Last week I spent a morning out of the office exploring Wat’s Dyke near Holywell and Basingwerk with Dr Keith Ray, co-author of a recent book on Offa’s Dyke. This section of Wat’s Dyke – a monument now thought to date to the early 9th century and therefore later than Offa’s Dyke – may have been built on the instruction of Coenwulf or another of Offa’s successors. It has a deep V-shaped ditch and significant bank, but its choice of location means it rarely survives to monumental proportions.

Dr Ray in the landscape – exploring the line of Wat’s Dyke

I’ve previously explored Wat’s Dyke:

  1. near Hope;
  2. at Bryn Alyn hillfort
  3. at Erddig;
  4. near Ruabon
  5. at Oswestry hillfort

In this section from Northop to Holywell, Wat’s Dyke survives in only small patches. Fox’s, and later Hill and Worthington’s, published descriptions are limited for this stretch, although Malim and Hayes (2008) give a detailed review of the evidence from a series of small-scale excavations in this area. For the most part it follows the top of steep slopes overlooking river valleys, and hence little to nothing of the bank and ditch survives above ground. In addition, much of it is inaccessible on private land.

The heritage board at Basingwerk marks the northernmost visible stretch of Wat’s Dyke. Where it originally descended to the Dee estuary is now lost

Still, exploring the landscape context here gave us a clearer sense of how the linear earthwork negotiated the topography and dominated land to its south-west. Its line allowed it to protect a stretch of the south-west coast of the Dee estuary before turning north-east to descend to the coast at Basingwerk. It made a significant turn of angle to loom above the well of St Winifred, and control of access to this holy site might have been a significant dimension regarding its positioning.

At Basingwerk, the site of a later Cistercian Abbey, we explored the monastic ruins and considered the potential that the ‘werk’ of ‘Basa’, situated at the end of Wat’s Dyke, might have been a strategic location in the Mercian military organisation and territorial structures relating to land and sea.

The ruins of Basingwerk Abbey obscure the site of a possible Mercian fort which guarded this strategic location at the northern end of Wat’s Dyke