Since coming to Chester in 2008 I have been aware of a relatively small-scale community archaeology and heritage group: the Caer Alyn Project. Their activities focus around the striking location of Bryn Alyn Camp (Caer Alyn hillfort) (see the Coflein link here and the Archwilio link here). The fabulous set of ancient monuments is situated by Gwersyllt Mill, close to the modern settlements of Pandy (overlying Gresford Colliery), Bradley and Llay in Wrexham County Borough.
My colleague Dr Meggen Gondek has done some geophysical survey work with them a few years back. However, despite its close proximity to where I live and work, time and other commitments have prevented me from even visiting.
Recently I got the opportunity and invitation to visit the group. We discussed possible plans for their future, including the potential of support and advice from my Department including colleagues and students at the University of Chester.
Here I want to introduce the site and its main archaeological traces, although I make no attempt to represent the group themselves and outline all their activities in experimental archaeology, heritage and fieldwork, including reconstructing two Iron Age roundhouses on the site. I also make no attempt to summarise their interim reports.
The Caer Alyn Project has its own Twitter page here. They are working on rebuilding their website at the moment and hope to share more information about their recent work on it.
A Strategic Location
Bryn Alyn Camp/Caer Alyn hillfort occupies a striking and strategic location in regards to movement through the landscape from prehistory to recent times. It is located on a striking defensible promontory overlooking a very tight bend in the River Alyn at the point where it dramatically changes its southerly course to bend a full 180 degrees to flow northwards.
The significance of this location cannot be underestimated. The River Alyn is a major artery of communication through NE Wales but equally it takes an extremely circuitous route from its source on the northern slopes of Maesyrychen Mountain to its confluence with the Dee between Holt and Pulford. The hillfort is thus located on this route at an important position where the river not only shifts direction dramatically but also where it finally passes out of the Clwydian foothills into the Cheshire Plain.
Let me explain this a little further, since it is important for understanding the hillfort and its later incorporation into Wat’s Dyke. Upstream from Caer Alyn, one can follow the river valley NNW and then NW past Cefn-y-bedd (where the Roman road from Chester to Ffrith bisected the valley), between the fortified hilltops of Caergwrle (post-Roman fortifications and later medieval castle) and Caer Estyn (late prehistoric hillfort), past Hope and Pontblyddyn to Mold. After this, it continues upstream NW before curving SW and then S to go through Loggerheads and Llandegla towards the Horseshoe Pass that takes you down into the Nant Eglwyseg into the Vale of Llangollen or south-west towards Corwen.
Downstream from Caer Alyn, the river goes N and then NNE, then NE for a while, flanked on its right by the prominent ridge upon which Gresford and Marford are situated on its right and the higher ground from when it came with Llay on its left. The Alyn then flows E through Rossett to join the River Dee between Holt and Pulford.
Bryn Alyn Barrow (Coflein: 155640)
There is a denuded but substantial mound close to Blackley Hall, 320 m north of the hillfort ramparts. It is 22m in diameter and 2.2 m high on its southern side. This might well be a prehistoric burial mound and the Caer Alyn group have conducted geophysical and topographical survey of the monument as well as excavations close by.
The mound at Bryn Alyn. Photo courtesy of the Caer Alyn project
Bryn Alyn Camp/Caer Alyn Hillfort (Coflein: 94754)
Note: The hillfort is currently on private land and not open to visitors.
Bryn Alyn Camp/Caer Alyn hillfort is situated in a highly defensible but relatively low-lying position: its height is matched by the surrounding landscape. Still, it does enjoy intervisibility with Hope Mountain to its west and therefore was not a complete blindspot.
The hillfort has only received limited small-scale archaeological interventions and its earthworks remain largely undated. It is an elongated enclosure following the contours of the promontory, 178 m N-S and 62m E-W. There are well-prserved triple defences on the exposed northern ‘neck’ of the promontory, and a bivallate arrangement on the eastern side. The steepness and river erosion may have destroyed the defences on the western side.
On its SE side, aerial photographs suggest there is a further banked oval enclosure which might be contemporary with the hillfort or later in date.
Because it is heavily wooded, you cannot really see the hillfort from its environs today. Even when visiting the site, it is a challenge to discern it until you are upon it. I was struck by the size and preservation of the hillfort banks and ditches and thus the rather modest term of ‘promontory’ fort doesn’t do justice to the monumental scale of the site.
Perhaps of greatest interest to me is that this strategic location was incorporated into the line of Wat’s Dyke, an early medieval linear earthwork now understood to be the early 9th-century successor to Offa’s Dyke. North of this point, the dyke follows the top of the ridge overlooking the River Alyn, thus utilising the river valley as a frontier for many miles to the north before crossing higher ground.
Small-scale excavations near Pandy suggest that the dyke may indeed have descended down to the Alyn and crossed it at some point in Wilderness Wood before ascending north to join the hillfort. However, there is further work needed here to discern the line of this important early medieval earthwork and to ascertain its relationship with Bryn Alyn Camp/Caer Alyn hillfort. It is certainly clear that Wat’s Dyke was carefully aligned to make careful use of the River Alyn as a frontier, but also to control traffic up and down this key artery between the Cheshire Plain and the Welsh uplands. Whether the hillfort itself was reoccupied in the Early Middle Ages is yet to be proven…
The mound, hillfort and Wat’s Dyke are invaluable and significant monuments that demand careful conservation and management, and also further measured investigation. The work by the Caer Alyn Project has effectively facilitated low-level community involvement in over a number of years and it has facilitated research into an important and strategic location in the prehistoric and early historic landscape of North-East Wales. I wish them well with their endeavours and I am looking forward to seeing if there are dimensions of their work that we (my Dept, students or just me) can support over the coming months and years.