Book Reviews

‘Awen’ an historical fiction by Susan Mayse, Holdfast Books

Susan Mayse, award winning Canadian author, also ODA member, has issued a digital second edition of her historical fiction, Awen, published by Holdfast Books, available from Amazon.

The first hardback edition, published in January 1997 by Eastern Washington University Press, was shortlisted for the Georgette Heyer Historical Fiction Prize.

Mayse sets the scene for us in this piece on her website

‘Inspired by the ninth-century Welsh poetry cycle Canu Heledd (the Heledd poetry), Awen draws on three enigmas of early medieval Wales: the inscription on a ruined memorial stone, the monumental earthwork that marked the border between early Welsh and English kingdoms, and the unnamed poet of Canu Heledd.

One woman alone, a homeless wanderer shocked by grief, survived the destruction of her family and her kingdom of Powys. Her name was Heledd. One poet made her the voice and conscience of his own devastated Powys generations later. His purpose and identity remain unknown. Only fragments of the poetry cycle still exist to suggest what happened on the Welsh border in the seventh and eighth centuries.

This novel tells of a fragile peace between enemies. It is the story of Cynfarch’s journey from dispossessed hostage to king’s poet, his obsession with a lost kinswoman, his hard exile and the betrayals that ended peace forever. Awen reconstructs the shattered portrait of a complex, brilliant culture long since swept away on the flood of history’.

Publisher Holdfast Books also tempts the reader to this eighth century tale:

‘Long after Arthur lay in a rain-washed grave, long after the legends faded from memory, a new generation defended an old border. White town in the breast of the wood, his forever is its wealth: blood on the face of the grass.

In a dangerous era, an enigmatic poem portrayed a war fugitive wandering her ruined kingdom; an earthen wall transformed enemies into uneasy allies; and a man with a famous name wrote an inscription of lies on a memorial stone. All three survived twelve centuries as fragments of a nearly forgotten world. Awen imagines the origins of the poetry and restores the breath of life to a brilliant poet in a dark time’.

We are delighted to help ODA member Susan promote her book in the UK. 

Please support the ODA by using this link to buy the book from Amazon, or see below for a preview of the book.

The 50 Greatest Walks of The World

Barry Stone (2016) Icon Books £8.99 ISBN 978-178578-087-5

Australian travel writer Barry Stone, author of 1001 Walks You Must Experience before You Die, has this time whittled the list down to his personal fifty greatest walks in the World. Britain and Ireland do rather well in squeezing out most of the rest of the planet with a total of thirty-four walks between them. Stone places Offa’s Dyke Path at number thirty-six, sandwiched in between the Causeway Coast Way in Northern Ireland and the River Ayr Way in Scotland. Three pages of text provide an accurate if brief description of the Trail and monument, just enough to whet the appetite. However, the book does say that it is intended for general guidance only and should not be used as a substitute for a proper route plan or map. For the record Hadrian’s Wall Path comes in at number eighteen, the Pennine Way at number three with Mount Kailash, China (Tibet) his overall favourite.

Warriors, Warlords and Saints: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia

John Hunt (2016). 166pp, 85 full colour images. West Midlands History Ltd. ISBN 1-905036-30-1. £24.99

Anglo Saxon Mercia was a great power in its day, although many aspects of it have been shrouded in myth and mystery. However, recent discoveries, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the Lichfield Angel, have shone a fascinating light into the world of Mercia and the Mercians. In Warriors, Warlords and Saints: The Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, John Hunt uses this evidence to paint a vivid picture of this political and cultural powerhouse which, at the height of its influence, ruled over much of England, and reached out across Europe into the Middle East.

The Mercians themselves were complex. They were a force capable of both great violence and great art, fostering the embryonic English Church and yet fighting bloody wars with the rival kingdoms of Wessex, Northumbria and East Anglia.

The story of the Mercians is integral to the story of Anglo Saxon England, from the end of Roman rule to the Norman invasion. It was a land peopled by ruthless kings, great ladies, brave warriors and famous saints who lived at a vital and compelling time in English history with Mercia at its heart.

In his book, historian John Hunt, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham, lays out the historic background and development of the kingdom of Mercia in a very readable and accessible format. He describes the story of Mercia from its rise in the 7th century AD through its supremacy in the 8th century to its decline and fragmentation in the early 11th century amid the chaos of Viking raids. There are many useful maps to accompany the text together with a good range of illustrations of documents, sites, finds and artwork from the period as well as a number of very useful genealogical trees. There are many highlighted quotes from the text set out in a manner that it would be possible for a reader intent upon a ‘speed read’ of the text to gain some insight into the book’s content.

We come to Offa’s Dyke in Chapter 5 (The Age of Æthelbald and Offa). This chapter alone should provide much of interest for ODA members and perhaps a reason, if one were needed, to buy this book.

Being someone interested in the origins and purpose of Offa’s Dyke, I was keen to read the author’s own conclusions. John Hunt states that while Offa’s Dyke has traditionally been seen as part of Mercia’s military defences, he agrees that there are strong reasons to doubt this hypothesis. In his concluding remarks on page 78 Hunt feels that the earthwork was probably intended to impress the Mercians (of Mercia) rather than the Welsh (of Powys). Perhaps a ‘status symbol’ after all.

I enjoyed reading this book which clarified, for me, a number of personally misunderstood facts about the historical period we like to call (perhaps incorrectly) the ‘Dark Ages’.

IAN DORMOR (Editor, ODA Newsletter)


Offa’s Dyke Path

Kathy and Ernie Kay and Mark Richards, edited by Tony Gowers (2014) Aurum Press £14.99 ISBN 0781 7813 10663

The official National Trail Guide, originally written by Ernie and Kathy Kay and Mark Richards makes a welcome reappearance in a revised form, under the skilful editorship of Tony Gowers.

The big change is that this popular guidebook which was originally in two volumes, now has all that valuable information contained within the covers of a single pocket-sized book.

Profusely illustrated with beautiful colour photographs and relevant sections of the OS 1:25000 map, the entire 177-mile route is described in 12 chapters. Each section is intended to cover a typical day’s walking and to ensure users gain the most from their time on the Path; there is a useful ’Things to Look For’ piece to accompany each part of the route. This new guide should be in every walker’s rucksack, and when not in use on the Path, it will be an absorbing read for armchair Dyke walkers, who will no doubt be inspired to get their boots on and get out there.

The Guide can be ordered from this website or from the Offa’s Dyke Centre

Other books by local authors

In the Shadow of Knucklas Castle

By Katy Mac (2017) Knucklas Castle Community Land Project £12.00

Available from the Offa’s Dyke Centre & very soon from the on-line shop on this website

This vibrantly illustrated book shines a light on the secrets of a “special hill” on the Marches borderland, Knucklas Castle, quickly inviting the reader into a startling, ancient landscape where they can travel with Guinevere as she makes a dangerous journey to find Arthur, the one person who can free her brothers from the giants that occupy the land on the far side of the River Teme.

Written as if it is a story being told close to your ear, or as if being performed live in front of you, the author walks a teasing line between knowledge, speculation and pure mystery, creating an atmosphere in which almost anything might happen – and then it does! It is beguiling and funny, with no claims being made for certainties, but a suggestion that to be intrigued, and to ask questions about the landscape around you, is satisfying and important.

And by the end of the story there is a surprising twist in the tale that brings you back into the lap of fact, with photographs supporting this shift back to the present live landscape. Additional geographical, historical and archaeological detail offers information to help find, explore and make sense or story of a real place that can be visited. The move from the beautifully realised imagined lands within the opening pages, to the OS grid references at the end, captures the book’s journey – one that is well worth making, for children and adults alike.

Frances Brett, Lecturer in Early Childhood

General Heritage Management Publications

Managing, Using, and Interpreting Hadrian’s Wall as World Heritage

Editors: Peter Stone and David Brough; International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies (2014) Newcastle University  ISBN 978-1-4614-9350-1

This book brings together more than twenty years of experience in the management of Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site. Written by the practitioners who were there and wrestled with the difficult task of squaring the circle between archaeological conservation, public access, tourism, amenity, also the protection of farming interests, it charts both the successes and sometimes painful lessons learnt. In two decades some three iterations of the World Heritage Site Management Plan were published and a National Trail, Hadrian’s Wall Path, was first approved by the government and later, in 2003, opened. The latter is held up to scrutiny like no other Trail in the UK, Europe or beyond. In his chapter National Trail Officer Dave McGlade gives a detailed account of novel approaches to heritage site management trialled with some success on the Trail, also the challenges that face it in the years to come.