RIDING OFFA'S DYKE ... A BIT

Geoff Nelder shares a secret ....

 

 

I am hesitant to write this because this is my most favourite middle-distance ride, and I usually make it an early or late part of my long-distant rides. Will it become too popular for me to enjoy? Oh well, here goes.

 

A few years ago while riding in Flintshire, North Wales, I encountered a red sign saying Cyclists in Road – Beicwyr Ar Y Fford. How thoughtful because the lane became as narrow as a Massey Ferguson tractor. It couldn’t be any wider because there were large, deep ditches on both sides. The lane was perched on top of a ridge as if it shouldn’t be there. No wonder  there were traffic-light controls to ensure vehicles didn’t meet— except for cycles. If you are fast you could probably make it to where the lane widens again but for me I’m glad the oncoming motorists were warned I might be in their way. Where is this anachronism? Between the Welsh villages of Treuddyn and Ffrith on the B5101 about 5 miles northwest of Wrexham. 

The title of this piece is a giveaway as to the cause of this narrow lane: Offa’s Dyke. Not the long-distance footpath but the Eighth Century 80-miles-long boundary ridge and ditch dividing the England from Wales. I wonder how Offa, the King of the Mercians and ruler of Saxon England, would feel riding a bicycle along the “dyke” he had built over 1200 years ago? Possibly not that surprised because the earthwork was quite straight for miles at a time and with sufficient width on the top for soldiers to walk or ride horses along. When constructed there would have been sharpened stakes making it unlikely for locals to travel with carts, etc until military needs fell away. 

 

Why am I writing about a section of a route that is only four miles long? Well, it’s a 35 miles round trip from my house in Chester but even this small section has two unique features. There are few sections of the original Offa’s Dyke that have been metalled so vehicles can travel along it. I cycled to the Offa’s Dyke Centre in Knighton, Powys, to research the earthwork (and use the visit as an excuse to cycle from Chester stopping overnight at the wonderfully unique Bishop’s Castle). The section near Llynyfydd on the B5101 might be the only stretch that hasn’t been widened, keeping the original ditches on either side. King Offa, in the eighth century, built the ditch either as a boundary, defensive line, or as a power statement to his Welsh adversaries. Generally, it runs between England and Wales and was formed by digging a ditch and piling up the waste dirt and rocks into a ridge. Nearby in Coedpoeth the lane, Heol Offa, also runs along the dyke though it isn’t so obvious.  The second point of interest in this road is that red sign warning drivers of “Cyclists in road” - wonderful. I want one.

A landowner illegally bulldozed a chunk of Offa’s Dyke near Chirk. Archaeologists are an opportunist lot and soon leapt in to take samples. They found it predates Offa by 50 years, but it’s likely King Offa linked it all together. 

 

The B5101 – I wish it had a more grandiose name — has something special for cyclists. I filled my digital camera with views of the road, enhanced by gorgeous woodland and hillsides, plus the two pretty villages of Llanfynydd and Ffrith — with its going-nowhere-mineral-railway viaduct. If you’re interested in industrial archaeology there’s an abandoned lime kiln in Ffrith along the line of the abandoned mineral railway. The road from Treuddyn to Ffrith is a magnificent if short roller-coaster road with stunning views and uphills just enough to need my lowest gears and a stamp on the pedals. The downhills are enjoyable because you can see far enough ahead to whizz down without touching your brakes. So fast my helmet tugs at my chinstrap. A few years ago I rarely saw cyclists on this road but it has gained popularity after a few local groups found it. The Deva Divas for example, a Chester ladies’ triathlon group. I photographed some of them on the B5101 — they include Louise Minchin, the BBC Morning Breakfast presenter, smiling and waving. Usually I don’t photograph other riders, awarding them privacy but this group yelled at me to take a shot. The Mark Cavendish Rise Above Sportive used part of this road in 2015. There I was innocently cycling on 9th August 2015 and suddenly found myself surrounded by thousands of wheels. Many encouraged me to join them but they were too fast for me to keep up. I like to stop and take in the scenery and talk to horses.  

There are many side routes from the Offa’s Dyke B5101 such as going up a steep hill to the village of Cymau then more so if off-roading to the top of Hope Mountain. 

 

At the T-junction with the Minera Road heading away from Coedpoeth, through Minera, I like to tackle the steep lane to World’s End. Love the bleak treeless landscape on the plateau. It’s like going from deciduous woodland below to tundra in just a few miles. A few years ago on the way up I felt a wind fly past me and saw it was Chris Boardman and his North Wirral Velo cycling club. They helloed as I puffed up the incline and waved back. My brakes held as I whizzed down and splashed through the ford at World’s End.

 

My first published fiction story about a cyclist was called World’s End, and involves a cyclist and spot of mystery. Read it free here.

PUBLISHED MARCH 2016

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