walking with history: Offa’s Dyke

One sunny afternoon in early September we hefted our backpacks down from the coach in Hay on Wye, heading out to walk along Britain’s longest early mediaeval monument. Offa’s Dyke was built in the late eighth century to divide the Welsh kingdoms from the English kingdom of Mercia.

First we wanted to see the books—millions of books. Hay on Wye was famous for its many bookstores. How could we resist? Potentially Hay held all the books a person could hope to read on any topic, in my case early mediaeval Welsh literature and history.

We buzzed from shop to shop like pollen-dazed honeybees, leaving little piles of books on counters so we could narrow our choices. Then reality kicked in. Books are heavy, and I had one backpack to carry for the next hundred kilometres. We’d have to visit Hay another time.

One book I couldn’t leave. The slightly worn 1884 Celtic Britain had a handsome arts-and-crafts design on its cloth cover and looked lonely among all the no-nonsense modern histories. It was small, barely the weight of a large apple.

Next morning we headed out to pick up the path. The air was fresh with a hint of autumn, and the grassy pathway was brilliant green from recent rain. The carved wooden signpost was right where Frank Noble’s guidebook promised: Llwybr Clawdd Offa, the Offa’s Dyke Path, with its acorn emblem pointing the way north into the former kingdom of Powys—in the words of an early poem, Powys paradwys Cymru, Powys the paradise of Wales.

Offa’s Dyke near Tref-y-Clawdd (Knighton), Powys, looking north. The ditch on the west side and the dyke on the east side are still clearly visible. Image courtesy of the Offa’s Dyke Association.

In truth I was here to see three survivals from the eighth and ninth centuries: the earthwork, the poetry and the pillar. I’d seen some of the early poetry in the Welsh national library in Aberystwyth as a white-gloved librarian delicately turned the parchment pages. Now it was time to see the other two elements in an enigmatic triad. I planned to see them as an early mediaeval traveller would, on foot. With any luck we would walk north along eighth-century Offa’s Dyke as far as the early ninth-century monument near Llangollen, Croes Elisedd, the Pillar of Eliseg.

The first few kilometres we paused often to adjust pack straps and bootlaces. Gentle green hills and valleys swelled like waves of the western sea, a more familiar sight to us, in a landscape of heartbreaking beauty. Every stretch of high ground enticed us to snap a photo. My small history book weighed as much as a large turnip, then a small boulder. What had possessed me to buy it?

It was early afternoon when we stopped to eat our cheese and bread, and I wanted to get a pebble out of my boot. Misfortune comes in threes, I discovered on Offa’s Dyke. The pebble was a raw blister—already!—and by afternoon we’d walked only a few kilometres. Then it began to rain.

A tale of moleskin patches, Polysporin and rain ponchos dominated the next week, complete with slippery slopes of mud punctuated by rocks and roots and thorns. Soon we were locked in a cycle of wet boots that dried beside farmhouse hearths into stiff unforgiving blocks. Even compared with hiking in the Canadian Rockies or on Forbidden Plateau on Vancouver Island, it was a hard slog.

Offa’s Dyke Path was rough, slippery, changeable and wildly up-and-down, but somehow mostly up, in what we’d expected to be a mild pastoral countryside. It was increasingly painful, with blisters and inflamed knees. It was sometimes terrifying—tiptoeing around an occasional bull and resentful cows that wanted their feed, not random Canadian walkers—and briefly we were lost at twilight. I loved every minute.

Map from The ODA Book of Offa’s Dyke Path by Dr. Frank Noble, 1969, by kind permission of the Offa’s Dyke Association.

Many fine descriptions and images exist of Offa’s Dyke, the long-distance footpath that flanks it and the surrounding towns and farms. About 130 kilometres of the dyke remain traceable; originally it stood 27 metres wide and 8 metres from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank. But I don’t feel compelled to add my scattered observations, and even if I did, a flood turned many of my notes and photos from that time into gummy stacks of pulp. What remains is what I remember. Hir heol haul, hwy fy nghofion. Long the sun’s road, longer my memories.

One morning of sunshine and drifting cloud shadows we creaked out of our overnight farmhouse and stumbled north, always north. My teeth were gummy despite a quick brush, so I swiped an already broken hazel twig and did a better cleaning. My mouth felt fresher. The air was clear and cool. The world smelled newly made as we passed musical streams and sheltering woodlands. Cattle grazed in pastures, horses clustered at drystone walls. For that morning I walked through an eighth-century landscape. This was what I came for. I never lost that echo sense of coming home to a place I’d never known.

We didn’t make Llangollen, not on foot. Weather, blisters, locked knees and a book the weight of a Roman lead pig ended our trek at Trefaldwyn (Montgomery), but we soon drove to other stretches of the dyke and other historical sites. There’s always another walk, another year. Maybe next year?

In writing historical fiction I like to see where events happened; often it’s the same as seeing why events happened. Wading through fords and scrambling up to hill forts has taught me as much about long-ago history as reams of written analysis And not to be discounted, it’s great fun as well as a source of insight. Lying on a grassy bank under the wind looking east into lowland England, across a border that has been peaceful for centuries, is an invitation to speculate about the politics and origins of the earthwork. Built to keep the Welsh out? Built through co-operation to regulate trade? Like me, everyone has a theory.

Along the way, in person or by correspondence, I’ve met some of the dedicated people who created and sustain the Offa’s Dyke Association, among them Frank Noble, Glenys Beech, Ernie Kay, David Hill, Margaret Worthington Hill, Howard Williams, Aaron Watson and Dave McGlade. I’ve also met staff at the excellent ODA visitors’ centre in Tref-y-Clawdd (Knighton), farmers, schoolteachers, shopkeepers who shared their drinking water and serious long-distance walkers. Some days more than others, life is a journey. Part of mine has been along Offa’s Dyke.

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An afterthought: Sometimes I dip into Celtic Britain and its odd Victorian notions about history. Strangely it weighs about as much as a large apple.