Around Wrexham, Wat’s Dyke remains an important monument but heavily damaged by agricultural, industrial and construction activities. Running c. 38 miles from Basingwerk to Maesbury, it is a monument often overshadowed by its larger neighbour: Offa’s Dyke. Excavations at Gobowen suggest that it is later than Offa’s Dyke: a Mercian construction of the early 9th century AD.
At Pandy, as part of a recent field trip exploring the industrial and post-industrial uses of the landscape, I encountered a section that runs from near the railway line across the fields towards what is now the A483, before it enters into what is now the suburbs of Wrexham. See my previous discussions of it at this location here, and nearby at Erddig here and here.
Fox, writing in Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1934, has this to say about the section.
Wat’s Dyke begins again 50 yards to the S. of the “Y” road junction, near Pandy Farm. (From this point northwards to the road, there is a mere hedge bank). The construction of the railway obscured the topography, but it is clear that the terminal point is exactly what was the head of a lateral (and doubtless boggy and thickly wooded) ravine opening northwards down Wilderness Wood to the main river (see Fig. 26, 5, a). From the very beginning, the Dyke was straightly aligned (Type I) to the 300ft contour, 620 years away, and was throughout on a large scale with a broad W. ditch present-day irregularities are due to destruction and levelling.
While the bank is denuded, it is clearly larger than any later field boundary, and straight-aligned with extensive views westwards. Moreover, nothing more than a wide depression running west of the bank, it is evident that a large ditch once existed on the dyke at this location.
In this position, Wat’s Dyke is not following the top of a ridge or ravine. Instead, it is running as straight as possible over relatively flat ground in order to navigate between the Alyn and the Clywedog rivers. To the south, it crosses the Clywedog before following the eastern ridge of the Black Brook past Erddig Hall. To the north, it crosses the Alyn and incorporates the earthworks of Caer Alyn hillfort.
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.
Despite being a shorter monument than Offa’s Dyke, because its course navigates lower elevations, there are more situations where it navigates modern conurbations. This is a challenge for the preservation of Wat’s Dyke, but offers a host of opportunities to engage large numbers of people with this significant early medieval monument. Sadly, for most people living in suburban and urban areas, Wat’s Dyke is an invisible giant.
So on New Year’s Eve I decided to head out to explore/re-explore a few locations where the important and enigmatic Wat’s Dyke intersects with the largest town in North Wales: Wrexham and its immediate suburbs. I then tweeted. supported by images of the dyke at Ty Gwyn Lane, Wat’s Dyke Primary School, and beside the Premier Inn opposite Wrexham railway station:
This received a flurry of interest in basic and important questions about Wat’s Dyke: what is it? where can we see it? It dawned on me that I couldn’t easily answer their questions. I did, however:
give my own summary of the monument: likely to be early 9th century and built as part of a complex Mercian frontier zone, a successor to Offa’s Dyke, it runs 38 miles from Basingwerk on the Dee estuary to Maesbury on the Morda;
But what about a guide to where Wat’s Dyke runs? Surely I could direct them to something already published and coherent? Sadly no!
Detailed Ordnance Survey maps will help the walker find sections of the monument, sure. However, they aren’t fully reliable and appropriately annotated for many sections. The Wat’s Dyke Way Heritage Trail is useful, but has no information about the monument itself along the course. Coflein will allow you to find details on individual points along its course, but not about how it looks and how publicly accessible the locations are. More/different details can be found on Archwilio – the online Historic Environment Record hosted by the Welsh Trusts: it gives you a line of points where Wat’s Dyke can be located, and details for each point. However, the ‘dots’ don’t always match up with the stretches of the monument that remain extant. Entries sometimes contain no information, and some sections of the dyke have no description. Again, access issues aren’t easy to match up with public rights of way, although a combination of Coflein/Archwilio with an OS map will get you to most locations.
Still, none of these are designed as public-facing and user-friendly for someone wanting to explore this monument in their neighbourhood. Moreover, the only published and easy-to-appreciate maps are those on the macro-scale: charting the dyke’s overall course in relation to the broader landscape. For instance, Fox’s 1955 Archaeologia Cambrensis map shows Wat’s Dyke from Dee to Morda, with the sections where it survives as an earthwork marked clearly in relation to rivers and in relation to steep river valleys. He also marks areas where he postulates it crossed cultivated land around Wrexham, Ruabon, Gobowen and Oswestry.
In 1997, Margaret Worthington produced a different version, focusing on the topography more. However, it is not detailed enough to let anyone navigate the precise route of Wat’s Dyke in relation to the existing landscape.
These are not designed for people to visit the monument and the scale prevents this in any case.
So how do we expect laypersons to visit and appreciate Britain’s second-longest early medieval linear earthwork if we cannot even put up a coherent heritage trail and heritage boards, or even web resources to guide people with a simple map??
This is especially important for Wrexham, where there is commemorated in buildings and a road – Wat’s Dyke Primary School, Wat’s Dyke Way – and where the monument runs through the western side of the town from Bryn Alyn hillfort and Pandy down to the Clywedog and Erddig Hall. In this area, while heavily damaged and lost in many places due to post-medieval/industrial activities and modern housing, it affords tens of thousands of people with the ready opportunity to visit a section viewable from public accessible land on their doorstep. No matter how humble, damaged and overgrown it might be, surely there must be easy digital resources and apps to help facilitate engagement with it? Even Erddig NT have nothing coherent and up-to-date to say about it, and the heritage board at Erddig castle bears out-of-date information despite being new.
Something far more slick could be developed, but let me sketch a rough attempt to answer the question ‘Where can I visit Wat’s Dyke in Wrexham’, focusing on 8 locations in the suburbs of town, and of course focusing on publicly accessible locations.
Let’s take each location in turn from North to South, identifying access, what you can see, and what it tells us, as well as links to previous blog-posts about each.
I’ve previous posted about this section here. The Archwilio entry is short and basic:
The dyke is badly damaged by quarrying and agricultural activitity. Present for c150m to north of A483 road. Further to north line marked by hedgebank. Remains consist of bank max 1.3m high, hollow to west. Southern end of this section of Dyke cut through by the building of the Wrexham by-pass.
Via a footpath running south from Plas Action Road just after the Bluebell Estate and before it heads west over the railway line, one can traverse a good stretch of Wat’s Dyke as far as the A483.
The ditch is largely filled in, and the bank denuded significantly, as the Dyke forms the boundary of post-medieval fields. However, don’t give up (as I did before) until you hit the bank of the A483 where the dyke has been destroyed for some distance by the road-building until one can see it again on the south-side of Ty Gwyn Lane (see point 2, below). This is because, to the south, close to the A483, the bank survives increasingly better, until it is almost 2m high. Furthermore, at the southernmost part of this section, a gully to its west is large and wide, implying the presence of a silted up ditch.
What’s the dyke doing here? It’s crossing flat ground with good views westwards, between the Alyn and Clywedog.
2. The School Dyke
Ty Gwyn Lane and Wat’s Dyke Primary School – Wat’s Dyke – Wrexham De221 – Primary Reference Number (PRN) : 106673
There is no Archwilio description of this section in Garden Village. On the south side of the A483, from Ty Gwyn Lane up to Wat’s Dyke Primary School, there is a good section. You can park on Ty Gwyn Lane, or else on Wat’s Dyke Way and then walk into the grassed area kept clear of houses and explore the dyke.
The bank again varies in height, and is higher to the north, beside Ty Gwyn Lane.The ditch does actually survive as a wide, low depression, particularly at the top of the hill at the southern end of this section, beside Wat’s Dyke Primary School.
South of the primary school, the Dyke can be seen for a short stretch but then disappears beneath the back property boundaries of houses.
The dyke is here navigating a modest but significant high-point between the Alyn and Clywedog. Its precise route optimises visibility west and maintains visual communication eastwards.
3. The Railway Dyke
Crispin Lane – Wat’s Dyke – Wrexham De191 – Primary Reference Number (PRN) : 106675
I confess I have cycled past this section of Wat’s Dyke for 10 years, but because it’s heavily overgrown, and it isn’t publicly accessible, I wasn’t precisely sure where it lay. So on my cycle I hadn’t realise Wat’s Dyke was lurking on the other side of the fence in Network Rail-owned land beside the railway line! Walk down Crispin Lane and you can catch glimpses of it in winter through the fence! The Archwilio entry reads:
Two sections of Wat’s Dyke bounded to the west by Crispin Lane, which probably overlies the original western ditch. Large, impressive and well-preserved stretches of upstanding dyke. Northern section (SJ33015128 to SJ33005122) some 80m long, 10m wide and 1.5m in height. The eastern face and top of the monument are obscured by dumped material, probably associated with the construction of the adjoining railway sidings. Southern section some 75m long and 8m wide, height increasing from 1m at southern end (SJ32975111) to 2m at northern terminal (SJ32995117). For approximately 60m of its length, the eastern face has been artificially scarped, possibly as a result of the construction of the adjoining railway sidings (Cadw, 2003).
In this area, the Dyke is running over flat/modestly sloping down before it descends to the Clywedog.
4. The Premier Dyke
Premier Inn, south of Wrexham Railway Station – Wat’s Dyke – Wrexham De191 – Primary Reference Number (PRN) : 106675
Park in the Premier Inn car park, or else walk in from the Mold Road, and between the new hotel (2012) and the 19th-century railway line is a reconstructed section of Wat’s Dyke, displayed but without signage, and relocated following archaeological excavation (Grant pers. comm.).
5. The Cambria Dyke – Wat’s Dyke – Wrexham De165n – Primary Reference Number (PRN) : 106678
Named by me the Cambria Dyke because of its proximity to Coleg Cambria. Park at Morrisons or beside Bellvue Park, and walk along Ruthin Road. From the east side of the rise where the road crosses the railway bridge, one can look down over a property boundary between allotments and houses (to the east of it) and a public footpath heading south to Bersham Road, with Coleg Cambria’s car park on the western side. This is Wat’s Dyke! The footpath follows the former line of the ditch. At many places the bank has been damaged and disturbed by 19th-century walling and 20th-century fencing, but just south of Ruthin Road the bank is almost 2m high.
In this section, and Wrexham cemetery, the dyke is approaching the Clywedog valley, so that it hits a prominent point before negotiating its norther side.
Park in or beside Wrexham cemetery and visit Wat’s Dyke within its grounds! The ditch has gone but the bank survives as a low earthwork running south from Bersham Road to the top of the hill before the cutting created by the Ruabon Road breaks it off.
The dyke lacks a separate PRN within the cemetery grounds, where it is discernible, if covered with 19th-century graves. Indeed, this is the only place where its edges are marked by heritage lines in the two driveways in the cemetery that bisect its line. Notably, the Welsh is on the ‘Mercian’ (east) side’, the English on the ‘Welsh’ (west) side of the monument!
Early medieval-inspired Victorian gravestone in the form of a ‘Celtic’ (i.e. Hiberno-Norse wheel-headed) cross
I was struck by the large number of early medieval-inspired graves of late 19th century date overlaying the early medieval monument! The funerary landscape incorporating such an important ancient monument is a rare thing.
This section of the Dyke is only separated a short distance from the Cemetery Dyke (6) by the cutting for the Ruabon Road. Indeed, one can see the Cemetery Dyke in profile from the location where the Court Wood Dyke begins.
To visit, walk in from Wrexham along the Ruabon Road. Alternatively, use the NT car park at the Woodland Classroom off Hafod Road, and take the path over the stream and up into Court Wood, taking the left-hand fork in the path.
Again, it is important to note the cluelessness of the National Trust signs, which mention the Wat’s Dyke Way, but don’t give visitors an explanation of where and what Wat’s Dyke was.
Variously positioned under or within back property boundaries, a substantial and significant section, recently cleared of vegetation by NT volunteers, can be viewed in two prominent stretches.
Once upon the ridge, one can discern the traces of the monumental bank and revealing ditch
At the south-east end of the ridge, Wat’s Dyke is lost as it descends towards the valley and towards Erddig Castle. Presumably it once crossed the valley floor and I think there are subtle traces of it doing so.
8. The Big Wood Dyke
Wat’s Dyke – Erddig Big Wood, excavation 1985 – Primary Reference Number (PRN) : 17766
Park at Erddig National Trust car park or walk into the estate from Wrexham or from the NT car park at the Woodland Classroom off Hafod Road, one can see a significant section of Wat’s Dyke within the woods between Erddig Hall and Erddig Castle. See my discussion here. and here, and also here.
My 50-minute talk was called Rethinking Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes. Having given due credit to previous and ongoing research on Britain’s larger and longest ancient monuments, I introduced the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory: a recently created research network of which I’m co-convenor, aiming to foster new research on the Anglo-Welsh borderlands focusing on the comparative analysis, landscapes, biographies and designs of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke and related monuments.
I then explored 4 key themes in current thinking and new approaches to how these monuments transformed memory and movement in the Anglo-Welsh borderland.
Monumentalising the Landscape
First up, I considered how these linear earthworks controlled movement, but also monumentalised the landscape itself. For example, I discussed how Offa’s Dyke enhanced natural scarps and prominent hills as an active dimension of its construction, not simply as a by-product of its strategic placement.
Wat’s Dyke’s landscape dynamics
I then considered Wat’s Dyke, noting how it has been relatively neglected and how it differs from Offa’s Dyke in landscape placement and relationship to earlier monuments. In particular, I discussed how its line might have deliberately appropriated monuments that could have been both strategic in military and territorial terms, but also have served as places of assembly and charged with myth and legend.
The Pillar of Eliseg
I then proposed that the unique 9th-century Pillar of Eliseg – an early medieval cross situated on an Early Bronze Age burial mound, cannot be understood without considering its relationship to Offa’s Dyke and, more significantly, Wat’s Dyke. Recent work on the landscape context of the Pillar of Eliseg by Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores and myself considered why the monument is where it is. In the talk, I addressed how this work offers a ‘Welsh’ perspective on the frontier in terms of memory and resistance. The location, monument and landscape context of the Pillar made it a place of assembly in a contested borderland, in dialogue with, and perhaps ‘shouting at’, the dykes created by the Mercian rivals of Powys.
The commemoration of the linear earthworks in today’s world and the frequent ‘dyke denial’ in heritage practices and discourses that overlooks monuments that are often too big to explain and engage audiences with. For example, visiting the popular Cadw site of Tintern Abbey (a 12th-century Cistercian abbey in the Wye Valley) will not be greeted with any sense that the entire western skyline would have been dominated by Offa’s Dyke.
All four dimensions/case studies focused attention on the relationship between movement, monument-building and social memory in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, past and prseent. I proposed that we have a unique opportunity, through the Collaboratory, to build momentum for new research projects and community engagements in these familiar, yet still neglected, monuments, to foster new social memories of these monuments. To do this, we must move beyond ‘conserving’ the fragments of the dykes that survive, but also investigating where they are now ‘lost’. Furthermore, it involves tackling new methods and perspectives to investigate the dykes’ broader, complex, multi-period landscapes.
I am an archaeological illustrator who regularly creates drawings and paintings for various kinds of public outreach projects. Several years ago, I began using comics as a medium for visual explanation of all kinds of archaeology – monuments, research, excavation, survey, etc. What I have discovered is that comics are an extraordinarily suitable medium for communicating archaeological information, as the particular combination of image and text in comics allows one to show as well as tell, place explanation within visual context, and simplify by de-complicating the presentation rather than dumbing-down the content. These comics – even in very short form, only a few panels – can be used to introduce an audience to a big and unfamiliar subject in a way that is both engaging and accessible.
During the summer of 2016, in the run up to Heritage Open Days, I ran a series of four-panel comics in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer newspaper, about the history, archaeology and heritage of the market town of Oswestry. The series – which ran weekly for three months – proved such a successful way of talking about the subject that in 2017 I received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to do a further year – fifty two weekly strips – of similar comics. These have been published since June in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer, as well as on a dedicated Facebook page, my blog and a dedicated online archive at Qube/Oswestry Community Arts.
One of these comics was about Wat’s Dyke. The comic, even though it was only four panels long, was an attempt to introduce the dyke to a readership largely be unfamiliar with its history and meaning. In four panels, and less than 100 words, I wanted to give readers a detailed, but un-complicated introduction to the dyke: what it was, what its name might mean, how it was built, who built it and when, what its function was in the past, and how readers might visit and explore it in the present day. The result was intended to provide a compact but wide-ranging background for readers to spark their curiosity and interest, and then direct it into further engagement with the monument.
It is often difficult to engage the public with earthwork monuments. As we do not, in the 21st century, regularly build using earthwork construction, the idea of banks and ditches made of soil and grass being significant and meaningful constructions in the landscape can seem alien. At least with a ruined castle or other stone construction showing what it may have looked like in the past reconstructs identifiable architectural components – wall-faces, turrets, windows, doors, steps, etc. – which audiences can imagine or visualise being used by people in the past. Even when reconstructed, an earthwork can remain unedifying – unless we can show people in the past building, using or otherwise demonstrating how the earthwork functioned and what it might have originally meant.
Comics, with a stylised aesthetic and a narrative context, is perfect for conveying the human, everyday context of unfamiliar concepts. It’s person-centred visuals, its storytelling approach – its layered explanatory structure – are easy to understand, without the need for a specialist visual language. But the nested and inter-dependent relationship between image and text within the comic still allows for plenty of complexity within the content. In this short four-panel comic, for example, a diversity of information – myth and legend, rambling and footpaths, history and archaeology – is combined in a way that feels both complementary without being overwhelming.
The use of sequential narrative as a tool for creating better and more meaningful public outreach is something which is being explored in areas well beyond archaeology. In medicine, for example, an entire genre of “Graphic Medicine” utilises comics for everything from patient experience and education, to training and clinical research. A recent project in the UK has demonstrated how research into visualisation-based approaches can be used to analyse the effectiveness and relevance of information given to patients. This analysis can ensure that care-critical information is comprehensible, relevant, and (most importantly) used: well-informed patients avoid relapses, infections and revisions, and save healthcare providers time and money.
Archaeology can learn from this approach. As we face ever-tighter funding and ever-wider gaps between the professional and public knowledge and understanding of the past, we should be using every possible means at our disposal to stimulate good quality, meaningful engagement with our various audiences. I believe this process begins with good quality information – and the effective and accessible presentation of that information, particularly information about less-well known and less-visible sites and monuments such as earthworks. As an archaeological illustrator, I produce plenty of finds illustrations, site plans, reconstructions and cutaways of ancient and historic sites – but I have come to realise over the years that these visualisations – despite the fact that they are extensively used for outreach – still rely on their audiences being able to understand a highly specialised visual language. By contrast, sequential narrative has an immediacy, novelty and accessibility that does not rely on familiarity with a specialised visual language – and thus perfect for use in public engagement.
The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Adverizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
A Research Network for Offa's Dyke, Wat's Dyke and Early Medieval Western Britain