Wot the devil..?
PUBLISHED: 11:52 29 September 2015 | UPDATED: 11:52 29 September 2015
Lindsay Want braves a walk along Devil’s Dyke near Newmarket, an ancient monument and landscape truly haunted by history
Just what is it about exposed places, right on the edge of Suffolk? They seem to have the most unfathomable appeal.
On the coast, Dunwich clifftops share a longing to hear the bells of medieval churches toll beneath the waves. Mysterious marshlands and sinuous creeks conjure up wisps of spirits and the howls of devil hounds, whilst at Shingle Street the endless, shifting shoreline is piled high with stones and 20th century secrets. The tide of time seeps through and leaves its mark on our landscape and we find it all fascinating.
Inland, however, there’s one particular place where history has made a really big impression. Little matter that only part of it today is technically on the edge of Suffolk. This great gash in the landscape goes so much deeper than that.
Meet Devil’s Dyke
Forget your mottes and baileys, your burial mounds and meres, this awesome 7.5 miles of die-straight ditch and massive chalk bank makes for one of our most amazing manmade countryside encounters - an unbelievable undertaking by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and still an utterly irresistible challenge on all levels today.
Climb the steps up onto the top of the exposed bank and no walk could be more exhilarating - or simplymore straightforward. The well-maintained public footpath, complete with a variety of joining points, stretches the whole length of the Devil’s Dyke ridge, from Cambridgeshire’s Woodditton to the former fenland port of Reach, via Suffolk’s part at Newmarket. Clear-cut and firm of purpose, it ducks and dives only a little at the few transport routes or historic hurdles which have interrupted this Scheduled Ancient Monument and Site of Special Scientific Interest in the name of progress.
To the south, sheltered belts of time-honoured oaks and beeches cling on to the steep, steep slopes for dear ancient life. Plantations of larch and spindly firs cede to open tracts of precious chalk grassland, rich with patches of wild herbs where sheep safely graze. In early summer, tiny lizard orchids release wafts of goat to play with the breeze. There are bellflowers and butterflies, sweet songs from linnets and skylarks and a dismissive judgement on your paltry picnic from a passing yellowhammer – ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese?’
In the low light and chilly blow of autumn, the layered horizons and all-engulfing panoramas couldn’t be more haunting or more breath-taking. No matter which way the wind blows, this walk along the top of the world, wraps you up in the sky and always has wonder in its wake.
Devil of a job
But blustery breezes are just one of the mind-blowing things about Devil’s Dyke. Look down, deep into the great chasm below and it’s almost impossible to get your head around the sheer scale and nature of the place before the wind whisks away your thoughts, carrying them off with the cobwebs, far across the flat fenlands or fields of Suffolk. At up to 10.5 metres (34 ft) from ditch bottom to bank top, even modern day diggers would find this a vast undertaking.
Archaeologists dating the earthworks to around the turn of the 7th century refer to an era of conflict between new Saxon kingdoms and the remains of Roman-style society. It was a time when pick-axes, baskets and sheer determination were the only tools of the building trade too. Even if it were possibly constructed on an earlier prehistoric dyke of a similar alignment, 20th century excavations here have revealed how our ancestors first marked out the super-straight line of the huge rampart in topsoil, before painstakingly piling high the chalk rubble, hewn out to make the ditch. History must have repeated itself for years here, centuries maybe, until the great line was finally completed.
On the edge of reason
So how mad then that, according to studies led by modern experts, this great earthwork was probably already redundant before it was even finished. Built by the East Angles who fought on foot, to protect their lands against those horse-riding assailants from the west, the Britons, and the Mercians from the south- west, the great ditch and bank completely blocked the full length of a narrow land corridor between the impassable marshlands and thick southern woodlands. These were the troubled times, the cusp of cultural shifts between pagan and Christian worlds. But even once any overt threats had abated, it was on the edge of the kingdom for a very good reason – to control vital trade routes and crossing points such as the Icknield Way and the three Roman roads which crossed here.
Different kingdoms. Different geology. Different landscapes. Changing times and shifts in culture. Walk along the top of Devil’s Dyke and history is beneath your feet every step of the way. But stop. Close your eyes. And just for a moment, if you let your soul delve deeper and be transported by the winds of time, perhaps you will feel it. This is a haunting place like no other. But then Devil’s Dyke is ultimately on the edge of everything.