Today I went on a walk to check out Pen-Y-Gardden (Y Garden) hillfort to the west of Ruabon. The hillfort is presumed to be Iron Age. It is itself is on private land but the public right of way follows a lane around its western and north-western sides. The interior is fields and woods, the line of the earthworks almost completely covered by vegetation and modern field boundaries.
The HER record suggests that it may have originally been a bivallate hillfort. On its southern side, it strikes me as perhaps once being a trivallate hillfort. I say this because while I couldn’t fully investigate due to heavy vegetation, there seem to be two banks but a ditch upslope of the top one: perhaps a third bank existed above this and is now denuded.
The Relationship with Offa’s Dyke
For much of its line, Offa’s Dyke follows topography that affords it long-distance views to the west. Y Gardden is a challenge to this situation, because the spur blocks views from the Ruabon section of Offa’s Dyke, downhill to the east of the hillfort. Hence, this hillfort has been the subject of considerable discussion given its close proximity to the west of Offa’s Dyke. Why did the late eighth-century Mercian frontier work go east of this prominent and defensible pre-existing earthwork?
- Was it because the site was an early medieval stronghold of Welsh forces and held against the Mercians, so there was no option of including it?
- Was the line of the dyke agreed in negotiation between the Welsh and Mercians as Fox suggested, and therefore it respected pre-existing boundaries?
In both the above scenarios, the dyke can be explained as Fox (1955) suggested when he stated that ‘The alignment of the Dyke here is the first indication met with which suggests that the designer had not an entirely free hand in its selection…. The simplest explanation is that the Welsh held Pen-y-gardden, and that the plans of the Dyke builder were conditioned by this fact, whereas he had a much freer hand S. of the Dee (Fox 1955: 81). Fox notes the proximity of the dyke here to the ninth-century Pillar of Eliseg as further evidence in his support (Fox 1955: 82)
There are two further scenarios worthy of consideration.
- Was it a compromise for the Mercians to leave the hillfort and its prominent spur to the west of the dyke, so that longer-distance trajectories for monument could be established between the Eitha and Dee to the south and the Pentrebychan Brook and Clywedog to the north, without the earthwork being diverted (i.e. was it seen as a necessary compromise that the Mercians left this feature to create a blind spot in surveillance westwards)? Yet, as the maps in the latest book on the dykes by Ray and Bapty make clear, the dyke’s route bends considerably eastwards to avoid Pen-Y-Gardden.
- A fourth option to consider is whether prominent points were established both west and east of Offa’s Dyke as beacons and lookout points, in which case was Y Gardden actually reoccupied by the Mercians as part of a zone of defence of which the dyke itself was but one element? Only a small presence on the hill-top would cover this blind-spot and allow surveillance of those approaching the dyke for long stretches north and south. At present, I’m inclined to this view.
What is striking is how flat the land is to the west of the hillfort, which makes me wonder how much advantage would have been gained by occupying it in relation to the dyke, other than to view along it and to prevent its occupation by enemies of the dyke’s defenders.
I’m reading the new book Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain, and hope to refine my views as I do.
What is sad is that this site, as discussed previously, has no surviving heritage interpretation.
Incidentally, we met some friendly horses and cows…