On Silbury Hill by Cecil Amor

During my engineering apprenticeship at a large factory in Chippenham, Wiltshire, I was asked to work with a Production Engineer for three months. This was partly to ease his work load by taking over mundane jobs, such as recording when wrong screw sizes had been specified. He was from the north east of England and often said ‘there are no good engineers down here, they are only suitable for following the plough’. This is a variant of the suggestion that the West Country is a sleepy area, which has been bypassed by the rest of the world. We should remind such people that over 4,000 years ago Wessex led the country in civil engineering projects. Many still survive and now is the time of year to go out and look at them. Here are three winners by size.
In my teens Silbury Hill, near Avebury in Wiltshire, was an easy motorcycle ride from my home. It was possible to climb it to see the view from the top, but now this is forbidden, following excavations. It is the largest man made mound in Europe and the Romans had to bend their new road, (later the A4), around it, so it predated the Romans. It is between 4,000 and 5,500 years old. In 1541 John Leland, librarian to Henry VIII, rode past and wrote of ‘Selbiri hille’. John Aubrey brought Charles II there in 1663 and wrote that ‘King Sel or Zel  was buried there on horseback, and the hill was raysed while a posset of milk was seething’. Samuel Pepys also heard from locals that ‘King Seall was buried there’. Some said a golden horse and rider! Several excavations have found no trace of human remains, or treasure, only a central wooden post.
The base of the hill is almost circular and covers an area of just over 5 acres, with a diameter of 159 m (520 feet). Its height is 40 m (130 feet). It made a good viewing platform. It was surrounded by a ditch, since silted up. The mound was built in several stages, firstly gravel, then turves, soil, clay and chalk. Then two or three stages of chalk blocks were carefully placed, each of reducing diameter, giving a stepped appearance. Quarries were dug nearby to produce the chalk. It has been estimated that a total of over 3,000,000 man hours must have been used to build the hill, possibly spread over many years, using only bone picks and shovels—not a JCB in sight! Later the steps were filled in. It is thought that the Saxons may have fortified its top, but this is no longer evident.
Nearby, but out of sight of Silbury is the giant henge of Avebury, the largest stone circle in Britain and one of my favourites. It was enclosed by a massive bank and ditch, enclosing an area of over 28 acres, with an average diameter of 347m (1140 feet). The bank and ditch are not circular, possibly because the size made it difficult. The ditch was originally between 7 to 10m (23 to 33 feet) deep with a top width of 23m (75 feet), but has silted up over the centuries. As it was dug from chalk, the ditch and bank would have been white. Just inside the ditch about 98 large stones were mounted as an outer stone circle. This circle contained two smaller circles, approximately north and south. The northern circle contained three large stones, known as the Cove and the southern had one large stone which has been called the Obelisk. Whilst these two circles are small compared with the outer circle, they could each enclose the whole of Stonehenge. The difference between the two monuments is that Stonehenge is more carefully laid out and has unusual architecture, with horizontal stones placed on top of verticals. Also Stonehenge stones were worked or dressed, whereas the Avebury stones are not, but left as found. Despite its size, it is thought that Avebury did not take as much labour as Silbury Hill, and may have been completed shortly after. Originally Avebury had two avenues of stones, one to the west, now almost disappeared and the other to the south, about a mile long, which has been largely restored. The stones are alternately wide and slim, (female and male?).
Back in Dorset, close to Dorchester is Maiden Castle, the largest hill fort in Europe. It is a wonderful sight, driving along the A35 towards Dorchester looking east, with the sun illuminating the ramparts. It was started around 4,000 BC, in the New Stone Age, with just the hilltop becoming a ‘causewayed camp’, banks and ditches crossed by entries, or causeways. After about 500 years the camp fell out of use, and a linear mound of earth 546m long was made, known as a ‘bank barrow’, possibly a boundary marker. Much later in the Iron Age, around 500 BC, the hill was transformed into its present size of 47 acres, with a large bank and ditch around it. During the next 300 years three concentric rings of ramparts over 8m (26 feet) high were built up, with 10m deep ditches, to be topped by a wooden palisade and gates at east and west, and more ramparts. The enclosed area then contained thatched round houses of wattle and daub with trackways, grainstores, and evidence of metal working, weaving and animals, by 250 BC. By about the first century BC most people had left Maiden Castle, until 43 AD when the Romans arrived in Britain. There is evidence in Dorchester Museum of an Iron Age man, of the Durotriges tribe, who died at Maiden Castle from a Roman ballista bolt. Around the 4th century the Romans built a square temple, or shrine, perhaps to Minerva. Traces are still visible on the hill top. Now the ditches are partly filled with silt, but still most impressive. All of these monuments would have presented a glaring white appearance in sunlight, from the chalk, but are now grass covered. The hilltop provides magnificent views. A recent TV programme showed it from a ‘drone’.
There are, of course, many hillforts in Dorset, but none as large as Maiden Castle. All are worth a visit and are good exercise if you climb them.