§ CHAPTER TWO
Ironbridge—giants—River Severn—Wrekin and Cornovii—Wroxeter Roman town—an odd dedication—Shrewsbury—place names and settlements—Welsh and English—St Winifred’s Well—Wat’s Dyke—Oswestry and King Oswald—an engagement—Offa’s Dyke—boundaries—Llangollen—Pillar of Eliseg—Pont Cysllte aqueduct—the River Dee—Bangor-is-y-coed—a long day—serendipity
ON A MONDAY LUNCHTIME in the middle of March 2014 I stepped off a train at Telford, a West Midlands new town of the 1960s whose bland shopping centre and suburban box-like housing could not have been less evocative of the Age of Arthur. Five miles later I walked across one of the most iconic monuments in the world, defining its own special moment in a dark, satanic epoch. The wrought-iron span at Ironbridge, built in 1779 by Abraham Darby III, marks for me the transition from an empirical, wooden world to one driven by science and metal. The Ironbridge Gorge, and Coalbrookdale, so vividly animated in the poetry and art of the Age of Enlightenment, are the lands of our ancestral spirits, the giants of the Industrial Revolution. Even at the dawn of a century of super-fast travel and communication, I am awed by the monumental honesty and grandeur of this henge erected as much to honour the Promethean masters of the forge as it was to bridge the River Severn.
Ironbridge, and the Severn, seemed a good place to start a journey through the Welsh Marches. My first destination was Shrewsbury, and there are two obvious ways for the wannabe Dark Age traveller to reach it: along the A5, Roman Watling Street, from Telford; or by following the river. In many ways the A5 makes sense. The Romans were nothing if not logical, and in aiming to open up (or suppress, depending on your point of view) the mountainous lands of central and northern Wales and join both sides of Britain, the legionary road gangs were linking key strategic points in the landscape. Look at a map of the Marches and you’ll see that, east of the mountains, it is delineated by the courses of the Severn running east, then south, and the Dee running north to Merseyside. At Shrewsbury the Severn emerges from the heart of the Welsh valleys. North of Shrewsbury is a gap running towards the Dee in the Vale of Llangollen; and through that gap runs the modern A5 towards Anglesey, the fastness of druids and rebels. Watling Street heads north to Chester; and so would I. But modern A-roads are no fun for the walker, so on a dank and drizzly morning I set off to walk along the Severn. Two months after devastating floods the debris of destruction and inundation lay strewn everywhere. Unlike much of the upland Tyne, there is no realistic crossing of the Severn for many miles without the aid of a bridge: it is deep, swift and powerful. It is its own borderland.
The floodplain west of Telford is narrow, enfolded on either side by gentle Shropshire hills dotted with small, red-brick mixed farms, woody copses and the odd village with a half-timbered cottage. Few, if any, houses are built from stone here. The river meanders, and so did I, keeping to the north-east bank beneath the mouth of Coalbrookdale where small industries still find a niche; past the massive orange cooling towers of the Ironbridge power station. At the small village of Buildwas I turned north, rising up from the plain and following a more direct path than the river: through farmyards and small coverts, across fields dotted with dairy cows and early lambs where I made the acquaintance of an enthusiastic border collie (what else?). Coming out onto a narrow deep-cut lane, an ancient cattle-worn thoroughfare that might have taken me east to Little Wenlock and a tempting pub, I saw ahead beneath clouds gravid with rain the long, sloping humpback spine of the Wrekin, a thirteen hundred-foot monster of a hill that promises, in better weather, stupendous views of the north Shropshire plain. It was a long climb; the pack seemed heavy after a winter’s slothful, self-imposed confinement. It began to rain: a squally, penetrating, sideways kind of rain, and cold with it. The Wrekin’s slopes have been planted with conifers these many years, but the native oak and beech which must once have covered it are still to be seen here and there among the pines. There was not a spring leaf in sight yet, although I had already seen violets, primroses and celandine in the hedgerows. I could hear tits and chiff-chaffs even if I couldn’t see them; and a woodpecker’s randy, manic drum roll echoed from the hollow acoustic of the woods.
Before the long, long backbone of the Wrekin flattens out at over a thousand feet, a rocky crag, known as the Needle’s Eye, makes a natural entrance through the ramparts of a great Iron Age hill fort that watches over, and is seen from, a grand swathe of country. This natural fortress, called by the Romans Uriconio (and hence Wrekin), was the headquarters of the tribe known to the second-century AD geographer Ptolemy as the Cornovii.
Here their chiefs accepted tribute in the form of cattle and perhaps slaves, dispensed justice, received petitions; judged the actions of their people and planned campaigns of war (rather like the commander at Birdoswald but on a vastly grander scale). It is some HQ: twenty acres in extent, a military and chiefly base sufficiently threatening to first-century imperial armies that they constructed Watling Street just a mile to the north of it. For the first Roman legion exploring these parts, the XIVth, Gemina, it was a strategic key to western Britain. They disestablished the hill fort in about AD 58 and built a city in its shadow to pacify, subdue and civilise the natives after a campaign of resistance under Caratacus was overcome by their military might. A. E. Housman caught the spirit of the place in his poem ‘On Wenlock Edge’, with sentiments that the Anglo-Saxon author of ‘The Ruin’ might have appreciated.
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
I did not stay long enough to explore the former British tribal capital. Brief gaps in the relentless clouds that skimmed the hilltop were enough to show how physically dominating this place was. A glimmer of sun reflected off the spires and houses of Shrewsbury, eight miles or so to the west; beyond that loomed the Border hills. Laid out beneath me were the north Shropshire and South Cheshire plains and, looking back whence I had come, the mouth of Ironbridge Gorge and its own weather-producing cooling towers periodically appeared between sweeping showers. Enough, though; I headed back down the steep slope, stopping under the shelter of a Scots pine to munch on trail food and peer through steamy spectacles at a soggy map.
The Roman fortress and subsequent civitas15 capital of the Cornovii, established just four miles west of the Wrekin in the first century at Wroxeter (Viriconium Cornoviorum), became the fourth largest city in Roman Britain. The walls of the second-century bath house and public exercise buildings still stand to a height of fifteen feet, surrounded by the exposed foundations of a typical imperial Roman town centre. From the road, and with the Wrekin framing it against the horizon, it is still an imposing ruin nestling on the right, east bank of the Severn. That was as close as I got: it was too early in the year for the Visitors’ Centre to be open, even though the men from the Ministry of Tidy Monuments were hard at it mowing the grass, the rain having given way to cool spring sunshine and fluffy, busy clouds. I took my lunch to the nearby church of St Andrews, where Roman ashlar masonry was reused for the walls and where the churchyard gates are held up by Roman lathe-turned stone columns. Inside was a magnificent old red sandstone font, perfectly circular and pre-Conquest in date. Had that, too, been rescued from the Roman city?
The prelates and potentates of the Dark Ages were great imperial recyclers: they scavenged pottery and coins, gold and silver, stone and ideas, and if they did not often understand the symbolism or currency of the works of the giants, they were not averse to incorporating them into their own world of empirical magic, rough justice and dynastic patronage. But Wroxeter gives the lie to any idea that Early Medieval life was one of noble savagery, of skin-clad natives huddling among ruins praying for intervention from their thunderous gods. A brilliant campaign of excavation here by Philip Barker, whom I remember as a beady-eyed, white-haired magus looking like William Hartnell’s original Doctor Who, showed that scientific excavation could unpick the ruins of Roman towns to reveal the subtle traces of occupation that lasted into the fifth, sixth and even seventh century, when English history begins. For archaeologists of my generation, Barker almost defined a new level of technical expertise: he was perhaps the first truly forensic excavator in Britain and a pioneer of digging large open areas, giving archaeology the confidence to believe that it could not just supplement the meagre history of the Dark Ages (‘paper-cup’ culture, as Roman archaeologists used to call it), but rewrite it. Just as at Birdoswald, the beginning of this enigmatic period is marked by the erection of timber halls among the footings of urban contraction and abandonment. Wroxeter had its own barn conversion. Twenty years before Barker began to excavate here in the late 1960s, such traces would barely have been sought, let alone found and made meaningful. It is technically exacting, expensive and time-consuming sculptural science.
Wroxeter survived Rome; the Cornovii survived Rome, too, to become the Early Medieval people known as the Wreocansaetan, more or less retaining the name by which Ptolemy knew their capital. Some time during the period of its post-Roman existence, perhaps around 500, Wroxeter became the burial place for a native man called Cunorix, son of the son of Coline (an Irish name)—his memorial inscription was recovered from the ruins in 1967. Cunorix means something like hound-king, which reminds one of Gildas’s excoriating complaint against five contemporary tyrants. Cunorix may have been the successor potentate of the Cornovii or Wreocansaetan. The ninth-century compiler known as Nennius recorded Wroxeter by its contemporary British name, Caer Guricon, in his list of the twenty-eight ‘cities’ of Britain.16
Wroxeter lies halfway between the Wrekin and the county town of Shrewsbury; it also lies halfway between the Iron Age and the Medieval period, for Shrewsbury was its replacement. Deliberately founded, like Wroxeter, as a defended town, and situated in a strategically handy bend in the River Severn, medieval Shrewsbury was the eventual product of a system of defence envisioned by King Alfred of Wessex, expanded by his son Edward the Elder and daughter Æthelflaed, the so-called Lady of the Mercians. But if, as we believe, Shrewsbury was founded in the early part of the tenth century, there is a break in the trail that leads here. Between Roman city and medieval burgh there is a gap.
At Atcham, more or less halfway between Wroxeter and Shrewsbury at a point where an important bridge still spans the river, is a church whose origins lie during the century in which Wroxeter was finally abandoned. Oddly, it is dedicated to St Eata (hence the name of the village, whose name means ‘homestead of Eata’s people’). Quite why he was commemorated here is a mystery, for he was an abbot of the Anglo-British monastery at Melrose in the Anglo-Scottish border after the year 651; and not just any abbot: he was the mentor of St Cuthbert and one of the first generation of Lindisfarne-trained monks who came to preach the Irish form of Christianity to the Northern English. He died as Bishop of Hexham.
To add intrigue to this mystery, aerial photographs of a crop-mark site two miles due north of here, at Attingham Park, show that a substantial, perhaps palatial township site existed in these parts in the seventh century; it bears a striking resemblance to the Anglo-British complex at Yeavering in north Northumberland (another brilliant excavation, this time by pioneering archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor in the late 1950s and early 1960s). Early Medieval texts relating to the Welsh kingdom of Powys (much larger than the modern county: the name seems to come from Latin paganses—country folk), which some historians suggest was the successor kingdom to the Cornovii, cite the existence of a palace called Pengwern, the site of which has never been located. Does Pengwern lie here?
From Atcham I followed the meander of the river (a kingfisher flashed by in a wink of lapis-lazuli blue; a drowned stoat lay across my path; there was flood damage along the banks where flotsam still lay piled against hedges, trees and fences: I sensed a washed-out, tired landscape desperate for spring) and entered Shrewsbury from the east. The local college had just disgorged its chattering pupils and a whole crowd of us crossed the deep, wind-ruffled waters of the river at the appropriately named English bridge. After a twenty-mile hike I felt road-rusty and weather-beaten, stopping at the first homely-looking café I could find for a cuppa and a large slice of chocolate cake. My prospective night’s pitch lay on the other side of town, but when I got there it had been washed out—I should have guessed. I slunk back into town as darkness fell and took a room above a pub. No guilt: the shower was marvellous, I ate a steak pie and chips downed with a Guinness and luxuriated in a double bed.
Shrewsbury is unlikely to have enjoyed its later status as a great border town during the Early Medieval period. It was not made the centre of a diocese in the eighth century when Mercia was the rising power of central England and ancient tribal regions were busy acquiring bishops. Cathedrals at Worcester and Lichfield and royal centres at Repton and Tamworth suggest its marginality—or perhaps the instability of a marcher region in which British and Anglian dominance swayed back and forth too readily. Shropshire is named from Shrewsbury; but Shrewsbury is not named either from the former capital or the original tribe. Its Early English name is the rather unpromising Scrobbesburh, a shrubby or scrubby fort—a name that brings to mind the coconut whiff of yellow gorse or perhaps a phase of neglect. Its Welsh name sounds better: Amwythig, meaning simply ‘fortified place’. By the early tenth century the town mattered sufficiently to have a charter drawn up, in which it was called a civitas in imperial style. Its emergence as a central, fortified place owes more, perhaps, to external threat than to antecedent history: during the Viking Wars between 865 and 927 Mercia and its ultimately more successful rival Wessex were under periodic but sustained attack from an army of enterprising, battle-hardened and well-led Scandinavians. The fortification of the Marcher towns was not an immediate response to this danger, but hard evidence of a strategic fight-back against the expansion of the Danelaw at the very beginning of the tenth century under the children of Alfred. Shrewsbury’s key position on the river and east of the mountains made it worth fighting for, right up to the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century. Watling Street and the wool trade ensured its commercial success, reflected in the large number of grand medieval buildings which confer on the town its architectural virtues.
Leaving Shrewsbury the following morning, briefly following the old A5, Watling Street, and having passed a milepost promising Holyhead in only another one hundred and five miles, I wondered when I would start to see Welsh names popping up on signposts as I tracked west. I followed the river for a while, but this early in the year its bleached banks, meadows and trees, still in a forlorn state of winter undress, began to depress the imagination. At Montford Bridge I crossed the river again and took a small back road westwards. Here the plain of the Severn has a striking settlement pattern. Villages are very small, often little more than hamlets or clusters of half a dozen houses, and they are widely dispersed. This has perhaps to do with impermanence; it may also have to do with a large number of small settlements feeding a few larger central places—if so, is this a remnant of the burghal system which provided a central point of defence and trade within a day’s march of every settlement in its hinterland? Sometimes I saw no more than a dozen or a score of houses spread over half a mile, and after the last house I would find I had left the ‘village’. Once I paused in front of a simple, unaffected red-brick Primitive Methodist chapel with an inscription above the door, which provided me with some sort of an answer—one that could only, perhaps, have been inspired by a border region.
ERECTED A.D. 1865
THE LORD LOVETH THE GATES OF ZION MORE
THAN ALL THE DWELLINGS OF JACOB
The Primitive Methodist movement, born in Staffordshire in the early 1800s, was partly inspired by the American frontier pioneers’ camp communions—open-air gatherings for prayer and communal meals in places where there was no church or priest—and a conscious revival of ideas about early Christian assembly. Here, where the secular geographical landscape has so often been disputed and where settlement is so dispersed, it seems quite natural to celebrate a mythical otherworldly place of permanence and security.
I sensed the swell of hills to the west; and although behind me the Wrekin still lurked like a slow-moving tanker against the horizon, the hill fortress of Breidden was now my compass mark, a few miles upstream. A closer look at the map showed something else: a large number of early names reflecting something of the landscape history of the region. There were Charltons (the houses of ceorls, or free farmers); Walcotts, hamlets of Britons17 (presumably in an English area); and a Sascott—a Saes, or English, hamlet in a British/Welsh area. Then a first, truly authentic Welsh place name: Pentre (meaning little more than just ‘place’ or ‘settlement’). If the river has often been a border over the millennia, it has been a very porous one: English and Welsh have always mixed here, and continue to do so. This is a patchwork land. That night, settling down to a pub dinner, having pitched my coffin-like trekking tent on a welcoming grassy sward on the north bank of the river, I got chatting to an Anglo-Welsh couple. She worked with horses; he was a gamekeeper. The thought of them choosing between nationalities was facile: their identity was defined by their lives and families and their landscape: a cultural and physical chequerboard. Welsh or English, they were Marcher folk; and I have heard much the same thing in the Anglo-Scottish borders and in the border counties of Ireland. Maybe we should get over the idea of nation, reserving it for the rugby pitch.
A third full day on the trail saw the back of the Severn. My destination that evening was Oswestry where I had an engagement at the town’s annual Litfest. That meant a change of clothes, which I had been obliged to carry with me; but also a comfortable room at the Sebastian Hotel courtesy of the organisers. Oswestry was also a place of personal pilgrimage: I had never before been to the site of King Oswald’s martyrdom—rather shameful to admit, having written a book about him. But before Oswestry came other pleasures and challenges. This part of Shropshire, it must be said, suffers from some poorly signed paths and a few that have been disestablished by farmers. Between Melverley Green and Argoed I became hopelessly disoriented in a metaphysical maze of existing, former and purely mythical paths. A field full of rather frisky-looking steers forced a diversion across a small ditch whose apparently firm banks dissolved into red clay as I landed on the other side. Knee-deep in filth was not the way I had intended to make my entrance in Oswestry.
At Woolston, around lunchtime, my travails were rewarded: one of those ‘shall-I-take-the-quickest-path-or-follow-my-nose?’ moments. Behind the last house in the village a narrow path led between hedges, showing hawthorn just coming into leaf, down to a pretty stream; and above the stream an equally lovely, if not enchanted, late medieval half-timbered cottage consisting of a single room, which straddled St Winifred’s well. She is an interesting saint, one of those holy women who, for their faith, got their heads cut off. Her other, more elaborate and more celebrated shrine lies at Holywell in what used to be Flintshire. A broad contemporary of the Northumbrian King Oswald, who also lost his head in these parts, she was a Welsh noblewoman whose vow of chastity and desire to become a nun enraged her lover to the point of homicide. Where her severed head landed, a spring with miraculous healing powers appeared. The hagiography is conventional; but the frequency with which decapitated holy women became associated with local miracles evokes those head cults known to have existed long before Christianity co-opted such wise and virtuous souls.
Peering through the window of the cottage, I was surprised to see a man sitting in an armchair reading a newspaper; and thinking he must be some sort of warden, or even a work of installation-art, I knocked on the door. A dog barked; there was a long pause, movement at the window, a short conversation half-heard. The door opened a fraction to reveal half the face of a timid-looking chap who explained that he and his wife were renting the place from the owners, the Landmark Trust. He did not encourage discussion of the saint, and closed the door. I felt slightly miffed until I realised what an abject sight I must have been: dressed all in black, with a three-day beard, woolly hat and the lower half of my legs a very bright, crusty terracotta. I nevertheless sat on the edge of the pool where Winifred’s holy waters emerged from beneath the cottage, and ate my oatcakes and cheese with as much sangfroid as I could muster. I am glad to say that Winifred’s story turned out well. Her uncle, St Bueno, stuck her head back in its proper place and restored her to life. Turning his attention to the murderous suitor, one Cradoc, he cursed the man, who dropped dead on the spot. Winifred later became a nun and abbess.
Unlike those of island, coast and highland, the landscape of the Marches is not steeped in such tales. Early monuments and sacred places in the lowlands have been overwritten by the pragmatic plough and lore of farming and the claims and testimonies of secular and ecclesiastical estates. Song and legend, myth and folk culture are heard more faintly here, and the historian is not helped by a distressing lack of sources from the Early Medieval kingdom of Mercia. If there were historians in these parts of the stature of Bede, their works have been lost. But the sine wave of road and river, the tell-tale of place name and church, holy well and hilltop rampart are there to be read. And so it was that as the sun’s arc declared its late afternoon passage towards the Welsh hills, I found myself walking, somewhat in a daze by now, along a suspiciously straight lane between Amesbury and the little hamlet of Ball, a few miles south of Oswestry. If I hadn’t had a map I might have taken no notice. But then the road deviated from the straight to circumvent the site of a derelict, beautifully decrepit watermill; I stopped to take pictures and check my map. After this kink, the line of the lane cut back at right angles to cross its former course. A slight bump (only a car driving too quickly would have noticed it) in the tarmac betrayed the true nature of that straight line: Wat’s Dyke, little brother of the grand rampart that bears the name of Mercia’s greatest king, Offa.
Wat’s Dyke rarely forms more than a ditch, sometimes filled with rainwater, accompanied by a modest bank; it was never conceived on remotely the same scale as its twin, four miles to the west. It belongs, archaeologists now think, to a period some little time after Offa but well within the period when Mercia and its neighbouring kingdom Powys competed for control of this frontier zone: that is to say, the eighth century. Its actual practical purpose is quite obscure—it is no Hadrian’s Wall, no great defensive barrier to turn back an army; more an administrative line that says where one man’s writ runs. For now it was sufficient for me to recognise that its line was taken up again by a small path through fields where farmers had, in their opportunistic way, used it as the line for a barbed-wire fence and a drainage ditch. No great monument to the Dark Ages, but it would lead me directly to Oswestry, a shower and my literary engagement.
Oswestry (originally Oswald’s Tree)—Croesoswald in Welsh—is the grisly name that commemorates the battle in which King Oswald of Northumbria was defeated, decapitated and dismembered by his foe, Penda of Mercia, in the year 642. The head was placed on a stake as a token of prehistoric, pagan triumph. A year after the battle Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, came with his warrior band to retrieve the head and arms of his brother in an equally pagan gesture of possessive defiance. Unsure which body parts he should claim, the young king was shown a sign, by a ‘great bird of the crow family’, who carried the martyr’s arm to an ash tree (the bird in Reginald of Durham’s tale is surely a raven; the ash tree a symbol of the Norse Yggdrasil or World Tree, from which Odin hanged himself in order to acquire the knowledge of magical runes).18 For Bede, and in the medieval imagination, Oswald was a great English Christian king dying for the cause, his body parts and relics a famous source of miracles; but the manner of his death and retrieval carries the strongest pagan overtones.19
In a small, municipal, grassed and paved enclosure on the outskirts of town I came on St Oswald’s well, traditionally the place where the bird dropped Oswald’s arm and whence a healing spring spontaneously arose. I decided not to refill my water bag there, having a deep respect for the science of bacteriology. Above the well, curiously, is a modern bronze of an eagle grasping an arm complete with gauntlet. I wondered how the raven had become an eagle; does nobody read their Reginald of Durham these days?
I could not leave Oswestry without exploring its hill fort, an immense complex of earthworks just north of the town which I reached in the light of a low, golden sun so that on approach its massive ramparts, surely commissioned by a lost race of giants, seemed to clatter like bursting Atlantic rollers onto the unsuspecting shores of the town. The proximity of battlefield and hill fort has suggested to some historians that Penda, the most potent of Mercian warlords before Offa, had a headquarters here and that Oswald mounted a pre-emptive strike on his enemy’s heartland. A recent archaeological watching brief on works near the entrance yielded a bas-relief carving of a horse, much damaged—a reminder, perhaps, of the value that Dark Age warlords placed on this potent symbol of speed, power and princely virility.
Oswestry, the birthplace of Wilfred Owen, had a suitably humbling literary feel about it: slightly somnolent, easy-going, welcoming in a sort of stand-offish way. I did my thing (it was not the potent virtue of Oswald who rescued the evening from a projector that would not communicate with a laptop, but a kind member of the audience, who fetched one from home). I slept well, in comfort, and managed to wash some of the trail from my dirty clothes, while outside it poured with rain all night. On the news the story of a missing Malaysian airliner, lost incomprehensibly in the vastness of the southern Indian Ocean, gave me a chilling sense of fragility as I retired.
The next day, the spring equinox, when the sun rises due east and sets due west, I made my acquaintance with Offa’s Dyke, the greatest single engineering achievement of the Early Medieval period. Here, for once, was real walking terrain, room to stretch the legs, enjoy the open sky and feel the undulating conveyor belt of the land beneath my feet. From Oswestry I took lanes and tracks west towards the hills, rising all the time through sheep pasture and conifer plantation, all glistening after the heavy rain, until I came onto a broad ridge which, in Offa’s day, must have given huge vistas of the mountains, valleys and kingdoms of Central Wales. At first I saw only trees; then the path opened out and I found I was walking across what had once been Oswestry racecourse; and for a mile or so after that path and dyke diverged so that I was ready for a trailside snack by the time I came onto the dyke proper at Carreg-y-Big, a hill farm at a crossroads on the height of the ridge. The dyke is a grand design all right: massive ‘look-at-me’ bank along the east side, ‘keep-out’ ditch to the west; but it is the unflagging, uncompromising momentum of the beast that really impresses itself, like a boulder that will not be stopped or a crusade that marches under its own unfathomable dynamic. The dyke and I, we have the same thing in mind today, heading north across the grain of the land whose rivers drain the mountains eastwards towards the headwaters of Severn and Dee, nature’s Anglo-Welsh border.
What we think of as the Welsh border is a much less coherent landscape than, say, the Whin Sill or the Tyne–Solway gap along which Hadrian’s big project runs; or, for that matter, the Forth–Clyde isthmus that carries what is left of the Antonine Wall. The dyke has to cross rivers as often as it skirts mountains and surfs ridges. It does not even run from sea to sea, as King Alfred’s biographer Asser claimed in the ninth century when Offa’s memory was still fresh in Wales. In that sense it is more of a frontier than either of the Roman walls—an artificial line drawn in the sand between what the expansionist Mercians wanted to regard as the lands of the Angles, and the kingdom of Powys. But as the place names show, the cultural frontier is patchy and porous, even non-existent: the dyke is the legacy of a turf war, of political competition. Offa built his dyke because he could; it did not necessarily reflect historical realities, nor those of subsequent relations between England and Wales, even though, in later times, it came to be used as a convenient marker for legal jurisdiction.
Sometimes the dyke has been emasculated by the plough, or hijacked by a stream. Sometimes I was stalled by a stile or gate or the twist in a road; at these times I stopped to munch on a dried apricot or a handful of peanuts, relishing the trail’s pleasures. Only once did I pass another human; and he was running, with his dog. Offa’s Dyke does not have the same offensive capabilities as the Wall: it was not, I think, designed to launch punitive raids against the kings of Powys; more to remind them that Offa claimed descent from gods (or giants) whose potency legitimised his bid to dominate this landscape. He had probably seen both Roman walls on campaigns in the North during the 650s. But we do not know whose labour constructed his dyke. There is a world of difference between building a fence to keep out the neighbours and forcing the neighbours to construct a wall over which, once built, they cannot climb. Was the dyke built with tributary blood, sweat and tears? One thing is clear: no small population was co-opted as navvies. Near Chirk, whose impressive, fist-thumping castle belongs to the true Marcher lords of Edward I’s late thirteenth-century campaign of oppression against Wales, I took lunchtime shelter in a plantation from a short but vicious squall which held the unpleasant promise of much colder weather. Looking at the map I saw that I had just unknowingly crossed the border, where the dyke meets the River Ceiriog. Now decidedly in Wales, I parted company from the dyke, turned north-west and came out onto the scarp which overlooks the Vale of Llangollen, all metamorphic schists and raw screes; but even in the teeth of a chilling wind the descent into the Vale, and my first sight of the Dee, was exhilarating. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. One last steep climb from the foot of Pengwern Vale up through Pen-y-coed made me realise how tired I was. With sore feet I stepped at last onto the back streets of Llangollen and crossed the river next to the railway station whence runs a small steam tourist line into the valleys. I was delighted to see the taxidermist’s shop still there on the corner below the canal, where I had last seen it fifteen years earlier. In the window was a brilliant blue-flashed jay, which I mean to go back for some time. I followed the line of the canal for a mile or so out of town and came at last to the Tower campsite—a field next to red-brick Victorian farm buildings. I was the only camper, although two small caravans stood forlorn in the next field close to the showers. I pitched my small home from home, gathered the cameras and headed off up the valley to find the Pillar of Eliseg.
The Vale of Llangollen is lovely in any weather: a broad, sometimes braided river with the canal running along the contour above it, tracking its wild spoor like a hunter; the side closing in, steeply sloped and wooded, as the valley narrows to a gorge and then turns back on itself in a great loop. The way to the pillar took a detour from the gorge up the smaller valley of the River Eglwyseg, which takes the A-road through the Horseshoe Pass and which sounds suspiciously like the name for the site of an early church. Here, indeed, are the remains of the Cistercian Valle Crucis Abbey, named after the cross of which the pillar is a stunted, phallic remnant. It lies in a broad, sheltered plain, steep scarps on either side, with smooth green sheep pastures surrounding neat grey farms. I was delayed in my approach to the pillar by the sight of a poor young shepherd on a quad bike, losing control of his flock. As a dozen of them escaped onto the main road I ran to head off the traffic and eventually order was restored without damage to anything more than the lad’s pride.
By now the sun was so low that the ancient Bronze Age barrow on which the pillar sits was beginning to be wreathed in shadow; so I took my shots quickly in the day’s dying orange glow. I could feel the night’s cold creeping up from my feet as the shadow of the ridges above sapped the last light and warmth from the air. There is, as every visitor to this famous monument knows, very little now to be read of its original inscription. Most historians accept, though, that the transcriptions made in the seventeenth century by Edward Lhuyd20 are likely to be more or less accurate. Even then, the carving was sufficiently weathered that the full text could not be read. Essentially, it records the achievements and genealogy of kings of Powys from Cyngen, who died in Rome in 854, back into the fifth century and earlier. Cyngen’s descendants traced his line not only from Gwrtheyrn (the Vortigern of the Historia Brittonum) but as far back as Maximus—that is to say, Magnus Maximus, the usurping Roman Emperor of the late fourth century known elsewhere in the genealogies of the Welsh kings as Maxim Gwledig. Outside the debateable value of the genealogies and the Historia Brittonum, the pillar is the only supporting material witness for either Vortigern or for the supposed familial links between this legendary tyrant and the imperial dynasties. Inferentially, the pillar attests to Cyngen’s assertion of Powysian independence from Mercia and associates him with his famous great-grandfather Elise who, we gather, also threw off the yoke of Mercian hegemony at some time in the middle of the eighth century—just before, perhaps, the reign of King Offa.
PILLAR OF ELISEG
Even the genealogies of early Welsh kings and their role as federate allies of Rome in the last days of the Empire could not keep me awake that night. I ate as large a plate of food as I could find in a pub on the north side of the river in Llangollen, watched for a few moments the roaring passage of the swollen Dee beneath the town’s bridge and retreated to my sleeping bag. I woke early next morning thinking that dawn must just be breaking until I realised that the dimness of the light penetrating the canvas was due not to the hour but to a covering of snow.
Saturday 22 March was the longest day of any of my journeys, and the furthest I have ever walked in a single day. I had not planned it that way. My aim was to get to Bangor-on-Dee where I knew of campsites and a hotel, thence to Chester on the day after; and it started well enough. I scraped the now-frozen snow off the tent, dragged my gear to the shower block in freezing drizzle, packed it wet as well as I could and set off eastwards to follow the canal and river out of the mountains. I got into the groove of the trail in good time, and the towpath was as flat as a pancake. The odd barge slipped by. At Pontcysyllte I stopped to admire Telford’s and Jessop’s magnificent 1805 aqueduct, hoping that at the busy canal basin which lies on its north side I would find something warming in the way of a hot drink and a pie or pastry. Nothing doing. I crossed the aqueduct on foot, feeling hungry and slightly queasy: the footway is very narrow, and on the other side of the waterway there is an unnerving unfenced drop to the river, pulsing through the gorge more than a hundred and twenty feet below.
A mile further along the canal towpath, on the south side of the Dee, I crossed the line of Offa’s Dyke, invisibly, at right angles, and migrated back into Mercian territory at Pentre, a small village where road, rail, river, canal and trail meet and where the Dee swerves north on a lunatic hairpin. The names are still mostly Welsh here, another indication that the border, ethnically and culturally, does not even respect such an obvious barrier as the Dee. I negotiated the muddy, steep paths of a woodland valley, crossed the A483 on a footbridge and then took to whatever back lanes, paths and trails I could find that would keep me close to the Dee. A crossing would have been a fine thing, but the river here is unfordable and there are no bridges for many miles. Without a friendly boatman there was no crossing, especially with the river in spate. At Coed yr Allt I embarked on a muddy climb through conifer plantation and timber track, only to find a landslide blocking my way. I had to retrace my steps; and then backtrack again to find a way round. Climbing over farm walls and barbed wire fences and feeling guilty, I eventually managed to retrieve the route: by now fed up, sore from falling over a few times in slippery grime and decidedly filthy.
There was nowhere dry enough on this miserable day to sit for a bite of lunch and rest. I stopped on the slithery bank of the river opposite the Boat Inn at Erbistock (at this point I had, oddly, passed back into Wales) and wished as hard as I could that the ford marked on the map wasn’t under several feet of fast-flowing water. But it was, and I walked on, noticing the first wood anemone of the year coming into its delicate, perfect white blooms. After another half hour I came out of the flood plain at Overton and walked north, smoothing out the curves of the river and heading now more or less directly for Bangor-is-y-coed, Bangor-on-Dee.
The racecourse aside—and I could see and hear from a couple of miles away that a meeting was in full swing—this Bangor’s fame rests on its hosting of a profoundly important synod in the year 602 or 603. The monastery at Bancornaburg witnessed the convocation of British bishops and ‘learned men’ called to consider Augustine’s call for their church to bring its practices into line with contemporary Roman orthodoxy.21 Augustine had already met their representatives further south on the borders of the Hwicce and the West Saxons, right on the edge of the realms in which his sponsor, the Kentish King Æthelberht, might afford him authority and protection. He had pulled off a perfunctory miracle, restoring the sight of a blind man. Impressed but unconvinced, the British clergy called the synod at Bangor whose very large community—Bede told his readers that it was said to house more than two thousand monks—would make their decision and give Augustine an answer. The site cannot now be identified (I like to think it lies beneath the grandstand of the racecourse), but it must have been a substantial establishment, very likely the nearest thing to a town in all the kingdoms of the British. The bishops were reluctant to give up or change long-held traditions and must have found the admonishing words of a representative of the auld enemy, the Saes, offensive in the extreme. They may have thought his urbane Latin unclassical and vulgar. Even so, they agreed to consult and meet the Archbishop to debate the issues involved—effectively, to decide whether they should submit to his primacy, much as a secular lord submitted to an overking superior in arms and authority.
Before the meeting, held presumably in the same year, seven British bishops took counsel from a hermit, a very holy man much treasured for his sagacity. He told them that if Augustine came truly from God, they should obey him. But how should they know if he was God’s appointed? Because he would be meek and humble, like a hermit, they were told. And how should they determine his humility? Contrive, answered the holy man, that he and his delegation should arrive first at the appointed place and time. If, when you enter, they rise to greet you, you will know he is meek and humble and truly God’s messenger.
Dressed up as Bede’s language is, and apocryphal as the story sounds, what this boils down to is diplomatic protocol, a matter of high sensitivity to the British. Augustine failed the test spectacularly, and in the heat of subsequent exchanges he threatened the British that if they did not accept peace from their brethren, they must expect war from their enemies. Bede tells the story with relish, for it sets the stage for the entry of the Bernician kings as righteous overlords of Britain and bringers of enlightened Roman orthodoxy even to those schismatic Britons too stupid or stubborn to accept it from the Pope’s own appointed minister: as, in fact, God’s army. Bede’s retributive sword was not wielded until fourteen years later, by Æthelfrith—a pagan warlord. Æthelfrith, ruler of the combined Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira for a total of twenty-four years and the first great overking to emerge among the Northern English, slew an army of Britons at a battle some miles north of here, just outside Chester, in about 615. The story goes that he saw a large party of monks from Bancornaburg praying for the success of the British army, and had them put to the sword.
Bangor today is just a small village on the east bank of the Dee, site of a bridge carried by the modern A525 but surely much older in origin; but the huge sprawl of the racecourse and its temporary township were a reminder that at great gatherings Early Medieval populations came together at central places to trade, gossip, transact social business and oil the wheels of patronage. Not much has changed. The first fairs took place at sites of cultural importance—the henges, perhaps. During the Iron Age and beyond many were held in hill forts and coincided with tribute ceremonies where renders were brought from farms in their hinterland and from further afield by subject lords. Much of that render was in the form of cattle, which are largely portable, and treasure, likewise. No doubt prize bulls and horses were shown off, admired, traded and envied, just as they were in the holding enclosures and paddocks of the race meeting that I passed on the way to Bangor.
It had been a long day. I checked my map, registering almost subliminally that the cantref 22 just north of Bangor was called Sesswick, which I took to mean the ‘farm of the English’. I scouted the farm where I thought my campsite would be; no dice—just a small field with a caravan and a tap and no sign of life but for a barking dog. Searching the village yielded neither intelligence nor enlightenment. I went into one of the pubs and after a long, cool drink asked if they had room at the inn. No chance: not with the race meeting on. I tried the other hotel; same answer. I made my weary way back to the racecourse where a large temporary encampment of caravans and trailers offered a Dark Age solution. I found a nice sloping patch of grass, pitched my tent gratefully and was about to go in search of someone to pay when I was unceremoniously asked to leave. Not the right sort, I suppose. Dangerous to the racing classes, perhaps. I was not happy, and tempted to utter a curse against my antagonist’s descendants; instead I packed the tent and left under threat of physical expulsion. I sat on the levée overlooking the liquid snake of the Dee and looked at the map. Tomorrow I wanted to be in Chester. Another twelve miles north. The day was closing in and that seemed like an awfully long way; I had already walked more than twenty-five miles. The nearest other campsite seemed to be in Eydon, two or three miles west. I trudged off along a dead straight road full of fast cars, their headlights blinding in the deepening light but barely noticing the pilgrim until they were almost on him. As I came into the village it started sleeting. The campsite, which on the map had seemed conveniently close to the village pub, had been disestablished along with the hostelry. If we were to measure civilisation by the rise or decline of inns, the present age would seem dark indeed.
Another three miles, directly north, would bring me to Wrexham and, I hoped, the surety of a bed. The wind and sleet in my face, I walked the distance on autopilot. The only hotel in the centre of town was full of drunken stag-nighters. I wandered vaguely in the direction of the station, the tourist information office being long closed, and eventually found a room at one of those mega-corporate chains whose name I refuse to remember. To their credit, they let me in, mud and all, and I was finally able to disengage the pack, shower, warm up and set to pricking the blisters that had been working at my feet most of the day. Looking at the soggy map laid out on the bed to dry, I saw that the hotel lay within yards of the line of Wat’s dyke.
A night’s good sleep has the most amazing restorative effect on a tired body and mind. The same goes for breakfast (all you can eat; and I did). I had given up on the idea of walking to Chester; a pity, since my route from Bangor would have taken me past the site of a great burial ground lying next to the Roman road at Heronbridge, where excavations have recovered the remains of what may have been the army defeated by Æthelfrith in the battle of 615. I decided to cut my losses and get a train; I had another professional speaking engagement to get to at Nantwich the next day, and had frankly had enough of this wet and unwelcoming trail.
I hobbled the couple of hundred yards to the station, only to find that there was no service. By now in quite sanguinary mood, I joined the queue for the replacement bus service. I dropped my pack on the ground. The gods succoured me with a small moment of serendipity. The woman in front of me in the queue, a rucksack on her back and holding the hand of a young girl, turned round. Rachel Pope, a very, very old digging pal, former student of mine and now distinguished Lecturer in European Prehistory at the University of Liverpool, was on her way to see a man about a car, with her daughter Bella. The bus trip to Chester went by in a flash of catch-up news, gossip, Dark Age shop talk and a scribbled list of sites that I simply must visit when I went to Anglesey and the Llŷn peninsula. And that is another story.