A Hillfort Near You

Hillforts pepper our hills, maybe around four thousand across the country. At least we  have called them hillforts. But are they? It seems that they not always on hills and probably not usually forts. The label was pinned on them by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one of the most revered pre-history pundits of the 20th century and a former Brigadier in the Army so he might just have seen what he was programmed to see! 


Sir Mortimer Wheeler
Gandalf in the City?  

In my own search for a sound basis for generalisation, I drew on lots of visits, slogged my way through a fat tome on hillforts generally, waded through archaeology papers in the British Library, scaled a mound of local landscape history books and tiptoed into the prehistory nerd websites. After all that, they remained inscrutable. 

Some do seem to have seen conflicts. We are confident that Cadbury in Dorset saw battles with the Romans.  Others were clearly built with defence in mind, for instance by adding additional fortifications at the otherwise weaker entrances, but left no evidence that these were ever tested. And of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

Some of them might have been used as trading centres or status symbols, swaggering constructions like the faux castles you see today. But there are other possible explanations for their location, e.g. proximity to good farmland, water or trade routes. The fact is, we don't really know for sure when they were built, why and by who.

Cadbury

This is an atmospheric video of Cadbury which is associated with Camelot as well as the Romans and ended its useful life as a Saxon burh. It is a good example. Link:               Cadbury from the air  . (Credits to Guy Poland)And if you are gagging for real detail, here is a report on the research. Link : Cadbury Archeology

I am averse to some researchers habit of squeezing sacred symbolism out of anything that they can’t explain but we have to accept the possibility of some ceremonial or religious shenanigans. It does seem to be the case that around these entrances you sometimes find more strange stuff lying around, than you might expect after a solstice swingers party. For instance, odd corpses, some of which might have been exhumations or sacrifices, hoards, possible votives and the arranged remains of ravens or horses. A preference has been observed for an east / west alignment of entrances, which might indeed be connected to worship of a Sun God; but could it also reflect a simple effort to extend the hours of useful daylight.

Quite a few show evidence of being permanent settlements with post hole evidence of typical iron age roundhouses, but if there is any partial consensus these days, it is the unexciting alternative that many were simply enclosures used as seasonal gathering places for herders, rather than forts. This might be particularly the case in the South East where the enclosures were typically smaller and less forbidding. Even so, the nag on my shoulder asks if their usefulness would be seen as an adequate reward for the hard labour involved in building them.

Evidence based model 

There are lots of them: See this natty map. Link: British Hillforts   Note how many there are to the West and North, and fewer in the east. Maybe that is because the land in the east is flatter and thus provided fewer sites on high ground? And lots of them are small enclosures where the embankments probably wouldn’t have deterred the in-laws let alone the outlaws. Maybe these would also have been more vulnerable to later ploughing and levelling or, like Tadmarton Camp in Oxfordshire, dissection by a road and incorporation into a golf course! Sadly, most of the iconic and best understood examples lie outside our area. You would be surprised how few have been properly excavated and studied. 

Sometimes they don’t look like much now, but it is clear just how massive some were, even though the examples in the South East are not particularly big. There is no regular or universal pattern in how they were built. This is unsurprising, given that they are spread all over the country. And as they are often in exposed locations they would have been eroded, planted, ploughed, grazed and generally messed and reconfigured to suit changing circumstances over millennia. It is a fact that many seem to have been used, abandoned and reused several times.

Another evidence based model 

For instance, Maidens Castle in Dorset had a 'ditch to bank' height of over 25m and was the size of fifty football pitches. And it is possible that a palisade, now long gone, added even more height. Imagine the work involved; especially since they might not have wasted good iron on a spade! 

Maidens Castle 

Maidens Castle Ramparts 
English Heritage

Nearer to home, Danebury in Hampshire is much smaller but has also been thoroughly explored. Evidence points to a lengthy role as a settlement for a few hundred people, probably trading their agricultural produce for metals etc. 

Most of what we see dates back to the Iron Age, and specifically between 800 BC and the visit of Julius Caesar. In our area, few were used afterwards. Many seem to have originated in the Bronze Age (from 2400 BC) and a few might have been in use earlier still. People then were as relaxed about flattening what went before as the people of Tadmarton are today, so the evidence is in the detritus left behind. 

Similar enclosures can be found across Europe, as can be seen from the hard evidence provided by Asterix' village in the pic below, but styles didn't always appear at the same time. What was being built in in England in the Iron Age, seems to have already disappeared on the other side of the sea.  

Somewhere in Armorica? 

The ancient long barrow tombs, monuments, field patterns, boundaries, causeways, cursus and whatnot, which are often found nearby, are often even more mysterious, but can usually only be detected from the air or with specialist kit and wit.  Maiden Bower near Dunstable and Blewburton Hill in Oxon have been cited as examples and the pic below is of a cursus outside Dorchester on Thames. I would be amazed if anyone could spot this at ground level! 

In our area, the most visible hillforts are strung along the chalk scarps. But there are also some significant Iron Age enclosures on the lower ground, that seem to have been built later on. These ‘Oppida’ were the nearest thing that the Iron Age tribes had to urban sophistication and hadn’t been around for long when the Romans arrived and, in some cases, took them over. 

Calleva Atrebatum / Silchester 
Pre-Roman Oppida 

It is thought that they were loose and sprawling centres for artisans and traders. Many of the sites don’t seem to have much defensive potential, so perhaps routes of travel and trade dictated their location factor. Think St Albans, the Atrebates settlement at Silchester, or the Catuvellaunis at Wheathampstead. The pic below is the Dyke Hills on flat ground next to the Thames at Dorchester. Hardly impregnable! 


In what follows I will give a quick round up of the most visible examples in the area. In some cases, where they feature on a cycle route, you will find more details in the Waypoint notes. 

There are a string of hillforts along the North Wessex Downs section of the Ridgeway which illustrate the variety. Ranging from above Swindon to Goring, these are Liddington, Uffington, Rams Hill and Segsbury. 

Liddington Castle might have been started in the late Bronze Age, and was deserted and then reoccupied in Roman times and added to again after the Saxons arrived. There is no sign of military use even though the ramparts, which appear to have been revetted with timber, are impressive. 

Liddington Ramparts

Uffington, which is next to the famous White Horse, is also an impressive size and would have had two timber retaining walls, with the gap filled with earth and rubble. It appears to have been in continuous use until shortly before the Romans turned up.  Between Liddington and Uffington, in a hollow in the hills, there is a small enclosure called Alfred’s Castle which is unlikely to have had anything to do with Arthur and presents a homely contrast with roundhouses, pits for grain and evidence of metal working and pottery. It lasted from the late Bronze Age and the Romans used the site for a villa / farm. 

Uffington, in the background

Rams Hill had a single timber framed wall and seems to have been mainly an enclosure rather than a fort. It sits amid a larger than usual collection of burial mounds. Maybe that is significant. Perhaps the food was really bad. Who knows. 

Segsbury seems to have been enclosed by a ditch before the ramparts were added and seems to have declined while nearby Uffington was still in use. Maybe they were built by the same people for different purposes. It has been suggested that it might have fallen out of use because people started to raise cattle rather than sheep, while Uffington retained a wider religious or ceremonial role.  There is more information and a good flyover video of it here: Link : Segsbury Castle

To the North, Membury Camp sits on a small plateau below the scarp and is presumably located to make good use of access to Membury Services on the M4. While it is wooded, the earthworks are impressive once you find them even though they have been damaged in places by the adjacent RAF base. 

Facing these, on the limestone hills across on the other side of the Vale of the White Horse, were some much smaller enclosures, possibly just banks with a fence on top and used on an occasional basis, perhaps in connection with the sheep farming.

On the Southern side of the Wessex Downs, Walbury near Inkpen Beacon covers 33 ha. It hasn’t been researched and only has a single bank but is in a spectacular location and well preserved. 

Walbury 

To the East, Grimsbury at Hermitage near Newbury is neatly fitted onto a triangular hilltop. 

In Buckinghamshire, there are quite a few, more varied and scattered. Desborough in West Wycombe and Cholesbury near Tring, were built in the late Iron Age and still seem to have still been in use when the Roman Galleys appeared on the horizon. In contrast enclosures at Ivinghoe, Taplow, Boddington and Medmenham might date to the late Bronze Age, almost a millennium earlier. 

Cholesbury is a 6 ha enclosure with wooded ramparts on high ground in the village. I assume that, if the enclosure was intended for defence, the ground must have been open when it was built. Or maybe it simply served to mark the settlement or to keep animals in or out. Although there is some evidence of iron working, it doesn’t generally seem to have been made much use of, maybe because of the lack of a water supply. This must have been a common problem on the chalk hills.  

Cholesbury, from Google Maps

Tree cover is an issue elsewhere, not just because they now hide what’s there, but because the growth can damage the ramparts. Desborough Castle (in Wycombe) is an example. Pulpit Hill above Great Kimble and Boddington near Wendover are others. In each case, once you get into the trees, the banks are visible but not very impressive. Don’t be fooled by Cymbeline’s Castle near to Pulpit Hill. It looks like it should be a hill fort and the legend is supportive, Cymbeline is associated with the Iron Age British chieftain Cassivellaunus who the Romans fought and defeated in AD 54; but it is actually the site of a medieval Motte & Bailey. 

Bits left by the inhabitants have been found in most places, but only Ivinghoe has really been studied intensively, maybe because of its location. The view is good, and some useful information was gleaned about the physical features. But the remains were unimpressive, just a sword and a few bits of skull. Here is a link to the English Heritage Report in case you want more. (Gimme sympathy! In preparing this blog series, I have gone through hundreds of these!!)  Link: Ivinghoe Beacon Archeology

Ivinghoe Beacon 

Elsewhere there are numerous places where archaeology tells us of ancient settlements but which are now invisible. Some are probably lying beneath the back gardens of Aylesbury.  So I am not interested. Move along there. 

As you go east into Hertfordshire the chalk hills shrink away and the number of prominent sites with them. Ravensburgh (north east of Luton, and which sits on private land) is about 9 ha. with a single bank and ditch. It was a comparatively late effort; the site had been farmed until it was built around 400 BC and refortified around 50BC.There are signs that their might have been conflict there and it is yet another candidate location for Cassivellaunus' stand against the Romans. 

I have already referenced Cymbeline's Castle in this connection and the settlement at Wheathampstead also lays claim to this ignoble comeuppance. It reminds me of the numerous claims to be the original Camelot and, wouldn’t you just know it, some associate Cassivellaunus with Arthur. His ghost was photographed there. Or maybe I lifted the graphic from the 'Assassin's Creed' video game.....You decide. 


Other spots that have been thought of as hillforts are less impressive. ‘The Aubreys’ (Redbourn) was in use In Roman times and while the name might mean ‘fortified place’; there is no evidence that there was any fighting there. The site has been mangled by subsequent development. Sharpenhoe is close to Ravensburgh but this might not be a hillfort but a result of the proliferation of rabbit warrens!

My blog is mostly about what shapes our places and landscapes. For the past few ten thousand years people have played their part, but the fact is that we are fairly clueless about what was going on during a lot of that time. So when it comes to hillforts the best I can do to settle my restless curiosity is a guess.

With the smaller enclosures the consensus is that they played a role in the farming economy and husbandry in particular. It is the big ones that pose a challenge. Some seem to have been settlements but in few cases could they have accommodated a large permanent population. Nonetheless the largest have very long walls which it would take a lot of manpower to defend simply because an attacker would have more scope to concentrate forces and shift the point of attack.

Even though the evidence isn't readily visible, we know that many of them stood in wider, well populated farming communities. So my supposition is that they probably provided a measure of deterrence and base for the local panjandrum and maybe his close family and mates and, if there was a threat, a rallying point and place of refuge for people and livestock. 

The examples in our area mostly offer a pleasant walk, a windy vista and a sense of wonder; but what is known about their history is rarely as compelling. And while it might be more accurate to refer to many of them as simply banked enclosures,  I will continue to use ‘hillforts’ in the same way as we understand a lion to be more than just an oversized moggy.  What good would it do if sunny certainties dissipated the clouds of ignorance? Not much. Mystery and doubt make them wondrous in a way that cold analysis cannot. 

So there you have it. Visit them for the air, take in the the views and the indistinct whispering of ancient history; then come away without anything near a definitive view of what actually went on. But then if there was, the magic would die.


 




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