|Spring is wending its way slowly towards summer as we return to Offa’s Dyke. The last section brought us into Shropshire and we will continue to criss-cross the border between that county and Wales on this part of the route. Staying in Oswestry last night gave us a perfect opportunity to visit Old Oswestry hillfort, one of the premier Iron Age sites in the Marches, if not the country. A tremendous place, awe-inspiring in every way.
By contrast, today’s archaeology will be rather more modest, a mixture of smaller Iron Age remnants and industrial leftovers. The Path crosses an area heavily scarred by quarrying and mining, together with the means of transporting the winnings away in the form of old railway lines and the arterial Montgomery Canal. It’s thought that some of the mining dates back into prehistory, and there is certainly evidence of Roman copper and silver mining at Llanymynech Hill.
Setting off from Oswestry early, we’re up at Racecourse Common just after 9 o’clock, on what is shaping up to be a decent spring day of fast-moving cloud and patchy blue sky. A toposcope at the racecourse informs us that we can see the volcanic bulk of the Breiddins, a range of hills topped with various forts and settlements. Further away Shropshire’s spine, the Long Mynd, Brown Clee and Titterstone Clee, signpost the way to the countryside of my childhood, inching ever nearer.
The grassy folds of the hill are carpeted in a brilliant spring bloom of bluebells as we head into the shade of Racecourse Wood. The various short stretches of wood on today’s walk are lovely, mixed woodland sun-dappled and airy under the light spring canopy, yet to be filled in and darkened by the heavier foliage of summer.
Less than a mile to the west of here is the Cynynion standing stone, but regrettably it would be a steep descent and climb back to pay a visit to it today, so we have to forego the pleasure. One day…
Out of the woods, then back in again at Craig Forda, we come face to face with Offa’s Dyke itself for the first time today. It no longer forms the frontier of English/Welsh border at this point, which instead follows the Cynllaith valley some way west, beyond the nearby hillfort at Coed-y-Gaer. However, any loss of notional status is made up for by the size of the remaining earthwork as it makes its way south through Candy Woods, an uninterrupted section the best part of two miles long and standing to a height of two metres or so.
Leaving Candy Woods, the path drops very steeply to the hamlet of Tyn-y-Coed, with the fine section of dyke our constant companion. The path runs along the bank here, which won’t be helping prevent ongoing erosion of the earthwork, but does at least give an opportunity to view the impressively deep ditch on the “Welsh” side and to marvel even further at the scale of the undertaking involved in building the thing. It’s something else, well worth your attention even if very much outside TMA’s remit.
Path and Dyke part company at Fron, with our route turning westwards while the Dyke, now more fragmentary, continues its inexorable way south. The detour is hugely rewarding though, as after a gentle climb we emerge onto the open hilltop of Moelydd, one of the outstanding viewpoints of Offa’s Dyke Path despite its relatively modest height. The views stretch away in every direction, taking in the Berwyns and distant Cadair Idris, across the endless hills of mid-Wales to the west and the Shropshire hills to the south and southeast.
A steep descent takes us down to Nantmawr, then quiet lanes drop us towards the Tanat Valley. We will never actually encounter this particular river, reaching the end of its independence and soon to join the far broader River Vyrnwy/Afon Efyrnwy. Of interest to the TMA-er is the fact that the Tanat has been swelled on its journey by the waters cascading down the magnificent Pistyll Rhaeadr close to Rhos y Beddau stone circle.
After crossing first one then another disused railway line at Porth-y-Waen, we have a view of the today’s first prehistoric site, the wooded Blodwel Rock fort. It looks like a fairly stiff climb up from the valley floor, and so it proves to be.
The fort occupies the top of the ridge, the steep scarp face of which we climb from the northwest. Offa’s Dyke has been an absent friend for the last couple of miles, but we reacquaint ourselves here. The fort is just in England, but the frontier has curved back eastwards again and we are poised on the edge of Wales here.
In truth it’s not the most impressive of forts, the woodland cover is quite dense and the tangled vegetation underfoot anywhere off the main paths makes it difficult to really get a sense of what’s what. This is compounded by the fact that Offa’s Dyke runs along the lip of the scarp, although Pastscape (see Misc. post) suggests that the Mercian earthwork stopped short of the fort and simply made use of what was already here and at neighbouring Llanymynech Hill
No sooner have we left the wooded cover of Blodwel Rock
than we’re across the Welsh border and into Llanymynech hillfort. Sadly our emergence from the trees takes us slap into the middle of a golf course. Immediately we’re scowled at by plus-foured types and the visit becomes an exercise in avoiding plummeting golf balls rather than looking for the remains of the fort’s earthworks. The whole interior has been moon-scaped by older quarrying superimposed by bunkers and hazards. Bah.
When we get a moment to look anywhere but heavenward, it turns out that there’s a decent view of the whaleback of The Wrekin
, a very fine hillfort that dominates the north Shropshire plain.
Our route ducks back into the trees and alongside Offa’s Dyke, a.k.a. the northwest rampart of the fort. As at Blowel Rock, the tree-cover makes it difficult to really get a sense of the site. We follow the edge of the escarpment and the earthwork round to the southern tip of the hill. Here the gentle terrain gives way to the towering cliffs of Asterley Rocks, much quarried and mined over the centuries. There is a very fine view south featuring a number of neighbouring hillforts on The Breiddins, Beacon Ring
on Long Mountain, and the lowland sites of Bryn Mawr
and Gaer Fawr
but overall the feeling from the visit to Llanymyech Hill is one of frustration, both from the general destruction caused by industry and from the irritating placement of a golf course across the interior.
Below the fort there are extensive remains of mining and quarrying buildings and equipment, much to appeal to the industrial archaeologist. At Llanymynech we cross back into England briefly, then straight back into Wales before swinging southwest along the towpath of the Montgomery canal for the next mile or so, a pleasant if rather dull stroll which does at least offer up a fine retrospective view of Llanymynech Hill.
The wooded slopes of Bryn Mawr appear over the canal. The hill is an obvious place for a defended enclosure or fort, a conical eminence rising sharply over the surrounding flatlands. As we draw closer the canal rises through a series of locks to an aqueduct, on which it carries us across the Afon Efynwy/River Vrynwy, the major watercourse on today’s route. Another of Wales’ important rivers, flowing almost 40 miles from its source at Lake Vrynwy to its confluence with the Hafren/Severn, it passes many prehistoric settlements and forts, which must have benefited from its waters, fishing and transport potential. Bryn Mawr will have to wait for another day, as we are tiring now and nearing the end of our walk at the Montgomeryshire village of Four Crosses. Perhaps not the most engaging section of the Path that we will walk, today’s efforts have nevertheless seen us through another 12 miles or so of this Marches borderland, following and crossing the movable boundaries on the maps that recall territory lost, won and lost again. The permanence of Offa’s Dyke itself ironically marks but one fleeting drawing of those lines, which have ebbed and flowed across it in the tides of history. Underneath the skin of politics, even the land itself has been altered, encroached upon and penetrated by the delvings of men in this much-quarried and mined landscape.
Soon it will be summer, and we will be back.
Posted by thesweetcheat
22nd January 2014ce
Edited 22nd January 2014ce
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