Category Archives: hillforts

Heading for a hillfort

For the last 15 years Solsbury Hill has been part of my life. Looming large in the distance it can be seen from my garden every time I leave the house. Sometimes it can be shrouded in mist and other times it glows in the warmth of the evening sunshine. It’s a view that I never tire of and it always feels so reassuring when I look across to this site of a former hillfort.


Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day

Standing on the summit of Solsbury you see why it made such a great place to set up home. Over hundreds of years it was a hillfort and you can follow its outline as you walk around, with views across to the Westbury Whitehorse and the rolling Wiltshire countryside to the east and the city of Bath to the west. I’ll often hear the sound of the skylark, a dot in the cloudless sky, or if I’m lucky catch its ascent from ground level.

And now this much loved hillfort is part of a new atlas that for the first time captures all 4,147 hillforts dotted across the landscape of the U.K and Ireland. Over the last 5 years researchers based at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, on this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, have been working to collate a wealth of data about these amazing places. Citizen scientists have also been helping to collect information for this treasure chest of an online resource.

Curiosity driven research projects like this can only enrich our understanding of history and having all of this exciting data in one portable place will help people to digitally connect with those story of hillforts where they live.

The beauty of this research project is that it showcases the whole range of hillforts that can be found in the countryside like pearls on a necklace. It takes you beyond the really well-known and much visited sites and demonstrates how fundamental these places have been to the story of these islands over hundreds of years. Scrolling across the map you get a sense of the density of hillforts in some places, that you’d expect, and how they have played such an important part in our national story.

Each hillfort catalogued in this atlas will have its very own story. Clambering over a hillfort you get a deep sense of connection with the people that lived there transporting you back in time. You start to take in the landscape that our ancestors would have seen, imagining a very different view with woodland dominating the horizon. Hillforts were built with a focus on defence and as you enter one you can see the careful thought that went into the access points.

Hambledon Hill in Dorset, which is now owned by the National Trust, was one of the last occupied hillforts in the UK – with a group called the Clubmen living there during the English civil war in the 17th century. The size and complexity of this place is mind boggling. Now it’s lightly grazed by cattle and home to countless wild flowers and fluttering butterflies.

Though this atlas is all about the celebration of hillforts there are also many challenges for them. Any hillfort situated on the coast is at risk of vanishing into the sea as our coastline begins to slowly erode. And some have also suffered at the hands of the plough over many centuries. For me this atlas is a clarion call for us all to visit these atmospheric places rich in history and wildlife; and we also need to champion them and care for them, so that future generations can immerse themselves in history.







Heading to the hillfort at Eggardon Hill

For me the hillforts of Dorset are as important as the pyramids of Egypt. When you visit one it feels like you’re travelling back in time; connecting with the people that worked the land thousands of years ago.

On a spring day, as the sun tried to break through, the mist hindered the view but Eggardon Hill loomed large on the horizon. We drove along a road that followed the line of what was one of the vast mounds that surround the hillfort. Down one side was a sheer drop and the other was a defensive moat.

This is the third hillfort in Dorset (all owned by the National Trust) that I’ve visited in the last six months. Hambledon Hill is one of the best sites in Europe, a remarkable place, and Badbury Rings on the Kingston Lacy estate, is a place that comes alive with the arrival of the wild flowers.  Dorset really is a hillfort superpower. These magical places are true wonders.

The wind made the short walk to Eggardon bracing. But it was worth it. The earthworks here are stunning: a testament to human endeavour and indigenuity. It’s mind boggling to think that people toiled here thousands of years ago to create this intricate defence system to keep the community safe. This wasn’t some random act of setting up camp, the entrances and banks were carefully thought through to provide a robust way to defend the site from attack. The surrounding landscape would have been covered in trees, hence the need for a high vantage point.

Sheep graze the slopes and fragments of chalk litter the site. Skylarks high above belted out their distinctive and achingly beautiful melodies.  On a clear day you can see the coast. The trees here are windswept, growing at right angles, and the banks of the hillfort will be awash with orchids in the summer and butterflies fluttering gently above the chalk rich grassland. It is a place to connect deeply with human history and natural history.

When you’re visiting a place such as Eggardon it really does feel as though you are standing on the shoulders of a giant with commanding views across the landscape.

Solsbury Hill, a constant in a changing world

Solsbury Hill looms large in my life. The vista from my garden and our loft bedroom is dominated by this natural wonder.

Solsbury Hill on a winters day; its there in the distance beyond the snow

Solsbury Hill on a winters day; its there in the distance beyond the snow

Every day I get a view of Solsbury Hill, often looming large above a fog bound valley or lit by that late delicious sunshine of high summer.

When we leave the house, whether via the front door or back door, it’s always there on the horizon, a re-assuring sight in an ever changing world.

Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day

Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day

We’ll often try and spot, with the kids, if there is anyone walking on the hill, or perhaps see if the cows are gently grazing, happily munching, helping the wild flowers to flourish on the limestone grassland slopes.

Solsbury Hill, or Little Solsbury Hill as it’s referred to on the OS map, was the perfect spot for a camp in the Iron Age. When you are stood on the summit you can see why. It would have been the perfect vantage point across a sea of woodland below. It was only occupied for a relatively short period of time; now the population is more transient.

Climbing up to Solsbury Hill gives you a sense of the topography of the area. It’s not an easy ascent and over time we’ve got to know four or five routes, which are all very different. My favourite is a route that meanders up the contours of the land and takes you through a very old traditional orchard before following a road to the hill.

When you’re on the summit the views are stunning. There is the Georgian splendour of Bath to the west. The Westbury White Horse to the south (on a clear day). The rolling Wiltshire countryside can be seen to the east. And the beautiful Cotswold escarpment to the north.

The image that stays with me from my countless wanders around the hill is that of a skylark taking off from the scrubby cover that shields it from predators. Slowly and assuredly it lifts off into the sky, it’s beautiful and distinctive tune filling the air with sweetness. This is one of those moments in life that you can never get enough of, however many times you see it.

Thinking about it, it seems strange to imagine a day without seeing Solsbury Hill. It was part of an ancient network of hill forts that occupy the westcountry and also stands guard over the Fosse Way, an ancient long distant Roman Road from north to south. Hill forts are magical places, providing a connection to the richness of human history and wonderful places for nature to thrive.

I feel very lucky to have a connection to Solsbury Hill, a place immortalised in song by Peter Gabriel. It is a place that I never tire of seeing or being.