The medieval world is widely believed to have been one of generalised misery and ignorance. To see what we could find out, we visited Faesten Dic in Joydens Wood, near Bexley.
There is a widespread belief that the medieval world was one of piteous squalor and fretful darkness, occasionally enlivened by a good war. The daily ordeals that people faced not only included lice, fleas and ticks, but also the scythes of famine, disease, and war.
There were also the horrors of deliberately inflicted pain and punishment to consider. However you imagine living in the Dark Ages, it is difficult not to conceive of it as fairly wretched existence.
Set against this backdrop, Faesten Dic, a medieval frontier work in Joydens Wood (marked in red on the map below), resonates with hardship. But was it really so tough for these hardbitten people? When you dig into the medieval world you discover that it did not solely inhabit a time when everything occurred in a slough of despond.
Although the era was obviously hard, the more you find out reveals the period as also being among the most glittering and diverse times in history. These lands that had previously been united under the Roman Empire did not suddenly stop being civilised.
Indeed, after the Roman Empire’s dissolution the area we now call England continued the development of diverse, interlinked and often complex cultures. Each of these had its own conception of itself and its relationship with the world.
What was going on 1,500 years ago, when Faesten Dic was being constructed, must have been fascinating and not just a little intriguing. Unfortunately, there is little to explain exactly how this earthwork fitted into the lives of the people which it benefited, or those who might have seen it as a symbol of control and a restriction on their liberty.
What is believed is that the Dic was constructed between the fifth and sixth centuries AD at a time when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records tribal warfare in the Bexley area. There must have been a reason to put in so much hard labour to construct what was obviously a way of securing the safety of the people living to its east.
Joyden’s Wood is now a tranquil piece of ancient woodland that sits right on London’s doorstep. Along with a remarkable variety of trees and plants, there is plenty of wildlife, which makes it a wonderful place in which to escape the hectic pace of modern city life and be inspired.
Faesten Dic is a rare example of a monument type that is of considerable importance to research into early medieval territorial patterns and is identified as being nationally important. What we can see and discover today has been disturbed by tree roots and ancient and modern agricultural and forestry activity, but this medieval frontier work is substantial and visually impressive.
Excavations have uncovered archaeological remains and environmental evidence. Faesten Dic, which translates as “The Strong Dyke”, is an Anglo-Saxon feature that runs across the undulating sandy gravel on the southeastern slope of the Cray Valley.
It is a linear earthwork, roughly one mile long and aligned north to south. It is made up of a series of connected, ditches and banks that zigzag over the landscape. The sections that were most heavily defended lie on the higher ground towards both the southern and northern ends and are comprised of large, originally V-shaped ditches up to more than 26ft wide.
Although this has been filled in over the years, it is still up to seven feet in depth in places so must have been much deeper when it was in use.
This deep ditch is flanked to its east by a low bank up to 34ft wide and 1ft high, which has a narrow, buried covering layer of gravel that people believe was a military walkway, and to the west by an outer bank of about 11ft high and 1ft wide.
At its southern end, Faesten Dic dips down into a steep narrow valley. At the other end, the earthwork originally continued to the northeast beyond Joydens Wood’s present boundary, but this part has been destroyed by modern developments.
Oak, beech and sweet chestnut provide habitats for many birds and it’s possible to catch sights of buzzards, sparrowhawks or kestrels as they soar on the high thermals overhead. In springtime, the floor of this ancient woodland is a veritable patchwork of bright bluebells, sunny yellow celandines and delicately fragranced lilies of the valley, while in summer the high ground in the centre of the wood is a good place to take in views across the metropolis.
As autumn arrives the leaves turn to russet, gold and crimson, and many unusual fungi emerge out of the dead wood and woodland floor. The observant will spot the amethyst deceiver and lilac bonnet’s purple tones, along with the fly agaric’s white-spotted red cap. When winter draws in and the days shorten conifers offer a splash of greenery.