Starting next to this Victorian clock tower might seem strange for a route that takes in one of Britain’s most extraordinary ancient monuments. But it is the town’s location not the clock tower itself that brings us here.
Although officially a Welsh town, Knighton straddles the border into England. It literally has a foot in both camps! Its Welsh name of Tref-y-clawdd means ‘Town on the dyke’, and signals its location on Offa’s Dyke – an ancient border between the two nations.
It was built on the instructions of King Offa of Mercia. Not a man to be messed with, he dominated Mercia (the middle and south of what is now England) between about 757-796AD. Built for defence against the Welsh and as a status symbol, today it looks not much more than a grassy wall and deep ditch. But it holds much more significance than meets the eye.
You are stood on the border between two languages, two cultures and two rugby teams. We may never know whether the line Offa drew between England and Wales was responsible for the divisions and differences that still remain to this day -but it is likely the dyke played a part.
Stretching some 70 or so miles along the Welsh/English border the dyke is a prominent feature on this landscape. It runs almost the whole length between the two countries from the Severn Estuary in the south and the Dee Estuary to the north.
Little, unassuming Knighton lies almost equidistant between the two coasts. As the home of the official Offa’s Dyke Centre, this town has put itself firmly on the map as the epicentre of the dyke and all it has to offer.
Continue down West Street. Turn right through the arch at the Knighton Hotel into the car park.
Bear left and climb the small road ahead to Ffrydd Terrace. Turn right and immediately left between the houses. Turn right again in front of a row of garages. When you reach the right-hand end of these, cross the stile and walk up the path towards the woods.
Cross a surfaced lane and continue up the woodland path to another stile. The dyke bank will be on your right. Cross the stile and bear right, climbing with the edge of the wood below you to your right. The Knighton golf course is now on your left.
At its end go over the stile and continue along the right hand edge of three further fields with stiles in between each. In the fourth field a prominent stretch of the dyke is reached. Go right over a stile and stop here.
2 Offa's Dyke
The dyke has dipped in and out of our walk since we left the town, but until now you may not even have noticed it. But here it rises from the ground on the left as a sturdy grass wall, shielding you from the neighbouring field. Topped with trees and dipping away steeply into this gully our feet are rooted in one of the greatest clues to why the dyke was built.
Though no written records of its construction exist, all signs point towards it being a border wall marking territory between Wales and England. Offa was a formidable character, with a point to prove.
His face appeared on the coins he minted, often shown as a Romanesque ruler or dripping in jewels. In fact, although the Romans left Britain some 300 years earlier than Offa came to power, they encouraged British tribes to adopt Roman dress, architecture and customs. It was a way to assert their authority (and expand the empire) but also helped get the tribes onside by showing the natives what they stood to gain.
Early colonialism in action, and a tactic Offa was obviously keen to carry on!
So the dyke may have been just another way for him to signal his dominance over the landscape and show off his prowess as a leader. The ditch we are now standing in however is prominent on this side of the grassy mound throughout its course. This suggests it may also have been designed to defend Mercia from attacks from Offa’s westerly doorstep – namely the Welsh.
Offa’s Dyke is 70 miles long and can reach as high as 8 metres in places. Its route would have been carefully surveyed and laid out to exploit the natural contours of the land.
The amount of earth dug out and moved must have tested the endurance of the very strongest of builders. In the 8th and 9th century, the Offa’s supremacy over Mercia would have been reinforced by any means possible. One such way was to demand military service from his subjects. This was probably the way he managed to get so many hands to help with the arduous jobs of quarrying, digging, mounding and mapping. And all of this within a challenging landscape of moorlands, forests, valleys and hilltops.
That it still stands today is a reminder of the extraordinary feat of engineering and muscle power it was.
Continue down the slope of the dyke with the dyke to your left. Continue through three fields.
When you reach the end of the third, a hedgerow marks the boundary with the next field. There is a way-mark arrow within this hedge. Turn right with the hedge on your left and follow it to the edge of the field and a small road.
Join the road and turn right to turn back towards the direction of Knighton. Stop here and look back over the field towards the dyke.
3 Offa's Dyke treeline view
Having left the official Offa’s Dyke Trail and moved across the field, turn back to see it as a line marked by a ridge of trees. Beyond creating a pleasing view and an easy way to see the route of the dyke, the trees themselves tell an important part of the dyke’s story.
It is no accident that they are here, though it is unlikely they were part of Offa’s original plan.
Around Knighton many of the trees lining the dyke’s route are conifers, especially Larch and Scots Pine. These species are useful clues to when and why they were planted. Neither Larch nor Scots Pine are common locally, nor even native to England.
This suggests that they were deliberately planted. It seems to have been common practice in the 17th and 18th centuries to plant trees on ancient earthworks, but nobody really knows why. It may have been a way to mark them out as landscape features, or to make a statement as to who owned what land.
Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs in Sussex is a famous example. In 1760 a wealthy landowner, Charles Goring, decided to top the burial mound with beech trees. There was local opposition at the time of planting, but when the storm of 1987blew most of them down there was a massive effort to replant them!
Over 200 years after their original planting the trees had become such an icon of the landscape that leaving the hilltop bereft of them was met with uproar.
Today however, the practice is prohibited on Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
Well, along Offa’s Dyke there are examples where tree roots are starting to pull away at the land and therefore damaging the monument beneath them. So although the trees provide a clear demarcation of Offa’s ancient boundary, if a hurricane were to hit here today any trees felled would not be replaced.
Continue to walk up the quiet road, past Upper Woodhouse Farm.
Continue until the road meets the A488. Cross over the A488 to join Penybont Road, veering round to the right.
Turn almost immediately right down Mill Road and follow until you reach a fork in the road. Follow the right hand fork that runs almost parallel to Mill Road above.
Continue until you reach a set of green metal railings next to the river on your right, just after a wood-clad building. Stop here.
4 Wyl Cwm Brook
Winding our way back into Knighton, we are now following the route of the small Wyl Cwm brook.
Along the river’s course several springs feed it with fresh water. These give us clues to why the town first grew here. This small babbling brook feeds into the larger River Teme which runs through the centre of the town just a few hundred metres from here. A clean water supply is one of the fundamental clues for tracing a town’s origins. Without it, life and trade proves difficult to sustain.
But what does this river have to do with Offa’s Dyke? This particular river may have little influence but others along the dyke’s path may have been significant.
In around 800 AD, records described Offa building his dyke ‘from sea to sea’, but today the dyke only covers 70 miles of a 117 mile coast to coast route, from the Severn Estuary in the South to the Dee estuary in the North.
Today a National Trail joins the dots along the whole length. So what has happened to the rest?
Some sections of the dyke were deliberately destroyed over the centuries, while others may have simply eroded away. But another possibility is that it was never actually a complete route from coast to coast. And that is where rivers come in to the story.
The dyke was an immense challenge to construct. In some areas large rivers could have served the same defensive function as the dyke, so the engineers and builders may have decided to take advantage of these natural features!
For example, along the 40 miles between Hereford and Monmouth the River Wye carve its course through the countryside, forming a natural boundary in place of the man-made one Offa had planned. This along with areas of dense forest or vast marshes that were hard to build through may well explain the dyke’s missing sections.
Following in his footsteps, we have traced King Offa’s grand design for a dyke that divided the nations, protected his kingdom and showed his prowess. The Dyke stands as a monument of an era when wars marked the edges of the continent, mass migration was seen as a threat and Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe was a tricky one.
So the context in which it was built may be not actually so different to that of today's Europe, making Offa's Ddyke not only a monument of the past but a symbol of the present day.
Continue along this road until you reach the main high street again in Knighton. Your starting point of the Clock Tower should be just up the hill to your left.