Uncovering the rich history of some of the Marshwood Vale’s iconic hillforts – by Connie Doxat
Standing in the belly of the Marshwood Vale, several distinct lumps protrude over the horizon. Of all these impressively elevated spots, one of them has a remarkably flat top—the Table Mountain of West-Dorset perhaps? Another, sitting at the roof of the vale wears a dark green cloak of beech and oak trees. A third, is a vast plateau which towers over its conjoined but miniature twin less than a mile South. All these spectacular sites are of course the unmistakable hillforts of Pilsdon Pen, Lewesdon Hill, Lambert’s Castle and Coney’s Castle, respectively–arguably some the most distinctive items on the area’s skyline. However, alongside such splendid natural scenery, the rich and ancient history of these hills is in many ways just as thrilling to discover…
Anyone familiar with the marvellous walking in the Marshwood Vale will have summited Pilsdon Pen, perhaps the best preserved out of this unusual cluster of hillforts. This distinctively angular spur gains its name from the ancient Pilsdon community, from which Pilsdon Pen’s vertical sides majestically rise (the ‘Pen’ derives from the Welsh word for head or top). Once you’ve scrambled up its ramparts to the top – reached quickly from a short but steep walk from the National Trust car park—it soon becomes easy to understand why this location may have been the longest inhabited spot of all the four hills. Pilsdon’s outstanding 360-degree views are unrivalled by those of its neighbours, providing a panorama not only rare for the surrounding region, but the country as a whole. The archaeological significance of Pilsdon Pen, however, wasn’t truly discovered until after the 1960s, when its former owner Michael Pinney gave permission for Peter Gelling of the University of Birmingham and his wife, Margaret, to begin excavations on the site. Their findings revealed the remains of 14 Iron Age roundhouses, and thus provided evidence that a considerable population once inhabited its exposed top. Further surveys conducted by the National Trust in 1982 and Historical Monuments of England in 1995 uncovered flint tools and burial mounds thought to date back as far as the Bronze Age, suggesting the site has seen human activity for some 10,000 years.
The impressive height of Pilsdon (277m) is only slightly trumped by its closest neighbour, Lewesdon Hill, which stands triumphantly at 279m, higher than both Lambert’s (258m) and Coney’s (210m) also. This miniscule but rather meaningful 2m difference between Pilsdon and Lewesdon wasn’t actually recognised until recent surveys, granting it the crown as the county top of Dorset and placing it as one of its only four classified ‘Marilyn’ peaks. As well as the topography, the actual design of each fort is also fascinating—particularly that of Lambert’s and Coney’s Castles, which were actually built as together a pair. The reason for this unusual structure is thought to lie in the control it gave the occupants of Lambert’s (which was the far larger settlement) over an important track which ran a mile to its South (beside Coney’s). Moreover, whilst Lewesdon, Lambert’s and Coney’s Castle display a univallate design, consisting of only one large defensive bank, Pilsdon Pen’s is rarer, with a complex network of ditches and ramparts known as a multivallate fort.
Although different in design, the purpose of all four hillforts remained relatively similar; acting as strategic and easily defendable settlements in which people of the Durotriges tribe concurrently lived. The Durotriges were one of many tribal groups to exist during the Iron Age, and occupied large swathes of Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon and Somerset. Bar the system of hillforts visible today, most elements of Durotrigan society have been destroyed over time, following years of destruction by Roman invasion and natural slippage in the region’s geology and thus many questions about the culture have been left unanswered. However, a remarkable collection of silver coins is one of the only artefacts to have survived the millennia and is even thought to be one of the only systems of coinage to exist in Britain prior to the Roman conquest (AD 43). The sheer rarity and volume of such coins found across the region help to illustrate the superior wealth and craftsmanship of the Durotrigans in comparison to neighbouring groups, such as the Dumnonii to their West. Despite their affluency, the population of the Marshwood Vale remained sparse in this period, and it is hence only natural to wonder why the Durotrigan’s established these four settlements within such close proximity to each other; surely this strained resources like firewood, or impeded the defence of such a vast territory? However, it is thought that the grouping of these forts did indeed serve a strategic purpose, providing a central meeting point for the dispersed Durotrigan population, which is considered to have been more of a tribal confederation than an organised municipality.
The history of these forts also extends far beyond the Iron Age and they have played an important part in shaping the identity of the Marshwood Vale ever since. For anyone with an interest in literature, the possible impact of these hills on the poet William Wordsworth is fascinating. Between the years 1795 and 1797, Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, lived at Racedown House in Birdsmoorgate and the couple quickly developed a fondness for the surrounding peaks (the house being located close to the centre of all four forts) . Although William never explicitly mentioned any of these historic sites in his work, their similarity to the rugged crags and open skies synonymous to his writing suggests their influence in his pieces written during his time at Racedown. A diary entry written by Dorothy during this period, illustrates this “we have hills which, seen from a distance almost take the character of mountains, some cultivated nearly to their summits, others in their wild state covered with furze and broom”, alluding to the distinctive shape and yellow gorse which characterises their flanks still today.
Lewesdon Hill also has a place in political history as one of the many hilltop beacons used to alert Sir Francis Drake and his men of the impending Spanish Armada fleet in 1588, initially spotted off the Cornish coast. British maritime history has also involved Pilsdon and Lewesdon due to their use as navigation aids, known as the ‘Calf and Cow’, which helped to guide sailors across Lyme Bay for centuries. What’s more, the presence of pillow mounds at Pilsdon suggest that the area saw the practice of rabbit rearing, popular during the medieval period after the Black Death saw incomes tumble with plummeting grain production. Coney’s Castle is also likely to have seen medieval rabbit warrens, with the word ‘Coney’ translating from the Old English for rabbit. In the last century, Lambert’s Castle’s was also used as the site for an impressive county fair, which took place annually between 1709 and 1954. A grant from Queen Anne originally allowed the fair to be organised, and saw market stalls, animal enclosures and a large racetrack all built where dogwalkers stroll today—with such a glorious view it must have been quite the spectacle!
The fact that the history of this tight cluster of hillforts spans millennia is truly a testament to the sheer depth and variety of their past, and we should celebrate how these four hills have shaped the local culture and beautiful landscapes of the Marshwood Vale we enjoy today.