Almost 5 years ago, I posted about the fabulous Old Oswestry hillfort. I reflected on its heritage conservation and management, but mainly on its heritage interpretation. One point I raised was that while Wat’s Dyke – the early 9th-century linear monument constructed by Mercian kings to control movement through their western territories – runs in and out of the Iron Age hillfort and thus incorporating the ancient monument into its line, visitors don’t get to learn of this. There is no explanation about Wat’s Dyke, I claimed, on the heritage display boards. There is thus no consideration to Wat’s Dyke’s date or significance in relation to the hillfort’s afterlife. Thinking also about the presence close by to the west of Offa’s Dyke, I stated:
The early medieval linear earthworks of the region, Offa’s Dyke to the west, and Wat’s Dyke that runs into and out of the hillfort on its northern and southern sides, also receive limited recognition. Yet it is quite possible that Old Oswestry had a military, and perhaps also a symbolic, role in the emergence, definition and functioning of the dykes.
Partly, I stand by this claim, especially since, having now walked north from Old Oswestry along Wat’s Dyke, there are no signs or information explaining this section. Indeed, I’m struck by the odd dashed line used on the heritage boards at Old Oswestry for the Dyke: the linear earthwork actually does survive here relatively well, if denuded and part-concealed beneath field boundaries.
However, I return to partly revise my evaluation, with sincere apologies to English Heritage. This is because, on all my many walks at Old Oswestry, I have never actually walked past the heritage board that explains Wat’s Dyke. Partly this is forgivable because there are so many potential routes upon which one can explore the earthworks. Partly, it is also justifiable given that the board isn’t actually located beside where Wat’s Dyke runs up to the earlier fortifications. Still, I think it deserves another blog-post to rectify my errors of 2015, there is a board addressing Wat’s Dyke for visitors to read on site and I claimed there wasn’t one!
So let me explain. As one enters, one is shown the locations of all the boards on a map, but I’ve always traversed the top of the hillfort or else down around the lower ramparts beside where Wat’s Dyke itself hits the hillfort. I’ve never been around via the middle of the three banks on the southern side of the monument. Hence, I’ve always missed this heritage board!
The board is actually really effective. It has a map showing the relative positions of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke and showing Old Oswestry Hillfort. There is a black-and-white archaeological excavation photograph showing the bank and ditch of Wat’s Dyke as seen from the west. This is taken from excavations led by Hugh Hannaford in 1996 at Mile Oak, south of Oswestry (Hannaford 1998). I like the schematic map locating the viewer to where she is in relation to the earthworks. Giving a further perspective, an aerial photograph taken looking north to Maesbury shows the line of Wat’s Dyke; it was taken by Chris Musson, formerly of CPAT. The text explains that Wat’s Dyke is similar in construction to Offa’s Dyke and that it was perhaps earlier than it, querying was it built by a ‘now forgotten kingdom which ruled the Shropshire/Cheshire area in the post-Roman period?’
The board is great, as stated. However, I do have 2 issues.
- Based on OSL dated from Gobowen, we now know that Wat’s Dyke may have been constructed later than Offa’s Dyke, perhaps in the early 9th century. So now the board is out of date and has been for the last 13 years.
- The text explains the length of the monument, its alignment and division of the Shropshire/Cheshire lowlands from the Welsh Hills, that ‘from this viewpoint, the much-reduced remains of the Dyke can be seen.’ This isn’t actually the case any longer: vegetation growth now means the line of Wat’s Dyke is invisible from the position of the board, even in the winter months when leaves are off the trees!
Still, despite these limitations, and the fact that the northern line of Wat’s Dyke isn’t explained to visitors, I’m glad to say that Old Oswestry does have a sign attempting to explain the southern approach of Wat’s Dyke to the hillfort. Sorry English Heritage for being wrong last time around!
Hannaford, H. 1009. An excavation on Wat’s Dyke at Mile Oak, Oswestry, Shropshire. Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Historicla Society 73: 1-7.