There were fortresses on the heights

“They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights.” [1]

As well as the barrows and stone-circles of my two previous posts, the Wessex Downs have quite a large number of Iron Age fortresses on the hilltops. The closest of these to Avebury, and the first I visited was Barbury Castle, a few miles south of Swindon.

Barbury Castle

Barbury Castle is perhaps the most remarkable of the Ridgeway hill forts. It’s on the edge of the Marlborough Downs with views in all directions, on the Ridgeway, and it’s huge! It is defined by a broadly elliptical double rampart with a ditch in between, which even after two millennia of erosion, remains quite steep and imposing. The fort was built in the 6th century BC as a refuge against warring tribes. At times of attack, people would bring their animals and shelter in huts inside the 12 acre enclosure. The outer bank was reinforced by huge sarsen stones and the inner bank was topped by chalk blocks and a continuous wooden fence.

The fortress is clearly visible in this satellite photo, taken from Google Earth Pro, and also just outside the western entrance can be seen a round barrow which dates from 1,700 BC.

Barbury Castle  (Google Earth Pro)

The fortress lies on the Ridgeway track, and has  a track running through it with eastern and western entrances through the ramparts. The entrances were defended by wooden gateways and semi-circular earthworks. Pottery, iron tools, weapons and vehicle fittings dating from 300-1 B.C have been found, but it appears that the fortress was abandoned as a living area in the 1st century BC. From a later period, there is also evidence of Roman-era metalwork inside the fort, and pottery around the small mound outside the north-western rampart. Possible Saxon burials have also been discovered, together with weapons of that time; a knife, spearhead and a seax dating 5-700 A.D.

Ditch and ramparts near the western entrance to Barbury Castle

Legend has it that the Saxons (the first and more successful German invaders) defeated the Romano-British here in 556 CE at the Battle of Beran Byrig. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year states: Her Cynric 7 Ceawlin fuhton wiþ Brettas æt Beranbyrg (This year Cynric and Ceawlin fought with the Britons at Beranbury). Ceawlin later became King of Wessex in 560 CE.

More recently during the Second World War, the dominant position of the fort was exploited as part of the local anti-aircraft defences, with some damage to the entrances, as well as the positioning of guns and the digging of trenches and such positions around the interior.

Liddington Castle

Liddington Castle sits on the hilltop, seen from the west.

I was not able to locate any clear directions to reach Liddington Castle beforehand. I managed to locate the Castle itself on google maps but when I got there it was surrounded by farmland. I first tried to approach it from the west via a track which led on to the Ridgeway, but after about a mile realized I was heading away from the Castle. So I returned and went to the other side of the hill on which it sits, and found the Ridgeway track which led uphill towards it. It sits on the edge of the Downs on top of a quite long and steep hill and has two ramparts and ditch enclosing an area of approximately 7.4 acres, with two entrances cut through it. Liddington Castle was constructed in four stages, likely beginning during the very late Bronze Age / early Iron Age, 700-500 BC.  The last stage of construction was probably in the late Iron Age, but it could possibly have occurred as late as the Roman, even the post-Roman era.

Ditch and rampart of Liddington Castle near the western entrance

It was once thought to be the location of Badon Hill [2-4]; the mythical site of King Arthur’s great victory over the Saxon invaders, though recent excavations have found no support at all for this. Finds of pottery from the post-Roman era suggest that the fort may have been re-occupied in some form, adding weight, but still no evidence whatsoever, to the Badon Hill theory. The earliest mention of the Battle of Badon is in Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), written sometime in the period 510-540 CE [5]. Gildas states that the Battle of Badon occurred 44 years earlier, so sometime in the late 400s, though he does not mention Arthur. Some three hundred years later, Nennius identified Arthur as the victorious leader of the 12th and last battle against the Saxons at Mons Badonicus [6].

Returning from the Castle, I passed a hilltop after a few hundred metres on which there was a concrete bunker.  I looked this up when I got back home, and discovered that it was a “Starfish Bunker” built in the Second World War as the control centre for a large-scale night-time decoy to protect nearby Swindon from bombing.  The “Special Fire” or “SF” sites became known as Starfish (SF) sites and consisted of elaborate light arrays and fires, controlled from a nearby bunker, and laid out to simulate a fire-bombed town.  By the end of the war there were 237 Starfish decoys protecting 81 towns and cities around the country.

Starfish Bunker near Liddington Castle

Flowers near the Starfish Bunker

Uffington Castle

The Bronze-Age Uffington White Horse can be seen for miles away leaping across the head of a dramatic dry valley in the Ridgeway escarpment. The Horse is only part of the unique complex of ancient remains that are found at White Horse Hill and beyond, spreading out across the high chalk downland. It is 110 metres long, and in 1990 archaeologists dated it to the late Bronze Age, some time between 1380 and 550 BC.[ They also discovered the figure was cut into the hill up to a metre (3 ft) deep, not simply scratched into the chalk surface.

The Uffington White Horse and Dragon Hill

Directly behind the White Horse in the photo above lies Dragon Hill, a small roundish hill with a flattened top, said to be the site where St. George, England’s patron saint, slew the dragon.

The White Horse was scoured every seven years during a local festival to prevent it disappearing under vegetation and period scouring has been continued since 1990 by the National Trust. The Horse was covered during the Second World War so it could not be used by the Luftwaffe for navigation. Tolkien took inspiration for the Barrow Downs from this region and quite possibly the White Horse was his inspiration for the flag of Rohan also.

 

White horse and Uffington Castle (Google Earth)

On White Horse Hill is an Iron Age hillfort known as Uffington Castle. A simple design of one rampart and ditch, the castle at 860 feet (262m) above sea level forms the highest point in Oxfordshire, with views for miles around over six counties. This hillfort, defended by a bank and ditch, was built during the Iron Age (300 BC – 43 CE).

Walking the ramparts of Uffington Castle

Segsbury Camp

It started to rain while I was at Uffington Castle, and I headed onwards about 7 miles to Segsbury Camp, which is up a long farm road leading out of the village of Letcombe Regis.

The Google Earth satellite photo below shows the camp sitting on the crest of the Berkshire Downs. Segsbury Camp or Segsbury Castle is an Iron Age hill fort with an extensive ditch and ramparts and four gateways. Excavations in 1871 found a cist grave and human remains, and determined that the fort was occupied between the 6th and 2nd centuries.

Segsbury Castle (Google Earth)

I very much enjoyed visiting these Iron Age hill forts along the ancient Ridgeway track, and was impressed by their size and the still quite impressive ditches and ramparts after more than 2,000 years of weather, grazing, farming and other human activities.

“There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again.” [1]

[1] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter VII. In the House of Tom Bombadil.

[2] Hirst, S. et al. “Liddington Castle and the battle of Badon : Excavations and research 1976“. Archaeological Journal. 1996, vol. 153, pp. 1–59.

[3] Ashe, Geoffrey. From Caesar to Arthur, pp. 162–4

[4] Wood, Michael, In Search of Myths and Heroes (2005), pp. 219-220.

[5] Gildas. De Excido et Conquestu Bitanniae. Project Gutenberg Ebook. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1949

[6] Nennius. Historia Brittonum. Translated by J.A.Giles. Medieval Latin Series,Cambridge, Ontario 2000. Available at http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/nennius_giles.pdf

 

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Maternal ancestors: Bronze age, iron age, Roman Britain

This is the last of a series of posts on my deep maternal ancestors, identified through analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is passed only from the mother to the child and so provides a trail of maternal ancestors identifiable through the mutations accumulated in the mtDNA. In this post I summarize the “recent” maternal ancestors who lived through the beginnings of agriculture in Britain, the British bronze age, the British iron age, the Roman occupation, and post-Roman Britain.

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