Parts of north-west Shropshire evoke Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and none more for me than Craignant and Selattyn. This is a story of two Victorian towers and many modern signs evoking legendary Dark Age ways and deeds, as well as the landscape of a confirmed early medieval monument: Offa’s Dyke.
In considering prehistoric, early medieval and modern-era signs and monuments upon and close to the modern Welsh/English border, I reflect on how we encounter and experience the rich archaeological and natural history of this borderland landscape and unravel its legendary and historic dimensions.
In previous posts, I’ve explored the striking character and survival as well as landscape placement of Offa’s Dyke from Craignant to Carreg-y-Big, for this is an important stretch of the monument: one of four significant stretches only where the modern Welsh/English border and Offa’s Dyke are coterminous. I’ve returned to this theme as part of a student fieldtrip report when we visited the section south of Craignant. More recently, I’ve commented further regarding the politics and culture of Offa’s Dyke in the context of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns and the politics of Brexit and both English and Welsh nationalisms.
Yet, recently I took the opportunity to conduct a circular walk to the summit of Selattyn Hill and this prompts more consideration of the ways in two two Victorian towers create a partial legendary story about this landscape in relation to Offa’s Dyke. I also reflect on how signs and way markers indirectly and directly contribute to this landscape story. Added to that, I encountered the subtle, temporary, but clear ‘lockdown landscape’ material cultures of notices on walking restrictions and behaviours.
First up, Selattyn Hill, sheep and lambs!
Next, here are two fine photographs of the east-face (back-side) of Offa’s Dyke (left) and looking east over the bank to the ditch on the west side (right), reminding us of the scale of the monument in this landscape. And yet, most walkers may not notice it or realise it is there, since there is no heritage interpretation and the monument is out of sight from the Offa’s Dyke Path itself, blocked by drystone walls of fields.
What we do have marking Offa’s Dyke, however, is a tower beside the road and above the Morlas Brook. This is one of the few surviving Victorian commemorative markers of Offa’s Dyke, the Craignant Tower, which I’ve addressed in previous posts here and here. Yet in relation to the discussion below, the connection with the Morlas might be more significant than I had hitherto realised! So read on!
We then move to modern signage: the mixture of permanent council and Offa’s Dyke Association way markers in varying states of preservation, but also temporary signs placed to direct walkers and to give them advice due to COVID regulations. As previously discussed, these are all dimensions of the contemporary archaeology of the monument and its environs, but the COVID dimensions are part of a broader ‘archaeology of lockdown‘ I’ve witnessed across the Anglo-Welsh borderlands and beyond. What cannot be claimed is that any of these mark and explain Offa’s Dyke itself, but the interactive way marker to Selattyn Hill does at least allude to the prehistoric cairn and Victorian tower we will come to discuss below.
Incidentally, I included encounters with lost material cultures from this stretch in this brief video montage; this is a distinctive set of ephemeral material cultures of the contemporary world.
The images thus far augment previous posts, but my circular walk up and around Selattyn Hill facilitated additional observations. It highlights how Offa’s Dyke is present but not marked in the modern landscape, although the Victorian tower does enduringly fix the Dyke in relation to the modern border. We move into new territory, however, because on this walk up Selattyn Hill.
First, I visited the hilltop which is not marked and seemingly has no archaeological monument upon it. This seems strange to me and my reactions are: ‘are we sure?’ and ‘let’s make one!’
That point aside, just east of the summit of the hill is the Selattyn Tower. Built in 1847, this is a 3.8m (externally) square construction of local limestone and millstone grit. 19th-century folly, summer house and shelter for grouse shooting. Excavations show that the woodwork was painted maroon and there was a central fireplace. The original height of the tower is unknown but estimated to have been at least 4.5m high. It is considered to have originally had a tiled roof. Today, the tower stands to 3.5m. It has a projected chimney stack.
During the Second World War it was reused as a lookout station by the Home Guard. This is reflected in the interactive waymarker denoted above, by pulling a rope the waymarker emerges to point the way to the Selattyn Tower.
Of course further interest is that the tower was erected on a far-older monument: a ring cairn of Bronze Age date of c. 22m diameter with an unrevetted 3m-wide stone boulders of up to 0.8m in height. During the construction of the tower, 12 urns containing burnt bones were uncovered and, in 1998, the excavations revealed Early Bronze Age pottery and fragments of cremated human remains (Wynne-Foulkes 1851: 12) but also an unburned extended supine skeleton with the remains of a ‘bronze dagger or spear-head’ (Wynne-Foulkes 1851: 14-15). Wynne-Foulkes speculated that the latter was the tomb of Gwen, by inhumation, but the ashes upon and around the body were evidence that his followers, ‘still tenacious in their deeply-cherished ancestral rites’, wished to honour their chief with a funeral pyre and perhaps pouring on libations (Wynne-Foulkes 1851: 18). Further details can be found in the Shropshire HER (PRN 00347).
Of particular note is the stated rationale for the raising of the tower as a commemorative monument to honour the death of Prince Gwen in the 6th century fighting against the Saxons near Morlas Brook. Gwen was the son of Llywarch Hen, the famed bard, and the dialogue between father and son, and lament for Gwen by Llywarch, are poems recorded as dating from the late 8th or early 9th centuries (Charles-Edward 2013: 668-674). Llywarch articulates his concern regarding who can watch over the ford in his old age: Gorlas Ford. Scholarly opinion now places these stories in association with Llan-gors and Bryncheiniog but the association with the Morlas is an antiquarian musing connected to the idea that the court of Cynndylan was at nearby Pengwern (said to have received its name from Gwen) or Shrewsbury: the lost lands connecting Wales to the ‘Old North’ (Wynne-Foulkes 1851: 9-11). In this context, at least from the 19th century, the district of Selattyn has acquired a powerful symbolic significance of context and conflict in a legendary Dark Age past.
Even if merely a legend to explain the place-name and antiquarian speculations that the cairn was, or became associated with, the tomb of Gwen, it shows a striking example of the Victorian-era interaction with ancient monuments to consolidate and project legendary burial places of Dark-Age rulers. This might indeed reflect an echo of an early medieval legendary landscape concocted around prehistoric monuments, as Professor David Petts has argued (Petts 2007; see also Seaman 2019), but the specific strand connecting Selattyn to Gwen’s grave seems slender and we must be sceptical. In any case, the tower might well have been raised to honour and perpetuate the association with Gwen against the Saxons: his imagined grave (in actual fact a Bronze Age funerary monument) glowering out over the fords he died defending and across the lost lands he fought to protect.
Moreover, whether by intention or happenstance, the tower, looking east over the ‘lost lands’ of Cheshire and Shropshire, creates a 19th-century counterpoint to Offa’s Dyke and its Victorian tower at Craignant. Are rival landowners here creating follies to commemorate opposing Welsh and Saxon watch towers on the frontier? One appropriates and commemorates Offa’s Dyke close to the Morlas Brook, the other reuses a prehistoric mound as its location and faces through its eastern window over the lost territories of Shropshire and Cheshire.
Finally, I wish to discuss the interpretation panel on the hilltop close to the tower. This is a detailed map-based panel showing walking routes and key historical features titled ‘Selattyn Tower and Bronze Age Cairn’. On the left there is information about the site (with two prominent typographical errors) and on the right a list of key historical sites (a-k) and monuments in the area, including Offa’s Dyke.
However, I notice that the map has been annotated in smart characters in 4 locations and a letter ‘l’ added to the key stating ‘The great trees of Offa’s Dyke’. One annotation emphasises the position of Offa’s Dyke itself, then ‘Amazing trees’, ‘Prince Charles 60th birthday ancient rowan tree now felled’ and ‘old Rowan trees’.
Now there is only one individual I know who is likely to have annotated this interpretation panel in this fashion. I cannot condone this behaviour. Equally, the trees of Offa’s Dyke are not considered part of the ‘official’ narrative about the landscape and so this does adds a welcome layer of additional information from personal knowledge that would otherwise not be available to the walker.
So this walk takes in the ‘two towers’: Victorian monuments at Selattyn and Craignant. They don’t face off against each other, but they do ‘oppose’ each other: marking and guarding legendary early medieval borders and commemorating conflicts along them linked to the story of Gwen and his death defending the Morlas Brook.
I hope to learn more about whether this opposition was deliberate or accidental.
Through the Home Guard reuse of Selattyn Tower in the Second World War, the story encapsulates sentinels of the modern world.
This story isn’t apparent in the heritage interpretation; indeed neither the Selattyn Tower interpretation panel, nor the way markers along Offa’s Dyke, explain the commemorative nature of the two towers or their relationship to the legend of Gwen. How much more is there to tell of not only the distant and recent past through its material traces on this landscape, but also the story of the ‘past in the past’: the responses and reuses of ancient monuments in later times? And how much better can we engage visitors and locals in this heady interaction of legend, archaeology and landscape?
And to finish with Tolkien, how much of this landscape inspired, or at least resonates, with Theoden mourning Theodred and his death at the Fords of Isen, or Faramir presumed dead by Denethor fighting at the fords of the Anduin at Osgiliath?
Charles-Edwards, T. 2013. Wales and the Britons 350-1064. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Petts, D. 2007. De Situ Brecheniauc and Englynion Y Beddau: writing about burial in early medieval Wales. Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 14: 163−172.
Seaman, A. 2019. Llywarch Hen’s Dyke: place and narrative in early medieval Wales, Offa’s Dyke Journal 1: 96-113. http://revistas.jasarqueologia.es/index.php/odjournal/article/view/252
Wynne-Foulkes, W. 1851. Tumulus, Gorsedd Wen and the reasons for supposiing it to be the tomb of Gwen, one of Llywarch Hen’s sons. Archaeologia Cambrensis 2, vol. 5: 9-19.