Hillforts developed in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age (approximately 3,000 years ago from about 1,000 BC) and were in use by the ancient Britons until the Roman conquest. There are around 3,300 of these ‘defended enclosures’ in Britain, and from the ground, they’re a pretty impressive sight. Cover them in snow and take a picture from the air and they’ll leave you as breathless as a climb to the top!
Old Oswestry is one of Britain’s most impressive early Iron Age hillforts. Covering 40 mighty acres, its inhabitants would have kept warm in stone-kerbed roundhouses. Excavations also uncovered furrowed pottery imported from Wiltshire area and salt containers from Cheshire, indicating that they traded with (relatively) distant neighbours. It was built almost 3,000 years ago and occupied for up to 1,000 years. Pretty formidable!
Old Sarum in Salisbury started out as an Iron Age hillfort consisting of a double bank and ditch, but then along came the Romans and Old Sarum was reborn as the town of Sorviodunum. The Saxons later used it as stronghold against the Vikings, before the Normans had their turn and built a castle on the motte at its centre and a cathedral whose linear remains you can see in the bottom left quarter of the hillfort.
Castle Bank sits on a rocky outcrop in Radnorshire near Llandrindod Wells. Its single, stone-built defensive bank isn’t circular, but follows the topography of the hilltop, which occupies a strong defensive position protected on three sides by a loop of the River Ieithon.
Coaedcae Gaer is another small uni-vallate hillfort (single defensive bank) enclosing about 1 hectare. Its bank and ditch system measures about 20m wide by 3m high. It has been set out in straight sections, apparently twelve in all, forming an irregular polygon with an entrance to the south.
Now we’re gaining some altitude! At 720m, Ingleborough is the highest hillfort in England. The construction of its stone rampart (boxes of flat upright stones filled with rubble) is believed to be unique in England and surrounds a 15 acre plateau. Inside there are at least twenty hut circles, some up to 8m in diameter, which tend to cluster in discrete groups and can be picked out in the snow. In total, the collapsed stone rampart is 3,000 feet long and is thought to have been built by a British tribe called the Brigantes in the 1st century AD.
The ramparts that enclose the summit of Woden Law belong to at least three phases of construction, with the innermost rampart surrounding the remains of a number of timber round-houses. The lower slopes of the hill are marked by linear earthworks and probably formed parts of Iron Age field-systems used during the occupation of the fort. Further down the hill are swathes of cord rig (narrow cultivation ridges), some of which overlie the banks of the field-system.
Up near Hadrian’s Wall, Warden Law is well-named (it means Look-out Hill). Current thinking suggests this small circular ‘fort’ with its triple ring of may have been used more as a focus for a more scattered community as a place for community activities than straight-up defensive purposes. It does seem to have been a pretty special place – as well as the Iron Age enclosure and (undated) linear settlement that can be clearly seen, the summit is spotted with several Neolithic round barrows and archaeological excavations have recovered everything from cremated remains of adults and children, to a cache of flints including 2 leaf-shaped arrowheads.
Y Bwlwarcau is one of the few unexcavated hillforts, so very little is known about it. It contains a small central enclosure, with 3 concentric enclosures covering a total of 10 acres. Even more unusually, it is a type of fort known as a hill-slope fort, because err… it’s on a slope overlooked by higher ground. This means it’s probably actually not a defensive site at all, but possibly a protective enclosure for cattle.
Foel Trygarn is marked by its distinctive trio of Bronze Age cairns, which predate the Iron Age fortifications surrounding them. The earth banks enclose an area of just under 10 acres, with about 220 house platforms that give the fort such a pock-marked appearance in the photo. Although it’s unlikely that they were all in use at the same time, it nevertheless indicates that Foel Trigarn was a heavily populated fortified village. Definitely one for the bucket list!
Yarnbury Castle encloses an area of 28.5 acres, where archaeologists have found evidence of 130 structures, including roundhouses up to 7m in diameter. It shows evidence of lengthy settlement, with an earlier, inner hillfort built around 300BC, surrounded by the outer ramparts which built around 200 years later. At 3.5m high, with ditches adding another 1.7m in depth, we bet its inhabitants felt safe-as-houses!
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