We’ve just started an exciting new hiking project and it’s taking us to the intriguing place that is border country.
Borders have always been a source of fascination for me. On mainland Britain, we have only two – Wales/England and England/Scotland. The three countries share the same currency and a common language (yes, I know many Welsh/Scottish people also speak Welsh or Gaelic) so when you move from one country to the other, you don’t immediately get the sense that you have crossed a boundary line, entered someplace entirely different.
But intangible or not, one thing is certain: borders matter. Whether you are Portuguese or Spanish, Austrian or German, English or Welsh, national identity is an important part of most people’s psyche, how they define themselves.
Border Country, written by the late Raymond Williams, gathers dust on our study bookshelf; one of those novels I’ve always meant to but never quite got around to reading. It tells the tale of successful academic Matthew, who grew up on the edge of the Black Mountains but now lives in England and explores the importance of borders and dividing lines, both geographically and metaphorically.
Earlier this week, we passed through Welsh Bicknor, a small settlement (just a church, a youth hostel and some cottage ruins) which, despite its name, is no longer in Wales. Historically, it was once a detached parish (exclave) of Monmouthshire, now it’s in Herefordshire.
Monmouthshire itself has been the subject of much heated dispute in terms of its national status, a debate that continued until the Local Government Act 1972 declared that in all future legislation, ‘Wales’ included ‘the administrative county of Monmouthshire and the county borough of Newport’.
Fortunately, the ‘battles’ over Monmouthshire’s nationality were predominantly verbal, with most of the violence being directed at road signage.
I’m no great historian, but I’m aware of the massive cost to human life, the centuries of bloodshed and misery that have gone into defending that invisible, arbitrary line – the border. And sadly, as mankind seems incapable or unwilling to learn from history, numerous borderlines continue to be disputed and fought over.
All of which brings me back to our latest hiking/writing project: a book of day walks from Welsh castles.
The fact that there are more castles in South East Wales than anywhere else in Britain suggests my homeland was one of the most violent places in the land, where fierce battles between the Normans and the Welsh were fought for centuries.
It’s strange that people now consider castles to be picturesque ruins, places where several generations can wander, read interpretation boards and marvel about our shared history. The Wales-England castles aren’t Disneyesque settings where sleeping princesses wait for the kiss that will wake them, but enduring and very visible records of a really bloody history. It’s unthinkable that anyone would glorify the battlefields of the Somme or think of them as picnic fields, yet re-enactment societies cheerfully recreate the bloody warfare of Norman times cheered on by young children.
Our first castle walks book will focus on Gwent and the Marches.
Gwent was the first Welsh kingdom to be conquered by the Normans, in the 11th century. As the battles raged, castle after castle was built along the Wales-England border, many of which remain standing.
Chepstow was the first stone castle to be built in Wales and is the oldest stone building still standing (there were older Roman buildings but these are no longer standing). (The Welsh name for Chepstow is Cas-gwent, which means Castle of Gwent.)
In the pre-Norman era, the King of Mercia – Offa – created a defined line between Wales and England when he built his famous dyke. However, after the Norman conquest, the border became fuzzy, with the creation of semi-independent lordships in the Welsh Marches that were ruled by bloodthirsty barons.
The most comprehensive resource for Wales’s castles is www.castlewales.com The site lists over 100 different castles but points out that some of what it calls ‘vanished castles’ are difficult to locate today due to a lack of visible remains. They estimate that if all castles mentioned in historical records are included, the numbers would climb dramatically… to over 500.
Wales is definitely the place to come if you like your historic buildings old… and very large.
The Marcher lordships were abolished by Henry VIIl in 1536; some of the areas were attached to English counties and thirteen new counties were created in Wales.
One of Wales’s most distinguished Welsh historians, John Davies (who, incidentally, once delivered a lecture at the University of Glamorgan in which he removed his shoes and sat cross-legged on a desk – it’s true, I was in the audience) explains:
“Thus was created the border between Wales and England, a border which has survived until today. It did not follow the old line of Offa’s Dyke, nor the eastern boundary of the Welsh dioceses; it excluded districts such as Oswestry and Ewias, where the Welsh language would continue to be spoken for centuries, districts which it would not be wholly fanciful to consider as Cambria irredenta.
Yet, as the purpose of the statute was to incorporate Wales into England, the location of the Welsh border was irrelevant to the purposes of its framers.”
In short, the Wales-England border was created completely by chance – King Henry’s intention was always to incorporate Wales into England rather than define a nice clear borderline from north to south.
But for some individuals crossing the border isn’t about battle but a journey of excitement and optimism: teenage couples who elope to Gretna Green, just over the Scottish border, so they don’t need their parents’ permission to get married!
Castle walks in the Marches of Gwent is available in ebook format from Amazon priced at £2.88.