Offa’s Dyke Path: A walk with history

Published 22 October 2023

Special 50 years Offa's Dyke waymark.
Celebrating 50 years of the train in waymark form, near Sedbury Cliffs.

Following the route of an ancient earthwork claimed to have been created on the orders of King Offa of Mercia in the 8th century, the Offa’s Dyke Path provides 177 miles of walking along the length of the England/Wales border. It’s a walk through beautiful scenery, where every day is different from the day before. And one where you spend much time with a giant dyke. But what is Offa’s Dyke? And why is Offa’s Dyke there?

Birds tweeted and motor engines roared. Across the Severn Estuary, vehicle after vehicle after vehicle crossed the Severn Bridge. In to Wales they went. And others went too in the opposite direction.

From where I stood it all happening in the distance. The cars and lorries that crossed over the water looked smaller than Lego bricks. But the noise the motor vehicle makes, doth travel far. Especially when they’re high up on a bridge.

I tried to focus more on the never ceasing tweeting of nature. The birds were nearer. Their calls louder. Yet the drone of the diesel and petrol vehicles was too much for them. They needed to be louder to make themselves heard, even though the road bridge was a good mile and a half away.

The Severn Estuary and Severn Bridge, seen from Sedbury Cliffs.
The Severn Estuary and Severn Bridge – viewed from the start of the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail.

What would this scene be like once we’d all moved to electric vehicles, I wondered. Quieter was what I hoped.

In front of me stood water, bridges, and a lot of brown, rather gloopy looking mud. I wouldn’t be walking that way, for sure. Not unless I fancied getting stuck in the mud of the estuary. And I didn’t. So I turned round. Round to look at the lump of rock, or stone, or, well whatever it was. The lump that had a plaque on it denoting that this was the start – or end – of the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail.

I wasn’t entirely convinced it was real rock. There was something slightly artificial looking about it. Yes, okay, it was shaped to look like someone had cleaved it from the ground. But there was something odd about it. Something I couldn’t put my finger on.

I shrugged. Whatever. It didn’t matter. What did was what that stone denoted. The start of a walk. And it was time I started walking myself. With that I set off towards Chepstow.

A path runs alongside the Offa's Dyke.
A path runs alongside the Offa’s Dyke, near Nut Wood.

Opened in 1971 as the fourth National Trail, the Offa’s Dyke Path wanders over 177 miles through the English/Welsh Borders. It follows the route of Offa’s Dyke. Well, supposedly. In fact only half the trail actually follows the ancient earthwork that gives the trail its name. The rest of the trail is about connecting those segments up in a nice way.

The history of Offa’s Dyke is complex. And, as befits something mostly made in the 8th century, is not well documented. Indeed there’s no contemporary references to it being made at all. The first ones come about a hundred years after it was constructed. So there are lots of unanswered questions about it. Questions like, why was it made? When was it made? Who made it? Basically any question you can ask about it is unanswered. There’s theories, yes. But no certainties. Well, other than that it’s there and that you can see it. If only someone had written down something about it at the time, everything would be so much easier.

There is, at least, a “conventional story”. The one most people believe. And it goes like this.

It’s the 8th century. After the Romans left what we now call England, the Anglo-Saxons take over. Over time, four major kingdoms arise. Northumbria covered the north. Wessex the south. East Anglia the east. And Mercia much of what we’d call the Midlands.

Likewise what’s now Wales also consisted of a number of Kingdoms like Powys, Gwynedd, and Dyfed.

The author standing at the signpost that marks the half way point of the trail.
At the half way point of the trail.

It was in this world that the throne of the Kingdom of Mercia has been taken by Offa. In 757AD to be precise. Mercia shares a border with the Kingdom of Powys. It’s roughly the same as the current border between Wales and England. Offa continued to reign until his death in 796AD.

That much is, by all accounts, agreed. The rest, well that’s more “speculation”.

King Offa orders the construction of a giant dyke along the western side of his kingdom. The western border being quite similar to the current border between England and Wales. The dyke would be a huge earthwork. At times it would rise nearly 8m high. To its left would be a deep ditch.

Quite why Offa demanded this be built, we don’t know. One theory is that it was a defensive measure. That it may have been manned. Something akin to Hadrian’s Wall, but between Wales and England. Yet unlike what was built for Hadrian, there’s no evidence of signal beacons or forts along the route of the Dyke.

Others believe therefore it was a symbolic statement of the power of the Mercian people, and of its king. A kind of “look at what we can do and be awed” kind of statement. Whereas now countries wishing to show off may build huge bridges, or massive monuments, Offa had his Dyke.

A tree covered section of the Offa's Dyke with a signpost in the foreground.
At many points, the Offa’s Dyke Path goes directly over the top of the dyke itself.

Who knows what the truth is. It’s not even sure when the Dyke was actually built. Radio carbon dating was done on repositioned turf near Chirk. This came back with a series of dates. One section came back with dates ranging from 430-652AD. Another from 887-1019AD. It suggested some of the Dyke was built before Offa’s reign. And that reconstruction work took place long after his death.

Maybe parts of the original Dyke were built on existing features. Maybe it was maintained for centuries. Maybe it was a multi-year project, spanning the reigns of several kings. If only, if only, they’d written all this stuff down. But unless we invent time travel, and manage to successfully infiltrate Offa’s court whilst also avoiding introducing Covid-19 to the country centuries early, we will never know.

Still, whatever the purpose of the thing, and why ever it was built, the Dyke has become enough of a feature to become the basis of one of the earliest of the National Trails. And that was the reason I was standing on a hill looking out on the Severn Estuary.

Now I needed to turn my back on this great expanse of water, and walk north. Not all 177 miles of the trail. I didn’t have enough time to do it all in one go. I’d have to do it in sections, the first getting me as far as Knighton, some 75 miles away. The rest of the trail would have to wait a bit.

But now I had five and a bit days of walking with Offa’s great monument by my side. And I needed to get going.


Vic Flange

22 October 2023 at 10:20 am

177 miles? Wait till you see the sign when you get to Prestatyn. :-)

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