Saturday, 10 November 2012

Offa's Dyke Walk: brought to you by the letter 'C'

Last month I went on a wonderfully reflective walking holiday along the Offa's Dyke Trail. Herewith some ruminations.

Offa's Dyke is an incomplete earthwork running the length of Wales on the border between England and Wales. It is attributed to the eighth century, Anglo-Saxon king, Offa and was turned into a National Trail in 1971. Both before and since Offa this land has been contested between the Welsh and other opposing groups. The landscape en route is varied; from mountain ranges to rivers, plains and forest. I walked from Kington to Sedbury, with the company of my Mum between Hay and Monmouth, it required walking boots and walking poles.

(The weather was er, interesting - Llanthony)

Conquerors and Chieftains
As previously mentioned the path follows the borderlands between England and Wales, an area that has been contested for millennia. As such there is lots to interest the budding archaeologist from Norman castles to Iron Age hillforts and the remains of Roman settlements. I frequently marched off piste towards mapped inclines in the hope of finding settlements.

Much of the route is rural and there were frequent occasions where the vista could have been Saxon, sheep, forest, stone walls and mountains. No cars, no houses, no tarmac. This meant that the path was not always easy, frequently muddy and occasionally impassable. I was only trying to walk 15 miles on any given day but progress up inclines and through mud was often slow. When I wasn't feeling like Bear Grylls I had increasing sympathy for the Roman soldiers based in this landscape (they had a settlement at Abergavenny they called, 'Gobannium' - great name!). Agricola's comment, 'Britain is cold, wet and difficult to traverse! Take me back to Tunisia, now!' (I paraphrase) seemed rather fitting. There were times a spa would have been very nice.

Castles and Churches as Community
Not only is the trail a beautiful natural path it also brings you into contact with lots of gorgeous old buildings. Some of these buildings are ruins (Llanthony and Tintern Abbeys, Abergavenny Castle, Monmouth Castle) others less so (Chepstow castle) and some still in one piece (St David's Church -1108, Abergavenny Tithe Barn, Hergest Hall).

The more complete buildings and the illustrations at ruins really helped me to think about churches and castles with their attendant communities. The castles and priory communities had gardens, storehouses and fireplaces in evidence for supporting real people doing real life. These were homes for communities of people; places tradesmen created wares, politicians made decisions, women infiltrated and caused scandals. For once the ruins weren't just romantic photo opps, they were also representations of communities passed.

(Llanthony Castle)
Cultural Conquest
The Dyke is in a liminal place, somewhere between England and Wales. It was interesting to compare towns culturally in modern day life.

Kington screamed rural English village. I went to a pub where people spoke like they were the cast of Hot Fuzz, there were roasts a plenty of cosy fires.

Hay on Wye on the other hand was 'just inside Wales' as declared by a deliciously comic partnering between the 'Welcome to Wales' sign and the 'Beware Children. Beware Old People' signpost.

Llanthony was Welsh and very rural, Pandy was still Wales, Abergavenny had a strong Welsh identity. The Welsh dragon was everywhere, even in the priory choir stalls; they had a cwtch coffee shop and all signs were billingual. We heard a lot of Welsh spoken here too.

(Dragon carving, St Mary's Priory, Abergavenny)

Monmouth our next stop by contrast was adamantly English. There was clear overtones of Norman settlement and monied English inhabitants, even the shops Fatface, Joules etc. testified that English culture was truly settled here. This emphasis was further supported by the Habs boarding school also based in the town.

Abergavenny v. Monmouth was an interesting experience.

Chepstow castle was a study in this influence of nationality and fashion on communities in the borderlands. The castle is a very early Norman castle. See downright Mediterranean designs on the oldest part of the castle, reminiscent of the Tower of London and other early Norman fortifications. As design developed so did the castle, accruing round turrets and other architectural design. One room is decked out in Tudor design; it was gaudy to say the least. Other parts of the castle have been left without roofing. The buildings were used as a fortification for some 500 years and developed different emphases as the years passed. But always they had thick walls, doors and barred entry. As I walked the walls of Chepstow castle I realised that thick walls are about more than protecting one king, or magnate, its about the defence of a whole community. It must be a nightmare to preserve a space like this, which has developed over several centuries, in a way that pleases and educates all interests.

(Chepstow Castle, Tudor Room)

(Early Norman Chepstow Castle)

The Tithe Barn at Abergavenny is also worthy of note. Originally built in the 12th century to house tithe from the local community, it still stands today and has seen a number of uses including 17th century theatre and a disco in the 1970's! Each population used the space as seemed best to them. Today the tithe barn is a museum encouraging story-telling and Anglo-Welsh history. Each generation has put its stamp on the building, adding to it and taking away. I wonder what people will think of what we've done in 300 years time to our historical and current buildings.

Part of the path is preserved by English Heritage. Here the bank seemed at its steepest and the paths were well maintained as if the very trees were under control. Given that the purpose of Offa's Dyke is unclear, but one hypothesis is it was a military defence (to keep the Welsh out) created by Welsh slave labour, its interesting it is preserved by 'English heritage'. Given another 1,200 years I wonder what else will be deemed suitable preservation material?

As well as providing lots of pretty historical spaces this holiday gifted me a can-do attitude. Away from the computer screens and phone signal, the challenges were different - how do I outwit a crowd of angry looking cows, how do I climb up this muddy incline with no hand-grips? How do I get to the end of this path when there are gates and tree trunks in the way? It required a different skill set and ingenuity in often unused areas but I really enjoyed my trip in the time machine.