drawing of a ditch and bank, situated.

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On this welcome sign, Offa’s Dyke is omitted

I also accept that there is brief mention and visualisation of the dyke on one sign board. Still, upon the map given out to visitors, and on key information, the dyke is ignored. There are no signs identifying it. Hence, I suspect most visitors don’t know it is there. Indeed, while I recognised, as an early medieval archaeologist, the line of the dyke in the field next to the car park, I visited many times before I fully realised its course continued down to the Ceiriog through Home Farm!

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The visitor map expunges Offa’s Dyke

dsc09184Now there is a sign for the drive to one of the NT cottages, called ‘House by the Dyke’, but the dyke itself cannot be seen at this point…

I cannot accept this is a sufficient state of affairs for a modern visitor site. I wonder whether I’ve missed places and dimensions to how Chirk Castle promotes the presence and significance of this monument for understanding the early history of the Welsh border and the specific history of Chirk and its environs.

Note – 24th October 2016

Chirk NT have been in touch with me, having read the above blog entry. I’m pleased to learn that they are already fully aware of the challenges I raise regarding the presentation of Offa’s Dyke. They have plans in place to enhance the maps and signs in response to how visitors are using the Chirk estate. In particular, they have a clear and positive vision of enhancing how visitors experience Offa’s Dyke.

 

 

 

Commemorating Wat’s Dyke at Hope

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Wat’s Dyke at Hope on display, looking from the south, standing in the now-shallow ditch and looking at the bank
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Looking south along Wat’s Dyke from the ditch

Re-posted from Professor Williams’s Archaeodeath blog.

On a road trip to explore parts of the Vale of Llangollen I stopped at Hope, Flintshire, to inspect a section of the Mercian frontier work known as Wat’s Dyke. On the outskirts of the village to the north-north-west, the dyke is well preserved beneath modern property boundaries beside the Wrexham Road (A550). Subsequently it is open to view on open and well-maintained grounds in front of a modern housing estate. Further north-north-west, the dyke has a just-built bungalow sitting on top of it: I trust they had planning permission for that one…

In the photographs you can see the much-denuded  but still-discernible traces of Wat’s Dyke – a bank and a ditch.

We were just taking photographs and talking about the significance and date of this monument – now regarded as likely dating to the early 9th century as discussed here – when a resident engaged us in conversation and discussed the monument. As well as working at a nearby university and being extremely interested in the monument.

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The stone with plaque, commemorating Wat’s Dyke now inaccurately suggesting it dates to the 8th century

Significant for this post, she kindly pointed out that, part-hidden within foliage beside the earthwork is a memorial stone, erected to coincide with the building of the new estate, marking the supposed significance of Britain’s second-longest linear earthwork. I hadn’t noticed or realised that the earthwork was actually ‘commemorated’ in this fashion with a large stone! I’d visited this spot before, even viewing a house within the estate, and never noticed the stone! Indeed, to see it, you have to approach on foot from the houses themselves; this isn’t for tourists or anyone else to see.

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The bilingual plaque

I have talked about the barely visible heritage signs for Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke at Ruabon, but this represents another dimension: a monumental commemorative stone for one of the dykes; in plain view and yet still part-concealed. Given this spatial and semi-public dynamic, might this a new form of monument/memorial that might be called a ‘residential monument’?

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Looking north along Wat’s Dyke