Yesterday, I went on a dyke-hunt in the April snow with members of the ‘Collaboratory North’ group affiliated with St Asaph Archaeological Society, The Holywell & District Society, Prestatyn History Club, Friends Of The Clwydian Range and others.
Since I started as co-convenor of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory from 2017, I have been visiting, researching, talking and thinking about Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke quite a bit. Over the last couple of weeks I have independently walked along and around various stretches of both monuments I hadn’t seen before, as well as bits I’ve explored before – blog posts will inevitably follow. Indeed, over recent years, I’ve now accrued a long list of posts about the monuments, both here on Archaeodeath and replicated on the Collaboratory website.
It would be premature to reveal our precise itinerary, discussions and preliminary interpretations, but I want to publish this post as an important marker to celebrate a valuable between I had in the field (various fields actually) with Professor Keith Ray (Cardiff University), Ray Bailey, and other members of the St Asaph Archaeological Society.
What were we discussing? Well we were out looking in miserable snowy weather for possible traces of hitherto unrecorded linear earthworks in Flintshire. I felt like a Jon Snow of the Night’s Watch looking out from the Wall.
Did we find anything?
It’s too soon to say for sure. However, to whet your appetite, let me share these two images that do prompt me to question whether Ray, Keith and the ‘Collaboratory North’ team have indeed found traces of a monument long presumed to not exist….
Last weekend, I took a welcome opportunity to visit the denuded stretches of Offa’s Dyke to the north of the Shropshire village of Trefonen, at the invitation of the Trefonen Rural Protection Group.
This section of Offa’s Dyke seems to have rarely featured prominently in discussions of the monument. The topography isn’t striking, but it is complex, and I wonder if this has hindered a reading of the monument’s landscape context. Furthermore, this area has been heavily affected by industrial activity – potteries and collieries – as well as the 20th/21st-century expansion of the village itself, hence it is both unsurprising that the Dyke survives in all manner of different preservational forms from ‘lost’ to the ditch and bank fully intact and has received limited detailed discussion. Therefore, it would be easy to right off the Dyke in this area in telling us much that cannot be discerned better elsewhere in longer, better preserved stretches that sweep across landscapes unhindered by modern development.
After my visit, I tend to disagree. My preliminary impressions suggest that at Trefonen, and perhaps also in other areas like it, we right off the Dyke at our peril. Not only can we confirm the presence at Trefonen of features and behaviours for the Dyke discerned elsewhere, we can propose new insights into the monument from Trefonen where it navigates a surveillance ‘weak spot’, looking uphill with limited viewshed between the watersheds of the Morda and Trefonen’s stream.
There are not only lessons about the monument’s design, placement and location from north of Trefonen, there are also conservation lessons too. The variegated survival of the Dyke here makes the Trefonen section a valuable case study to illustrate wider trends in the life-history of the Dyke, particularly the impact of industrial and modern activity on the character of its survival.
Further lessons derive from Trefonen about scheduling, planning and the considerable local enthusiasm for community stewardship and engagement with the Dyke, notably through TRPG and potentially via the new initiative: CoSMM.
So, in this post, I present some preliminary observations about the Dyke north of the village as it runs west of Chapel Lane and subsequently through the fields to the north of Chapel Lane towards the valley of the Morda Brook.
To help the reader navigate, I’m walking from S to N, and here is an annotated OS map section showing the key points mentioned in the photographs.
The Dyke’s Form
Having been lost in the village but for a small stretch surviving in a front garden of a property by the intersection of Chapel Lane with the main road, the scale and form varies considerably in a discernible section parallel to Chapel Lane. It is near invisible and covered by a series of houses at the start of Chapel Lane, but then appears intermittently in the field, becoming increasingly monumental, if broken, to the N.
What is striking along this stretch is that, while largely filled in, the line of the former monumental ditch of Offa’s Dyke is still discernible in front of the denuded bank, especially towards the S end of this section.
Chapel Lane winds west and crosses the line of the Dyke. Subsequently, as the Dyke rises up the slope to the north of Chapel Lane, it has a continuous and well preserved but hidden rampart obscured within the hedge-line.
The Offa’s Dyke Path joins the Dyke at point 3 and runs up the rest of the hill where it lies under the hedgeline all the way and difficult to fully appreciate, but 2-3m high.
Towards the top of the hill, the bank seems larger still, at least 3m, and remains continuous and substantial, but the ditch is near-absent.
North of the E-W lane and towards point 5, the monument has nearly completely gone, swallowed up by post-medieval agriculture. The stark re-emegence of the bank shows just how dramatically its fate is guided by the individual management of specific fields. In this location, the Dyke enjoys prominent views E towards the Wrekin, but restricted views uphill towards the W
The most astounding and well-preserved short section of Offa’s Dyke presents itself NNW of point 6, as the dyke starts to descend towards the Morda Brook still 1km away. First north of point 6 there is just the bank, but soon the ditch also reappears, cutting a stark V-shaped profile in a comparable fashion and scale to the surviving monumental part of Offa’s Dyke south of Bronygarth.
Just to emphasis the scale of the Dyke at this point, here are some shots on the SSE walk back, with the bank on the left from the line of the ditch.
Adjusted Segmented Design
Walking along this section, something else is apparent: the Dyke is arranged around at least 7 straight lengths aligned at subtly different alignments and for different lengths. This mirrors a pattern identified elsewhere by Keith Ray and Ian Bapty, and I’ve discussed before in regards to Hawthorn Hill south of Knighton.
This is actually very clear on the OS maps of the line, although I’ve guessed some of the details and dashed the line of the postulated Dyke now lost beneath the village, but where I suppose there might be 2 adjusted segments.
What we have surviving north of Trefonen is a stark set of contrasts in the survival of the ditch and the bank. North of point 6, a short section rivals any others known surviving elsewhere along the line of Offa’s Dyke in terms of both the breadth and height of the bank and the V-shaped depth of the ditch. Elsewhere, the ditch can be discerned where it has been suggested to be long lost. In other places, the bank survives continuously, in further locations it is intermittent.
So this 0.75km stretch of Offa’s Dyke reveals much about its original form and placement, as well as its variegated afterlife.
This isn’t precisely about Offa’s Dyke, but it is some of Howard’s musings about a site not far west of the Dyke, reposted and adapted from Archaeodeath.
I want to bring things down a key with this next post. I focus on the archaeology and folklore of an archaeological site I visited when in South-East Wales last year: Harold’s Stones, Trellech, Monmouthshire.
These three megalithic stones stand in a line south-west of medieval and modern settlement of Trelech, just east of a stream and close to springs. This rare stone arrangement is intriguing and evocative: I’ve only previously addressed anprehistoric standing stone alignment once before for the much-larger and widely spaced Devil’s Arrows. The Trelech stones tip at different angles on a gradual hillside, the middle and north tip slightly westwards, while the tallest and southernmost has a striking lean eastwards. Indeed, Elizabeth Whittle (1992) described their collective impression as being ‘drunken’.
The stones are set on a NE-SW alignment. Each stone is over 2m tall: with the largest to the south. They are each comprised of conglomerate puddingstone.
The central stone might have been shaped by human hand, and has two cup marks on its south side.
Coflein tells me that geophysical survey around the stone revealed traces of medieval or later structures and a c. 40m diameter subrectangular ditched enclosure (presumably undated). Further images can be found on the Megalithic Portal.
So these are prehistoric standing stones, presumably of late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age date, and perhaps part of a longer alignment and other monuments, now lost. I recognise the standard later association with the Devil in folklore: namely that they were thrown from the Sugar Loaf mountain by Jack o-Kent – a giant, when playing pitch and toss with the Devil. Such satanic associations tend to be of early modern in origins.
Naming: Why Harold?
Yet there seems to have been more to these stones in the medieval mind than devilish connections. The place-name ‘Trelech’ means the ‘settlement/village of the stones’. This suggests that the vicinity was defined by these prominent triad of megaliths that acquired the roles of prominent landmarks and perhaps also the association with rich now-lost fables.
Why Harold’s stones? Before getting one in the eye, Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex and then Hereford too, defeated Gruffyd ap Llywyelyn in 1063 and thus continued his rise to power as a war leader. At some unknown point, these three stones could have been ascribed to Harold’s victories in battle, and more specifically, that each stone commemorates a chieftain slain/defeated in battle by Harold. I’m still intrigued by the possible and specific association of the Trelech stones with the man to briefly become King of England and died at Hastings in 1066.
Now, there are 3 “Harold Stone” place-names in Pembrokeshire, each associated with a single megalith:
All are single isolated standing stones, two in coastal locations, the third not far from the sea. Given the far-west location of this cluster, their association with the victories of Harold over the Welsh in the 1060s doesn’t seem very likely. However, they might well be connected to the travels of Harold and his fame. The logic of this cluster might lie less in 11th-century events and more than the extensive settlement of Normans, Saxons and Flemings during the 12th/13th centuries. Could these groups have been prompted to attribute ancient stones in the west Welsh landscape with earlier invaders of famed reputation?
Might such an explanation work for Trelech? Certainly, but perhaps there’s more. The triad of stones at Trellech is more logically located in relation to sites of potential Saxon-Welsh conflict. Trelech is located just west of the Wye and thus the line of the eighth-century linear earthwork – Offa’s Dyke. Hence, the feasibility that this is the site of a battle, or became equated with a series of epic conflicts between the West Saxons and the Welsh, is persuasive. Moreover, using the Pillar of Eliseg as an analogy, perhaps the stones served as a regular assembly place before and after such conflicts. What is perhaps important from a Welsh perspective is that any memorials attributed to Harold would commemorate a powerful aggressor, but one who eventually met their doom in a cataclysmic fashion in the field. Such an association might have been more powerful than any positive megalithic attribution to a legendary Welsh ruler.
I’m not saying that we can believe these stones marked an assembly site, a battle site or a burial site of early medieval date. However, I do propose that sometime in the 12th/13th centuries, they may well have become linked to a legacy of Harold’s impact on the Welsh landscape, and the deeds of his enemies, as much as to Harold himself. These stones might have thus served in discourses of resistance to the Saxons and Normans with this attribution, as much as ‘colonial’ monuments, in a complex and fluid Anglo-Welsh borderland.
There is a metal Ministry of Works-style sign, but actually it is far more recent, dating from the Cadw era (1986, i.e. post-1984). It is just decidedly ‘retro’.
A more modern yet faded heritage board by the gate. It speaks of the archaeology and the legendary associations.
A further heritage aspect is that the gate is itself commemorative: a threshold enforcing association between stones and heritage organisations.
In summary, this is a fascinating site and well worth a visit. The potential of early medieval activity of some sort at this location – assembly, battle, burial site – and thus inspiring the Harold attribute, remains a temptation. Whether so or not, the Harold association does suggest a now-lost specific story linked to Harold Godwinson and circulating in the area in the Anglo-Norman period.
Whittle, E. 1992. A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales: Glamorgan and Gwent. Cardiff: Cadw.
In October 2018, Dr Caroline Pudney and the final-year students explored sections of Offa’s Dyke. Having visited Montgomery Castle and then Dudston Fields, we headed north to explore a very different topographical situation for Offa’s Dyke.
The only similarity is that here, again, Offa’s Dyke follows the modern Anglo-Welsh border. As we headed north from Dudston Fields, we saw the dyke at key points including at Llanymynech where it heads for an Iron Age hillfort on a prominent hill having negotiated the Severn valley, and later on we saw it dramatically situated at Baker’s Hill and Carreg-y-big. We then walked a section of Offa’s Dyke from Craignant south up onto Selattyn Hill.
In contrast to the wide open vistas of the Vale of Montgomery, here Offa’s Dyke navigates steep topography as it jumps across and blocks tight valleys in the Welsh uplands.
The line of the dyke was clear here, we could see how it bends eastwards as it descends into valleys, so its concave line more effectively overlooks and impresses those approaching from the west. This is a feature Ray and Bapty (2016) identify.
We then followed it as it skirted the western edge, rather than attempted to reach the top, of Selattyn Hill.
We also discussed how you have fairly restricted views westwards from the dyke, contrasting with the situation at Dudston Fields. However, the significance of its line in navigating this more challenging terrain might have instead come from strategies of communication along the dyke’s line, rather than an ability to surveil extensive vistas west. Furthermore, as I’ve suggested before on Archaeodeath, the dyke in this area controls stupendous views eastwards, and the hills immediately behind it to the east might have served as beacons affording communication over 40 miles across the Cheshire and Shropshire plains.
The composition and design of the dyke differs here too. It is less monumental than at Dudston Fields. The dyke has to be dug into very different geology: here it is stone and must have been very difficult to excavate. The bank is smaller, and the ditch seems less broad, meaning it might have been deep but steep.
Another point of interest is that the rise up from Craignant reveals demonstrable scrapes that might be unrecorded primary quarries, used to excavate stone to face the dyke. It might have originally been dressed to appear like a drystone wall: a point suggested (again) by Ray and Bapty.
An additional point of interest is the proximity of the dyke to a seemingly prehistoric cairn, although I’m not suggesting any precise connection to the dyke.
The section at Craignant allowed us to identify the later commemoration of Offa’s Dyke: the notable Craignant tower. This is a 19th-century folly affording the dyke with a fortified Gothic appearance.
Finally, we discussed the role of the Offa’s Dyke Path, and we met walkers enjoying it. The walk gave us a clear sense of the dyke as a long-distance footpath, and the signs revealed its intersection with the Shropshire Way.
This is the first of a series of posts regarding an October 2018 full-day field trip with University of Chester archaeology students exploring the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, focusing on Offa’s Dyke. The aim is to get the third-year students on module HI6001 – Archaeology and Contemporary Society – out into the landscape to think about the history, archaeology, and heritage of borderlands and frontiers, and using the building and afterlife of Offa’s Dyke as a case study.
I also used the castle to talk about the complexity and fluidity of the Anglo-Welsh borderland, and how castles had many functions in this regard. They were (in part) attempts to control the March of Wales militarily. Yet equally, together with their boroughs, they were attempts to socially engineer and exploit the borderlands economically and ideologically. We also discussed how the military significance of the borough and castle came to the fore once more in the early 17th century, in the English Civil War. The largest battle fought in Wales took place north of the castle. This revealed how, while not always a focus of conflict, the topography and locality had latent strategic importance down the ages.
We also discussed how the limitations of the heritage interpretation regime – with no phased plans or details of archaeological investigation allowed – provide only a partial appreciation of the castle.
I’d like to add one additional comment about its memorial dimensions. En route back to the bus, one of the students asked: why doesn’t this particular bench have a memorial plaque? I suggested an answer: its location is prominent – between the car park and the castle – but it lacked a long-distance view. Perhaps no one wanted to be memorialised here for that reason. Its location is practical, but lacks the aesthetics of a panorama as afforded by benches elsewhere. So with the help of the students, I added something to my thinking about this site in memorial terms.
Anyway, the main point of visiting was to look east from it over the landscape and appraise Offa’s Dyke from this paranorama. To look east from Montgomery Castle is to view of the line of Offa’s Dyke as it traverses the Vale of Montgomery east of Montgomery and west of Chirbury and Church Stoke. The photo above shows the famous Dudston Fields stretch from the inner ward of Montgomery Castle.
Ray and Bapty postulate that Montgomery Castle may overlay an earlier Welsh elite centre, so this close proximity might be significant for the 8th century AD. Sadly there is no definitive archaeological evidence in support of this. Moreover, there is no heritage interpretation pointing out the line and significance of Offa’s Dyke in an area that was to become a strategy later medieval frontier zone and where the Dyke follows the modern border for a significant length.
Last year, Dr Keith Ray and I explored the line of Wat’s Dyke around Holywell and Basingwerk, Flintshire. Recently, I went back to explore Wat’s Dyke at its significant northernmost section in more detail. I came to some further (and I think rather significant) observations regarding how the Dyke is behaving as it navigates the Greenfield Valley.
What Keith and I failed to do was explore in detail the surviving line of the dyke in the Greenfield Valley as it ascends from Basingwerk south up a south-east side of the valley towards the upland around Holywell called The Strand. Here, in Strand Coed (Strand Wood), the Dyke isn’t identified with surety.
Part of the problem with our previous visit was the fact that Fox’s description is so difficult to unravel without a detailed knowledge on the ground. In his 1934 report, he states:
Wat’s Dyke was until recently visible as a partially levelled bank with deep W. ditch, 150 years in length, on high ground E. of Holywell, known as the Strand. The construction of a row of cottages has caused the ditch to be filled in for use as a roadway, but traces of the bank still survive. There is now no visible evidence of the Dyke on its traditional line northward from the Strand along Strand Walk, but the alignment of this Walk on to the point where the tiny valley of the Strand becomes a ravine is very suggestive of its former existence.
So Fox argues that the path known as Strand Walk might follow the line of the dyke from the relatively flat upland area east of the Greenfield Valley where it is heading for the Bagillt Brook – the Strand – northwards as it descends down into the Greenfield Valley.
Well, I agree with Fox that there is no demonstrable trace of the dyke in terms of bank or ditch. However, the line of the Walk he describes is unquestionably a notch below the top of the slope that is a very good candidate for having previously been the line of the ditch. The bank, if it had ever existed, would have been the slope itself, and at the top of the slope where the modern field boundary runs.
So I would suggest that Fox is overcautious in his determination here, and the Walk is in fact following the ditch of the dyke as it navigates the east side of the ravine at a consistent c. 2.5-3m vertically downslope of the top of the ridge. We can look at this another way: there is no other way the Dyke could have navigated a path between the surviving section of to the north (see below) and the historically attested line of the Dyke on the Strand to the south. If we don’t believe this is the route: there is no other option for how it would have once existed elsewhere.
The implications of this are, however, not made clear by Fox. The Dyke neither hugs the top edge of the Greenfield Valley south of this point: it heads across flat hilltop towards a high point by/at the Holywell Windmill before descending towards the Bagillt stream. Likewise, it doesn’t continue north along the edge of the valley which would have required it to jump around another ravine to attain higher ground once more. Instead, it uses the ravine here to descend north/ascend south between high ground and the valley bottom. In so doing, it marks a course direct for the spur that became occupied by the Cistercian abbey of Basingwerk in an unquestionable fashion.
The next piece of Fox’s text is significant, since it relates to a section of the dyke that is arguable surviving: the most northerly section of the dyke extant:
This ravine opens out above Meadow Mills on the flank of the deep trough valley carved out by the Holywell stream: and here a small piece of bank is seen, 21ft. in breadth, with an over-deepened W. ditch, which is possibly part of the Dyke. It seems to die out in the railway cutting. Beyond this point northward nothing recognisable as Wat’s Dyke is to be seen.
Here, the Dyke is discernible, and while maps make it seem as if it is continuing its route following the contours, the closer examination shows it is doing anything but. As mentioned above, the surviving section is cutting across the contours, heading down into the valley north/ascending up to the top of the ridge of the Strand Coed ravine to the south. Therefore, if this is indeed the line of the Dyke, it is doing something very significant at this point: dropping in an unprecedented fashion down into the valley, not to cross it, but to follow it down towards the estuary of the Dee at Basingwerk.
An evening presentation and update on the latest revelations from the archaeological investigations in the Lancaut Peninsular & Spital Meend fort: Wednesday 28th November 7pm (doors open 6.30pm) Drill Hall, Chepstow, NP16 5HJ
Find out about the final results from the small partnership project that has conducted walkovers, geophysical surveys and targeted excavations around the medieval church yard at the Lancaut DMV and in the promontory fort at Spital Meend, Tidenham, Gloucestershire. The questions the project hoped to shed light on included whether Lancaut was a Celtic (British) / Early Christian monastic complex, how and when Spital Meend fort was occupied and used, and how these related to Offa’s Dyke. The partnership is between the Forest of Dean Building Preservation Trust, who own Lancaut Church, Historic England, Gloucestershire Archaeology, Herefordshire Archaeology, Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory, Southern Marches Archaeological Practice Ltd., Wye Valley AONB Partnership and local landowners, with funding from Heritage Lottery Fund and Gloucestershire Environmental Trust.
The free evening event is on Wednesday 28th November at the Chepstow Drill Hall, 7pm. Doors open 6.30pm, light refreshments available.
A Research Network for Offa's Dyke, Wat's Dyke and Early Medieval Western Britain