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!

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