Finding early medieval dykes can be a hit and miss affair, I should know, I did my PhD on the things studying over a hundred examples. Sometimes I seemed to be going round and round in circles on foot or in my car fruitlessly comparing odd small lumps on the ground with antiquarian references to massive earthworks wondering if I was in the right place or chasing wild geese. While further north Offa’s Dyke is one of the easiest and most obvious to find, in Herefordshire guesswork and supposition seems the order of the day. Rather than a clear dyke, short disconnected earthworks can be found (or not depending on how well-prepared you were with your maps).
One such section is Lyonshall Bank. The name is relatively recent, probably coined by Fox to distinguish this isolated earthwork which is usually called ‘Offa’s Dyke’ on early Ordnance Survey maps. There are references to ‘Row Ditch’ in tithe maps and a fourteenth century reference to a nearby meadow as Rowdiche suggesting that was the original name. It probably derives from the name Rough ditch, suggesting whoever named it was also not terribly impressed about how well this earthwork was made.
The name derives from the village that lies on the northeast side of the earthwork that has seen better days. It once boasted a castle (now ruinous and in private hands), a pub (closed) and a railway station (also shut).
The dyke runs northwest to southeast and is cut by a minor road. Where the route cuts the dyke is a good place to park to explore the earthwork especially in the wooded area to the north of the road where a footpath conveniently follows the bank. Many of the earthworks in Herefordshire and those in the Wye Valley exist in a limbo world of either being in or out of the Offa’s Dyke gang depending on which authority you read. Some are distinctly uninspiring looking more like glorified hedgerows that just happen to be on the right alignment, but Lyonshall Ditch is a substantial affair that looms over the car as you drive through it. It is oddly larger nearer the road than away from it. I have always been very cynical of gateways through dykes that have not been tested by excavation. Here the dyke looks like it was larger where the routeway went through it. I wonder if it did cut the road in order to prevent access and later when the dyke went out of use people reconnected the route punching a hole in the earthwork. A scramble through the woods along the bank to the north of the road there is a curved access through the dyke, perhaps this was an original entrance, but even this could have been dug by farmers either for drainage reasons or allow livestock to move between fields. Who knows. These structures seem to give up their secrets with great reluctance. All I know is the scrunch of autumn leaves under foot and the early flowering wild flowers on the sides of the bank (snowdrops if memory serves) made for a pleasant diversion for me, the kids and the dog.