The Devil's Dyke

As the year ends, we look back to what has happened during the last twelve months; what we have done, and what we haven’t done. One of those undone things is to update this blog, so now is the time to catch up on those posts I meant to write – and then got distracted.

Back in August we spent a few days in Suffolk. The object was to visit the new exhibition at Sutton Hoo, but more about that another time. On the journey to Woodbridge, we stopped at a place I had wanted to visit for some time: The Devil’s Dyke.

There are several places in the British landscape that have been given the name of Devil’s Dyke, the most well known is a valley in the South Downs, near Brighton. The Devil’s Dyke is not a natural feature, it was built by man, and Anglo-Saxon men at that. It runs across the Cambridgeshire countryside from one unimportant place to another. Why was it there?

Everyone has heard of Offa’s Dyke; a bank and ditch that separates England and Wales, or at the time that it was supposed to have been built, by King Offa in the eighth century, to keep the Welsh out of Mercia.

The Devil’s Dyke was built, probably in the 6th or 7th century, to keep the Mercians out of East Anglia. East Anglia has always been difficult to reach from the west, even in recent times. It was not until the A14 was built that it became easier (although for travellers stuck in hold-ups on that road, that is a debatable point.)

To the north the Wash and the Fens reach deep into the land and to the south, there was thick forest. There was only one easy route, a strip of chalk grassland through which ran the Icknield Way. This ancient trackway, perhaps named after the Iceni tribe, ran from Wiltshire to Norfolk. Later, the Romans used it. In the nineteenth century a railway, now dismantled, was built that way. And where people travelled, whether traders or armies, control was needed.

The Anglo-Saxons built several dykes across the route: Bran Ditch, Brent Ditch, Fleam Dyke and the longest and best preserved Devils Dyke.

For such a large and prominent landmark, it was remarkably difficult to find. We had found maps and walks online and decided to start at the northernmost end, a village called Reach. We would walk along the dyke as far as we had time for and return to our car to continue our journey.

The drive to Reach was an adventure in itself. Small winding lanes among fenland drains, with road signs that disappeared at the most inconvenient moment, but eventually we arrived and parked close to the Dykes End pub. A good place to start – we thought.

The centre of Reach

We now encountered an excess of signs. Apart from the road signs there were a multitude of walk directions at the entrance to a footpath just behind where this photo was taken. That must be the way. We walked up it (in my experience, the correct route is always up a hill!), round corners, through a few fields, ate a few blackberries. Where was the dyke? We consulted the compass, compared it with the maps, had a heated argument and ended up back in the village – all without finding anything that resembled a dyke.

Had we misread the map? Had we gone in the wrong direction? Look at that picture (above). See that clump of trees at the end of the green? That is the dyke! In fact, once we found the cunningly hidden explanation board, we discovered that the green was originally part of the dyke, flattened.

Hoping no one had noticed our mistake, we fought our way through the undergrowth to find ourselves in what we thought was the dyke ditch. Of course, as we were walking south with the bank on our right, we were, in fact, on the defended, East Anglian side of the dyke.

East Anglia to the left. Mercia beyond the dyke to the right.

It was a warm muggy day and we tramped through the long grass disturbing butterflies and other insects. It was very peaceful. Eventually we found a steep path up onto the top of the dyke. We could see for miles.

Looking into Mercia. Is King Penda on the way?
Path along the top of the dyke, heading south.

It was a pleasant walk. We met the occasional dog walker. If we had carried on we would have eventually reached Newmarket; the southern end of the dyke forms part of the racecourse there. The dyke is seven miles long and in places the bank measures 9 metres (30 ft) high and 36.5 metres (120 ft) across.

We stopped when we got to the dismantled railway, with its own earthworks (Interesting if you like railways) about a mile from Reach. According to the map there is a Roman Villa in the area, but we didn’t spot it.

Looking back along the ditch from close to the railway.

We walked along the railway to the road and them back to the village along field edges. The dyke was in view most of the way back but almost impossible to see. The green slopes and trees which grew along the top camouflaged it against the flat countryside.

Originally, having been built of chalk, it must have stood out against the green land proclaiming the power of King Rædwald and East Anglia. How many men died on its slopes, defending their kingdom? They are long gone and now all is peaceful.

I wonder what it was like when Byrhtnoth was alive? Both Mercia and East Anglia had been subsumed in the country that had become England. But the Great Heathen Army arrived and eventually what had been East Anglia and the eastern part of Mercia were part of the Danelaw.

The Devil’s Dyke was no longer needed. It is an indication of its size and bulk that, after more than a thousand years so much of it still survives. Perhaps because it is so well hidden!

Writing a Historical Detective Novel – NaNoWriMo update

What is Historical Detective Fiction and why would I want to write it?
A good question and difficult to answer.

The short answer is that I was coming to the end of The Byrhtnoth Chronicles (at least for the time being) but wanted to continue to inhabit the same “Universe”. Byrhtnoth deserved a rest, so why not take one of the other characters and tell their story?

The character was obvious, but what story did they have to tell? Among the many historical fiction books that I have read, I have especially enjoyed series with a detective character, solving a crime, usually a murder. The first I read must have been Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael, the first “A Morbid Taste for Bones.” was published in 1977. I must have read most of the series before it was televised, which I felt was a disaster – the casting of Derek Jacobi was completely wrong.

After that I looked for other series, covering many different periods.
From the Roman era there is Lindsey Davis’ Falco.
Susanna Gregory writes about Brother Bartholomew, a 14th Century monk and also Thomas Chaloner a Civil War spy trying to survive after the Restoration.
Then, of course, there is Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII written by C. J. Sansom.

In the Victorian period there is Anne Perry with both William Monk (1850-60s) and Thomas Pitt (1880-1890s) and bringing us into the (early) 20th century, Amelia Peabody, an Egyptian archaeologist, written by Elizabeth Peters.

Then there are the one-offs: Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, although in that case the detective is modern, only the crime is historical; and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. This is on television at the moment and the plot is made more impenetrable by the bad sound quality.

“What are these words supposed to be?”

I could go on, there are many more. Find your favourites here.
I notice there is nothing set in the 10th Century. Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne detects in 7th Century Ireland then there is nothing until after the Norman conquest.

Can I fill that gap? That is where NaNoWriMo comes in. I posted about how I was doing at the halfway point. Now it has finished, and I am pleased to say that I reached 50,341 words on 27th November – three days early!

Is it a Historical Detective Novel? Well, it has a murder and several suspects, It has a detective and several red herrings. I have not managed to get to the traditional “gather everyone in the library and reveal the murderer” moment, but I know who “did it”. Whether it is any good will take a lot more work – I haven’t even read it through yet.

I found it easy to write, but I encountered several problems.
In particular, names. I have mentioned this subject before here. Anglo-Saxon names can be difficult – they all had the same , or similar, and most of them are unfamiliar to the general reader. There were no surnames. I think I have managed OK in my previous books, with a small group of people continuing through 3/4 books with only the occasional new addition. Detective fiction is a whole different ball game.

I knew before I started that there would be a problem. I needed a victim and suspects, so I had already found names for them. Where? What is the biggest collection of Anglo-Saxon names ever collected? The Doomsday Book! There are a lot of Norman names as well, but most places had an A-S owner in the time of King Edward.

I went about it logically. I had already found a location for my crime, so I looked it up in Doomsday, together with a few of the surrounding villages, and produced a list so that I could pick a name when I needed it. I know that the names in 1066 are not the same people who were living there over a hundred years before, but I assumed that if there were any regional variations in name usage, they would be reasonably genuine.

And I did need a lot of names! Think about a detective story. There are not just the obvious suspects; there are other witnesses. There is the local policeman, who has arrested an innocent man. There is the character with local knowledge to befriend the detective, plus his wife. There is the young boy/servant who can mix with the lower classes, run errands and take messages. This is all apart from working out what the local Anglo-Saxon equivalent is. As I said, there is a lot of work to do!

Then there is also the problem with how to address people. I was used to using either proper name or “my lord”. Just how did an Anglo-Saxon address a suspect without a Mr This or Mrs That. Did they use Sir and Madam? It doesn’t sound right.

Another difficulty I encountered was how to deal with those little phrases that crop up in an interview/ conversation. “Tell me more” “What did you do next” “Where were you that day” “Did you batter XXXX to death with a candlestick?”. So much easier to have a fight and chop someone’s head off.

Perhaps I’m not cut out to be a detective novelist. I’m sure everyone will be able to work out the guilty party long before the end. At least I have had a go, and that is what NaNoWriMo is all about. I will finish the story, leave it alone for a bit, then give it a read. Perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised. If not, at least I have learned a lot about historical detective fiction.

Meanwhile I must get back to Byrhtnoth and solve his problems. Perhaps he will have to carry on with his adventures after all.

Just to prove I did it!