Gold stater of Cunobelin, chief
of the Catuvellauni tribes, late
1st century BC

Beech Bottom Dyke and Devil's Dyke, Hertfordshire

A good mile north of St Alban’s city in Hertfordshire there is a site, or sight, that will please, amaze and distress the eye of anyone whose interest lies in the study and appreciation of Iron Age earthworks. For here, lying between the Old Albanian sports ground and Beech Road, is what must be one of the largest man-made ditches in this area of Britain, not counting the M.1, M.10 and M.25 motorways!

Called Beech Bottom Dyke, this excavation runs for about three quarters of a mile from the Harpenden road to the L.M.S railway line, after which all trace of it vanishes. In spite of its close proximity to roads, houses, railway and industrial estate, it maintains an atmosphere of dignity and calm that would trick you into thinking that it was situated in one of the more remote areas associated with such fine historical remains. Halfway along its length the dyke is traversed by Valley Road, which if followed northwest to the village of Sandridge and then northwards across the undulating expanse of No-man’s-land, further evidence of Celtic activity can be found. This is in the form of two more mighty ditches called respectively Devil’s Dyke and The Slad. Between them they create a semi-circular protective ditch around a naturally occurring high point that overlooks the Lea Valley to the north. Here, even today, the river is crossed by means of a ford, which undoubtedly existed at the time when the ditches were constructed!

This defended position, having an area of about 35 hectares, was constructed during the first century BC by the newly arrived Belgic tribes who had emigrated from the Low Countries. Bringing with them their varied and advanced agricultural skills, they quickly adjusted to their new environment, building dwellings of wattle and daub construction that would give them quite adequate protection against the elements in the relatively milder latitudes of the southeast. They were successful in producing goods in sufficient quantities that, via well-established trading routes, they were able to export and exchange for amongst other things oil, pottery and wine from the continent.

Although still a point of argument between certain archaeological schools of thought, one considered opinion is that there evolved here a settlement that eventually assumed the status of Britain’s first capital. This was in a time when any occupied areas in the vicinity of the later capital, London, were of far less importance. That this Celtic stronghold attained such importance was reflected in the fact that it was given serious attention by Julius Caesar himself, who with his army stormed the fortified capital in 54 BC, during his second expeditionary campaign into the British Isles. We know that this area, following the later defeat of the Chief Cassivellaunus, was abandoned in favour of a site near the present city of St Albans. Perhaps the ability for the Celtic farmers to transport their produce from here by water along the River Ver to the now increasingly important London may have been a factor in their deciding to move.

At about 15 BC the Catuvellauni turned the first earth to establish the developement of a new, and what was to be an even greater town than that from which they had come. In excavations, carried out under the direction of Sir Mortimer Wheeler more than thirty years ago valuable evidence of Celtic occupation was unearthed. His immediate reaction, and later publicised documents regarding the finds, were so enthusiastic that all concerned in the ‘dig’ were of the opinion that here were the remains of a town that had reached such magnitude that his description of it as ‘a prehistoric metropolis’ was in no way an overstatement! Even today, despite Roman occupation of nearly four and a half centuries, plus the ensuing ravages of time and the hand of man, sizeable remains are still visible, showing the extent of this Celtic ‘city’. Early defence systems can be recognised, including the mighty Beech Bottom Dyke. At privately owned Prae Woods, a short distance along the A.5 west of the ‘city’, other fortifications are distinguishable, although in poor state.

Travelling back towards the western boundary of Roman Verulamium, it is interesting to note that two pre-Roman cemeteries were discovered, and in roadworks that took place in 1956-58, artefacts which included baked clay coin moulds were found, providing positive evidence that two Celtic mints had existed there. Sadly these sites were levelled, and very little of the material discovered here has found its rightful place in the permanent exhibition at the Roman Museum situated nearby. This is in great contrast to the Roman Museum at Maryport in Cumbria. A well-deserved commendation to those people there who have put together such a splendid exhibit that really gives the visitor a clear insight into life during those times.

For anyone visiting St Albans, whether their interest is serious or casual, a difficult task presented is to understand the people who lived then, with particular emphasis on relationships that existed between the host peoples and the occupying forces during the half millennium they were living side by side. For the interested guest the Roman Museum may promote further detailed investigation, but the majority of people go home thinking that only Romans lived here at that time; a very false impression indeed.

Returning to Beech Bottom Dyke, its dimensions are quite incredible and it is recommended to stand at the bottom of it and look upwards towards the daylight to appreciate fully the enormity of the work carried out. In the course of time, since construction was completed, its volume has been somewhat reduced, not only through natural causes such as leaf-fall, erosion and the like, but also through the inexcusable dumping of household waste into the dyke. Taking this into consideration, one can only stand in admiration of what had been achieved, with nothing more than simple tools and muscle power used to create an earthwork the size it originally was all those years ago. The need for such massive fortifications must have been justified in order to warrant the undertaking of these tremendous works. The deepest point today is approximately twelve metres from top to bottom, where the width from rim to rim is about forty metres. By the application of simple arithmetic taking these dimensions as an average, and allowing for a slight tapering at both ends one can quite accurately calculate the amount of soil removed to create this defensive element. No matter if you were an Iron Age navvy or a quantity surveyor of today, this was, and still is a serious hole in anyone’s language. The dyke is sited at the bottom of a natural depression in the landscape, which itself measures about three-quarters of a mile in width, and therefore needs no great feat of imagination to guess what a formidable obstacle this must have presented to any invading force. Just lightly wooded inclines with open views in all directions...and that dyke! No need to say that surprise attacks were out of the question. The engineers of this obstacle certainly knew what they were about when creating strategically situated installations to defend themselves with.

My shared previous ignorance of how significant this area is to early British history, makes obvious the fact that none, or very little formal education was given that was relevant to the settlements and landmarks of Britain BC in our area. In my youth we were repeatedly shown and informed in great detail only about the Roman occupation of St Albans. But were we told of our British ancestors? No we weren’t, except for the more spectacular events and personalities such as, for example, Queen Boudicca of the Celtic Iceni tribe and her colourful exploits. Knowing what was missed through lack of learning about Celtic Britain, I would plead with any reader who has the ability and opportunity to influence in any way the powers that be, to ensure that our school children know that important events were taking place before the Romans came to Britain. It would be pleasing to think that places such as beech Bottom Dyke and Britain’s pre-London capital at Wheathampstead may not be forgotten by future generations, and that one day their recognition may be properly accredited, giving these monuments the status that is enjoyed by other, more prominent reminders of our heritage.

- © Malcolm McBride