Stunning ‘Devil’s Dyke’ Under Threat in Britain
In Britain, a mysterious monument has become the subject of controversy. There are claims that the ancient Devil’s Dyke, a vast defensive earthwork, has been damaged by walkers and has been fouled by their dogs. This monument is both a site of scientific and historical importance. The latest controversy highlights once again how hard it is to achieve a balance between the preservation of historic monuments and the rights of walkers and hikers.
The Devil Dyke is a man-made artificial linear earthen bank which runs in a straight line for over seven miles in Cambridgeshire in the south of England. It consists of a wall of earth and a ditch. At its highest point, it is 34 feet (11 m) high. The landmark is one of several similar dykes in Cambridgeshire. It has been designated a Special Area of Conservation, because of “the internationally important areas of chalk grassland that make up much of its slopes,” according to the Devil’s Dyke website. It is also a Scheduled Monument, protected by the British government, because of its historic importance.
The Devil Dyke is a man-made artificial linear earthen bank which runs in a straight line for over seven miles. Despite many investigations, the origin and reason for the great ditch still baffles many experts. (Rob Mills / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Defensive Anglo-Saxon Ditch Which Baffles Experts
The Dyke was once of great strategic value and it was probably built by gangs of workers. Some experts believe that it was built during prehistoric times given its similarity to other ancient henges and dykes. But archaeological evidence suggests that it was most likely built by the Anglo-Saxons in the 6 th or 7 th century AD. The earthen bank may have been used by Celtic tribes for defensive purposes. Despite many investigations, the great ditch still baffles many experts.
Some believe that the ditch was not only used for defensive purposes. They point to its proximity to the historic Icknield Way, one of Britain’s oldest roads. Ancient Origins reports that “various researchers propose it was used as a ‘toll’ for travelers upon the Icknield Way, as this ancient track had multiple pathways along its length, not just a single track.”
The Devil’s Dyke landmark is popular with locals and visitors who enjoy hiking. It is a protected monument due to its historic importance, as well as its flora and fauna. (Rob Mills / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Was Devil’s Dyke Built by Achaeans Wanting to Invade Troy?
During the Middle Ages, it was known as St Edmund's Dyke, after a monastery that was once located in Bury St. Edmunds. The feature was only named Devil’s Dyke in the Early Modern period, because it was believed that only supernatural forces could construct such a monumental earthen bank. In Where Troy Once Stood, author Iman Wilkens proposed that this part of England was the site of Troy, the ancient city made famous by Homer. According to Ancient Origins, the writer argues that the ditch was “built by the Achaean invaders coming in from northeast coast preparing to invade Troy.”
Naturally, the stunning landmark is popular with locals and visitors and this is causing a problem. “Habitat degradation is occurring, particularly through trampling of vegetation and soil enrichment from dog excrement,” explains the local East Cambridgeshire District Council on the BBC website. Litter is another issue, as are dogs who are being left off the leash and are a risk to local livestock. These problems came to light in a report by the council that aims to persuade developers to establish wildlife sites along Devil’s Dyke.
Protecting the Devil’s Dyke
The local council believe that they must protect the important scientific and historic site. Any planned developments in the vicinity of the landmark must meet conditions that “protect the natural environment,” explains the local council in a planning document published on the East Cambridgeshire District Council website. The Dyke is owned mainly by private landowners, but is supervised by English Heritage, Natural England and local councils.
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Chief Executive of the British Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett, told the BBC that it is “important we build understanding about what are right ways to behave on these very precious nature sites.” However, there is tension between members of the public who enjoy the landmark and its heritage and those who want to protect it. To put it simply, there is a need for fewer walkers on the Dyke to ensure that it is preserved. Bennet told the BBC that “ultimately we need more space for nature, which would reduce numbers visiting protected sites.”
The latest controversy surrounding Devil’s Dyke is another example of the tensions over how best to protect important landmarks. No one has yet come up with a fair solution to the problem of providing access for members of the public and tourism, while still protecting areas of special significance. This is not a problem that is confined to Britain but is an issue affecting landmarks around the globe.
Top image: A new report by the local council has highlighted problems being caused by hikers and tourists along the Devil’s Dyke in Cambridgeshire. Source: Rob Mills / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
By Ed Whelan