The old rules were simple. Legend has it that every Englishman found west of the sea wall was hanged. All the Welsh who ventured east of the sea wall had their ears cut off.
This year, this sleepy border country has been honored
The dike in question is Offa’s Dyke, a 1,200-year-old earthwork that runs the length of the England-Wales border. Like Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China (and, come to think of it, the Wall from Game of Thrones), Offa’s Dyke divided the lands. It marked a threshold between Anglo-Saxons and Celts, plains and mountains, life and death, ears and no ears.
But unlike Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, there isn’t much left to see. Today, dandelions and nettles grow where the battlements once stood. Generations of sheep have trod the dike. It’s just a little bump – a hiccup in the fields. If an invading army were to pass through it today, the best you can hope for is for them to trip over the sea wall and come home with a sprained ankle. Or maybe a nosebleed.
I was walking on a section of the Offa’s Dyke Trail, a 285km long trail that winds through the ruined sections of the sea wall and weaves between England and Wales, like a needle sewing a stitch. Being half Welsh and half English, I have long had an affinity with this Métis path – I have walked many parts of it over the years. Some of the UK trails heroically walk through the landscape, but Offa’s Dyke Path seems to jostle indecisively between the two countries, as if searching for something it never quite finds.
This summer I followed the Wye Valley section in South Wales. For two days, I crossed woods where toads grow under old oaks; high hills where you enter and exit low clouds; the calm cider orchards but for the muffled sound of falling apples. In one of my favorite parts, the path passes the Devil’s Pulpit – a rocky outcrop on the edge of England – where legend says Satan himself would preach, trying to tempt the monks at Tintern Abbey. across the river in Wales. To me, both sides looked heavenly in the morning sun.
Like the sea wall itself, the border between England and Wales is virtually invisible. Looking at a map, I could see it following rivers and streams, passing through garden fences. Further north, the border is more mischievous. It passes through a professional football club, encroaches on the fairway of a golf course, and makes its way through a pub parking lot. For hikers on the Offa dyke path, walking with this border is a bit like walking a dog: sometimes it trots obediently alongside you, sometimes it disappears in a bush. Yet you know it’s always somewhere nearby, keeping you company.
This year has seen this sleepy border country in the spotlight. England and Wales have shared a single set of laws since the 16th century (among other things, they also share a Police Federation and a cricket team). But throughout Covid-19, they went their separate ways. In June and July – when the first lockdown was initially relaxed in England, Welsh authorities were more cautious, enforcing a much stricter set of rules for longer. Welsh police fined visitors from England. Homemade signs – “Wales is closed, come home!” – appeared on the sides of the roads. Again, in October and November, Wales and England imposed lockdowns at different times, with police even setting up border checkpoints. In 2020, a border whose porosity had long been taken for granted was, at various times, effectively closed. There is perhaps the faintest echo of the Middle Ages, when the sea wall was part of a hostile border that few dared to cross.
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In the political debate around Covid-19 came Offa’s Dyke. Some on social media have called for “rebuilding the Offa sea wall” to stop infections from England. As some in England were prevented from visiting their families across the border in Wales, a few called the dyke the “Berlin Wall”. This is not the first time that the dyke has been politicized: years before then Prime Minister David Cameron had called Offa’s dyke “the line between life and death”, in reference at the National Health Service for Wales.
“Borders have this ability to be manipulated in different directions,” said Howard Williams, professor of archeology at the University of Chester and editor of The Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory. “The sea wall has been militarized – but the reality is a much more complex story.”
Williams works in England and lives nearby in Wales: he commuted on Offa’s Dyke and the border before Covid-19 and witnessed first-hand the different approaches to lockdown the two countries.
He insists that Offa’s Dyke is not a useful analogy for modern times: not least because it was never built to separate England from Wales. It was most likely built in the 8th century by Offa, King of Mercia (in present-day Midlands) as a defense against various competing Welsh kingdoms to the west. It could have had wooden ramparts, with thorny plants growing in a ditch below. It is assumed that it was used to control trade and collect taxes. But Howard believes the levee was primarily a declaration of Offa’s power to his own Mercian subjects – an ongoing tradition of rulers building walls to meet political agendas.
“Offa is trying to pass himself off as a Roman Emperor,” Williams said. “It’s like saying, ‘Make Mercia great again! “.“
There is no section of the Offa’s Dyke Trail larger than the Black Mountains, a day or two hike northwest of the Wye Valley. Here the borders of England and Wales touch the crest of a mountain ridge, as if the two countries were tectonic plates colliding and rising out of the earth.
For about 14 km, the path itself marks the border. I made my way north: left boot in Wales, right boot in England. On the last of summer, swallows flew through the cool mountain air and wild ponies leaped into the heather. From these windy heights, you get a divine perspective on the two nations. To the east was England with its network of hedges, a combine putter, the rolling hills of Herefordshire that inspired the cadences of Edward Elgar. And to the west were the Brecon Beacons on whose bare peaks simmering storms; a range that seemed to mumble ancient Welsh myths.
I came back down to Earth in the small market town of Hay-on-Wye (mainly Wales, although the local supermarket is in England), tucked away in a fold of hills. A local told me that one or two residents had slipped over the border to visit English pubs. But when I visited at the end of August the Welsh pubs had just reopened and the tourists had returned. I stopped to rest my legs and have a pint.
The sea wall has been militarized – but the reality is a much more complex story
So far, England and Wales (along with Scotland and Northern Ireland) have agreed on a unified set of rules for the Christmas period. But beyond the coronavirus, it seems likely that Offa’s Dyke will reappear in political discourse. Although the popularity of Welsh nationalism lags far behind its Scottish counterpart, a poll by YouGov last year shows its support for the boom in an independent Wales – with strong approval among young people in particular. To walk the Offa Dykes Trail today is to walk the longest and oldest seam in the United Kingdom’s union – the seam whose breaking would mean its final and utter destruction. It is currently more in demand than at any time in recent memory.
Still, the path north from Hay-on-Wye to Knighton fell far short of these considerations. It is remote from the governments of Westminster and Cardiff Bay, and there was often no phone signal to check social media debates. It was hard to think of a more peaceful place than those dark woods and slow rivers on the margins of two countries. It still looked like no man’s land: one place often looked out of a car window on the road to somewhere else.
On my way out of Hay-on-Wye, I met Chris Stuart, a civilian celebrant at the funeral, from Worcester, about 50 miles east of the border. He is a long distance trail veteran and had come for the weekend to revisit the trail he had conquered years before. We agreed that the allure of walking the Offa’s Dyke Trail is never knowing what country you are in.
“It’s strange because for 50 meters you are in England, for 50 meters you are in Wales,” he said. But Stuart also thinks there’s another division involved. “When you walk around the landscape and meet someone, they’re chatting with you – but once you get into the towns, there are day trippers; they don’t want to get involved. The path has its own camaraderie.
I said goodbye to Stuart, an Englishman who feels alive as he walks the green hills of Wales. And nearby, I guess there were Welsh people on the trail, listening to the birdsong of England with their ears still attached.
Places that do not belong is a BBC Travel series that delves into the playful side of geography, taking you through the history and identity of geopolitical anomalies and places along the way.
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