There are two faces to Offa’s Dyke, one the national trail that rambles along the full length of the border between England and Wales, the other the actual dyke, the ditch and its rampart, masterminded by Offa, king of Mercia, in the 8th century to save his kingdom from the marauding Welsh. At least, that is how the story goes. In fact, it never really worked. It’s basically just a ditch, albeit a deep one in places. Some of it had massive earth ramparts, elsewhere it is barely more than a hedge ridge and thinking nowadays leans towards the theory that it might even have been the result of an agreement to create a peaceful boundary between the two warring kings. Trail and original earthwork cross and recross the modern border, sometimes together, sometimes miles apart, but both are part of the myth and legend that is the Welsh March. In many places the original dyke has disappeared completely, ploughed in deliberately or allowed to subside into the landscape. About 80 fragmented miles remain today, although hopefully more may be rediscovered; there is much excavation still to do.
I live in Hay-on-Wye and the Offa’s Dyke National Trail bisects the town. Southwards it crosses fields before starting to climb steeply up into the beautiful Black Mountains; northwards it heads over the River Wye then east along its bank, before turning north again into Herefordshire towards the Radnor Forest. This is a place where dragons lurk, kept comfortingly quiescent, or so we are assured, by the presence of the four Michael churches at the corners of their lair. The trail runs for 177 curvaceous miles from the Severn Estuary north to the Irish Sea and traverses some of the most beautiful scenery in Britain, artfully weaving mist and rainbows into distant views and shadowed valleys.
Exploring land and history
My dog and I first explored the trail nearest home and I was content with the immediate drama of hill, mountain and river, but why Offa? I knew so little about this Anglo-Saxon king and, always a partisan of the Celts, wondered why I didn’t even know the name of the king of Powys, his opponent. He was, it turned out, Cadell ap Brochfael. I was intrigued at Offa’s desire to create what he must have thought would be a permanent partition between him and his neighbour. The nation we now call Wales didn’t yet exist. Instead there were several small kingdoms, left to their own devices by the departure of the Romans and the kings of Powys were a fairly consistent thorn in Offa’s side, eyeing the fertile lands of their eastern neighbour with unappreciated interest. I consulted my history books. I widened my research to the families of the two men. There was a fascinating story here. It was for me, literally, inspirational; I could feel the characters of a novel beginning to assemble.
It seemed logical to start my research at the Offa’s Dyke Centre in Knighton, about half way along the trail, one of the places one can climb down into the dyke and visualise oneself facing a hostile force high on those west-facing earthen ramparts. The centre, with all the comforts required by the long (or short) distance walker (maps, books, cafe, museum, lavatories, even a children’s playground) had answers to many of my questions and I began to appreciate the difference between dyke and trail. The latter takes about two weeks to walk from end to end, but with my embryonic novel in mind I wanted to visit specific areas. It is the national trail that goes through Hay. Who needs a dyke, after all, when there is a broad river and a mountain range to form this part of your chosen boundary? I needed to explore the places I thought might be relevant to my story and I wanted to find the dyke itself.
Getting a scenic overview
My first destination was Hergest Ridge, which eventually would stand in as the fictional setting for much of my story. It has long been one of my favourite places, open moorland from the top of which one can see for miles, south to the Black Mountains, round to the Brecon Beacons, Radnor Forest, the Shropshire Hills and full circle to the Malverns. But it is part of the trail, not the dyke. The latter, I discovered, begins to reveal itself only on the far side of Kington, the little town at the foot of the Ridge and, I was beginning to realise, it is sometimes quite hard to find, whereas the national trail is well marked.
I found a section of the dyke at last near the delightfully named Titley Junction. One follows a footpath behind this small restored railway station (when we were there it was deserted, "no one left and no one came"), on around the edge of a field and there in the hedge is the descent into the vastly deep ditch I was looking for, lined with trees, unbreached until the railway came. At the bottom, out of a sharp wind, it was full of shadows, bird song and ancient echoes. The dyke is like that, with some small sections precious and often unseen. In other areas one can’t miss it as it strides across the hills, a challenge and landmark for miles around, part of lonely landscapes, circled by buzzards and red kites, which ride the thermals into endless blue skies. In many places there are hill forts to be seen and in others tumps and ruined castles belonging to later attempts to tame the March, now lost in the eternities of time. They add to the stunning views.
During its construction the lengths of dyke were linked to natural features, rivers and sharp valleys, cliffs and crags, and possibly earlier dykes already there, all combining to form a defensible border. It might have seemed a workable plan to Offa and his advisers, each section being overseen by local thanes and ealdormen and their conscripted labour, but some bits, so the archaeologists tell us, were far better constructed than others, signs of shoddy workmanship only a few miles from would-be masterpieces of engineering. Much of it is lost. It was all so long ago, and unlike Hadrian’s Wall it wasn’t built of stone. If there was a wooden palisade along the top of the rampart, or some watchtowers, they are long gone.
The main enemies of the dyke over the centuries have been ploughs, roads and trains. Only relatively recently has it been designated an ancient monument and given some degree of protection. Thank goodness it has.
It doesn’t need much imagination to see Offa’s men peering into the glare of the setting sun, keeping lookout for the hidden enemy emerging from the cover of those distant hills. All friends now, of course, but that border is still a conundrum, the modern version cutting through towns and villages, signposts changing from English to Welsh and back, sometimes several times within a single stretch of road and, during Covid, a cruel and sometimes senseless divide, but always a liminal place of magic and mystery.
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The Daily Telegraph