Weird Suffolk: The history of Devil’s Dyke

Devil's Dyke in Newmarket. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Devil's Dyke in Newmarket. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

The Devil is a cunning handyman – why dig a ditch yourself when you can employ the little people or giants to do your work for you?

Devil’s Dyke stretches for seven miles between the villages of Reach in Cambridgeshire and Woodditton, taking in a slice of Suffolk that protrudes from the mother county like a sore thumb, and is the longest of a series of ancient Cambridgeshire dykes, boasting steep banks that reach up to 30 feet in height.

Its highest point is at the equally evocatively-named Gallows Hill, it reaches across Burwell, along the edge of Newmarket Racecourse (where races can start in one county and end in another) and was designed to control movement along the ancient Roman roads.

Known at first as the Great Dyke and later St Edmund’s Dyke, it gained its present name in medieval times and would, experts believe, have taken 200 men more than three years to build - but if you’re the Devil, it’s the work of a moment – especially if you have a band of fairytale creatures at your beck and call.

Legend has it that the Devil arrived at a wedding at Reach Church and, as he had not been issued an invite (and presumably had not bought any guest towels from the wedding list) he was sent away by guests who were furious with his impudence. As he fled in anger, his huge flaming tail scored a deep groove in the earth and formed the dyke.

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In the September edition of Norfolk and Suffolk Fair in 1983, there is a discussion about fairy loaves which were sea urchin fossils which resembled loaves of bread (and were also known as pixie weights or shepherd’s crowns) and were often kept in cottage fireplaces to protect against bad luck, illness and lightning strikes and assist dead souls as they made their journey to the afterlife – it is also said that a home with a fairy loaf would never lack bread for humans.

It leads to a theory about the building of the dyke.

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“Undoubtably there were abundant supplies around Newmarket to feed the army of ‘little people’ who built the Devil’s Dyke - that great landmark dominating the heath where it strikes northwards in a straight course for eight miles,” it says.

“Its right flank rests upon streams and fenland and its left upon forest land. But what of its origin? Was it, as some folk suggest, built by an army of fairy folk in league with the Devil? More likely it was the work of the Iceni - themselves physically small - anxious to protect their strategically weak boundaries. Others ascribe it to the Roman legions who occupied the locality. Some evidence suggests that bedire the Iceni the early Britons populated the locality.”

But enough of theories that don’t harness the supernatural: another is that the ditch was built by giants in the blink of an eye and, even better for those of us that love a shaggy dog story, it’s also said to be one of the places that Black Shuck loves to stalk.

If you see him running along the ancient fairy, giant, Devil or Iceni-built ditch, your joy – like you – may well be short-lived: it is said that those who spy Black Shuck on Devil’s Dyke are driven mad within two months and will not celebrate another revolution around the sun, dying within a year.

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