• Hans Faber

Another brick in the wall

Who hasn't dined at least once in a '80s Chinese restaurant that carried the name 'The Great Wall'? At least you've been at one for a take-away. Yes, you do! Besides the big orange and white goldfish, of course also a painting of the magnificant wall gliding through remote mountains of the Chinese Empire. And the privileged among the readers of this blog post who have travelled to China, might even have gazed at the beauty of this 6,000km long wall in real life. We are, however, not sure tourists will do the same in 500 years from now at the walls and fences of, let’s say, Hungary.

No, there’s a lot of controversy about walls today. Take for example the high walls and fences that have been built in Morocco around the Spanish enclaves Melilla and Ceuta which are being stormed by migrants every now and then. But other walls too are subject to much debate. Yes, the wall between Mexico and the United States. Inevitable not to mention this wall. The US administration has been working on it intensively since the Secure Fence Act of 2006, already. Like his predecessors current President Trump is very occupied with it too.

But what if we look at the historic walls in Western Europe? The first observation must be that walls are almost as old as mankind. Better, they are part of civilization. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the conclusion that the Italians are (also) the godfathers of modern defensive walls. And maybe they still are...

And, there’s an additional advantage or lesson by doing this short exercise. It turnes out several long-distance hiking trails have been developed along several of these ancient and once deterring walls. Yes, defensive walls capture our imagination, past and present! From Great Wall to great walk.

King Lud's Intrenchments - ca 1.3km (UK)

The oldest wall was built in Britain. According to archaeologists during the Middle Bronze Age between ca. 1500-1000 BC: the King Lud’s Intrenchments. However, the Celtic King Lud lived in the first century BC, if we trust the manuscript Historia Regum Britanniae written in the twelfth century AD. So, archaeologists and historians have some ground to cover together if they want ot connect Lud with this wall. King Lud is tradionally considered the founder of Trinovantum (i.e. London) too. The location of his intrenchments is halfway east of the imaginary north-south line between the villages Croxton Kerrial and Sproxton in Leicestershire. The banks and ditches contained within the around 1.3km long constraint area are an average of 20m wide. Earthworks include three parallel banks separated by two ditches. Quite an obstacle course.

The earthworks between Croxton Kerrial and Sproxton may be part of an extensive prehistoric boundary system stretching from around Northampton all the way to the River Humber. This boundery system, or wall, is known as the Jurassic Spine. The King Lud's Intrenchments are aligned at right angles to the main components of this system.

King Lud's Intrenchments

Although not the completely identical to the course of the earthworks, there's a long-distance hiking trail of ca. 240km called the Viking Way that follows more-or-less the Jurassic Spine boundery system. The Viking Way was set up to reflect the former Danelaw territories. The Viking Way starts/ end at the River Humber in the north and ends at Rutland Water near Oakham in the south. At Section 12, just north of the former military airfield, you come across -in a right angle of the path- King Lud's Intrenchments at its eastern end.

Limes Germanicus – ca 1800km (NL, DE, AU)

Built by the Romans during the first century AD, this wall defended the empire against Germanic tribes. The northern part of the Limes Germanicus was erected from AD 47, after the Romans had suffered multiple defeats against Germanic tribes north and east of the River (Old-) Rhine. The two most talked-about battles are the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year AD 9, near the present-day city of Osnabrück in Germany, and the Battle of the Baduhenna Forest in AD 28, near the present-day town of Heiloo in the Netherlands. In the Teutoburg Forest the Romans were slaughtered by a coalition of Germanic tribes. In the Baduhenna Forest the Romans were defeated by the Frisii ‘the Frisians’. Want to know more about the Battle of Baduhenna? read our blog post.

Limes Germanicus

The Limes Germanicus started/ ended at the mouth of the River Old-Rhine at the Netherlands' North Sea coast, where the current towns of Katwijk and Rijnsburg are located. From here the Limes followed the River Old-Rhine up-stream all the way to the current city of Arnhem in the east of the Netherlands. Castella 'fortresses''dotted frequently along the west-/ south banks and the mighty River Rhine, functioning as a very big moat. In Germany the Limes Germanicus continued to follow the banks of the River Rhine until the town of Rheinbrohl. From here it headed east to castle Eining at the River Donau, to continue all the way to the splendid city of Vienna. The Limes between Rheinbrohl and castle Eining ran through the wooded mountain ranges of Odenwald and the Black Forest. Here, in the forested mountains, the wall was made of wood but later also partly of stone.

Quite recently, the Romeinse Limespad 'Roman Limes Path' has been developed for the stretch of the Limes Germanicus in the Netherlands. A modest long-distance trail along the River Rhine.

Hadrian’s Wall – 120km (UK)

This stone wall was built from AD 122. It ran between the present-day towns of Wallsend in the east and Bowness-on-Solway in the west, in England. Thus, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea. The wall was built to protect Romano-Britannia against the Celtic tribes, notoriously the Picts.

Hadrian's Wall

The Roman Empire made full use of mercenaries in their army, also to defend the external borders. Also many Frisian mercenaries, both the Frisii and the Frisiavones (the latter being the romanized Frisians), were enroled and stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. Several inscriptions on pagan altar stones testify of their presence, besides remains of Frisian pottery does too. We even know the name of one of the Frisian chieftans who did the watch at the wall. No, it's not Jon Snow, but Notfrid. Read also our blog post on these Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army.

There is an excellent, modest long-distance trail along Hadrian’s Wall, the Handrian’s Wall Path.

Antonine Wall – 65km (UK)

Construction of this wall started two decennia after Hadrian’s Wall was built, namely in AD 142. It ran between present-day Firth of Forth in the east and Firth of Clyde in the west, in Scotland. Its purpose too was to protect Romano-Britannia against the Caledonian tribes. Just like its older and bigger brother Hadrian's Wall more to the south. This time the wall was made of turf. Maybe it was a rush job.

Antonine Wall

After only eight years the Romans abandoned it already and retreated behind Hadrian’s Wall more to the south again. In AD 208 the Romans made an effort to reinforce the Antonine Wall, but they gave up soon after. No, not their turf.

Offa’s Dyke – 240km (UK)

This earthwork wall, or indeed dry dyke (also dic), dates from the second half of the eighth century AD and follows roughly the current border between Wales and England. This thanks to the Welsh monk Asser who lived at the eind of the ninth and the beginning of the tenth century AD. It’s thought to have been built by King Offa of Mercia who lived in the second haf of the eighth century AD. On the western, Welsh side, in front of the wall was a ditch. Offa’s Dyke ran more-or-less from the estuary of the River Dee in the north to Tidenham on the River Severn in the south.

Offa's Dyke

Like Hadrian’s Wall there is an excellent trail along Offa’s Dyke too, the Offa’s Dyke Path.

Besides early-medieval Offa's Dyke many more walls and/ or defensive earthworks from around this period have been errected. Like Wat's Dyke (together with Offa's Dyke) at the northern border between England/ Mercia and Wales, the Fleam Dyke in Cambridgeshire (5km), and the Black Ditches at Cavenham, Suffolk. Concerning Fleam Dyke, some Middle Bronze Age pot sherds have been traced, pushing the construction date possibly to 3000-1500 BC. Furthermore, the Wansdyke or Wodnes dic (viz Wodan's dyke) between Mercia and Wessex running through Wiltshire and Somerset and dykes to protect the Kingdom of Kent must be mentioned. This dyke surfaces in history in tenth century AD charters. To the latter border belong the Feastendic 'strong dyke' in Joyden's Wood, Cray Valley and the ditches on the Surrey-Kent border near Westerham.

Devil's Dyke - 12km (UK)

The Devil's Dyke is a probably fifth or sixth century AD defensive earthwork of 12km long which was built near Wood Ditton, Cambridgeshire. Besides possible Anglo-Saxon origin, even megalith origins are being considered. This structure lies on the border of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia and Mercia. It was built by the East Anglians against their Mercian neighbours. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the Devil's Dyke in its annal for AD 905.

Devil's Dyke

Earlier names are Saint Edmund's Dyke, Great Ditch and Reach Dyke. Only with the arrival of William the Conqueror it was named Devil's Dyke.

Danevirke – 30km (DE)

The earliest parts of the Danevirke ‘Danish (earth)works’ were built around AD 500. The wall was expanded during the Viking Age. Hence the name Danevirke. It ran between the former Viking port of Hedeby (also Haithabu) near present-day Schleswig in the east, then bordering the River Treene, it continued to the salt marshes of North Frisia in the west, in Germany. If you like to know more about the origin of the North-Frisians (or Nordfriesland) read our blog post The Beacons of North Frisia in Germany.


It was the Viking-King Gudfred who strengthened the wall because he feared the Franks, after they had conquered the Frisian and Saxon kingdoms in the course of the eighth century AD. With securing Hedeby against the Franks, also the rich trade between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, via the rivers Treene and Eider, was secured. This trade was, by the way, dominated by Frisian merchants who had colonized the tidal marshlands and islands of North Frisia (current Nordfriesland), i.e. the wider region where the River Eider flows into the Wadden Sea and North Sea. Read our blog post How the porcupine gave birth to the US buck to learn more about the magnitude of the early-medieval Frisian free-trade.

The Danevirke proved to be a success, you might say. Never were the Danes conquered during the Middle Ages, neither by the Franks nor by their alies the Slavs.

Suggestions for accompanying music:

Accept, Balls to the Wall (1983)

Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall (1979)

Suggestions for further reading and hiking:

Brooks, S. & Harrington, S., The Kingdom and People of Kent AD 400-1066. Their History and Archaeology (2010)

Carter, K. & Stedman H., Offa's Dyke Path (2015)

Fox, A.W., A Lost Frontier Revealed. Regional separation in the East Midlands. Studies in Regional and local History. Volume 7 (2009)

Howard, W., Dykes through Time: Rethinking Early Medieval Linear Earthworks (2017)

Johnson, B., Anglo-Saxon Sites in Britain, blog Historic UK (2019)

Klein, M. & Geerenstein, van H. (ed), Romeinse Limespad. Wandelen langs de grens van het Romeinse Rijk in Nederland (2018)

Goldsworthy, A., Hadrian's Wall (2018)

Newman, H., Was the Devil's Dyke in England once Part of the Legendary City of Troy? (2017)

Stedman, H. & McCrohan, D., Hadrian's Wall Path (2006)


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