Between the modern Flintshire villages of Hope and Penyffordd, the early medieval linear earthwork known as Wat’s Dyke – Britain’s second longest early medieval monument after Offa’s Dyke (and third-longest ancient monument of any date after Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall) – carefully and strategically follows the valley slope east of the River Alyn for many miles from Mynydd Isa to the north and Bryn Alyn hillfort to the south. This valley-side stance matches the monument’s behaviour elsewhere along its route, as around Middle Sontley south of Erddig Park and its postulated line NE of the Afon Nant-y-Fflint. It suggests the monument was built to oversee and be seen, dominating the surrounding landscape visually and physically, particularly to the west. In this position, it blocked free movement east-west, but also controlled movement along the valley north-south. Wat’s Dyke was never just a line in the landscape, it was a monumental mechanism for manipulating mobility.
Sir Cyril Fox, David Hill and Margaret Worthington have already discussed this valley-side stance for Wat’s Dyke in their published works. In many regards, it behaves similar to some stretches of Offa’s Dyke in the Wye Valley and around Leighton and Llynclys. The monument was laid out in long sightings and along this stretch, there are only short sections where post-modern building and routes have bisected the monument where it is lost from view. Therefore, here as much as anywhere, one can gain a sense of how Wat’s Dyke carefully utilised the natural topography to its advantage.
All the more sad then, that the long-distance walking trail, Wat’s Dyke Way, is unable to follow the monument along this route which, apart from a short section immediately north of Hope, is gated and fenced from public access upon private land. Wat’s Dyke Way instead follows existing rights of way along the lane – Stryt Isa – below the monument. In following this route, walkers get to see very little of the monument up-close from this stretch. Indeed, north of Hope where a section of Wat’s Dyke is visible in a modern housing estate, one can almost see as much of Wat’s Dyke from the Wrexham Road upslope to the east or from the railway line in the valley downslope to the west.
Having said that, I recently found there are numerous benefits to this lack of public access and let me explain why. Walking the section involves utilising footpaths and bridleways that bisect rather than follow Wat’s Dyke, running between Stryt Isa west and downslope of the linear monument and the Wrexham Road uplsope and to the east. I got to meet some friendly sheep and some bony sheep, some calves and some chickens. But in archaeological terms, I was able to observe and photograph some dramatic sections of the monument itself and its landscape positioning by looking upslope at it from the west, and downslope at Wat’s Dyke from the east. In any case, those points where I encountered the monument, while frustrating in their brevity, remained instructive regarding its scale and placement.
The limited access wasn’t ideal: the monument is preserved in hedgelines where trees and undergrowth obscure it, and in some locations views of it are also blocked by high hedges following paths. Yet by crossing the monument walkers can still get a firmer appreciation than one might link of the scale and character of Wat’s Dyke from these paths. Moreover, in taking this approach, walkers are able to challenge the linear traverse that is now typical for long-distance trails following linear monuments. For while the ditch barely survives in these stretches, the bank is monumental in scale in places: at least comparable to many sections of Offa’s Dyke.
Indeed, at one point, the wooden steps carrying the footpath help to emphasise the monument’s scale.
The damage to the monument not only comprises farming activities, but also an historic pond. This is an interesting (and rare) location where Wat’s Dyke compromises and sits behind a spur and so the land rises to the west.
Also, one gets a strong sense of how the monument’s stance is not only to dominate the valley, but also to ‘face off’ against Hope Mountain on the opposing (western) side of the valley.
Yet one also gets a sense of how the monument appears from below to the west. The dyke was dark, imposing, almost looming, skylined in the morning sunlight as it demarcates the valley slope. The positioning of the monument is carefully selected upon the break of slope.
Having said all these positives about viewing Wat’s Dyke despite limited or no public access, there are still sections which are truly astounding in scale but completely inaccessible without trespassing – as in the shot below.
In summary, I fully recommend walkers taking the time to explore this stretch, and challenge the convention of either circular or linear walks. I zig-zagged down then up, then down, then up, then down and then up again in my walk of Wat’s Dyke. While inevitably we should bemoan the lack of public access, we can celebrate and consider how this circumstance of modern land ownership forces us to consider Wat’s Dyke from different perspectives, when walking up and down slope across its line.