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.
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.