September 25th, 2019
When Offa, the revered Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, first began his ambitious project to build an enormous linear embankment to separate his kingdom from the neighbouring lands of Powys, it’s unlikely he imagined that hardy walkers would still be ambling along it more than 1,200 years later; but Offa’s legacy is now one of the most popular long distance walking routes in the UK.
First opened in 1971, the Offa’s Dyke National Trail mostly follows the route of the original Offa’s Dyke which historically formed a border between the warring countries of England and Wales, but now offers some of the most stunning walking scenery in the country.
Apart from the construction of the dyke, Offa is also known for his iron rule of much of central England in the 8th century. His kingdom, Mercia, covered a huge area of land; from the northern stretches of the Mersey valley to the southern flood plains of the Thames, and from the borders with Wales in the west to the Fens in the east.
Little is known about this powerful ruler, or of the exact reasons he built the dyke, which he started around 785AD. As the dyke provides strategic views from England into Wales, it is assumed that it was a defensive structure; records indicate frequent battles between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms, including a savage battle at Hereford in 760.
It’s also thought that the dyke’s construction was a show of power and force; the dyke was an ambitious project and no mean feat for an Angle Saxon king.
The first written mention of the dyke is in an ancient manuscript written by the Welsh monk Asser in the ninth century.
“A certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea” wrote Asser, and for many years this historical account wasn’t disputed.
However, recent research and archaeological examinations have found that there is scant evidence that Offa’s original dyke did stretch from coast to coast. Instead, it is thought that the original structure stretched about 64 miles from Llanfynydd near Mold to Rushock Hill in the south, and that additions were made to the structure at later dates, although this theory too is often contested.
Research is ongoing, particularly by the Extra-Mural Department at The University of Manchester; so perhaps the mystery of Offa’s strategy will one day be uncovered, but for now, the great King’s logic will continue to inspire debate and theory.
Walk the line
Today not all of Offa’s ancient dyke remains intact, but the best preserved sections form parts of the Offa’s Dyke Path, the long distance walking trail that spans for 177 miles; from Sedbury near Chepstow in the South, to Prestatyn in the North of Wales.
The Offa’s Dyke Association (ODA) was first founded in 1969 by Frank Noble, who had a keen interest in the history and archaeology of the dyke and surrounding areas, with the path itself opened in 1971. The path has improved greatly over the last forty years, with the main route has been diverted here and there, to avoid farmland or to protect parts of the dyke.
It has become an internationally renowned long distance walking route. People enjoy Offa’s Dyke because the landscape and scenery is fantastic as the trail passes through unspoilt countryside; the historical and cultural significance of the route is an added bonus.
Walk to the future
So what of the future of the path, and the work of the ODA and Trail Officer? One of the most exciting projects is the dyke’s bid to be listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The dyke is currently listed as an Ancient Scheduled Monument (it is Britain’s longest) and UNESCO status would be a fitting tribute to what is arguably one of the most dramatic and best preserved structures to survive from the Anglo Saxon period.
If you’re looking for a truly challenging walk (the trails has total ascents of 24,000ft of accents and Everest is 28,000ft!), a varying landscape with stunning views and a lot of history thrown in, then the Offa’s Dyke Path is for you!
The Offa’s Dyke Association are always looking for new members, as well as volunteers to help with their essential work. If you’d like to be part of this fascinating piece of British heritage, please contact the Offa’s Dyke Visitor Centre at Knighton.
See www.offasdyke.org.uk or call 01547 528 753 for more details.