Let me present a provisional idea for a new heritage trail, building off my recent collaboration with John G. Swogger.
As of December 2021, my collaborative project with archaeological illustrator John G. Swogger was concluded. We began with a book chapter reflecting on the potentials and rationales for a heritage comic exploring Wat’s Dyke point-to-point through North Wales’s largest conurbation and immediate environs, from Alyn Waters Country Park to Erddig Park, and selected ten locations to create a distinctive mode of online and physical bilingual engagement with Britain’s third-longest linear earthwork.
The key outputs are:
- Original blog-post outlining the rationale and identifying key locations where the public can visit stretches of Wat’s Dyke in and around Wrexham, from January 2019;
- Envisioning Wat’s Dyke (in Gleave et al. (eds.) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Oxford: Archaeopress.
- What’s Wat’s Dyke? Wrexham Comic Heritage Trail on the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory website (interactive map and comic panels plus downloadable Welsh and English documents;
- The launch video on Archaeodeath’s YouTube channel;
- What’s Wat’s Dyke? Wrexham Comic Heritage Trail, Offa’s Dyke Journal 3: 183-210.
- Drawing the Line: What’s Wat’s Dyke? Practice and Process, Offa’s Dyke Journal 3: 211-242.
The only elements that remain are, post-COVID, to take the comic out and begin to disseminate it to schools and at public events.
However, my thoughts have now turned to upscaling this project for the entirety of Wat’s Dyke’s c. 63/64km length from near Maesbury through Oswestry and Gobowen (Shropshire), then continuing to Wynnstay Park, Ruabon, Erddig, Wrexham and along the Alyn Valley past Hope and Penyffordd, then across higher ground east of Mold through Mynydd Isa and New Brighton to Soughton and then along the Nany-y-Fflint to Holywell, the Greenfield Valley and Basingwerk.
I’ve provisionally identified 35 locations where Wat’s Dyke can be recognised on the ground, or else Wat’s Dyke intersects with other significant heritage sites and locales and are accessible to the public. This means I would need to design and create 25 more panels to go with the 10 already created by John and myself for the What’s Wat’s Dyke? comic (although details are provisional, there are a few more, perhaps 5 extra, I could easily create in addition to these 35)!
The line of Wat’s Dyke provides considerable potential for exploring further aspects of the Dyke’s story, as well as key dimensions of the prehistoric, Roman, medieval and modern landscapes of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands. Its line today incorporates multiple modern settlements which have grown up over and close to Wat’s Dyke, including places where road-names and habitive-names serve to commemorate the monument’s former presence. Significantly, these are not all locations upon the long distance walking trail: the Wat’s Dyke Way, and so they operate as an extension of the What’s Wat’s Dyke comic heritage trail in providing the opportunity for tourists and walkers to explore things new, as well as local people to find out about their heritage. It also allows Wat’s Dyke to tie together heritage sites and environs through the Anglo-Welsh borderlands in a distinctive and original fashion.
It then made sense for me to think about what a similar arrangement of comic panels would look like for the northern stretches of the adjacent and better-known Offa’s Dyke from Trefonen to its northernmost confirmed presences at Coed-talen Banks near Treuddyn, Flintshire. For this monument I’ve identified at least 22 locations (maybe up to 30) where a comic panel might mark and discuss a publicly accessible location, telling the story of both Offa’s Dyke and the landscape in which it is situated, including where it passes by Chirk Castle, the Pontcysyllte World Heritage Site, through post-industrial settlements and countryside as well as Plas Power Wood, and through the settlement of Ffrith.
In combination, these two comic heritage trails, amounting to 57 panels and perhaps also tied together with an interactive map, will provide a unique resource for tourists and local people alike regarding the early medieval history and archaeology of the region as well as the longer-term landscape story to the present day.
I’ve already got ideas for comic panels for each location and text which might introduce visitors to a key element of the landscape. Together, these would constitute a non-linear story about linear monuments, accessible and open-access, as well as ideally bilingual.
And let’s remember: this is much needed. These monuments are slowly in decline and are disappearing from casual and accidental damage and inadequate conservation regimes, as well as from ignorance of people who simply do not know these monuments exist and their significance for the story of modern nations, regions and communities, as well as the rich history of conflict and collaboration, contestation and accommodation, colonisation and decolonisation, which has resulted in today’s landscape.
Towards a tube map
But then, might mind turned to the question: how would this heritage trial be represented, when it is not a trail marked by uninterrupted footpaths and in order for the sites to be conveyed as accessible to those travelling by mobility scooter, bicycle, motor vehicles and public transportation as well as on foot. For while we would like to afford the impression that the sites can each be visited in a linear sequence, and are each individually publicly accessible, the linear earthworks are not continuous, but broken by later damage, destruction and development. In this regard, I thought it would be ideal to represent them in a schematic map deliberately abstracted from cartographic conventions, and simplifying distances between each point.
This led me to think: why not create versions of the famous Harry Beck London Underground Tube Map. After all, it has been widely imitated across the country to celebrate local regions. For example, Chester has utilised a version for cycle routes.
Moreover, originally designed in 1933, it dates from the era when Sir Cyril Fox first systematically surveyed both Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke.
Most crucially, this medium is readily understood as schematic, but equally it is understood to convey a sense of real connections between stops. This combination effectively serves the purpose of explaining linear earthworks now only partially surviving to visitors. Namely, each site is connected to an originally near-continuous linear earthwork constructed to control and defend the western frontiers of Mercia in the late 7th to early 9th centuries AD and each comprising of a monumental western ditch and eastern bank bisecting the landscape.
Each stop is not arbitrary: it articulates a place to pause on this abstracted journey to observe the subject of the comic: not only the linear monument itself, or where it formerly ran, but also other associated historic landscapes, sites and monuments. Thus the ‘tube map’, adapted as a heritage trail for early medieval linear earthworks, constitutes the ideal combination of schematised movement between connected locales and rest to explore each place and its environs. Crucially, the tube map implies to modern audiences the idea that each linear earthwork is sometimes visible overground, sometimes now lost underground!
Also, it allows ‘heritage interchange’ locations to be marked, where there are connections with other prominent heritage attractions, as opposed to ‘stops’ associated primarily with Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke.
A critical further benefit of this schematised view of the past is of course that the modern border can be firmly and completely removed from the conceptualisation of past landscapes. Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke were demonstrably and indisputably frontier works, but they were established before Wales, and before England. Rather than indulge the lazy anachronisms that have been replete in heritage interpretation and foster ethnonationalisms and colonial gazes, we can eras the modern border from the visualisation of these heritage trails, instead offering clear, simple connections along the lines established to create divisions but which ultimately were failed endeavours.
Of course, now I’ve suggested it, the same could be designed for other stretches of Offa’s Dyke in Shropshire, Radnorshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Here’s a further thought. Having presented this idea, there’s nothing stopping the addition of further ‘heritage lines’ – schematised heritage routes through the Anglo-Welsh borderlands. Obvious potential examples include holy wells, medieval churches, medieval abbeys and priories, Roman sites, prehistoric hillforts, and so on. Very soon, the Anglo-Welsh borderland will become a heritage meshwork to encourage locals and visitors to explore in a novel but familiar tube map fashion!
What do you think? Do you think this is a heritage project worth seeking funding for and developing? It could be a digital bilingual map, a physical guide, and provide the basis for a book/ebook too. Let me know your thoughts on this idea in the comments below!
Note: the above map is my work and design and a draft only. However, please do feel free to share but also please cite this blog-post and credit me.