Wat’s Dyke at Erddig

Wat’s Dyke

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The view west from outside Erddig Hall over the valley of the Black Brook

Running for 38 miles, seemingly continuously from the Dee estuary at Basingwerk to Maesbury Marsh south of Oswestry, Wat’s Dyke is the second longest earthwork known from early medieval Britain, only over-shadowed in scale by its neighbour: Offa’s Dyke.

As Cyril Fox put it:

‘Wat’s Dyke, throughout its course from the Dee to the Middle Severn Valley, marks the boundary between the lowland of the English Midlands, and the hill country of northern Wales’ (Fox 1934, 211)

and its course:

‘is designed to include as much country as lowlanders could conveniently occupy or control’ (ibid.).

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Wat’s Dyke in Erddig Woods, looking north

This west-facing earthwork, was thought by Fox, and subsequent by many other scholars, as a less grandiose and shorter predecessor to Offa’s Dyke (Fox 1955; Ray and Bapty 2016). Building on Fox’s first important and systematic survey, the last half century has seen the work of many small-scale interventions by commercial archaeologists revealing its morphology at particular points but yielding no dating opportunities. Likewise, the long-term survey and excavations by David Hill and Margaret Worthington (involving over 60 interventions on its course) have served to both confirm and extend Fox’s inferences regarding its continuous and coherent construction and the lack of demonstrable gateways along its course (Worthington 1997; Hill and Worthington 2003; Worthington and Grill 2015). This work as corrected misunderstandings by Fox, although much of it remains partially published or disparately published. For instance, many steep scarps where Fox thought the monument was absent have been reinterpreted by Hill and Worthington’s fieldwork, confirming the dyke’s presence. The consensus has remained, however, that Wat’s Dyke was earlier than Offa’s Dyke: a monument of the 7th or 8th-century kings of Mercia, perhaps built by the powerful Mercian ruler who preceded Offa: Aethelbald (r. 716-757).

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Wat’s Dyke, Erddig Wood, looking from the bank over the ditch to the scarp slope down to Black Brook, looking NW.

A decade ago, the opportunity for a large-scale opening of the earthwork ahead of development at Gobowen, allowed a more extensive excavation of Wat’s Dyke. Crucially, this facilitated a dating programme of the monument by Laurence Hayes and Tim Malim at this location (published in Hayes and Malim 2008). Their work suggested that Wat’s Dyke might well be later, not earlier, than Offa’s Dyke by between a decade to perhaps half a century. This might be crudely summarised as suggesting Wat’s Dyke was a 9th-century monument with a ditch to rival in size that known from many stretches of Offa’s Dyke, even if the bank itself seems less monumental than achieved for parts of Offa’s.

The implications of this work have really yet to fully percolate academic debates, let alone heritage interpretation. As a successor to, rather than a predecessor to, the late 8th-century Offa’s Dyke, it was perhaps the work of King Coenwulf, whose reign was dominated by accounts of campaigns against his Welsh foes. The king died at the northern end of Wat’s Dyke: Basingwerk. It might equally have been the work of his successors.

Whoever built it, it clearly aimed to stop up the clear gap in the northern extent of Offa’s Dyke and this might plausibly be regarded as a response to the increasing military power and influence of Gwynedd along the Flintshire coast and areas formerly dominated by the kingdom of Powys in the early 9th century. Consequently, it was Wat’s Dyke, not Offa’s Dyke, that defined the frontier to the Norman Conquest, as indicated by Margaret Worthington’s work on hidated and unhidated manors at Domesday, whose distribution corresponds to the line of Wat’s Dyke (hidated on the ‘English’ side, unhidated on the ‘Welsh’).

This is by no means certain, of course, and conversely, Ray and Bapty (2016), in their new book on Offa’s Dyke, venture an alternative suggestion. They argue that Wat’s Dyke might have been integral part of an Offan frontier, and thus an extension of, and perhaps used contemporaneously with, Offa’s Dyke.

So Wat’s Dyke mapped out and perpetuated a geo-political faultline in the Early Middle Ages between the powerful kingdom of Mercia, itself fluid in its fortunes and scale, and a series of British rivals to the west. In this frontier zone, Mercia had absorbed local politics during the 7th century and may have cultivated a distinctive linguistically and culturally variegated population living and working on either side of linear earthworks built as both defensive and aggressive statements and territorial devices. Offa’s and Wat’s Dyke might be seen as successively offering visually control land to the west and manage/restrict the movement of people and resources along and across their lines. They were also ideological statements of Mercian hegemony, as Ray and Bapty articulate in their new book.

What is clear, however, is that Wat’s Dyke, despite running through historic landscapes and NE Wales’s largest conurbation – Wrexham – remains poorly appreciated and understood, including by heritage professionals. A primary school is named after it, a few roads, but it is generally ambiguous in the consciousness of historians, archaeologists and local people.

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Looking west from Erddig towards the coal tip of Bersham colliery and Ruabon Mountain beyond

 

Wat’s Dyke at Erddig

I recently visited the National Trust site of Erddig to explore the house, gardens and woodland, as well as to revisit the site of the earth-and-timber Norman castle there overlooking the Clywedog. Wat’s Dyke runs through it along the top of the eastern slope descending from Erddig Park to the Black Brook, and running into, and obscured by, the later castle on the promontory. My former student, Rachel Swallow, has discussed this castle and suggested its relationship with Wat’s Dyke is far from coincidental (Swallow 2016).

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Erddig Hall – the line of the dyke is probably hidden beneath the gravel leading from the woods beyond straight towards the position of the photographer

I would suggest that very few visitors to this property appreciate the true importance of the landscape here for understanding the monument, and the long-term history of the Mercian frontier and subsequent Anglo-Norman March of Wales.

Wat’s Dyke survives in key stretches near Erddig Hall. Fox regarded the flanking spur of the motte as ‘almost certainly not, in its present form, Wat’s Dyke’, and it fades to a berm beside the motte. But then, to the south from the castle:

… then as the W. slope eases, a bank appears. This bank ends in the artificially levelled flat by E of Erddig Park. The sequence of earthwork forms, dependent on terrain, is normal; and wholly, or in part, the structure must be recognised as Wat’s Dyke. The Dyke probably existed, but has been destroyed, in the neighbourhood of the house [Erddig Hall], but traces of both bank and ditch are again present at one point a little farther on, on the edge of the steep wooded slop above the valley floor, by the rookery. A little farther on again, the steep and regular contour of this river scarp is broken by two small re-entrants. Here, the large and characteristic structure of the Dyke reappears, the intervening spur being cut off by a large bank and ditch (scrarp 22 ft, overall 48 ft), and the furst spur isolated in a similar manner.

Fox surveyed in particular by the Rookery and included a profile of the monument at this point. However, there are 7 successive points to make here about this stretch in the wood between the castle and Erddig Hall that seem to contrast with the way the monument has been described in the publications by Fox (1935) and Worthington (1997):

  1. The dyke survives remarkably well in the woods of Erddig Park as a large bank and ditch as Fox describes and is comparable in general morphology to other well-preserved stretches of the dyke on breaks of slope:
  2. However, Fox fails to describe adequately how its use of natural topography creates a counterscarp bank out of the natural ground surface between the natural steep slope down to the Black Brook and the ditch. Worthington argues this takes place elsewhere on steep slopes, yet at Erddig Park this actually takes place at the top of the slope on relatively flat ground, rather than adapting the scarp. My understanding is that, with only a few possible exception inadequately explained by Fox and subsequent writers, Wat’s Dyke is not supposed to possess a counterscarp bank;
  3. In this form, the bank would have to have originally been of monumental proportions or topped by a high palisade and wall-walk and/or watch towers to allow those on the bank to survey anyone approaching up the steep slope from the Black Brook. This makes no sense in military terms, although the bank, set so far back, would still have allowed longer distance views dominating lands westwards;
  4. By the same logic, rather than the ‘performative’ nature of Offa’s Dyke (as discussed recently by Ray and Bapty) which makes it seem imposing as one approaches from the west, the ditch and bank were effectively concealed from the view of those approaching from the valley;
  5. It raises the question: are we heard looking at a monument comprised of two banks – the bank itself and its equally monumental counterscarp created by the cutting of the ditch?
  6. If so, then the counterscarp would need to be accessible to allow defenders/patrols to visually control the valley below.
  7. This contrasts with the other stretches of Wat’s Dyke I’ve seen where it is presumed to utilize natural topography or it commands clear views to its west.

I’m happy to concede if I’ve misunderstood the monument or identified a section modified in later centuries. Still, the obvious solution is that it is best regarded here as twin-banked monument, or that its counterscarp on the tip of the slope was accessible for surveillance into the valley and served as the primary defensive feature, not the ditch and bank to its rear.

dsc09304Heritage Interpretation

Of course, following my recent critical discussion of the display of the dyke at Chirk, you might guess where this is going. It is clear that the monument is not fully understood and the one new NT sign board (beside the entrance to the castle), while creating a striking cross-section visualisation of the motte and bailey of the Anglo-Norman castle, renders Wat’s Dyke incomprehensible because:

  1. The line of Wat’s Dyke isn’t represented on a map and so it won’t be clear where visitors should go to view it;
  2. Some attempt at a cross-section or artist’s reconstruction would at least help articulate to visitors what Wat’s Dyke might have looked like (not easy to do given our limited evidence of any wooden or other superstructures upon the bank, or other features associated with it);
  3. The sign contains weird stylistic error of capitalising ‘Century’ and not having a hyphen for the adjectival use of what should be: ‘eighth-century’ or ‘8th-century’, not ‘8th Century’;
  4. Crucially, Wat’s Dyke is inexplicably attributed to the 8th century, which shows it is working on information at least a decade old and without factoring in the evidence from Hayes and Malim’s 2008 publication.

In summary, more consideration is needed to understand Wat’s Dyke in this location and explain it to visitors.

 

Sources

Fox, C. 1934. Wat’s Dyke: a field survey, Archaeologica Cambrensis LXXXIX Part II, 205-78

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

Hayes, L. and Malim, T. 2008, The date and nature of Wat’s Dyke: a reassessment in the light of recent investigations at Gobowen, Shropshire, in S Crawford and H Hamerow (eds), Anglo-Saxon Stud Archaeol Hist 15, 147–79.

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

Ray, K. and Bapty, I. 2016. Offa’s Dyke – Landscape and Hegemony on Eighth-Century Britain, Oxford: Windgather

Swallow, R. 2016. Cheshire castles in the Irish Sea cultural zone, Archaeological Journal 173: 288-341

Worthington, M. 1997, Wat’s Dyke: an archaeological and historical enigma, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 79(3), 177–96.

Worthington Hill, M. and Grigg, E. 2015. Boundaries and walls, in M C Hyer and G R Owen-Crocker (eds), The Material Culture of the Built Environment in the Anglo-Saxon World, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 162–80.

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Wat’s Dyke near Holywell and Basingwerk

Re-posted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

Recently,  I spent a morning out of the office exploring Wat’s Dyke near Holywell and Basingwerk with Dr Keith Ray, co-author of a recent book on Offa’s Dyke. This section of Wat’s Dyke – a monument now thought to date to the early 9th century and therefore later than Offa’s Dyke – may have been built on the instruction of Coenwulf or another of Offa’s successors. It has a deep V-shaped ditch and significant bank, but its choice of location means it rarely survives to monumental proportions.

Dr Ray in the landscape – exploring the line of Wat’s Dyke

I’ve previously explored Wat’s Dyke:

  1. near Hope;
  2. at Bryn Alyn hillfort
  3. at Erddig;
  4. near Ruabon
  5. at Oswestry hillfort

In this section from Northop to Holywell, Wat’s Dyke survives in only small patches. Fox’s, and later Hill and Worthington’s, published descriptions are limited for this stretch, although Malim and Hayes (2008) give a detailed review of the evidence from a series of small-scale excavations in this area. For the most part it follows the top of steep slopes overlooking river valleys, and hence little to nothing of the bank and ditch survives above ground. In addition, much of it is inaccessible on private land.

The heritage board at Basingwerk marks the northernmost visible stretch of Wat’s Dyke. Where it originally descended to the Dee estuary is now lost

Still, exploring the landscape context here gave us a clearer sense of how the linear earthwork negotiated the topography and dominated land to its south-west. Its line allowed it to protect a stretch of the south-west coast of the Dee estuary before turning north-east to descend to the coast at Basingwerk. It made a significant turn of angle to loom above the well of St Winifred, and control of access to this holy site might have been a significant dimension regarding its positioning. We also noted possible quarry ditches and traces of a notch in the steep slope which, in places, migth represent faint traces of a ditch.

At Basingwerk, the site of a later Cistercian Abbey, we explored the monastic ruins and considered the potential that the ‘werk’ of ‘Basa’, situated at the end of Wat’s Dyke, might have been a strategic location in the Mercian military organisation and territorial structures relating to land and sea.

The ruins of Basingwerk Abbey obscure the site of a possible Mercian fort which guarded this strategic location at the northern end of Wat’s Dyke

A World’s End, a World’s Beginning – Offa’s Dyke at Sedbury Cliffs

The farthest south point of the early medieval linear earthwork known as Offa’s Dyke is at Sedbury Cliffs, in the Forest of Dean. This significant location is marked by a monumental scale to the earthwork. The southermost Sedbury section of Offa’s Dyke runs across 1.6km of undulating higher ground from the Wye opposite Chepstow at Tallard’s Marsh to Sedbury Cliffs by the Severn. In doing so, it cuts off the Beachley peninsula which sits between the confluence of the Wye and the Severn. It passes through the suburbs of Sedbury, through Buttington Tump: a prominent high-point on the dyke before falling down into a tight valley and then rising up to Sedbury Cliffs.

Looking south-west from Sedbury Cliffs over the linear of the earthwork

By departing from the Wyke and cutting off the peninsula, the dyke behaves in a distinctive manner to the sections to the north, where it marks the break of slope on the eastern side of the Wye Valley at least as far as Welsh Bicknor.

Because of this distinctive behaviour, and because there are no discernible traces of the dyke along the Wye northwards of Welsh Bicknor and across the Hereford plain, the Sedbury part of the dyke is not universally accepted as part of the same monument that stretches intermittently north to Treuddyn in Flintshire. David Hill and Margaret Worthington argued that the Gloucestershire stretch, including the Buttington Tump section and all the bits-and-pieces up to Welsh Bicknor, were a different monument (or monuments), and thus disconnected from and perhaps of contrasting date to, the ‘true’ Offa’s Dyke running from Rushock Hill north (Hill and Worthington 2003: 143-54).

Most recently, Ray and Bapty’s new book makes multiple arguments in favour of seeing the Gloucestershire dykes as elements of the same coherent programme of works as those from Herefordshire to Flintshire. They suggest that these sections contain styles of building and emplacement that can be found in the north Herefordshire and Shropshire sections of the dyke.

Be that as it may, the section in question is distinctive in its monumental scale, and its behaviour in the landscape, suggesting it had a discreet and significant role as a boundary.

Looking west along Offa’s Dyke

This section has received 7 excavations, 5 by Hill and Worthington’s Offa’s Dyke project. It remains undated, but it definitely pre-dates AD 956 when it is mentioned in a document as a ‘dic’ (ditch).

I visited this section recently for the first time and I would like to make a couple of observations.

Looking east along Offa’s Dyke towards Sedbury Cliffs

Scale and Significance

Housing and quarrying has disturbed much of its line from the east bank of the Wye near Chepstow towards Sedbury Cliff, but the monument is clearly visible as it approaches the cliff and the Severn beyond. It is monumental in proportions at this point, with a substantial bank, with evidence of quarrying behind it to the north. There is a significant ditch adapting the natural slope of the topography to the south.

Whether it is especially monumental because it has sustained less damage here, or there is a deliberate emphasis upon its end-point, isn’t clear given the disturbance of the monument to the west of Buttington Tump. What is certain is that the very end of the monument is dramatic rather than ephemeral.

The monumental scale: the dyke from the northern (back) side

Views and Alignment

The higher ground of this section of dyke allows good views over the lower land to the south, as well as across the Wye and Severn. Moreover, the alignment might be key: is it a coincidence that the line of this section is nearly straight between Sedbury Cliffs and the site of Chepstow Castle? Was there a fortified site, contemporaneous with the dyke, at this point opposite the Wye, predating the castle itself by some two centuries?

From Buttington Tump to Chepstow along the line of the dyke

A Natural Monument

From Sedbury Cliff, the dyke hits a natural monument of unparalleled character along the banks of the Severn Estuary for many miles upstream and downstream. The views from Sedbury Cliff are striking and given those at this point full visual command of river traffic crossing or traveling along the Severn. Moreover, it allows views over the dyke itself and the land below it. This must have been a key lookout point, immediately behind the dyke, perhaps originally fortified, and perhaps one of a series of beacons.

Looking out from Sedbury Cliffs towards the Severn Bridge

Indeed, we don’t know, due to erosion, how much farther the dyke went in the Early Middle Ages and how the end of the monument was originally marked. Still, even if not elaborated in any regard, the natural cliffs created an imposing feature – both landmark and defensive barrier preventing the monument from being readily circumvented unobserved. As Ray and Bapty note, the dyke here is sea-orientated as much as land orientated. It simultaneously frames and defends from those approaching from the west, south and east. In meeting the Severn at this point, it looks into Wales but also into Wessex. In other words, in this location, the dyke dominating maritime crossroads including at least six directions – up and down the Severn, up and down the Wye, and across the Severn and Wye.

Heritage interpretation with beard

A Modern Monumental End

Of course, in addition to its early medieval monumentality, the starting-point/end-point of Offa’s Dyke is marked in relation to its significance as a National Trail. A large stone with inscription marks this, and on the bridge prior to the final uphill stretch, there is a small plaque. Today, as perhaps in the 9th century, this was a monumental place: a meeting point between worlds, where Mercia began and Mercia ended.

Guilt-inducing for all those that drove some of the way…

Navigating Offa’s Dyke – A Panoply of Signs at Selattyn

Exploring the material culture of the heritage industry and its impact on the landscape is an important part of any research into the relationship between archaeology and landscape today.  Rather than a critical heritage perspective, I regard this as contemporary archaeology. Footpaths attracts material culture as part of their establishment and maintenance, and in many cases become integral elements of the biography of monuments. The Bryn Celli Ddu MOW sign post is one example, as is the sign and railings associated with the Pillar of Eliseg.

Here I want to discuss footpaths from this perspective. Footpaths are a form of heritage and they possess many components, from additional fences, gates and stiles, through to the wear caused by walkers and efforts to consolidate and arrest this erosion. Like any footpath, signs also guide the way and prevent accidental trespass onto private land.

For the Offa’s Dyke Path, they have a special status and distinctive role in marking and commemorating a National Trail. Hence, walkers encounter modest and monumental markers of contrasting designs and characters along the length of Offa’s Dyke.

Indeed, my recent discussion of Offa’s Dyke at Craignant and the commemoration of Offa’s Dyke’s southern end, are examples of present-day commemoration affecting a footpath associated with Britain’s longest ancient monument.

Every step of this path is about experiencing the past as well as the present through the late 8th-century dyke constructed by the Mercian king Offa, even if it traverses landscapes far removed from the early medieval linear earthwork.

On a recent walk near Selattyn, I encountered a host of signs. Some are historic-styled road signs, and footpath signs of all sizes and shapes from stand-alone posts to smaller signs appended to stiles, gates and fences. The materials vary too: plastic and wood dominate. There is even a ‘pop up’ sign revealed by pulling a rope, explaining the multi-period significance of Selattyn Hill.

Together, they mark the ‘Shropshire Way’ where it coincides with the ‘Offa’s Dyke Path’, denoted not only by texts but also by their symbols: the flying buzzard and the acorn respectively. On occasions, the signs appear to ‘compete’ with each other, marking the same directions with multiple trails. There are also biographies to some signs, as posts are used and reused, and augmented.

Even though we are on the Anglo-Welsh border here, most signs are monolingual, although there a few bilingual signs where the dyke marks the border. So we get a glimpse here of the politics of linguistics too.

What is also interesting to me is how many are far more elaborate that utility demands. Moreover, despite their variability, they are ultimately familiar and effective in a range of situations to guide walkers, whether located beside or upon stiles and gates, marking paths, tracks and roads.

There is even the presence of national newspapers, sponsoring the warning about ‘take the lead’.

Elsewhere I’ve discussed signs warning of hazards but the contemporary archaeology of footpaths is in dire need of further work, especially as many of these signs have a restricted life-history, and they fossilise shifting institutions, heritage initiatives and sources of funding for heritage conservation as well as affecting the embodied experience of walkers.

And when beside roadsides, they display the interaction between walkers, cyclists and other road-users regarding the position and status of the national trails.

Offa’s Dyke – Modern Signs on an Ancient Earthwork

A few months back, I walked along one of the more southerly sections of Offa’s Dyke as it follows the eastern side of the River Wye. I was struck but its scale and character of the bank and ditch as it traversed steep slopes and complex topography and would have once dominated the land to its west. I was also taken by the amazing survival of quarry ditches that survive and have received little attention or survey. I learned a great deal about the monument by walking this length, even if my photographs struggled to pick out the monument’s true magnitude and design dimensions.

Offa’s Dyke south of Highbury Wood

I also gained a greater appreciation of its differential survival in different topographical and geological situations, and the effects of different historical land management on the apparent scale and character of the monument. All this is helpful me to appreciate such an earthwork monument of an unprecedented scale.

In Highbury Woods, Offa’s Dyke is a small bank that falls off dramatically to the west (left) with no surviving signs of a ditch (unsurprising given the steepness of the land). Yet to the right are clear and discreet quarry scoops associated with the dyke’s construction

I also got to pay attention to how the monument is managed and signed as part of a national trail: the Offa’s Dyke Path.

As I have previously discussed for Selattyn, the signs along the dyke are more than markers which guide walkers, they chart the history of the Offa’s Dyke National Trail: a route which for 45 years has become one of Britain’s most successful intersections between heritage, conservation and leisure.

Here I discuss the section from Bigsweir to Redbrook. The signs on this section are of different materials and styles, and they show the accrual of signs over time. The distinctive acorn symbol denotes the status and significance of the trail and serve to commemorate it. There is a clear shift in materiality from older ones are in wood, the newer in metal.

More common than both these materials are small circular plastic arrow signs, pinned to posts and trees.

 

I liked the multiplicity of signs upon the same post in some instances. As such, they point in the same direction but mark the overlapping different institutional and legal statuses of the route – denoting different land managers, public footpaths and the Offa’s Dyke Path itself.

A hierarchy of path designations
Signs over signs
All roads lead to Offa…

There is also something vaguely comedic about the contradictory directionality of signs… I was also intrigued by the evidence of sign biographies. Some are broken. In other instances there are traces of earlier signs beneath the later replacements.

A Heritage Sign

There is also a heritage sign in a state of some disrepair. The sign includes a map and an artist’s impression of how the dyke might have once appeared. It tells us it was the ‘ancient border of England and Wales’, which is of course anachronistic since neither Wales nor England existed at the time. It also presumes the dyke operated as a ‘border’, something which glosses over multiple potential functions. If it had a border role, Offa’s Dyke might be seen as participating in it slow process of creation.

Heritage disrepair

Commemoration through Trees

The trail passes through woodlands managed by the Woodland Trust and there was a welcoming sign.

There were also a sign board by Natural England about Highbury Wood National Nature Reserve on the line of the dyke.

I also encountered the Woodland Trust’s deployment of commemoration as a means of funding its activities. Upon a low post in the woods beside the dyke was a plaque dedicated to the memory of a couple from the West Midlands.

I also encountered a broken-up seat with a memorial plaque, again from the  Woodland Trust.     #Then there is the informal commemroation of grafitti: beech trees carved with initials and dates.

In summary, the experience of walking the Offa’s Dyke path is a mnemonic one, since it involved encountering signs and the inscription of signs. Some are overtly commemorative, while others simply impress the scale and character of the monument as well as guide walkers. What is clear is that Offa’s Dyke is now more than a linear earthwork, it is a network of signs.

Offa’s Dyke from Tidenham and the Devil’s Pulpit

Back in March, I visited the Wye Valley to explore sections of Offa’s Dyke as it navigates along the high slopes above the river. I thought this would be the best time of year to investigate it when leaves wouldn’t intercede in my views of the landscape, and hence my visit would enhance my appreciation of how the earthwork was interacting with topography and viewsheds.

Sadly, I was disappointed in two regards:

  1. the density of trees, albeit leafless, on the Wye valley’s steep slopes rendered very few lines of sight and the landscape was as difficult to apprehend as if it were summer in terms of longer-distance viewsheds;
  2. This was combined with the fact that the steep slopes and careful conservation measures for the dyke mean that at relatively very few stretches can one apprehend the monument from both below and above. Only for some of the distance can one walk on the dyke itself.

 

Rocks at the Devil’s Pulpit

Despite these restrictions, I felt this walk gave me a good sense of the scale and character of the bank and occasional ditch (where the latter is discernible and existed). This section of the dyke is protected by English Heritage (in large part) and it is beautiful behold and enjoyable to walk it, especially the delight of seeing views over the magnificient Tintern Abbey from the Devil’s Pulpit.

View of Tintern Abbey from the Devil’s Pulpi
Tintern Abbey

I gained a sense of how the dyke would have dominated the valley to the west. Perhaps it was also intended to dominate from locations like Tintern, especially if the Cistercian monastery had overlain earlier Welsh ecclesiastical and/or secular elite foci (of course there is no direct evidence surviving for this, but it is a suggestion of Ray and Bapty 2016). Presumably its creation would have involved the clearance of large tracts of woodland along these slopes, as well as cutting the ditch and raising the bank and another structures situated upon it.

Unsurprisingly, Cadw’s heritage boards at Tintern do not even note the presence of the dyke. Even though it is invisible, it frames much of the eastern horizon from the abbey…

The line of the dyke follows the contours, but also adapts itself very particularly to allow regular points of observation. These lookout points would have operated to ensure full surveillance over land to the west and we can but wonder how they were originally equipped. They are perhaps at key situations where there are angle-turns along the route from Tiddenham Wood to Madgetts Hill – namely at the following points; Plumweir Cliff, the Devil’s Pulpit, Lippets Grove and just west of Madgetts Hill itself. Controlling these point would allow visibility along the dyke as well as forward of it into the valley.

The only one of these that affords views through the trees today is the aforementioned dramatic view over Tintern Abbey from the Devil’s Pulpit.

As previously discussed for my walk from Bigsweir to Redbrook, evidence of significant quarries were discerned, including at the Devil’s Pulpit and Tidenham, and these might be readily surveyed in the future using Lidar. Indeed, the Devil’s Pulpit might be created, in part, by the exageration of the natural topography by the dyke’s ditch and quarries.

The Devil’s Pulpit was also interesting for its striking topography and for the miniature sign evoking the folk tale of this being a demonic spot: the rock used to tempt the Cistercian monks below. I’m not sure of the antiquity of this tale but it is nice to see story linked into the line of Offa’s Dyke.

This leads us yet again to the contemporary material culture of the Offa’s Dyke National Path. The genealogy of signs, from wood to metal is one dimension observed.

Finally we come to the question of its monumental scale and ‘behaviour’. Ray and Bapty (2006) argue that the way that the dyke behaves here is comparable to its emplacement in North Herefordshire, Shropshire and further north. While the dating of the dyke remains unclear, I cannot but agree in general terms with these observations. The scale, behaviour and components seem very similar to pieces of the earthwork I’ve seen further north, taking into account that both Offa’s and Wat’s dykes appear less monumental when they hug steep slopes on account of erosion and other taphonomic processe. Still, we lack dates and details: was it built by Offa or another ruler(s)?

Overall, this is an essential piece of Offa’s Dyke worthy of exploration and readily done within a day walking from Tintern or Tidenham.

Commemorating Dyke, Park and Path – Offa’s Dyke at Knighton

Previously posted on HW’s Archaeodeath blog.

Recently I visited Knighton’s Offa’s Dyke Centre and explored sections of Offa’s Dyke to its north and south. What I gained from this is a clear sense of how this monumental earthwork traversed and controlled the valley of the River Teme. This is one of the sections where Offa’s Dyke and the English-Welsh cross each other, but do not coincide: the Shropshire/Powys border follows the Teme westwards and eastwards from Knighton, while the dyke overlooks the valley and then crosses it, heading broadly north-south.

At the centre of the heritage conservation and interpretation of the dyke, I was struck by the nature of the earthwork and also the various monuments and memorials that frame it: commemorating both the early medieval monument and the various conservation strategies that have surrounded it. Notably, there are monuments commemorating the Offa’s Dyke Park and Offa’s Dyke Path, as well as the dyke itself.

Offa’s Dyke – a striking valley location above the Teme is preserved in the park north of the Offa’s Dyke Centre

 

A commemorative stone on Offa’s Dyke
Anachronism and ethnicity are central to this 1970s sign, and the association with Offa make clear.
Looking north along Offa’s Dyke at Knighton
A second stone, this one with two plaques, one commemorating the Offa’s Dyke Path, one commemorating the Offa’s Dyke Park
Commemorating the Offa’s Dyke Path and Offa’s Dyke Park
Daffs around the stone – one can clearly see here how the dyke is fronted by the stone, and the stone itself fronted by three steps

Below the Offa’s Dyke Park one can follow the Trail across the English-Welsh border beside the Teme. Here we return to the elaborate logos and signs of the footpath, but also a neat little feature commemorating the Welsh-English border. One can stand either side of the border for a photo on the footbridge. It was being painted the day I visited, so I was denied that experience!

What is striking is that this node, where dyke and border intersect, is ripe for further discussion/explanation of the contrast between the two. For here, they are clearly NOT the same thing, even if they are part of a broader story of contestation in the borderlands between the Welsh and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the emergence of a March in the 11th and 12th centuries AD. I wonder if visitors and walkers appreciate the many enigmas that still surround Offa’s Dykes date and construction, and subsequently its relationship with England and Wales? Still, going into the nearby Offa’s Dyke Centre will certainly help them in this task…