The beautiful border village of Northop is a settlement rather dominated by its roads – that is to say, its strategic position at a crucial nexus of routeways. Essentially, it stands at a crossroads, on the north south road between the coast at Flint and Wrexham and the ancient east west Roman road, laid to service the traffic necessary for the effective extraction and transportation of Flintshire’s natural resources, especially the lead from the nearby hills. Today, there is no trace of that Roman road but it’s there all the same, testimony to the area’s importance to the Romans.
With the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain at the beginning of the 5th century, Northop seems to have retired into mystery since there is little in the archaeological record and nothing written to tell us what was happening here for some 200 hundred years. There is the possibility, however, that during this dark period the first church was founded by the enigmatic St Eurgain, who was possibly the daughter of Maelgwyn Gwynedd, described by an over wrought Gildas as the, ‘dragon of the island’ and ‘first in evil’, but who in reality is thought to have been a generous patron to Christianity in North Wales.
The Church of St Eurgain and St Peter is discussed elsewhere, but its possible distant origin would make it one of the earliest Christian foundations in North East Wales. If an early llan did in actual fact exist here, then its site is likely to be beneath the current church.
Northop’s position in what was the hotly contested border lands between the native Welsh and the advancing Saxons is made clear by the presence of Wat’s Dyke, the remains of which runs through the village. A well-preserved section of the 8th century dyke runs north of Soughton Farm, finding its terminus at the plateau overlooking the sea at Basingwerk Abbey. Often overlooked by its more famous neighbour, Offa’s Dyke, Northop’s section of this ancient earthwork still asks some interesting questions, ones which archaeologists continue to discuss and hotly debate. Undoubtedly, however, it shows that Northop was situated on a perceived boundary between the native Welsh and the Saxons. And what of the fascinating Llys Edwin a little west of the village? The palace of a 10th century Welsh prince with an unmistakably English name? What on earth does this tell us about the political situation in the area?
But if Northop’s early importance was as a Roman crossroads, due largely to the nearby rich veins of lead, its later history was no less centred on its roads. It seems highly likely that Northop would have been an important thoroughfare for pilgrims travelling to St Winifride’s Well at Holywell, possibly as a means of visiting the site of St Eurgain’s early church.
Flintshire’s role in the establishment of the Tudor dynasty is well known. Margaret Beaufort, mother to Henry VII donated monies for the building of the tower at St Eurgain and St Peter. And it is clear that Northop was most certainly of real importance as a trade route during Tudor times, with vast quantities of wool making its way by pack horse through the village to the port of Chester on the River Dee. Evidence remains, as at Caergwrle, in the form of a pack horse bridge amongst the trees at Middle Mill.
The 17th century saw Northop become an important part of the London to Holyhead post road, evident by the inclusion of the village in John Ogilby’s seminal Britannia atlas of 1675. Indeed, most of the inns in Northop relied upon coach traffic, whether it was the Royal Mail or passengers travelling to and from Holyhead on Anglesey. However, Thomas Telford’s new road, now known as the A5 did for Northop’s importance as a route to Ireland, the evidence of that importance remains, including the 18th century tollgate in the churchyard of St Eurgain and St Peter.
It’s hard to credit Northop’s historical importance, for the best part of two thousand years, given its unfussy retreat into tranquillity, but the signs are there if you wish to find them. Today Northop is a beguiling oasis of calm beauty, retaining a distinct identity though surrounded by larger towns and the distant rumbling of traffic making its way along the A55 expressway.