A fruity hill fort?
While planning my trip to Blackbury castle I was amused to see in a recent AA walks book it is referred to as Blackberry Castle. However, it is called Blackbury Castle by English Heritage so that must be the right name!
One of the nice things about Blackbury Castle is it is well signposted from the main road at Branscombe Cross. For a good day out in fair weather a walk around the surrounding area ending with a picnic at the hill fort is hard to beat. On a less clement day lunch at the Mason’s Arms in Branscombe is a good Plan B!
Oh fog it!
I picked the wrong day for this trip. When I left home it was reasonably clear at sea level and I hoped it would brighten up later. Optimism was no match for Autumn in East Devon as I found out on hitting thick fog after Sidmouth. I was impressed how many drivers of silver cars thought having no lights on was a good idea…
Could you see it though?
On arrival the fog had lessened and created atmosphere rather than obscuring the hill fort. As I walked around the hill fort pondering its odd flattened D shape the fog steadily lifted. Less atmosphere but more to see. There is a rather attractive monochrome interpretation panel by the car park with a potted history of the hill fort. It was briefly occupied in the Iron Age, well for two centuries anyway.
This site is famous for its “barbican” entrance. Despite excavation in the 1950s it is still not clear whether this was built to impress, made for practical reasons as a paddock for stock, or an attempt to extend the hill fort. Excavation showed there was a single impressive timber built entrance on the south side possibly with a gate house including a tower – the three other modern entrances are just that by the way.
Another quirk of this place is that the central area is domed in shape as can be seen from either side of the D.
And there’s more?
One of the pleasures of this site is there are plenty of footpaths around it. These range from lanes to footpaths to permissive paths. There’s a good circular walk to be had from Devon’s most rebellious town, Colyton, to Blackbury Castle. Probably best done on a dryer day though!
Bit of an old crock
I first met Hembury through seeing pottery recovered in excavations on display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery. The pottery is distinctive and called Hembury Ware. It’s one piece of evidence that the fort was a centre for trading.
My next encounter was a walk around the fort after a task clearing footpaths with BTCV. Seeing the fort itself is always interesting, as it’s one thing to read its on the end of a ridge and another to climb up the end of that ridge!
A longer lasting monument
Like Maiden Castle this was a causwayed camp that was reinvented as a hill fort in the Iron Age. Before you dash off looking for remains of the causwayed camp it is under the ramparts of the later fort now. You can walk around the ramparts and on a clear day there are views towards Dartmoor. The centre of the fort is filled with a mix of trees and bracken. You can get pretty soggy on a damp day!
From trade to industry
Close by the fort you can find the remains of collapsed mining adits. These were made mining for whetstones and many adits are collapsed now. Now forestry is the industry by the fort and there are several way marked walks through the woods.
Maiden Castle is Britain’s biggest hill fort built over a Neolithic causwayed camp. It really is big too! You will need stamina to climb up the ramparts, even with the handy steps in them although going in by the west gate is easier.
Return to Maiden Castle
I last visited Maiden Castle as a teenager in the 1970s and it was an experience that kindled my lifelong enthusiasm for prehistoric monuments. This was probably helped by the still current interpretation of events at Maiden Castle in 43AD.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler had excavated the castle in the 1930s and was of the opinion that Vespasian’s legionaries had assaulted and captured the castle, thus causing its decline. So climbing the ramparts with visions of Roman soldiers slogging up them in testudo formation covered by their ballistae firing bolts at the defenders was a powerful image. Naturally it inspired me to paint some Hinchliffe Roman Legionaries, aided by Graham Watson’s book on the Roman Army and illustrations by the Embletons in Military Modelling.
Excavations in the 1980s lead to this version of events being overturned. Wheeler’s war cemetery was seen as the result of tribal raiding rather than Roman sturm und drang. Rather than being crushed under the Roman boot the site was abandoned as people moved to the new settlement of Dorchester.
What’s to see
Maiden Castle is a complex beast with several stages of occupation and development. A walk around the ramparts is a must if only to appreciate how big this place is. IF you need a breather pause and admire the complexity of the west gate with its double entrance. Perhaps an early customs barrier? A very impressive long barrow cuts across part of the central fort and the stone faced east gates still impress. There are also the remains a fifth century AD Roman Temple from the last phase of activity.
English Heritage maintain the site well and have put clear interpretation boards in place. The sheep find them excellent scratching posts! Finds can be seen in nearby Dorchester.
Numerous pebbles to be used as sling stones were found at Maiden Castle. I always wonder if Iron Age mothers sent restless children off to the coast to collect the pebbles as a way of keeping them busy!