Thursday, 9 May 2013

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Our early ancestors explained away impressive features in their landscape as the work of almighty gods, and later mediaeval peoples blamed the devil for scars in the countryside. The impressive Devil’s Dyke in Cambridgeshire has caused a lot of head-scratching over the eons and has been at the centre of several interesting traditional stories. One legend says Hrothgar chief of a race of Fen giants built it to protect the virtue of his beautiful daughter Hayenna from a fire demon. There was a terrific battle but Hayenna was saved by a water god, who wanted the rampart maintained forever after.

It is easy to believe that the ancient rampart is the work of a race of giants. At its greatest height, the Devil’s Dyke is 10.5 metres high, and it is steeper than would seem possible without concrete and JCBs. And with the ditch along the south-western edge it is a formidable barrier, although it is difficult to capture the steepness in a photograph.

Pasque flowers in the most exposed parts of the dyke, in April and May
Another legend about the Dyke, is that it was carved by the devil’s fiery tail when he left in fury after failing to gate-crash a wedding in the village of Reach.

Even until a few decades ago, scholars were uncertain when or why the Devil’s Dyke had been built and by whom. Some assumed it was a defence against invading Danes, but the steeper side of the rampart faced away from the North Sea. What was clear was that it was a barrier defending or controlling an obvious corridor between dense forests to its east, and boggy Fenland to the north-west.

The land at the north-western end of the Dyke is now drained by a system of quidditches, but 1400 years ago this would have been a malarious swamp. These days, the village of Reach marks the furthest extent of the Dyke. From there it runs in an almost perfect straight line seven and a half miles to the south-east as far as Woodditton.

it is tough to capture the steepness of the dyke on camera

the forested Woodditton end of the Dyke
There may have been a barrier at this site during the Roman era, but archaeologists have now dated the latest building on the site to the 5th or 6th century AD. It is the last, best preserved and most northerly of a series of defensive linear earthworks – the others being Fleam Dyke, Brent Ditch and Bran Ditch.

In May evidence of another traditional tale can be seen on the Dyke. One of England’s rarest but most sumptuous wild flowers blooms out of the closely cropped grasslands. These have been said to spring out of drops of blood of slain Romans or Danes since they are often found on old boundaries or even barrows. An explanation of this though is that such places stay undisturbed for hundreds of years, and this favours the Anemone of Passiontide. The fact that the Dyke has remained safe from ploughing for 1400 years also encourages other fine rarities, and in the summer lizard orchids blossom there, as well as plenty of cowslips, violets, and within the wooded parts of the Dyke, bluebells and wood anemones.


wood anemone
Wandering the length of the Dyke is a pleasure because it traverses several very different habitats; an information board mentioned snow berries and I wondered how I'd recognise them, until we arrived in a part of the woodlands where - if it hadn't been for the spring warmth - we could have believed there had been a fall of snow. The tranquillity was perfect so that while listening to birdsong and looking out for rare butterflies, I found myself trying to imagine who might have fought and died here on this ancient barrier.

Archaeologists have solved some of the mysteries surrounding this place. The Dyke, considered the finest Anglo-Saxon earthwork of its kind, was probably reinforced to defend the Kingdom of the East Angles from the expansive Kingdom of Mercia.

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