Hydraulic Borders? Water and Offa’s Dyke: The Offa’s Dyke Association 50th Anniversary Weekend

Today, I was down in Knighton at the Offa’s Dyke Centre for the 50th anniversary weekend of the ODA. I attended the launch of the new Offa’s Dyke Path Walkers’ Passport.

d56o-oiwwaa9h4wFollowing this was the ODA’s AGM. This comprised of two presentations (at the start and end) by Niall Heaton, plus two memorable vocal performances by members of the Association, the first by founder-member Bernard Lowry, the second by Royal Holloway music student and singer Emily Boulton (pictured above).

My contribution to the day was to present the keynote address. In December 2018, I had presented an earlier version of this paper at TAG Deva’s session “Crossing Borders: Approaching Liminal Landscapes” organised by Paul Belford, Melanie Roxby-Mackey and Ian Mackey titled “Hydraulic Borders? Water and Offa’s Dyke”. The paper had explored the interactions and transformations of the northern and central sections of Offa’s Dyke with the sea, rivers, streams and other water forms.

Today, I delivered an expanded and revised version of this talk. Looking this time at the hydraulics of both Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke in comparative terms. I suggested at least 6 principal ways in which, in contrasting fashions and emphases, these two monuments can be considered hydraulic, and elements of hydraulic frontiers. I set this against a broader European context of 8th-9th-century hydraulic engineering.

  1. Regarding the debate about whether Offa’s Dyke went from ‘sea to sea’, they already do have significant riverine and maritime dimensions through their landscape contexts. The dykes both went from ‘river to river’ and thus from sea to sea as a result through water transport and visual communication with coasts. I argued that coastal and river end relationships were integral to each dyke’s role as part of a Mercian frontier and might have been canalised (for Wat’s Dyke at least);
  2. In places, I suggested that larger rivers operated as the ‘dykes’, notably along the Dee, Severn and Wye for Offa’s Dyke. I used the Dee east of Ty Mawr as my case study for Offa’s Dyke.
  3. I reviewed the evidence of how the dykes utilised the east-facing slopes of ravines and valleys – I argued that Wat’s Dyke did this far greater stretches than Offa’s Dyke did;
  4. By exploring instances where the dykes blocked rivers, I identified the careful alignments of the dykes in relation to various water courses. I proposed that there could have been multiple significances to nodes where dykes intersected with rivers/streams. Moreover I asked whether there were more dyke-related features at these ‘blocking’ points: creating gates for land and water transport, dams and bridges.
  5. I identified a series of possible ‘dyke islands’ along Offa’s Dyke where the monument traversed the valley but west of confluences. I suggested that maybe these served as water-protected islands (the two streams/rivers and the line of a water-filled dyke-ditch) that could have served as places to muster raiding parties or corral livestock. I suggested that these don’t occur in Wat’s Dyke, perhaps because hillforts were reused for this instead.
  6. Riparian identities and holy waters were discussed in relation to the Dyke: including holy wells dedicated and associated with the dykes. For Wat’s Dyke, both Oswestry and St Winifred’s Holywell are candidates for sacred watery places co-opted into the monument.

I also enjoyed exploring the fabulous ODA shop, and I thank the ODA for letting me present at the 50th anniversary of the Association. Here is me on Offa’s throne! Ned Stark eat your heart out!

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Moreover, here I am with the man himself. I cheered up his day, can you tell?

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Oh, and here is my resplendent in my University of Chester 175th anniversary tie!

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