Grim’s Ditch is a name attached to a number of earthworks in various parts of England (mostly in the south). I walked along one of these at the weekend.
People who came on the second of my retirement conference walks on 11 July this year walked along another Grim’s Ditch, stretching about five and a half kilometres from the river Thames near Wallingford to the top of the Chiltern escarpment near Nuffield.
The name is interesting. I am not an expert, and what I am telling you does not entirely agree with the fount of all knowledge and wisdom, Wikipedia; so caveat emptor.
The words “ditch” and “dyke” were the same in Anglo-Saxon but developed into different words in modern English because they were pronounced differently in different parts of the country. So Grim’s Ditch may become Grim’s Dyke as you move north. The East Angles perhaps had yet another pronunciation, since the name of the town of Diss in Norfolk is the same Anglo-Saxon word.
Grim is supposed to be either an alternative name for the Anglo-Saxon god Woden (equivalent to the Norse god Odin), or a name for the Devil. There is no direct evidence of the former; and the latter is supported by the fact that several earthworks are instead called Devil’s Dyke. Howwever, in Old Norse, Grimr is an alternative name for Odin.
Further evidence for the second theory comes from the work of my namesake Professor Kenneth Cameron (an expert on English placenames) on so-called Grimston hybrids. This term describes place-names in the Danelaw which are compounded from a Norse personal name and the Anglo-Saxon suffix “ton”. By far the commonest placename thought to fit this pattern is Grimston, of which there were at least six examples in Yorkshire alone. Cameron showed, by considering geological maps, that where there were towns with Anglo-Saxon names and Grimston hybrids nearby, usually the English town was on the better land; this was especially true for the name Grimston. He speculated that the Vikings who settled in this area were forced to take the poor land because the better land was already settled. Indeed, so poor was the land that in some cases the name “Devil’s town” would be justified. (Indeed, five of the six Grimstons in Yorkshire are now lost villages.)
When the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, they probably regarded the pagan gods as manifestations of the Devil; so the two theories are actually quite compatible.
If you want to read about this, I recommend Margaret Gelling’s book Signposts to the Past.
Who built Grim’s Ditch, and why? The answers are not known. The earthworks are usually too small to be fortifications, and may have been boundary markers, either between pre-Roman Celtic tribal areas, or possibly between Anglo-Saxon tribal areas before they were centralised and Christianised.
Anyone who has walked along Grim’s Ditch will probably agree that it has an ancient feel to it, even though overgrown now with beech trees. It is not hard to imagine the Old Ones walking the dyke paths.