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Dykes

The Devil has extensive property in Britain - Cheesewrings and Punchbowls and Dens, Causeways and Highways, Bridges and Jumps and Leaps, even a Churchyard in Oxfordshire, and in Yorkshire a Cross; but most numerous among the catalogue of his possessions are his Dykes and Ditches. By an accident of language, the word "ditch" is merely a synonym for "trench," but "dyke" may signify either a fosse below, or a vallum above, the earth. In Lincolnshire the smallest gutter that bounds a field or a road, and the huge cuts, wide and deep as rivers, which carry off the waters of the fens, are alike " dykes "; in Yorkshire the stone walls which parcel out the moors and fells are "dykes" - "dry dykes" for distinction.

But where the Devil is owner it is almost always a raised vallum that is thought of. It is true that there can scarcely be a vallum above without a fosse below, but people seem to have instinctively a greater admiration for that which rises above the soil than for that which falls beneath it; and Nature abets his preference. Her forces are far more active in levelling up the one than in levelling down the other, and in many cases there remains no sign of any fosse while the vallum still raises its back-dorsum immune - above the surrounding ground, inert, uncouth, inexplicable most likely, but not to be overlooked by the least observant. In some instances the soil seems to have been thrown out indifferently on either hand, so that it may be difficult at any one spot to determine which way the ditch was meant to face ; and where ploughing has interfered with the works, as in this case, the total disappearance of one or other bank can make the difficulty very puzzling.

There are few counties which cannot show something in the way of dykes and ditches. There are Devil's Dykes in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Dorsetshire, and Sussex. Grim's Dykes or Grim's Ditches occur in Wilts and Dorset, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire. Often the same earthwork bears the name of Grim or the Devil indifferently, as in Buckinghamshire and Dorset. There are scores more which bear individual names : Medlar's Bank (Oxfordshire), Combe's Bank and Gudgeon's Bank (Dorset), and Bunn's1 Bank (Norfolk); Black Dykes (Norfolk, Northumberland, and Yorkshire2), Bran, Brand, Brant, or Brent3 Ditches (Essex, Cambridgeshire); in Cornwall a Giant's Hedge, in Cumberland a Bishop's Dyke, and on the Malvern Hills the Red Earl's Ditch ; Oxfordshire has an Aves Ditch, Dorset an Achling Dyke, Cambridgeshire a Fleam Dyke and a Fen Dyke ; along the Welsh Marches lies Ofi'a's Dyke, with its lesser neighbour, Watt's Dyke ; and the famous Wansdyke traverses half the breadth of England from Berkshire to the Severn Sea. But when all is said, the Devil and Grim between them own the lion's share, and saving in point of length only - in which respect Woden outdoes him - the Devil's share includes the most formidable and the most impressive of them all.

The "Black Dyke" of Yorkshire, otherwise known as the Scots' Nick, Road Dyke, or Sixon's Loaning (Saxon's Lane), commences at the northern bank of the Swale between Richmond and Easeby, and runs with more or less completeness continuously northward across Northumberland into Scotland. It resembles a broad, sunken way with a bank on each side, very like the Catrail (see below), of which, according to one view, it is a continuation.

In Cleveland there are numbeis of small dykes, many of them built of clean stone, which are thought to be similar to the Danes' Dyke in age and purpose. They cross the ridges between the dales, in lines always double, often treble, and sometimes quadruple, invariably facing to the south. They may have some connexion with the strong fortress on Eston Nab, the dykes being apparently designed to block the approaches thither from the interior and the south.

The Catrail - the largest of the Scottish dykes, extending for 50 miles across the shires of Selkirk and Roxburgh between the Cheviots and the Tweed - was perhaps Saxon work, erected by ^Ethelfrith of Northumbria after his victory at Daegsastan (603) to be his northern frontier-line. It is a wide and deep trench with a rampart on both sides. The Red Earl's Ditch (called also the Shire Ditch, because for some distance it forms the boundary between the shires of Worcester and Hereford) was in the thirteenth century the boundary of the estates of the Bishops of Hereford and those of the de Clares of Gloucestershire, but there can be little doubt that the work itself is far older than that date.

It may be that the Saxons employed this method of marking the boundaries of neighboring kingdoms, and some of the existing dykes may be of Saxon construction. But, speaking generally, they are of proportions too great to have been erected merely as boundary marks. The immense size and peculiar disposition of many of them are only reconcilable with the theory that they were primarily military works, and everything that is learnt about the more important of them goes to prove them of very great antiquity.

Nomenclature, while mostly giving no clue at all to their origin, points only to the immense antiquity of the more remarkable of them. Some scholars sought to derive the name from the mediaeval gruma, " boundary," a word which reappears in the Scottish clan-names of Graeme, Grahame, and Graham, families which took their names from the Grim's Dyke near which they were settled, i.e. from the Wall of Antonine ; for the legend which declares that the clanname was given in compliment to that valiant Scot who, when at last the Romans fell back from their frontierline, was first to scale and cross the Wall, has no better basis than similar legends which claim for others of the clans the use of private boats at the Noachian deluge.

A Grim's Dyke, then, meant originally a "boundary dyke." It was the common Saxon name for any of the great earthen valla of the map, whether the Saxons at their coming found them already built or themselves erected them. But in the rapid flux of dialects of that period, words and names, and the meaning of names, passed quickly out of memory. So it was with Gruma, Grim, or Graeme. The word remained, but its meaning was forgotten ; the dead name stuck, as names will, to this or that dyke, but the living word passed out of the vocabulary. But there was another very similar word of greater vitality, Grima, "a goblin." This was dragged in to explain the other, and Grim's Dyke was interpreted to mean Goblin's Dyke.

A few generations later, when Christ had ousted Woden, and Satan had usurped the thrones of all the collective devils of Saxondom, Grim was retranslated into Christian language, and took final shape as the Devil. In some cases the older name has prevailed, in others the younger, and in not a few instances the two survive side by side. To the Devil's better known properties must be added, therefore, such others as Grim's Dykes wherever found, Grime's Graves in Norfolk, Grimsbury Camp in Berkshire, and Grim's Pound on Dartmoor. The names are a happy example of the genesis of a legend : it carries with it a faint odor of days when the powers of heaven and of hell were more real than now they arc, when fancy could still flower, and the dictionary had not entirely superseded the imagination.



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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:07:36 ZULU