Recently, it was my pleasure to meet for the first time, and introduce to Offa’s Dyke, medieval historian Dr Natalie Fryde.
Natalie now lives in Ireland following a long career as a University professor in Germany. She is best known as a researcher for her work on the 13th and 14th centuries, including a tome on Edward II. Yet, the particular circumstances of our recent communications via email has been to facilitate the reproduction of a revised version of a chapter Natalie had co-edited as one of the ‘classics revisited’ articles due to appear in the Offa’s Dyke Journal.This is because, in 2009, Natalie co-edited with Dirk Reitz a collection called Walls, Ramparts and Lines of Demarcation: Selected Studies from Antiquity to Modern Times which featured a chapter on Offa’s Dyke by eminent early medieval historian Ann Williams. Through dialogue with Natalie and Ann, we have now received a fresh version of Ann’s 2009 study for the ODJ.
By way of thanks I promised to show Natalie some sections of Offa’s Dyke and, together with University of Chester doctoral researchers Brian Costello (investigating early medieval grave-goods) and Liam Delaney (exploring Offa’s Dyke), we met at the Offa’s Dyke Centre before walking along two key sections of Offa’s Dyke south of Knighton: Hawthorn Hill and north of Yewtree Farm, Discoed.
I’ll write about my impressions regarding these sections of the Dyke in a later post. Here, I would say that we discussed with Natalie the construction, design and landscape placement of the Dyke in some detail, as well as its broader historical context. Using the two stretches, we considered how the Dyke navigates hillsides, but also the approaches to river valleys. Furthermore, we also addressed its shifting preservation along these stretches. Furthermore, we talked about its heritage interpretation, its signposts and gates and stiles.
Here are some pics of us exploring with Natalie.
While the scale and character of the Dyke was impressive, so was this awesome oak tree we encountered.
We also came across this wonderful old wooden gate post, preserved within a far newer fence, on Hawthorn Hill.
Mention must also be made of some fabulous Offa’s Dyke ewes and lambs.
We enjoyed the new Offa throne. Here’s Brian imagining himself a Mercian despot.
We also got to meet Offa himself. Brian introduced him to mobile technology and he didn’t look at all impressed. He also didn’t really enjoy reading Wikipedia entries about the 9th century, narked off he most certainly was regarding the fate of Mercia. He also made clear he thought Brexit was the stuff of nightmares and created by weaklings and imbeciles.
It was great to see the small part of ‘Welsh resistance’ to the dyke-focused narrative in the form of the Pillar of Eliseg.
Finally, it was exciting to see the July weekend activities organised by Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust are being advertised!
So here’s to meeting a super-bright and lovely lady and thanks to her for helping Liam and I with the first volume of the brand-newOffa’s Dyke Journal.
While many spent the evening watching the Eurovision finals, I was presenting a public lecture at the Prestatyn Walking Festival, standing in for Professor Keith Ray, in the parish church hall in Prestatyn, close to the end-point of the Offa’s Dyke Path.
By way of introduction, I discussed the varied survival of the monument, using an example of Discoed where, within a few metres of each other, the monument shifts in scale dramatically, perhaps relating to contrasting afterlives and different erosion patterns between where the dyke follows and crosses the contours.
I also explained the significant difference between the line of the Offa’s Dyke Path, especially in the north, and Offa’s Dyke. I noted that the farthest north one can see Offa’s Dyke from the Path is where the Llangollen Canal cuts it on the south-side of the Vale of Llangollen.
I identified some of Offa’s Dyke’s construction features, design and placement in the landscape, and its broader landscape context. Next, I presented to the audience the latest ideas and fresh questions regarding Offa’s Dyke in the north, before presenting a comparative review of the middle and northern stretches of Wat’s Dyke.
I concluded by discussing why the further archaeological and historical investigation of Britain’s first and third-longest ancient monuments deserve our attention, and why it matters to investigate, conserve, manage and interpret Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke in the early 21st century. For instance, I noted how the only place there is a sign about Wat’s Dyke in Wrexham is at the cemetery. Many people in NW England and NE Wales don’t know these massive ancient monuments are on their doorstep.
The link to Eurovision? Well, from the start of the talk, I emphasised the European context of these 8th-/9th-century linear earthworks.
In this context, I discussed how linear earthworks reveal the challenges of interpreting the early medieval past in the early 21st century, a time when many wish new borders and frontiers to emerge in Europe, as well as old ones to be reinvented across Europe and beyond. This set the stage for explaining, at the end of the talk, the importance of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory to foster new research and enhance greater public understanding of these monuments, to enrich appreciation of the historic environment – to celebrate ancient frontiers and their redundancy, and thus to help future-proof them against extremist appropriation.
Introduced by the Mayor of Prestatyn and Meliden, it was a privilege and pleasure to stand in for Keith and present his work and some of my ideas about the Mercian frontier works at the Prestatyn Walking Festival.
By my estimate, this was my 63rd public talk, and I was delighted to have a lively and large audience of c. 68 humans, plus one dog called Frankie. I received lots of challenging questions, and strong opinions about Offa’s Dyke, and much surprise about the significant of Wat’s Dyke. Furthermore, I amassed some really positive feedback from the audience, who seemed to consider the talk information-packed and excellent.
As a final point, I promoted the CPAT-led Living History weekend at the Offa’s Dyke Centre, Knighton.
The event served to celebrate three anniversaries, coinciding as it did with the 50th anniversary of the Offa’s Dyke Association, 75 years of the CBA and 45 years of the Welsh Archaeological Trusts. The range of fascinating talks revolved around the CBA Wales AGM and Business Meeting and showcased the flourishing interest in researching Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke and related monuments and landscapes. I would like to thank Dr Cy Griffiths and those involved at the Centre in organising a fabulous day. I regret not being able to join delegates for an expert-led guided walk on the Sunday. The programme can be viewed here.
The day opened with a welcome from Mike Greene (CBA Wales chair) and Dr Mike Heyworth (CBA Director), followed by an expert and in-depth review of the history of the Offa’s Dyke Association’s 50 years from its inception driven by local schoolmaster Frank Noble. Ian brought the story up to the present, including a review of the ODA’s conservation work and long-term support for the only information centre attached to a national trail. Ian then evaluated the ODA’s vision for the next 50 years by Dr Ian Dormer. Among other points, Ian highlighted the ODA’s support and contribution to the Offa’s Dyke Conservation Management Plan which has reported on the state of the Dyke, including the widespread threat of ‘benign neglect’, Ian also highlighted the ODA’s ongoing support and engagement with the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory which is fostering new research on the Dyke and its context.
Next up, Ian Grant (CPAT) began by reviewing the C14 dates from the damaged section of Offa’s Dyke examined in 2014 at Plas Offa, Chirk, before reporting on the fabulous CPAT work in the summer of 2018, excavating Offa’s Dyke at Chirk and Wat’s Dyke at Erddig. Both these new interventions, each situated in places where the bank and ditch of the respective monuments were no longer visible, discovered not only the ditch but also slivers of the banks of each monument. The Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory visited the Chirk dig after the Oswestry conference in September ’18. Samples were taken for C14 and OSL dating at each location, offering a palpable opportunity, if funding can be secured, to enrich our knowledge of each monument’s dating and significance. Also notable is the fact that each dig uncovered earlier pits beneath the dykes, both containing cultural material.
After lunch was a discussion led by former Denbighshire county archaeologist Fiona Gale and Dr Cy Griffiths, evaluating the relationships between the Dyke and the Path. Important issues were raised regarding how the Dyke is understood by walkers, and how the Dyke is viewed from the Path. A host of further issues relating to heritage conservation, management and interpretation were explored.
Next came a fascinating presentation by the Radnorshire Society’s Julian Ravest who has been producing high quality photographs and photogrammetric surveys using a drone, focusing on sections of Offa’s Dyke north and south of Knighton – Hawthorn Hill and Llanfair Hill.
The day ended with a triple set of papers by myself and University of Chester doctoral researcher Liam Delaney (also the Herefordshire HER officer). Liam began by delivering a presentation outlining the rationale, methods and even some preliminary results from his doctoral research, including newly discovered, and further enhanced, understandings of Offa’s Dyke in Herefordshire, Radnorshire and Shropshire.
I followed with a presentation of the comparative landscape dynamics of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke in the northern section of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands. I reaffirmed and extended previous discussions of the dykes’ similarities and differences in terms of placement and landscape context, focusing on their cumulative viewsheds, riverine relationships, and reuses of ancient monuments.
Finally, Liam and I presented an update on the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory’s academic publication that we are co-editing together: the Offa’s Dyke Journal. We were able to give the conference delegates a sneak-preview of the contents of the first volume: multiple ‘classics revisited’ papers, and also new original articles. More info on that one in future posts!
Finally finally, I got to cheer up my old mate King Offa; he looked a bit down in the ditch.
Final finally finally, I got a new Offa’s Dyke t-shirt!
Up and down the length of Offa’s Dyke, Britain’s longest monument is communicated via different heritage signs, some raised by the Offa’s Dyke Path and Association, others by local initiative. There are also innumerable road-names and place-names alluding to the Dyke along its course. These, together with footpath signs where they coincide with the monument, constitute the present-day public ‘commemoration’ of this eighth-century monument.
I’ve addressed these ‘contemporary archaeology of heritage’ features before on this blog before, including:
Third, I saw a local initiative by the Trefonen Rural Protection Group to explain the Dyke, including a faded but useful cross-section visual of the monument. Called ‘a view through time’, it takes the panorama visible from the Offa’s Dyke Path as it runs parallel, but west and uphill, of the Dyke.
All these examples show the interleaving manners in which private individuals and local groups serve to mark and commemorate the Dyke and integrate the dyke into the heritage of the locality more broadly. These are good initiatives indeed, allowing the Dyke to join a rhizome of other stories of place and people over the longer term, from prehistory to the present.
How many First World War memorials are situated on the exact line of the 8th-century linear earthwork – Britain’s greatest monumental rampart – Offa’s Dyke?
Johnstown’s War Memorial (IWM 7173; PRN 36796)
This prominent war memorial in Wrexham County Borough is recorded by the Imperial War Memorials Register as a ‘tapering pillar of White Ashlar stone’ on a two-stepped base. It is inaccurately described as topped by St Michael, holding a sword with a slain dragon. More accurately, it is a knight, presumably St George (or maybe St Michael, fine), piercing the dragon with a lance and with a scrolled shield on his left arm.
It is indeed a beautiful monument, striking in its triangular shape and its slender whiteness. The tricorn shape of the monument allows for three corner flower holders bearing relief crosses. The lower step is now swallowed by a new brick-cobble pavement that expands to a circular kerb and beyond to encompass the entire triangular traffic island.
The text is divided on the pillar: the east face of the lower half commemorates the First World War, with 1914-18 in relief, below which is in leaded text: IN MEMORY OF OUR HEROES WHO FELL. The names of the dead are listed on the south-west and north-west faces.
The more slender upper half of the memorial has been deployed to commemorate the Second World War dead: 1939-45, the list of names and ‘LEST WE FORGET’, all in a smaller text.
The Memorial’s Location
The memorial’s location is at a crossroads: on the western side of the historic N-S Wrexham Road (running from Wrexham to Ruabon) and now situated on a traffic island to the south of intersection with the E-W Maelor Road from Rhosllanerchrugog. This position affords it prominence for those passing by and moving through the village, and also it allows a sizeable area for open-air ceremonies.
There is a further hidden dimension to this position: the war memorial is situated precisely upon the line of Offa’s Dyke, I suspect within its ditch. Fox (1955: 51) describes its likely course here in short but clear terms:
The Dyke joined [from the north, heading south] the Wrexham-Ruabon main road at an acute angle at BM 437.0. The adjacent New Inn, here set askew to the road, was probably built on the line of the earthwork. …. From [the Inn] to Moreton Inn, a distance of half a mile [to the south], the main road is on the line of the Dyke… and the road is a raised causeway…
The likelihood of this is clear in the local topography – the ground falls off both west and east, meaning that the line of the road, and the war memorial adjacent to it, takes the highest ground and the Dyke here would have commanded views both west and east. This can be still seen in the contemporary built-up environment of roads and houses.
I’m not saying that the former, long-lost, line of the Dyke would have been the principal, or even a direct contributing, factor in placing the war memorial. However, farm names and road-names close by do allude to a local consciousness of the Dyke in the village through the 19th century up to the First World War. Instead, I want to make the point that the topographical preferences of the Dyke match to the prominence required by the builders of the war memorial: dominating a subtle ridge, at the intersection of routes. Both Dyke and memorial were positioned in relation to movement and promoting social memory, even if the now-invisible Dyke and the extant war memorial face in opposing directions.
Furthermore, this is a powerful instance of the importance of understanding the Dyke as both tangible and intangible heritage. In explaining the significance of the Dyke for today and for the future, even in places where it is invisible to the viewer we can use the Dyke’s associations with more recent features and monuments to explore and engage communities with their long-term history. In this regard, the juxtaposition of the 20th-century war dead with an early medieval monument is a point of reflection in terms of how conflict has affected the communities of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands.
Fox, C. 1955. Offa’s Dyke. London: British Academy.
Heritage conservation is concerned for the long-term future of our ancient monuments, but this is usually considered in terms of the immediate coming centuries. However, what the survival of monuments over millennia? How can we, and should we, consider the future-proofing of our valued ancient monuments for thousands of years to come?
I’d like to suggest that Britain’s longest ancient monument – Offa’s Dyke – will likely survive longest – for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years – not where it is situated in woodland or farmland, or where it is protected as a scheduled ancient monument, but where it has already been sealed by 19th-century railway embankments.
The conservation of Britain’s largest ancient monument – Offa’s Dyke – is a pressing topic for archaeological and heritage debate. Regarded as built as an early medieval (Mercian) frontier work of the late 8th century to control movement and protect territory against Welsh rivals, it is a stupendous military, economic and ideological edifice. Yet despite its enormous scale and length (both of which remain issues that are hotly debated), this monument’s long-term future is uncertain.
Offa’s Dyke runs for large sections of over 170 miles intermittently from Gloucestershire to Flintshire. In some places it may have never been present, marked instead by rivers and other features. In further places it may have been constructed by was already denuded by medieval agricultural activities. Yet so much of the damage to the monument has been the result of 19th-early 21st-century agricultural activities, extractive industries, road and rail building, development for housing and other construction activities. On a far more modest level, it has been affected by erosion caused by walkers enjoying it as a public right of way and long-distant route: the Offa’s Dyke Path. Beyond all of these factors, Offa’s Dyke is affected by passive neglect as it is damaged by vegetation, burrowing animals and animal husbandry and farming practices, as well as by wind and water action by the elements (especially where it runs along steep slopes and in river valleys).
Conserving Offa’s Dyke for future generations is therefore not as strightforward as it might seem. Looking forward through the 21st century, the monument faces many potential risks to its long-term future including not only the processes outlined above, but also our disinterest and inability to conceptualise its monumental scale and historical significance. This is why the Offa’s Dyke Association, Historic England and Cadw are working together and funding an eagerly awaited Conservation Management Plan of the monument.
But let’s take a really long-term view for a moment. Which parts of Offa’s Dyke will survive longest?
Offa’s Dyke has been a dominant feature of the British landscape since at least the late 8th century: it survives in patches of staggering monumental scale, with a ditch up to 2-3m deep and bank up to 4m high, and a horizontal breadth of up to 20m. It has endured in varying scales for over 1220-1260 years! Surely, even if subject to ongoing damage, it will remain a feature through the 21st and 22nd centuries, and arguably the 31st and 32rd centuries AD, perhaps even until the 41st and 42nd centuries AD, perhaps long after humans have vanished from the planet. For the long term, and while humans are still here, surely scheduling the ancient monument will best ensure its survival for millennia to come?
Certainly I support the legal protection afforded to Offa’s Dye, but I’d also like to suggest that for all our conservation strategies, the sections of Offa’s Dyke likely to survive longest aren’t those subject to scheduling. Instead, I propose those that have already been ‘destroyed’ will survive longest. Buried sections of the ditch at many locations along its length are well-preserved out of site, but in terms of the bank’s survival, I’d propose railways have already ‘saved’ some sections of Offa’s Dyke for future millennia by late 19th-century railway embankments.
Railways and the Dyke
Offa’s Dyke is crossed by railway lines in multiple locations in its northern stretches associated with the Denbighshire coalfield. Many of these railway lines are parts of wider industrial operations that have destroyed the Dyke. For instance, at Ruabon the GWR crosses the Dyke in a cutting, as well as being damaged by road and rail at Ruabon Brick and Terra Cotta Works, cut by the Wrexham and Minera line at Cae-llo Brick Works, destroyed by sidings at Vron Colliery, and damaged by being cut by the Wrexham and Minera joint line at both Ffrith Hall and also at Pontystain Crossing.
Yet there are at least two locations where it seems that Offa’s Dyke has been buried and not necessarily destroyed by railway construction. In these locations, Offa’s Dyke’s bank and ditch might be reasonably expected to survive as well-preserved buried features since they were sealed beneath metres and metres of overburden during the construction of railway embankments. I make this argument presuming that railway embankments were built by a human workforce: not by large-scale earth-moving devices that might have damaged and destroyed the bank during the embankment’s creation (therefore contrasting with modern road-building). I’m happy to be corrected on this point.
First of these is at Brymbo Colliery where sidings are laid out over Offa’s Dyke with coal waste and now landscaped.
The second is a site I visited for the first time yesterday: north of Pentrebychan Crematorium in Wrexham borough. Here, the line of Offa’s Dyke was crossed by the Wrexham-Rhosllanerchrugog railway line. Constructed in the 1880s and 90s, it was opened to passenger traffic from 1902.
My only reservation is that, from the Ordnance Survey map, it might be taken to suggest that the line of the Dyke is denuded by the building of the bridge over a lane joining farm fields. However, on close inspection, it seems that the bank should be largely preserved, at least at the northern end, beneath the railway embankment just east of the crossing.
So will Offa’s Dyke be saved by the railways? Thinking of the deep-time persistence of this important monument might require we think of places where the Dyke has already disappeared, not where it is scheduled and preserved.
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.
A Research Network for Offa's Dyke, Wat's Dyke and Early Medieval Western Britain