Devil's Dyke, Cambridgeshire

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Devil's Dyke on the July Course, Newmarket
View from the top of Devil's Dyke towards Reach

Devil's Dyke (also called Reach Dyke or Devil's Ditch, once known as St Edmund's Ditch) is an impressive Dark Age earthwork in eastern Cambridgeshire. It consists of a long bank and ditch 7.5 miles long that runs in a northwest to southeast direction in a straight line from the small village of Reach to nearby Woodditton. It is generally assumed to be an Anglo-Saxon earthwork and is one of the largest and best surviving examples of its kind in Britain.


Devil's Dyke is over 7 miles long and is the largest of a number of ancient Cambridgeshire dykes. In some places the bank measures 30 feet high and 120 feet across. Since the 19th century a number of railway lines and roads have been cut through the dyke, including the combined A14 and A11 roads, and a branch line of the Ipswich to Ely rail line. A public footpath runs along the top of the bank.

From Reach, the dyke crosses farmland, before running along the edge of the July Course at Newmarket Racecourse and then through the woods of a private estate near the village of Woodditton.[1]


View Looking Towards Woodditton (1853)

Devil's Dyke is the largest of several earthworks in south Cambridgeshire that were designed to control movement along the ancient Roman roads. When it was created, it completely blocked a narrow land corridor between the southern edge of a region of water-logged marsh (the Great Fen) in the northwest and dense woodlands in the south, so making circumvention difficult and forming an effective defensive barrier for the lands to the east. The dyke crossed three important Roman roads, including the yet more ancient Icknield Way, and may thus have served as a way of controlling trade and movement in and out of the area. Findings such as the small quantity of silt in the ditch fills suggest that the dyke fell into disuse soon after it was built.

The other Cambridgeshire dykes include Fleam Dyke, Brent Ditch and Bran ditch. Black Ditches, Cavenham is a fifth earthwork guarding the Icknield Way which is in Suffolk, to the northwest of Bury St Edmunds.

Early commentators

The profiles of the Cambridgeshire dykes, (based on Hartshorne's Salopia Antinqua (1841)

The earthwork has been described by various different commentators since Anglo-Saxon times. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the Devil's Dyke in its annal for 905, when Edward the Elder is recorded as fighting and defeating the Danes of East Anglia, having first laying waste to the countryside:

'and he laid waste their land between the Dyke and the Ouse [or Wissey] as far northward as the Fens'
' and oferhergade call hera land betwuh dicun and Wusan. call oþ da fennas norð' .[2]

Abbo of Fleury, writing in the late 10th century, described East Anglia as "fortified in the front with a bank or rampier like unto a huge wall, and with a trench or ditch below in the ground".[3] The mediæval Flores Historiarum, referred to "...duo fossata sancti Eadmundi..." - 'the two fortifications of St Edmund' - when describing the battle between Edward and his adversaries (the other presumably Fleam Dyke, between Fulbourn and the Wilbrahams).[4]

Modern scholarship

Archaeological Carbon-14 dating has concluded that the dyke was reinforced in the late 6th or early 7th century at a time when competition between neighbouring English tribes was particularly fierce. It is believed that the dyke would have been used to demarcate the boundary of a tribe's influence.

There have been a number of excavations and investigations of the Dyke in modern times, including excavations in 1923 and 1991. In 1991, little was found when a small part of the dyke (measuring 26 feet x 10 feet) was excavated before construction of a new aqueduct. The results of a 1988 resistivity survey of the point where Street Way cuts through the dyke were inconclusive.[5]


The course of the dyke is now controlled by English Heritage as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, as well as Site of Special Scientific Interest. A well-kept footpath runs the full length of the dyke.

The path is also home to several rare species of flora and is an excellent example of a chalk grassland. Flowers often seen along its route include the Pasque flower Pulsatilla vulgaris, and six species of orchid including the Lizard Orchid. The Chalkhill Blue butterfly can also be found here.

Outside links


  1. Cambridgeshire Historic Environment Record 07801.
  2. Earle, Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel, pp. lxxi, 98.
  3. Tymms, The Devil's Dyke, Newmarket, p. 175.
  4. Babington, Ancient Cambridgeshire, p.60.
  5. Cambridgeshire HER, 'Devil's Ditch/Dyke'