How was Wat’s Dyke aligned and positioned in the landscape, and how big was it? In this post, I address a stretch of particular significance for answering these questions. For previous posts on this striking and under-explored monument, see here.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about how I might write about the stretch of Wat’s Dyke at Pentre-clawdd Farm for some time. This is because, to my mind, it is truly remarkable and revealing regarding the original scale, design and landscape placement of this early 9th-century linear earthwork built by the Mercians to define and control their western borderlands with Welsh rivals. This stretch is (relatively) well-preserved, despite the ditch being heavily eroded and the bank damaged by post-medieval agriculture and buildings and of varied height within hedge lines. But as with elsewhere, the field boundaries preserve to a degree but deceive the full breadth of the monument.

The section in question navigates a prominent hilltop just to the south of Pentre-clawdd farm in Ruabon parish, from which one has not only views all over what is now the A483 corridor around Ruabon and across the entrance of the Vale of Llangollen to the south-west and as far as Hope Mountain to the north-west. In addition, this position also allows for extensive views eastwards towards the Mid-Cheshire Ridge. As Wat’s Dyke behaves elsewhere, including arguably Old Oswestry hillfort, the Dyke aligns itself on the hilltop but skirts just to its west and takes this high-point as a node of realignment. To the north, it runs nearly straight down to the Black Brook and then on to Erddig. To the south, it runs along the top of a ridge through Wynnstay Park towards the scarps above the River Dee and the Ceiriog at their confluence.

There is a further characteristic to this strategic hilltop used for the Dyke’s alignment and realignment. This is the very stretch , just north and either side of Ruabon, where Wat’s Dyke comes closest to Offa’s Dyke. Like Wat’s Dyke, Offa’s Dyke also runs broadly northwards from the River Dee but to the west of present-day Ruabon, while Wat’s Dyke is just to its east. Indeed, the realignment point of Wat’s Dyke just south of Pentre-clawdd, seems to be the point where the two earthworks come closest to each other. At this point, Offa’s Dyke is only 1.17km as the crow flies WNW. Naturally, from the high point of Wat’s Dyke, the more westerly Offa’s Dyke, presumably already extant, would have been fully visible for almost all of its length above its descent into Hopyard Wood and the Dee to the south-west, and its navigation of the area of Pentrebychan to the north-west. Think about that: at this point there is just 1.17km between the parallel courses of Britain’s first- and third-longest linear monuments! If indeed Offa’s Dyke is late 8th century as supposed, and Wat’s Dyke is confirmed as early 9th century as the dates from Malim and Hayes’ Gobowen excavations suggest, then Wat’s Dyke’s line at this location is defined to respond to the presence of the pre-existing linear earthwork. Whether they were used together to control the landscape, or Wat’s Dyke is a replacement frontier work following Offa’s Dyke’s abandonment, Pentre-clawdd is pivotal to understanding how the Dykes create a narrow corridor in this northern part of the Mercian/Welsh frontier zone.

Let me show you some photographs of this section, taken on a walk this late spring, which indicate how the monument behaves. I’ve annotated the 1960s OS map with numbers and arrows indicating the photograph number and the direction of view in each. What is evident is that:

  1. while the bank survives beneath hedges, the line of the ditch is still visible as a wide, shallow depression at key points on the western side of the hedge lines and banks. To the south, there is a well-preserve section of the Dyke. So while denuded by various agencies, here one can get a sense of the magnitude of the monument;
  2. The Dyke superficially appears to curve around the western side of the hilltop. In actual fact, as the OS map shows, the Dyke shifts through two precise realignments to circumvent the hilltop in a relatively straight short SW-NE section. In other words, whereas it might have taken a straighter line and incorporated the hilltop itself, it deliberately bends westwards to the NE of Pentre-clawdd farm and (heading S) then bends around to take a more southerly alignment to the SW of the farm. This double realignment means that:
    1. those east of the Dyke and on the hilltop to overlook the western side of the Dyke as it heads downslope to the NNE;
    2. those at the realignment point to the SW of Pentre-clawdd farm to overlook all the land westwards.
    3. The hilltop was clearly used to survey the Dyke, but equally the builders did not want the hilltop to be the point of realignment itself.
  3. One can readily anticipate a watch tower and beacon on the hilltop, defended by, and integrated into, the line of Wat’s Dyke, allowing observations of movement in the landscape, and warning eastwards over many miles of approaching enemies.
Photo perspectives
The 1960s OS map annotated with the directions and length of vision of the 10 photographs accompanying this post.

Let’s begin with two shots taken north of Pentre-clawdd farm, the first from between where the ‘W’ is in ‘Wat’s’ and the ‘Pond’ on the 1960s OS map. Here one can see the shallow survival of the ditch, and the bank heavily damaged by trees and agricultural activity.

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1 Looking north from the edge of Pentre-clawdd Farm, Wat’s Dyke heads towards the Black Brook and Erddig. This is at a kink in the earthwork as it realignments SW from SSW.

The second shot is taken to the east, from the corner of the farm’s boundary.

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2 Looking N from behind (E of) Wat’s Dyke, one can see the shift in alignment of Wat’s Dyke as it charts a westward bend to circumvent, rather than hit, the hilltop.

Here we are looking S along the line of the Dyke and behind (east) of it.

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3 Looking S along the ‘curve’ of Wat’s Dyke as it heads away from Pentre-clawdd farm to the S, in actual fact it conducts a relatively swift realignment at this location.

The scale of the bank is dramatic, but one has to remember that that entire width of the modern gate and the road beyond, would have once been the ditch.

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4 Wat’s Dyke, looking N towards Pentre-clawdd farm from where the ditch once was.

I think the whole monument here is more substantial than if one is fixated, as one often ends up, with the bank. The depression of the ditch is clearly visible.

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5. Looking SW along the line of Wat’s Dyke south of Pentre-clawdd Farm to where it changes alignment to SSW. All of the space on the right is a slight depression marking the line of the monument’s ditch.

And once again, looking N at the point where the Dyke realigns.

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6. Looking N along the line of Wat’s Dyke where it curves from NNE to NE. This photograph is particularly striking since you can see that the present-day impression is that the Dyke is sited east (right) of the ridge’s high-point. In fact, I think this is an impression left by the fact that the ditch survives as a long, low depression, picked up only in this profile view as the bank realigns.

And N again towards the realignment point.

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7. Looking NNE along Wat’s Dyke to the point where it shifts alignment NE. Again the public footpath follows the line of the shallow wide depression whether Wat’s Dyke’s monumental ditch once was situated.

Taken from behind the Dyke, this shows the way the monument navigates around the high-point of the hilltop.

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8. Looking N along the rear (east) side of Wat’s Dyke, one can clearly see how it is aligned to circumvent the hilltop rather than pass over it. You can see Pentre-clawdd farm just to the west (left) of the hilltop covered in trees.

To give you a flavour of the scale of the monument within the hedgeline.

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9. Looking n on the line of Wat’s Dyke within the hedge line.

And running southwards from Pentre-clawdd, the Dyke survives more securely as both bank and ditch.

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10. Looking S along Wat’s Dyke, here one can see both bank and ditch surviving clearly at the first point S of Pentre-clawdd Farm, illustrating the fuller width of the original monument subsequently lost closer to Pentre-clawdd Farm.