Artistic expressions featured heavily at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Offa’s Dyke Path, from poetry to stained glass, from music to paintings.
In fact, I’ve long been musing about the power of art installations can enhance and enrich visitor engagements with heritage sites – ancient monuments and historic buildings. While I’ve discussed this most frequently for the ruins of medieval castles and religious houses, I’ve also considered the specific challenges of deploying waymarkers, monuments and art installations in relation to linear monuments.
Dr Rebecca Jones, in her Foreword to the book Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands, outlines the many initiatives and investment in art to articulate links between Roman pasts and contemporary Scottish communities along the Antonine Frontier. While subject to no similar strategic investment in sculptural and playground installations, Offa’s Dyke has also long had its distinctive creative dimensions. These take many forms, from memorial benches and other monuments, but also the Offa’s Dyke Path acorn waymarkers. In addition, there have been specific attempts to install artworks along Offa’s Dyke.
To date, there has been no systematic review of such artistic and monumental elaborations of Offa’s Dyke. Still, through my blog-posts, I’ve at least attempted to draw attention to the oldest examples, including the 19th-century Craignant Tower here and here, and the Sir Richard Green Price memorial on Hawthorn Hill. There is also a 19th-century waymarker on Hawthorn Hill.
For the 20th century, I’ve reviewed the aforementioned waymarkers at various locations (summarised with links to earlier posts here), the Sedbury stone, the Hawthorn Hill signs, the Knighton bench, the Knighton memorials to the Offa’s Dyke Path, Trefonen waymarkers, the Circle of Legends at Tintern Old Station, the Janus horse sculpture at Oswestry Old Racecourse as well as the Plas Power Offa sculpture. Most recently, I’ve discussed the carved wooden bench at NT Chirk Castle as an attempt to presence the Dyke for visitors.
There are also unintended memorial associations between the Dyke and more recent monuments, as at Johnstown, Wrexham, where the long-destroyed line of Offa’s Dyke is topped by a First World War memorial.
All these are material cultures that seek to explain and contextualise the ancient monument in relation to the contemporary landscapes, or else do the same unintentionally. Whether created ‘art’ or not, they are part of a broader rather of human interventions into Offa’s Dyke beyond land divisions and landscape management.
This spring, I had the chance to go to one of the most iconic stretches of Offa’s Dyke: Llanfair Hill in the Clun Forest. Here, I encountered more examples of art, most of it not intended as such, or not created for this location.
First, the scale of the monument might seem to require little by way of visual enhancement or articulation, but the Offa’s Dyke Path sign attempts to show, as elsewhere, Offa and his workforce constructing the monument.
Then, there is the abandoned iron plough which has become a monument in itself: Offa’s Dyke its backdrop.
A further striking feature is a dragon! Yes, a Welsh red dragon! It was dumped near Offa’s Dyke having had a previous life as a festival installation. Perhaps intended as some statement of Welshness in opposition to the monstrous early medieval monument, after only a few years it is now rather broken down by wind and rain; it looks rather forlorn but remains a distinctive feature of this stretch of Offa’s Dyke.
Might I be permitted to add a ‘natural’ example to these three human-fashioned augmentations to Offa’s Dyke? Finally, we have a solitary tree, which indirectly serves to draw the eye and interact with the striking scale of Offa’s Dyke to its east. It might not have been planted as art, or is perceived as art, but it serves to place-make and encourage reflection on the history and legacy of Offa’s Dyke.
I aim to collate all the material cultures, art and monuments along Offa’s Dyke, since they provide a fascinating case study in how meanings and memories, imagined pasts and aspired futures, have accreted to this early medieval monument via eclectic media beyond the ‘authentic’ scheduled ancient monument. Together, these material cultures serve to punctuate a monument so large it is difficult to comprehend and impossible to apprehend from any single vantage point. Alongside the naming practices I’ve addressed already in print, the art, monuments and waymarkers of Offa’s Dyke show that the monument has acquired significance for borderland communities beyond ethno-nationalist narratives of division. In this regard, all landmarks and physical installations, intended as art, heritage interpretation or accidental associations, can help create and foster these stories.