Its a brilliant plan! It’ll never work… but its a brilliant plan! The story of “Dacre’s Ditch”.

We’ve all done it.  We’ve had a late night drinking session with our friends and the talk becomes more outrageous.  

Well that’s the impression I got while researching to see if there was any evidence of Berwick getting involved with the battle of Flodden in 1513.  No there isn’t really, but a lot of work was being done to strengthen the defences in the years following which, of course, culminated in the building of the Elizabethan walls, commenced in 1558.

So far so good.  I looked up the index in Scott’s History of Berwick (1888) and found a reference to Thomas Dacre.  Thinking it was referring to my Lord Dacre who had fought at Flodden and as well as being a major land owner in the north, was Captain of Berwick, I looked it up.  Sadly it wasn’t Lord Dacre of Flodden fame but his grandson, Sir Thomas Dacre.  But what a strange story.  I had never heard of this before.  

Its from 1561.  

The story so far.  Work on the Elizabethan walls is progressing but slowly and there is a dispute among the workforce over pay and the quality of food provided.  Work grinds to a halt.  Lord Grey is the Governor who has to deal with this.  Now read on:

The Governor got sick of all this worry, and retired to the Court. Before Grey set out to London he appointed Sir Thomas Dacre, of Lanercost, Marshal of Berwick, and committed the charge of the town to him in his absence.

While absent, a strange idea of defending the town was originated with those left in charge of the works and this new Marshal. They thought that a deep and broad ditch dug from the river to the sea by way of the castle would act as the best defence, and render Berwick absolutely impregnable.

Sir Thomas Dacre, Richard Goodall, and John Rophe took measurements of the distance. From low-water mark of the Tweed to low-water mark of the sea is four thousand feet. From Tweedside to seaside, taking one place with another, the ground is eighty feet deep, so that the sea may easily fall into the Tweed. For the safe-guard of the town there may be water fifty feet deep always standing, if need require. There are three hundred feet between the walls and where the ditch shall be for casting the earth towards the water.

John Scott – History of Berwick (1888)

As Mr Scott so eloquently puts it. “There are strange and startling statements in this paper”.  You don’t say?


Map of Berwick showing suggested alignment of
“Dacre’s Ditch”.

Basically they are talking about digging a new channel through the bedrock across the peninsula on which Berwick is situated.  You can see the logic (if not any practical thinking).

The earliest town defence in Berwick, the 13th century Spades Mire had cut off the peninsula from the cliffs to a lake, the Tappee Loch, by the castle.  The Edwardian mediaeval walls had been built as a 2.5 mile circuit.  But when it came to devising their replacement in the 16th century, the Italian consultants Giovanni Portinari and Jacopo a Contio advised against a new circuit of walls.  Their solution was… to cut off the peninsula – cheaper, quicker and more effective!

By 1561 tough, the original necessity for the new defences had largely evaporated.  What with that and the mutiny by the workforce, it makes you wonder why anyone would even conceive of such an ambitious alternative scheme, let ahead go out and survey the land!  Not that the figures are particularly accurate – the land is only (!) 3000 feet wide as shown but one would have to dig some 120 feet down to get to the water,

Now I’m not saying this plan was hatched in a late night drinking session but you’ve got to wonder about how such an idea originated.

So this weekend let us celebrate and drink to ludicrously over-ambitious schemes!


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