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Guest Author:
Keith NurseKeith Conrad Nurse

Keith Nurse was for many years the Daily Telegraph’s Arts Correspondent in Fleet Street, covering a range of subjects, including archaeology, theatre and heritage issues. He became a freelance in 1986 and later worked for Thames TV and Carlton Television. He is the author of Torments Ancient and Modern, which is an account of working-class life in Wales in the '40s and 50s, and of Footsteps to the Past, a family Footsteps to the Past, a book by Keith Nurse
history account set against the uniquely rich social and historical landscape of north-east Wales.

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A Visit to Wansdyke - Shepherds' Shore
Knee-Deep in History

As a dominating feature in the landscape, as an ancient defensive boundary, WANSDYKE presents as powerful an image as any in the British countryside. It certainly seemed so to me, when I first came across it a few years ago, at the point where the modern road from Devizes in the direction of Avebury bisects the earthwork. The profile of the dyke came as something of a surprise. Yet its scale only became fully clear when I parked the car on a narrow farmyard entrance and trudged some distance beyond, into an adjoining field. Then, having left both car and an unamused wife at the mercy of the heavy traffic of an unexpectedly busy road, I found myself ankle deep in the stagnant mud pools of the ditch. Only then did I fully appreciate the obstacle the dyke presented. Not one of nature’s natural boots and rucksack types, I was quite unprepared for any form of countryside challenge, let alone the prospect of disappearing unnoticed into the quick sands of Wiltshire.

East Wansdyke at Shepherds' Shore, 1994.
This spread (click here to enlarge), shows East Wansdyke at Shepherds' Shore, 1994.

I’d discovered then just what the rampart and ditch boundary, here in the vast open fields of Wiltshire, always had been: a quagmire for the unwary. It was a fresh mid-October afternoon, with an almost clear blue sky above. Brisk, approaching-autumn winds swept unhindered, across the newly cut cornfields that lay on both sides of the Dyke.

East Wansdyke at Shepherds' Shore, 1994.
This spread (click here to enlarge), shows another view of East Wansdyke at Shepherds' Shore, 1994.

The context of this personal reflection is of no consequence, because, on a broader level, great linear earthworks such as these are somehow timeless - in their impact on the mind, at least. I’d decided to re-visit the area after hearing that a major hoard of late Roman coins had been discovered, a few years earlier (1992) at nearby Bishops Cannings. I signed up for a one-day archaeological school, held in a cramped hothouse of a hall at the rear of the Museum at Devizes. But to my great disappointment, little or nothing emerged, as promised, about the revelations on that important coin hoard find.

But, there in October, 1994, one speaker after another had talked enthusiastically about the great significance of the region, as provincial granary for the late Roman Empire and the crucial role that the re-fortified base at Cunetio, near Marlborough, had played in the administrative arrangements of those cataclysmic times. This was when the area, as prosperous as any in the West, was awash with late Roman coinage (and the hoards to prove it) and civil and military men, strutting about with their cruciform brooches and buckled belts signifying their distinctive rank and status – the sort of ‘late Roman military equipment’ so dear to archaeologists of this period.

Waterlogged ditch of East Wansdyke, just west of the farm buildings of Shepherds' Shore
This spread (click here to enlarge), shows the waterlogged ditch of East Wansdyke, just west of the farm buildings of Shepherds' Shore, 1994.

Well, that’s what Wansdyke immediately brought to mind for me. All rather different to my nearer-to-home reflections, of Offa’s and Wat’s dykes, in the Welsh borderlands, where I was brought up. This is an area where the two neighbouring earthworks follow a sinuous line through small-scale field highland-approaching field systems, so characteristic of the region: oak tree and hawthorn topped alignments that still look out towards what, even today, looks like an identifiable threat: the looming foothills of the Welsh west, rising upland terrain that always constituted frontier territory in the Roman period and beyond.

The view west from the bank of East Wansdyke
This spread (click here to enlarge), shows the view west from the bank of East Wansdyke, 1994.

A Visit to Wansdyke - Knee-Deep in History is Copyright 2001, Keith Nurse. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: Keith Nurse


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