Wed, 08 Nov 2017
THIS article started because someone tweeted something about Grimsbury Castle near Hermitage and I confess I had never heard of it and thought they must have got their wires crossed.
A swift Google told me that Grimsbury Castle is indeed in Hermitage and is one of at least seven hill forts surrounding Newbury. Although there is no ‘castle’ there as such, there is enough archaeological evidence to show the existence of an ancient hill fort.
As a complete novice to all things Iron Age and this startling discovery that Rome may have its hills, but Newbury has its hill forts, I did a little metaphorical digging of my own (with a helping hand from Sarah Orr at West Berkshire Council's archaeology department) and hope that for some readers at least this may be as new to them as it was to me.
What is a hill fort?
Built in the Iron Age, 750BC to 43AD, hill forts were generally in defensible positions, but had a variety of uses, from settlements to food stores, refuges to meeting places and perhaps religious centres.
Not necessarily exciting to the layman, it is the sheer scale of these monuments that makes them so impressive and the massive community effort that must have gone in to constructing them. They help historians and archaeologists to piece together an invaluable insight into the life and times of our forebears.
Hill forts vary in size and shape, but are a defining part of the landscape. Some are merely fields where livestock were kept, while others cover vast acres, with undulating borders, shaping the high ramparts and deep trenches.
The two most common type of hill forts are the contour fort – which has a bank and ditch dug along the contour line surrounding high ground - and the promontory fort, where the fort is positioned on a spur of land that has its own natural defences.
There are others as well, including those on flat land, where it is thought stock was kept.
The forts could be univallate - one banked-and-ditched enclosure – to multivallate, with three or more banks. Whatever the style of the fort, it was defended by ramparts, which can be traced today along the banks and ditches that form its shape.
The palisades that are likely to have been on the top of the banks no longer exist, but were made of wood, stone or earth. It is thought they would have been constructed using picks and wooden spades, with baskets to transfer the rubble and soil. Amateur archaeologist Eric Wood estimated that it would have taken 150 men about four months to fortify an eight-acre enclosure with just one single bank and ditch.
From various excavations, it seems that the Iron Age dwellers’ weapon of choice was the sling shot – a remarkably accurate and deadly weapon with a range of 200m to 350m.
Other artefacts discovered in the hill fort areas, including razors, mirror fragments, pins and brooches, give an insight into life during the Iron Age, up to the time of the Roman Invasion around 43AD.
There are thought to be more than 3,000 hill forts in the British Isles, although they are not evenly distributed. The largest concentration is in the south and west, especially Wales. The significance of hill forts has led organisations to campaign for their preservation for posterity. The National Trust currently owns and maintains about 79 hill fort sites in the UK.
Listed below are the seven significant sites around Newbury, only three of which are on public land.
With public access
Grimsbury Castle, Hermitage (above, an artist's impression of Grimsbury Castle, Mike Codd for West Berkshire Council)
Walking through Fence Wood, between Hermitage and Cold Ash, you could be forgiven for not realising that you are actually in the middle of an ancient hill fort, dating back to the Iron Age.
Grimsbury Castle, as it is known, was built on a plateau overlooking the Kennet and Pang valleys. It benefits from having a natural spring, which has apparently never run dry.
Although nothing remains of any kind of building, it is clear to archaeologists that a fort once stood there and there is a defined area which shows the shape of the defense building. It is now almost entirely covered in trees, many of which were replanted in the 1950s.
It is thought that Grimsbury was a ‘multiple enclosure’ hill fort occupied certainly between the third and second centuries BC. Triangular in shape it has three entrances and covers about eight acres. One of the entrances clearly led to the spring, to supply water to the fort.
The name Grimsbury, is a nod to the chief of the Saxon gods, Woden, also known as Grim. So impressed were the Saxons by the structure, that they believed Grim must have had a hand in its construction.
Access to the land, which is on the Eling Estate, is via permissive paths, clearly marked.
Walbury Camp, near Combe
Walbury Camp is actually located on the highest chalk hill in the UK, maybe even Europe, although this has not been verified. It is also the largest hill fort in Berkshire. Situated between Inkpen and Combe Hill, the fort covers more than 80 acres and the markings show it was kite-shaped. It had a single bank and ditch and two entrances.
The fort is univallate and the top of the edge is about 16ft above the ditch.
Walbury Camp is the starting point for the Test Way and the Wayfarers Walks and there is a footpath across the middle of the camp. It is popular with both walkers and cyclists.
The Berkshire-Hampshire border used to run through Walbury Camp and along the top of the Combe Gibbet long barrow; Combe parish became part of Berkshire in 1895.
Membury Camp (below)
Situated on the high valleys between the Kennet and Lambourn, this hill fort lies for the most part within Wiltshire, but the north-east part is in Berkshire.
The eastern part is wooded and is known as Walls Copse and used to extend about 250m eastwards, until Membury airfield was built.
On private land
Borough Hill Camp, Newbury
One of the smaller forts, covering a little more than half-an-acre, there is still some debate over whether or not this was actually a hill fort. Archaeologist Dr S Palmer mentioned the discovery of Iron Age pottery, but nobody knows where those finds are.
In 1837, Alwyn Cotton states that the banks and ditches are clearly defined, but in 1963 an Ordnance Survey investigator was of the opinion that the field boundary and some sand diggings did not necessarily indicate a hill fort. It disappeared from OS maps after 1974.
Perborough Castle, Compton
Thought to be one of the earlier Iron Age forts, Perborough Castle is difficult to spot because agricultural erosion, particularly through extensive ploughing after the Second World War, has worn its shape away.
A circular fort, it is recorded as having included deep pits and ponds. Several ‘cellars’ were said to have been found, containing burnt corn, while a number of Roman coins have also been dug – including 500 found in an earthenware jar.
Bussock Camp, south of Chieveley
This hill fort is 2.3 miles to the north of Newbury and covers about 10-11 acres. It lies in the middle of a wood and is not quite circular in shape. At one time, two sides of the defences were thought to be between 12 and 20 feet, but gravel quarrying has eroded that depth. It is occasionally open to the public under the National Garden Scheme.
Caesar’s Camp, Easthampstead, nr Bracknell
Although not strictly 'around Newbury', this is one of the most distinctively-shaped hill forts in the country and isn't too far away from here. Resembling an oak leaf, because its contours follow every valley rigidly along its 400ft length, it has entrances to the north, south, east and west and is thought to date from 1BC.
It was named Caesar’s Camp in the 18th century, but was originally known as Windmill Fort after the old mill that once stood there.
It is possible to visit the Caesar’s Camp - find out more here
This is not an exhaustive list of hill forts in the area.
Many people will have climbed Beacon Hill to take in the commanding view across the Berkshire/Hampshire borders. Perhaps next time you are up there, you will be reminded of the Iron Age warriors, who nearly 3000 years ago stood on that very same spot and were able to defend their territory from such a vantage point.
There is so much information out there about these ancient sites, including this hill forts site , it is impossible to convey how significant they are.
If we've piqued your interest in hill forts and all things archaeological you can visit West Berkshire Council here, which is concerned with preserving, protecting and promoting the historic environment. They also have a presence on the newer West Berkshire Heritage website, which also offers more information on the range of activities and events at Shaw House and the museum as well as locally.
Thanks too, to Henry Rothwell from Digital Digging, for permission to use the aerial shots showing the camp shapes.
This article first appeared in Out&About magazine in 2017