Tag Archives: Offa’s Dyke

Offa’s Dyke at Trefonen – Explore the Early Medieval Monument

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.

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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.

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Looking SE over Offa’s Dyke from the Offa’s Dyke Path. The dyke runs at the base of the slope parallel to Chapel Lane – between points 1 (right) and 2 (left) on the map.
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Looking SE along Offa’s Dyke as it runs parallel to Chapel Lane, with the village of Trefonen in the background from just west of point 2.

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.

 

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Looking SSE along the line of Offa’s Dyke from point 2, showing the line of the ditch visible in the topography west (right) of the denuded bank.
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Looking SSE along the line of the Dyke from near point 2 towards point 1, with the intermittent bank here c. 3-4m high and the wide depression of the line of the ditch discernible, if broken by a later relict field boundary, to the W (right) of the view.

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.

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Looking NE over the line of Offa’s Dyke between points 2 (right) and 3 (middle) and 4 (top of the hill on the left)
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Looking E across Offa’s Dyke at point 3 on the map.
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View NNW from point 2 across Chapel Lane and showing the bend in alignment of the Dyke as it ascends the hill.

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.

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View SSE from point 3 towards Trefonen village of the back-side of the Dyke concealed in the hedge-line

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.

 

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Looking SSE down the western face of Offa’s Dyke from point 4. Is there a subtle hint of the former ditch-line present in the lie of the land?

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

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Looking NNW along the linear of Offa’s Dyke, where it has eroded away
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Looking SSW along the line of Offa’s Dyke, but the bank and ditch are both completely gone at point 5
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Offa’s Dyke re-appears at point 6 from nothingness to a bank around 4m high.
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The Wrekin beneath cloud, looking ESE from Offa’s Dyke

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.

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Looking NNW along the line of Offa’s Dyke, the bank must be over 4m high at this point

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.

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Looking SSE along the ditch N of point 6
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Looking SSE along the ditch
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Looking SSE from the ditch
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Looking NNW from the top of the bank

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.

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The northern section beyond Chapel Lane. There’s clearly changes of alignment close to the line of the lane where the Dyke reaches the top of the hill. There is then one long straight (ish) alignment along the hilltop, and then 3 further shorter segments as the Dyke begins its descent towards the Morda
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In the village, one can conjecture 1-2 straight segments, and 3 further ones are demonstrable as the  Dyke is followed and crossed by Chapel Lane

Summary

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.

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Offa’s Dyke south of Bronygarth

Re-posted and adapted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

The fabulously preserved section of Offa’s Dyke south of Bronygarth can be found where the linear earthwork navigates the slopes on the south side of the Glyn Ceiriog.

IMG_2049IMG_2050IMG_2056I’ve recently posted in detail about this section here and I’ve also posted about it before here. I also mused on the presence of a boot hanging from the post of a stile.

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The main reason for posting on this again here is to consider:

  1. a first-time visit with students: to show a picture of my students actually getting to see this (usually it’s a long walk to get to this location from the nearest easy parking, but we had our bus driver stop in the lane for a short while so we could complete this visit);
  2. the dyke’s scale and design: at this point it was possible to discuss with students the scale of the ditch in particular, where so often it isn’t preserved to this depth;
  3. the visual envelope of the dyke was considered too: to point out again how the dyke looks uphill and has a limited prospect in this location but amazing long-distant views back over (‘Mercian’) territory it was defending and even out over Cheshire towards Lancashire (‘Northumbria’);
  4. the dyke’s positioning: indicate how the monument descends and thus cuts across a major river-valley
  5. the dyke’s conservation at this point is good survival since it is incorporated into a field boundary, but we also noted the badger-damage to the earthwork;
  6. surrounding land-use: we observed how ploughed farmland encroaches right up to the back of the monument;
  7. the use of the linear earthwork for leisure activities was identified, as seen on other locations where the Offa’s Dyke Path navigates the back-side of the monument;
  8. present-day interactions from visitors were identified: graffiti on beech trees;
  9. aesthetics: we took note of the wonderful autumnal colours as the sun set on our successful field trip!

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Exploring Offa’s Dyke at Craignant

Adapted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

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.

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Offa’s Dyke looking S as it descends around the western edge of Selattyn Hill

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.

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Looking south from Selattyn Hill over the Shropshire Plain, one can see the Wrekin and Long Mynd

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.

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Traces of scoops that might be primary quarries used to construct the bank of Offa’s Dyke, looking W

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.

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looking W over Offa’s Dyke, one can see a striking prehistoric cairn

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.

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The Craignant Tower from the east heading W into Wales
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Looking W from within Wales, the dyke rises steeply at an angle

 

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.

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Signs navigating the path
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Offa’s Dyke path running along an old lane on Selattyn Hill

 

Dudston Fields, Offa’s Dyke

Adapted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

Dr Caroline Pudney and myself led a field trip in October, and we were lucky to be joined by my new PhD student Liam Delaney who has recently begun doctoral research Offa’s Dyke’s landscape context. The undergraduate students got a treat of multiple locations and a sense of the entire northern part of the Anglo-Welsh borderland: its prehistoric hillforts, Roman sites, early medieval monuments and some of its castles too.

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Having driven down the A483 from Chester, I used the microphone on the coach to point out the topography along the way and, specifically, where Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke ran. Then, when at Montgomery Castle, we looked out and identified where Offa’s Dyke navigated the Vale of Montgomery.

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The first site where we visited Offa’s Dyke up close was at Dudston Fields in Chirbury parish, just east of the modern Anglo-Welsh border and not far east of Montgomery. I had visited this with the EMWARG conference delegates in 2015 for the first time, when Dr Keith Ray had expounded his arguments, subsequently published in his 2016 book about its adjusted-segmented design. This time it was great to have Liam there – his first visit – as well as to bring Ray and Bapty in book form!

IMG_1934On this visit, I got to see it more, less restricted by the EMWARG delegates. The students, Caroline and Liam were excellent for bouncing ideas off and adding key points about the monument and its landscape setting.

We started off by identifying the striking fact that this is the only section of Offa’s Dyke to be surveyed to a modern technical standard by the former RCAHME (now Historic England). I then pointed out and discussed the interpretation of the medieval ridge-and-furrow agriculture in relation to the dyke.

IMG_1937Next we explored what we think we know, and what we don’t know, about the dyke’s form and appearance. We also discussed Ray and Bapty’s arguments regarding the dyke’s ‘adjusted-segmented’ design of 20m-80m segments, each section aligned at slightly different angles. Here and elsewhere, as discussed for Hawthorn Hill, the dyke is made of a series of straight lengths, rather than being curvilinear. One student suggested this might have been to optimise the challenge of those scaling the monument and minimising erosion gullies.

IMG_1944We also talked with the students about the dyke’s differential survival depending on post-medieval landscape utilisation, the bank’s height and ditch’s depth vary considerably over this short stretch alone. In the field to the south, the monument has all but disappeared. In the Dudston Fields section, there are varying survival qualities of the bank and ditch in evidence.

We discussed how the monument is an ongoing victim of casual neglect. Fresh sheep-scrapes were in evidence into the bank. We also noted positive management strategies by the farmer: old logs dumped in the ditch to put off animals using sections where erosion was in evidence.IMG_1949

Then we turned to the broader landscape dynamics of the monument: its management of movement through the landscape, and surveillance of the landscape. We considered this in terms of both it managing the west-east traversing of the Vale, and perhaps also creating a protected corridor for traffic N-S. The idea that the dyke overtly ‘faced’ Montgomery, as proposed by Rap and Bapty, was also discussed.

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In photographic terms, both students and sheep were very useful: affording a valuable scale to show the monumental dimensions of the dyke at this point.

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Offa’s Dyke from Montgomery Castle

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.

First up on our day was Montgomery Castle. I’ve blogged about this 13th-century castle before, and its ‘archaeodeath’ dimensions. As discussed on this earlier post, we explored the castle’s architecture, evidence of its attendant town wall, and also how death and memory features in its heritage interpretation.

IMG_1922I 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.

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Boots and Feathers on Offa’s Dyke!

Re-blogged and adapted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

Interpreting traces of present-day activity along Offa’s Dyke isn’t always straightforward.

In previous posts, I’ve reflected on a range of practices by which walkers leave their mark on Offa’s Dyke: sticking erect bird feathers into cracks on stiles and posts along the National Trail.

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At Bronygarth in October, I noticed a further dimension that was new to me. In addition to a bird feather stuck into the top of a post beside a stile between a field and a lane on the National Trail, there was, suspended by a lace, a single well-worn walking boot (right foot I think).IMG_1773

Across the lane, in a nearby field, the second had been discarded.

What’s going on here?

Is the feather associated with the boot or are they unrelated?

IMG_1775Many questions remain unanswered…

Were the boots discarded as uncomfortable by a frustrated walker? If so, what did they use to walk onwards to the next Blacks or Millets?

Was one of them then tied to the post by the same person at the same time, or by different people at different times?

Could this be a memorial to a dead walker?

Does it celebrate walking?

Or else was this the makeshift use of an abandoned boot by the feather depositor?

Could the farmer be pointing out the refuse left by walkers by suspending one in a prominent position?

One commentator on my Archaeodeath blog posted an explanation:

Leaving worn-out boots behind as a sort of salute to the trail is common on other trails, so I suspect that’s what happened here. They would have been carried to the spot purposely, the walker already wearing their replacements. Usually both boots are tied to a post together, so my best guess is that they weren’t secured very well (especially since you imply the first one was hanging by a single lace), and the second one was stolen by a fox. I’ve heard several stories of foxes stealing footwear, playing with it and then discarding it in the middle of a field or garden when they get bored; possibly the smell of sweaty feet interests them!

If we follow this interpretation, what I witnessed was the result of multiple agents: human intentional and accident, and then fox….

Maybe we’ll never know the precise sequence that led to this eerie deposit. However, there are a range of other inscribing and depositing practices along Offa’s Dyke. Someone seems to have taken the trouble, for instance, to balance a mushroom on a fence-post beside the dyke.IMG_1804

Meanwhile, on beech trees along the dyke, there is the occasional graffito.

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Whether long-distance walkers or local people, walking footpaths along the dyke rarely yields litter, but occasionally one encounters more evidence than the trail and the stiles…

The Offa’s Dyke Ditch at Bronygarth and Nant Eris

Re-posted and adapted from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

Complementing my recent blog-post about the CPAT dig at Chirk Castle, I wanted to explore other nearby sections of Offa’s Dyke a fresh. I’d previously discussed the well-preserved ditch and bank of Offa’s Dyke at Bronygarth as part of a broader discussion of the design and landscape context of the monument between Craignant and Chirk: see this link.

Whereas at Chirk Park, the ditch has long been filled in, the slope down from Chirk Castle to the Ceiriog does preserve a more substantial ditch, although heavily denuded and difficult to photograph.

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Looking N on the slope ascending to Chirk Castle

In contrast, looking south from Chirk, one of the best-preserved sections of Offa’s Dyke anywhere is on the south-side of the Ceiriog valley as it rises from Bronygarth towards the Nant Eris.

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Looking south across the Ceiriog valley, – Offa’s Dyke is beneath the line of trees in the foreground, and rises out of the valley beneath the trees on the line either side of the white house.

At various points on this route, the ditch is clearer, and as one gets higher up, at certain points one can witness the width and depth of the V-shaped ditch.

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Looking north, downhill, above Bronygarth
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Looking south, uphill, above Bronygarth
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One of the most impressive earthwork-surviving sections of Offa’s Dyke’s ditch anywhere.

Indeed, the opening image of this blog, taken looking S along the line of the dyke, reveals clearly the scale of the ditch, albeit after more than a millennium of erosion. Add to this another 1-1.5m of depth and you get a sense of how the CPAT dig’s dyke may have once appeared soon after creation.

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A view from within the ditch, looking north above Bronygarth