Can a border represent more than just a line on a map? At their best they bring us together through a sense of shared identity, culture and history. They help us make sense of our pasts and build connections with our neighbours.

They are also easy to manipulate – a useful tool for some politicians to whip up a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’, to remind us of past conflicts, glories or shame; and in some cases, to quite literally keep communities divided.

But for Welsh artist Dan Llywelyn Hall, who spent three years exploring and painting the Offa’s Dyke Path – the 177-mile trail that winds its way along the Wales-England divide – he found the border took on a unique identity of its own.

“The border culture for me has always been fascinating; it oscillates between two countries but also has its own identity,” he told The National

“I was expecting a slightly more antagonistic environment, being on a border and all of the friction that’s going on in the world on that subject. 

“But when you’re actually there, walking it and meeting the people that live on it, it feels a million miles away from what it actually represents. It’s almost like its own little no man’s land.”

And while political rows over devolution, identity and self-government continue in Wales and across the UK’s four nations, Cardiff-born Dan said that his experiences of the dyke – a long earthwork that follows the border between Wales and England – evoked more positive feelings.

“What I did feel was that somehow the Welsh have come to own it and adopted it as their protectorate: it’s kept the Welsh language intact and encased the Welsh culture,” he said. 

“It’s turned out, in a way, to be the defining thing that’s made Wales a nation. 
“A lot of people would argue with that, of course, but it’s my observation, and a lot of people who spoke to us said the same thing.”

Dan’s work forms the basis of a new exhibition, ‘Walking With Offa’, to mark the golden anniversary of the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail, which opened 50 years ago. 

Together with 12 written works by leading Welsh poets, including the nation’s poet laureate Ifor ap Glyn, his paintings of the dyke’s surroundings region celebrate the monument’s historical significance and the region’s natural beauty.

The National Wales: Dan Llywelyn Hall reflects on the natural beauty along the Offa's Dyke Path.Dan Llywelyn Hall reflects on the natural beauty along the Offa's Dyke Path.

While the origins of the dyke are contentious, it is traditionally believed to be an Anglo-Saxon earthwork ordered to be built by king Offa, after whom it is named. But more modern archaeological research suggests building work may have started on the dyke even earlier. 

The dyke is itself well-known in Wales and elsewhere, but when Dan began the project, he discovered there had been little exploration of the region in the arts.

“I was quite surprised at how few cultural references there were to it – hardly any images,” he said. “Photographs, yes, but not paintings or responses from writers or artists. I saw it as something that need to be explored.”

As Dan began his travels along the Offa’s Dyke Path, he was awed by the scale of the earthwork and the stunning surroundings.

“I was gobsmacked by the achievement of it – the idea of the toil of all these people hundreds of years ago, just with spades, making this enormous thing happen,” he said. 

“This thing snakes its way up through mountainsides, through crags, through cliff faces; it’s just this remarkable variety of landscapes that you get. 

“You go from somewhere like World’s End, which is clinging itself onto a rock face, then you get these panoramas like on Hergest Ridge – Mike Oldfield made a whole album about it. 

“You just don’t get landscapes comparable – it’s unlike anything else I’ve seen, landscape wise.”

The National Wales: Caratacus' Quarry at Llanymynech - one of Dan's paintings in the new 'Walking with Offa' exhibition.Caratacus' Quarry at Llanymynech - one of Dan's paintings in the new 'Walking with Offa' exhibition.

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The 50th anniversary project was a departure for Dan, who for most of his career has focused on painting people.

“I’ve done a lot of portraits: pop stars, eccentric figures,” he said. “I did one of Farage – you can’t be afraid to tackle complicated subjects. 

“I did one of The Queen for the 60th anniversary [of her coronation] at the Millennium Stadium. 

“It was great fun and I really enjoyed her company. She’s a great raconteur. 

“With those subjects, you have to dig deep and get away from preconceptions, not be too reverent to the subject and look for the human, for the spirit. It’s the same with Offa’s Dyke – I had to look for the spirit there.”

After spending 20 years living in London, Dan is now living in north Wales and says the landscapes there offer “limitless” inspiration.

“I’m finding the landscape around here absolutely bountiful,” he said. “It has always been a draw and I suppose there’s always an idea of trying to work out where you’ve come from, a sense of home. It’s a boundless subject.

“This idea of crossing is always a big moment. Think about when you’re crossing the Severn Bridge [and] you get that feeling. 

“It’s different from Offa’s Dyke, but it’s still the idea of entering into your home turf.”

The ‘Walking With Offa’ exhibition launches on Saturday, July 10, at the Offa’s Dyke Association and Centre in Knighton, Powys.

The paintings and poems will be on display there until October, and in conjunction with the launch, a bilingual book featuring the poems and Dan’s works is being published to commemorate the path’s 50th anniversary.

Other features of the anniversary celebrations include the addition of a new window for the Offa’s Dyke Centre, created by stained glass artist Stephen Bradley; and a collection of new  way-markers has been installed along the path to mark the milestone occasion. 

Visitors to the path are encouraged to take a picture of themselves with the 50th anniversary roundels, with each individual who shares one on social media with the hashtag, #OffasDykePath50 to receive a limited edition key ring, while stock lasts.