The weather map in the morning paper said it all: one oval isobar, a lazy ridge of high pressure lapping at the shores of the British Isles. Nothing like it for the whole of this damp, drab summer. Early on, with the dog in the dog in the park, there had been frost, now the sky was an expanse of blue, transmitting from beyond the city, as Robert Macfarlane put it in The Wild Places, ‘a longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac’.
In my mind I saw an upland ridge, expansive views across peaceful vales to mountains and the sea: and so we headed out of Liverpool, thirty miles to the Clwydian hills, and one and a half millenia back in time to Offa’s Dyke.
We followed fast roads down through the Wirral, across the ruthlessly canalised river Dee at Queensferry, via Mold through the villages that hug the northern flank of the Clwydian Range Area of Outstanding National Beauty. In Afon-wen we followed the single track lane that leads up to the Moel y Parc TV, radio and mobile phone transmitter. Leaving the car, we climbed to the section of Offa’s Dyke path that, for 20 miles or so here, follows the ridge of the Clwydian hills south from Prestatyn to Llangollen.
From the ridge the views extend, uninterrupted, in all directions. Southwest, across the Vale of Clwyd rose the peaks of the Snowdonian range; in the other direction we could see the whole reach of the Mersey estuary, stretching from the wind turbine array offshore from Crosby to the Runcorn bridge. The Anglican cathedral shouldered its way above the Liverpool skyline. To the east stretched the hazy blue line of Pennine outriders. To the west lay the coast, from Rhyl to the Great Orme at Llandudno.
One day past the autumn equinox, the fawns and browns of late summer were scattered with the pink of heather and rose bay willowherb, brilliant red splashes of rowan berries, and delicate blue drifts of harebells. Above us a buzzard hovered, and ravens tumbled and dived, their guttural croaking echoing around the hills. Down in the valley we heard the call of a curlew and the cough of a pheasant. Small flocks of finches swirled above bright yellow gorse.
Once you’re up on the Clwydian hills, the walking is easy along the gently undulating ridge of grass, heather, bilberry and bracken, and the views take your breath away. Six Iron Age hill forts are strung out along the highest points of the ridge, dating from about 800 BC to 43 AD. They vary in size, from the massive Penycloddiau (which we traversed on the first stage of this walk ) to the more compact Moel Arthur, the next peak along the ridge. They dominate the landscape now as they must have done in the past, though very little is known about these sites and their relationship to each other. They probably served several functions – as military fortifications and villages, summer grazing land, meeting places and sites of ritual, and symbols of status.
Penycloddiau was built around 2,500 years ago – the largest hillfort on the Clwydian Range, and one of the largest in Wales. There is a pond in the centre of the hillfort which may have provided water for the people living inside. Archaeological work has uncovered evidence of clusters of wooden roundhouses within the shelter of the banks and some around the pond. Farmers and craftspeople, skilled at weaving and metal working, would have lived in them.
Penycloddiau has wide sweeping views up to the coast, so is likely to have attracted traders. There may have been regular markets where people came to buy and sell their wares: wool, hides, meat, elaborately decorated jewelry, weapons and tools.
And there is evidence that there was a human presence here long before the Iron Age. At the northern end of the hill there is a Bronze Age burial mound which dates back at least 4000 years – almost two millenia before the hillfort. A plaque on the side of the mound records that the grassy mound was reconstructed in 2010 to protect the site of a Bronze Age burial chamber, built around 4000 years ago. The site would then have been a place of prayer and ritual where the cremated remains of important figures in the community were laid to rest in special pottery beakers. Like their descendants in the Iron Age, the Bronze Age people were farmers and the pond near the summit would have been highly valued and considered sacred. People gave offerings of livestock and goods to the water gods to ask for protection and a good harvest.
The excavation at Penycloddiau in 2010 that revealed the Bronze Age burial was carried out by the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust. The mound had been heavily eroded by the Offa’s Dyke trail, which runs across the top of it and through the centre of the hillfort. Although no dating evidence was found, archaeologists could distinguish the mound as being Bronze Age. One of the most obvious discoveries was a ‘robbers’ trench’ – a large hole where the burial should have been – including a rectangular shape cut into the bedrock directly underneath the trench. Unfortunately for the archaeologists, the robbers were good and took everything, not just treasure.
It’s difficult to convey the sheer scale of Penycloddiau: it covers 64 acres of fairly level grassland along the ridgetop. Ambling slowly, drinking in the astonishing views, it can take half an hour to walk from the northern portal to its southern wall. This aerial photo gives some sense of the extent of Penycloddiau.
Leaving the southern ramparts of Penycloddiau, we followed Offa’s Dyke path towards the next peak, Moel Arthur. Offa’s Dyke is a massive linear earthwork that stretches 182 miles from Prestatyn to Chepstow in the south, roughly followed by parts of the current border between England and Wales. In places, it is up to 65 feet wide (including its flanking ditch) and 8 feet high. Its construction was ordered by Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796, one of the great rulers of Anglo-Saxon times, though his reign is often overlooked due to a limitation in source material.
We continued on the Offa’s Dyke path as it descended steadily from Penycloddiau before passing through a stand of conifers to a valley where there is a parking place on a lane that leads back to Nannerch on the A541. From here, the path makes a steep ascent to the summit of Moel Arthur. We decided to leave that for another day.
We retraced our steps, climbing back up to Penycloddiau. As I walked, treading ground harbouring the remains of human settlement over at least 4 millenia – the Bronze Age burial chamber, the Iron Age fort, the old Roman road that also crosses the ridge, and Saxon Offa’s Dyke – the distant views were of 21st century intrusions into the landscape: the wind turbine arrays off the Welsh coast and in the Mersey estuary, the TV and mobile phone transmitter mast on the ridge, and, on the Cheshire plain, Jodrell Bank radio telescope, searching the universe for evidence of the beginning of time.
In Geoffrey Hill’s poem Mercian Hymns – in which history and memory are mixed, episodes from the life of Offa blended with memories of Hill’s own childhood, his experience of the Second World War and contemporary images from the time of writing in the late 1960s – there is a line which captures this sensation of time flowing through the landscape:
the landscape flowed away, back to its source
Mercian Hymns is a sequence of thirty prose-poems inspired by the remnants of Offa’s Mercia in the landscape. In Old English Mercia meant ‘boundary folk’, and the traditional interpretation is that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the native Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The main purposes of Offa’s Dyke seem to have been to define the frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms, and to control trade by limiting movement across the border to defined routes through the earthwork. It may have had an additional defensive purpose, but historians think that would probably have been incidental. Only unchallengeable power could have allowed such a great undertaking, and only in a climate of relative peace between Wales and Mercia could a work of such a scale be achieved. This has suggested to historians that it must have been an agreed frontier.
In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns sequence of prose-poem hymns, the first hymn is a panegyric – ‘The Naming of Offa’ – and echoes the accolades that begin such poems in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Offa is similarly introduced with accolades: ‘King’, ‘overlord’, ‘architect’, ‘money-changer’. Offa was a ‘money-changer’ in the sense that he introduced a new type of coin which became the standard for all subsequent coinage in the Old English period, and even after it.
Offa’s coins demonstrate that he was a contemporary of the powerful Frankish king Charlemagne and sought to stand up to him as an equal. The portrait on a typical coin shows Offa in the style of a Roman emperor with an imperial diadem in his hair.
Offa reformed the Mercian coinage in the 760s to bring it into line with the new-style Carolingian penny. The broader, thinner silver coin became the standard denomination for some six hundred years. From now on all coins would carry the name of the ruler. These coins weighed the same as Charlemagne’s and could have traded internationally at the same value.
But even more significant is a unique gold coin minted by Offa, now in the British Museum. It is one of the most remarkable English coins of the Middle Ages because it imitates a gold dinar of the caliph al-Mansur, ruler of the Islamic Abbasid dynasty. It has been suggested that the coin was designed for use in trade. Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa’s coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible.
Standing on Penycloddiau it seems extraordinary that beneath our feet are the remains of a kingdom that, nearly two millenia ago, linked traders who passed along and through the Dyke here with the rest of Europe, the Middle East and beyond. And yet, as Geoffrey Hill observes at the conclusion of Mercian Hymns, Offa himself vanished from history, leaving behind coins … ‘and traces of red mud’.
From Mercian Hymns:
King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.
‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’
The princes of Mercia were badger and raven. Thrall to their freedom, I dug and hoarded. Orchards fruited above clefts. I drank from honeycombs of chill sandstone.
‘A boy at odds in the house, lonely among brothers.’ But I, who had none, fostered a strangeness; gave myself to unattainable toys.
Candles of gnarled resin, apple-branches, the tacky mistletoe. ‘Look’ they said and again ‘look.’ But I ran slowly; the landscape flowed away, back to its source.
In the schoolyard, in the cloakrooms, the children boasted their scars of dried snot; wrists and knees garnished with impetigo.
Coins handsome as Nero’s; of good substance and weight. Offa Rex resonant in silver, and the names of his moneyers. They struck with accountable tact. They could alter the king’s face.
Exactness of design was to deter imitation; mutilation if that failed. Exemplary metal, ripe for commerce. Value from a sparse people, scrapers of salt-pans and byres.
Swathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring. It is safe to presume, here, the king’s anger. He reigned forty years. Seasons touched and retouched the soil.
Heathland, new-made watermeadow. Charlock, marsh-marigold. Crepitant oak forest where the boar furrowed black mould, his snout intimate with worms and leaves.
And it seemed, while we waited, he began to walk towards us he vanished
he left behind coins, for his lodging, and traces of red mud.