Just over a month after it happened, I come to a brief but fascinating example of social media outrage relating to two prominent UK heritage sites within sight of each other: one in England, one in Wales. Many liked the post, but others were angry in response to a superficially innocuous promotional tweet by English Heritage. The bigger question pertinent to this blog: what are the political and cultural significances of medieval ruins and earthworks situated in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands?
It started with this tweet on 3 October 2021.
It garnered over 700 likes, 78 retweets, 42 quote tweets, and 86 direct comments.
While many were approving, as you can see, the outrage was fervent among some. By taking a photo of Wales from England, a few accused English Heritage of ignorance and/or inaccuracy in regarding the cultural heritage of Wales and the location of the border. Others objected more specifically, making clear that the view ‘west’ from Offa’s Dyke at this location in Gloucestershire looks across the River Wye into Wales. Others made clear that the view featured a Cadw-managed ancient monument – the Cistercian monastery of Tintern: founded in 1131 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. Another called it ‘#embarrassing’ and deployed face-palm emojis articulating their despair at the ‘blooper’. One deployed sarcasm, stating ‘If only that place “west of Offa’s Dyke” had a proper name we could all use’. Others were cutting in their circumspection: ‘Fantastic photo of Wales’. One claimed that the photographer would have ‘failed Geography GCSE! Wrong country!’. Welsh flag emojis abounded.
Meanwhile, other responses went further, accusing English Heritage of trying to conduct ‘cultural appropriation’, ‘twisted appropriation’ and of ‘covetousness’ of the vista and the monument it contains, others sharing further emojis of Welsh flags asserting it to be ‘OUR heritage’. One tweet claimed this was using Wales to ‘sell England’. Another comment was ‘Hands off our Welsh Heritage’ (clearly playing on the name of ‘English Heritage’) and ‘Gorgeous isn’t it but no, you can’t have it….’, another: ‘get your own’. A further tweet asserted ‘hands off’, another ‘keep your grubby mitts off’. One questioned whether English Heritage are ‘not being content to steal resources and homes, but ‘steal our culture now as well?’
Another explicitly linked the tweet from an ancient monument in Gloucestershire towards an ancient monument in Monmouthshire to the contrasting COVID-19 restrictions operating in each nation: ‘It’s Welsh, not English, heritage. And wear your mask.’
Some used abuse. One tweet called English Heritage ‘pillocks’, one more called them ‘morons’ and another calling them ‘colonials’. Less polite insults were offered in the Welsh language. A journalist jibed that, as he was in London, he might ‘stop by the British Museum to see if it’s been pilfered’.
Others defended English Heritage, not understanding why some are ‘triggered’, accusing Welsh commentators of ‘tribalism’. Some suggested the critical responses didn’t understand that the view was from England. One stated that there are clearly ‘racists’ among Welsh nationalist responses to the tweet. One saw it as ‘faux outrage’. A self-professed Welsh commentator stated ‘Calm the f**k down, boyos’.
A few others tried to compromise, noting the many beautiful heritage sites in the Wye Valley on either side of the modern border. Others simply approved of the beauty of the view, mentioning memories of past visits and aspirations to visit in the future.
EH responded to a few of the most ‘liked’ responses and added clarification that not only is Tintern Abbey in Wales, and a Cadw-run site, but that EH members and Cadw members can use their passes interchangeably at each other’s pay-to-enter sites. They apologised for any misunderstanding.
The volume of responses inspired the story to be written up for the Welsh nationalist news site Nation Cymru on 4 October with the headline: ‘English Heritage responds to online backlash after it posted picture of Wales’.
Notably, I couldn’t identify responses that addressed the nature of Offa’s Dyke itself: no one seems to have contested the association of the early medieval linear earthwork with the Anglo-Welsh border! No one seems to display any understanding of the view being from Offa’s Dyke (which it is) or indeed any query about what Offa’s Dyke was. Specifically, no one commenting seems to have tackled the fact that neither England nor Wales existed when it was built, nor was Tintern Abbey itself (in its historically and architecturally attested form at least). Equally, no tweets addressed Tintern was itself a ‘colonial’ foundation of the Marcher lord Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow…
My reply was quite critical, recoiling at the flagrant nationalist sentiments, but also acutely aware that there are deeper issues regarding the politics and culture of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands that explain the volume and strength of the reaction to perceived confusions regarding the location of the border and the heritage of each nation.
But do the critical commentators have a valid point regarding the heritage interpretation of the Wye Valley. If so, what is it?
I fully recognise the deep-seated frustrations at play with overtly colonial political and cultural attitudes towards Wales and the Welsh that still pervade English popular culture and its institutions.
As someone of partial Welsh descent and long-term resident in Wales, I see this myself at every level in the media and in politics, but also in attitudes and perceptions by English people on holiday and when living close by or in Wales. I also recognise that heritage institutions can fall into this trap and treat Wales as absent, as a backwater, and of secondary, if not tertiary importance. Many flagrantly ignore the border and have little understanding of its deep-time significances. National frustrations are compounded by local ones: the lack of knowledge and appreciation that the Wye Valley straddles the border – Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire, and therefore sits in both England and Wales. For clarity: the border follows the river from Chepstow to Redbrook and then briefly again south-west of Symonds Yat.
For those seeing this tweet, it might be taken as yet another example of ignorance or arrogance, or indeed some kind of overt attempt at appropriation, by English individuals and organisation towards the landscape and heritage of Wales. So I don’t pretend, as some commentators did, that this is a ‘fuss’ over ‘nothing’, even if I completely disagree regarding the tenor and accusations of those reacting to the tweet.
In defence of English Heritage
Yet, having conceding that criticisms were warranted to a degree, its difficult to sympathise with views that would characterise this single tweet as an act of ‘appropriation’ and ‘covetousness’, and I don’t think it merits being even called ignorant or arrogant. The vista is famous and well-utilised in touristic and heritage contexts. English Heritage took it from the Devil’s Pulpit – a rare break in the trees that line the Wye Valley, showing the beauty of the Wye Valley without any overtly nationalistic colouring. Indeed, neither England, nor Wales, Gloucestershire nor Monmouthshire, are mentioned in the tweet. Admittedly, it might have made sense to note that Tintern Abbey, a later medieval Cistercian monastic house of the 12th-16th centuries AD was part a Europe-wide monastic order originating in Burgundy, founded by an Anglo-Norman lord. Equally, it could have made sense to mention it is now a Cadw-managed property! Still, there is nothing explicitly ‘wrong’ or offensive about the tweet requiring English Heritage to apologise for it.
For context, it must be mentioned that (to my knowledge) this is a unique situation where an English Heritage and Cadw property are in close visual interaction. For while one can see England from Flint Castle (a Cadw property in Flintshire) and Wales from Beeston Castle (an EH property in Cheshire), properties of the opposing organisation are not present in each case. There is parallel in that Montgomery Castle (a Cadw property in Powys) is on the horizon from Offa’s Dyke where it also forms the modern borderline. However, here, Offa’s Dyke is not protected by English Heritage: only this 3-mile Gloucestershire stretch east of Tintern in English Heritage’s stewardship. Old Oswestry hillfort is an English Heritage property and has Wat’s Dyke running through it, located in a traditionally Welsh-speaking and influenced corner of Shropshire, but without visual interaction across the border or with a Welsh Cadw-stewardship monument. So in EH’s defence, this specific vista is wholly unique.
Returning to consider Tintern, there is also legitimacy to the specific viewshed in terms of the relationship between Wales and England. The aforementioned folklore of the Devil’s Pulpit is closely tied to Tintern Abbey, clearly inspired by this visual interaction, and this view is unique in miles of tree-covered steep slopes in affording a vista along the valley over the medieval ruins, and as such it is very popular and familiar, featured again and again in tourist photographs and television programmes (see below). This is a vista embedded in tourist visitations since the 18th century.
For those cognisant of the contrasting histories of the two medieval monuments, the present-day location of the border between England and Wales is inconsequential and anachronistic, especially as neither monument are ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’ at the point of their inception.
Finally, in terms of today’s landscape, it must be noted that the photograph is not ‘from England of Wales’, but ‘from England of both England and Wales. I say this because the foreground trees that frame the image in the tweet, half the river, half the old railway bridge, and the right-bank of the Wye are all in England, although of course the majority of the land depicted in the photograph is indeed in Wales.
Put all these facts together and it is very difficult to sympathise with the ferocity of the jibes pitched at English Heritage and objecting to their tweet.
But this is more than contrived digital nationalistic outrage. We’ve already seen that coronavirus circumstances were evoked in response to the English Heritage tweet. Indeed, I’ve published on the ongoing challenges faced by the contrasting COVID-19 circumstances affecting Offa’s Dyke and perceptions of a ‘hard border’ between England and Wales here. This builds on an earlier blog-post here where I review the mobilisation of Offa’s Dyke in anti-English and anti-Welsh coronavirus discourses. Both make clear that very little of Offa’s Dyke coincides with the Welsh/English border, and the equate of the Dyke with a border made by an ‘English king’ is a gross anachronism at best. Yet again and again Offa’s Dyke is regarded as synonymous with the Welsh/English border in popular parlance and calls to ‘refortify’ it against either the ‘English’ or the ‘Welsh’ (many in jest but still, repeatedly articulated online).
Heritage organisations continue to get confused themselves: the circumstances are compounded by the long-persistent equation of Offa’s Dyke with not only the Welsh-English border and with the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail: this triad of lines in the British landscape coincide and are in proximity in places, but diverge and cross each other, making it confusing for non-locals and easy for their very differences and histories to be conflated. See, for example, the situation at Chirk Castle where new interpretation panels and installations equate the Dyke with a ‘border’ and get confused regarding its length and function.
In this set of specific 2020/2021 circumstances, it seems worthwhile dipping into how Offa’s Dyke is particularly contested at this time. So let’s turn to how it is portrayed ‘on the ground’ and digitally in regards to the Wye Valley to see if there is actually a case to answer.
Tidenham heritage interpretation
The sign board by the English Heritage Tiddenham car park explains how the dyke was a huge ‘keep out’ sign: a symbol of his power and authority over his frontier and a ‘formidable obstacle to any invaders’. As such, it was ‘designed to impress’. An amazing aerial artist’s impression gives a sense of the slopes cleared of trees to make it highly visible in the landscape: this is brilliant. It also states that the monument had a ‘lasting impact on the way people living either side of it define their cultural identity’, which is basically suggesting the Dyke had an enduring influence on the creation of both Englishness and Welshness in later centuries. Notably, however, the modern border, and the present of either England or Wales, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire, are omitted from the interpretation panel, while the linear earthwork is clearly marked as it follows the stop of the scarp above the Wye past the Devil’s Pulpit to Lippets Grove and Caswell Wood.
At the Devil’s Pulpit itself, there is only a small post-marked interpretation of the legend that from this rock, the monks of Tintern were tempted by the Devil. So the visual interaction with Tintern Abbey is key, but a folkloric narrative, while the historical disconnection of Dyke from Abbey is not explained.
See my earlier posts:
- Interpreting Offa’s Dyke – Tidenham and the Devil’s Pulpit 1
- Interpreting Offa’s Dyke – Tidenham and the Devil’s Pulpit 2
In summary, there is a case to answer: in the Tidenham landscape, I’d argue that Offa’s Dyke is inadequately explained and its relationship with the modern border (and with Tintern Abbey) left unclear. So while the EH tweet was clearly taken out of context, it must be said that an informed context is lacking on the ground!
The digital Dyke
What of the digital narrative about Offa’s Dyke? English Heritage’s website has only a very short statement to make about Offa’s Dyke along the Wye Valley.
A three mile section of the great earthwork boundary dyke built along the Anglo-Welsh border by Offa, King of Mercia, probably during the 780s. This especially impressive wooded stretch includes the Devil’s Pulpit, with fine views of Tintern Abbey.https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/offas-dyke/
Here, the association of the Dyke with a ‘boundary’ and a ‘border’ is explicitly made, facilitating anachronistic associations of early medieval and contemporary lines in the landscape. Moreover, a play is made of the prominence of the view of Tintern as a principal attraction (and no, its situation in Wales is not mentioned!). Most odd is the anachronistic wording, as if there was already an ‘Anglo-Welsh border’ before the dyke was built! The language used in a more detailed web-page to describe the Welsh as ‘unruly’ might also be a cause for legitimate criticism of caricatures of upland British peoples as resistant to ‘law and order’ imposed by the English.
In summary, again, I feel English Heritage do have a case to answer. The relationship of Offa’s Dyke to ‘England’ and a ‘border’ is explicit and open to conflation with the modern borderline through their digital information.
Tintern heritage interpretation
The situation is not helped by disassociating the Wye Valley stretches from Offa’s Dyke from the story told at Tintern Abbey itself. For while there are legitimate arguments and debates to be made about the date of construction, function and broader socio-political, economic and other roles of these linear earthworks in the Early Middle Ages and their afterlives and legacies, denying the monument had a frontier role doesn’t help. Obviously Tintern isn’t established until centuries after Offa’s Dyke, but the fact remains that standing at Tintern, the opposing side of the Wye would have been cleared and topped by Offa’s Dyke in the late 8th century: doesn’t this deserve at least a passing mention?
One can walk from Tintern up to the Devil’s Pulpit and as we’ve seen the folklore binds the two sides of the modern border together!
Instead, visitors to the Cadw site are given an utterly introvert narrative, focusing upwards and inwards at the ruins, without considering the fact that almost half of its vista is comprised of Offa’s Dyke!
In short, Cadw and Tintern Abbey cannot be let off the hook either: they have failed to tell the story of the valley before the abbey, including the course and looming presence of Offa’s Dyke!
The wider Wye Valley
And we cannot claim that the Wye Valley isn’t implicated in long-term colonial visions of Britain’s past, and specifically a colonial gaze involving Offa’s Dyke as traces of past conquest and dominance. Offa’s Dyke works in this regard on its own terms, as an indication of a primordial colonial experiment but as a precursor to subsequent historical events and processes.
This extends into the 18th and 19th century tourism to the Wye Valley too. For part of this, see my earlier post: Colonialism and the Anglo-Welsh Border: Giants and Offa’s Dyke at Piercefield
In today’s landscape, notions of a Dark Age king seeking to control and impose authority over the Welsh captures the imagination through sculpture. In this sense, see my post about the romantic evocation of Offa as part of The Circle of Legends sculpture circle at Tintern Old Station. Here, King Offa exists as a semi-legendary figure, but not as an integrated part of the landscape, rubbishing shoulders with figures from mythology and legend as well as history.
In summary, it’s certainly difficult for visitors to use this information to gain a meaningful understanding of early medieval history and archaeology let alone the complex relationship with the subsequent development of the nations of England or Wales from the later Middle Ages to the present.
My point is that the reactions to English Heritage’s tweet constitute more than a storm in a digital teacup, but like much social media outrage it responds to deep-seated divisions in British society and the landscape. The latent potential for Offa’s Dyke’s misuse in nationalistic political discourses and rhetoric will come as no surprise to anyone in Wales or England and those attentive to how the distant past is contested but also distinctive in the borderlands.
But what role, if any, should archaeologists have in countering such stories? My point would be that by refusing to emblazon ‘Wales’ and ‘England’ on heritage maps is constructive in one sense because it works against both English and Welsh nationalist discourses. Rightly, the focus has been on localities that straddle political borders, their heritage has a rich story to tell distinct from either nation and tells its own complex borderland story.
Yet equally, by overtly ignoring heritage sites on different sides of the modern frontier – e.g. Cadw omitting Offa’s Dyke from its Tintern Abbey story, English Heritage not mentioning Tintern Abbey’s current status in Wales and under Cadw stewardship – we perhaps collectively fail to distinguish and differentiate how this landscape may have looked and operated in very different ways across time. Thus, we leave open, rather than close down, the potential for anachronistic nationalistic discourses claiming Tintern Abbey as ‘Welsh’ and Offa’s Dyke as ‘English’ and the border is reified as a timeless and immovable division operating across and yet outside of history.
In short, heritage organisations and individuals on both sides of the modern border are complicit in this awkward silence regarding the complex story of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands which gives space to extremist voices.
It was for this reason that I continue to support and co-convene the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory to provide reliable information about the Anglo-Welsh borderlands via a website, academic open-access journal and also making appearances on TV. It was for this very reason that last year I agreed to be filmed at the Devil’s Pulpit for ITV Wales to appear this spring on the Wonders of the Border TV programme with Sean Fletcher. The opening image shows me doing just that, attempting to explain Britain’s largest and longest ancient monument.
Better information about both monuments – early medieval dyke and later medieval abbey – and their landscape contexts is required for visitors and locals alike. This is needed both in the Wye Valley itself and online. Only in doing so can we create an environment where digital outrage can be used as an opportunity for engagement and education into the medieval archaeology of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands and to combat simplified, romanticised and exaggerated narratives that pander to either or both English and Welsh nationalistic discourses.