Offa’s Dyke is elusive. Though the Offa’s Dyke Path runs for the entire length of the English-Welsh border, the great earthwork itself comes and goes. Sometimes it rears up through serene ancient woods, a defensive ditch and a steep bank up to 2.5m (8 ft) high. At others it peters out to nothing – just a line through a field.
And historically it is equally hard to pin down. The first record comes from Alfred the Great’s biographer Asser who wrote (in the 890s, 100 years after the attributed date of construction) that King Offa had built a great dyke from sea to sea to divide Wales from his own kingdom of Mercia.
While archaeologists dispute whether the dyke was ever completed, all built at once or even built by Offa at all, once you start walking along its more impressive sections, it’s clear that there once stood a truly extraordinary linear fortification to compare to Hadrian’s Wall.
What’s in a name?
Perhaps the most impressive section to explore is the 20 or so miles between Knighton and Welshpool. Now almost certainly attributed to Offa, the dyke here is easy to see as it runs over wild, thinly populated hill country of Clun Forest (below) before descending into the Vale of Montgomery, switching between Shropshire and Powys more than once.
And, as if caught out in a game of musical borders, you find English place names on the Welsh side and vice versa. Confusing it must be. As in Mercian times, there are the welcome sanctuaries of Welshpool, Bishop’s Castle, Clun and Knighton to offer succour after a day of hill climbing and dyke following.
But what of the ‘Offa’s Dyke’ south of Knighton? It can clearly be seen in the wooded country above the Wye between Chepstow and Monmouth.
Archaeologists are not so sure Offa built this part. Did it exist before and Offa added to it, or was it a later addition? It’s still well worth a visit. The best place to start is at the ruins of Tintern Abbey. Cross the river at Brockweir and follow the footpath up into the woods towards Offa’s Dyke Path.
Follow the path south to Devil’s Pulpit and you’ll find yourself beside a huge earth rampart, this time hidden in the woods instead of exposed on lonely hills. It’s then a short walk downhill, following a disused railway path back to Tintern.
HOW TO GET THERE
Trains from Birmingham stop at Knighton, which is also reached via the A4113 from Ludlow. The southern stretch of the dyke is best reached from Tintern, seven miles north of Chepstow on the A466.
The Offa’s Dyke Centre and Knighton Tourist Information Centre
Perfect riverside pub a short stroll from a good section of the southern part of Offa’s Dyke.
Horse and Jockey Inn
A good value, 14th-century inn, midway on Offa’s Dyke Path.