Forts are places of security, places to defend and to protect. Their remains can be seen across the countryside.
Eggardon Hill Iron Age Hillfort Dorset
Ever experienced a fort?
When I was growing up, my dad abandoned a derelict white Bedford van in the garden and my friends and I armed it with loaded washing up liquid bottles, water pistols, pea shooters and rotten plums. We held it bravely against my brother’s gang and kept them back for a short while until the ammunition ran out and our position was taken. Once they were at the windows we were sitting ducks and became very wet and fruit spattered.
Then there is the sand fortification: proudly constructed on the beach against the rising tide. The defences prudently strengthened with stone slates and pebbles. You stand back, proud of your creative military efforts and wait.
At first the water dribbles into the outer ditch and creeps away. You feel smug, 1-0, you and your castle have won the first round. But the tide re-groups comes back more strongly. The ditch fills, the rampart holds, but needs a few remedial repairs. Extra buckets of sand are brought to the front.
It holds again but this time the wall needs significant reconstruction. There is little time to build it back up again. The enemy now has irresistible strength, returns in overwhelming force, the defences are shattered and the wave crashes over and hits the castle mound.
Corfe Castle, Dorset
‘Pardon I beseech you my lateness and my haste. My good news is the cause of both. This morning twixt four and five a party of six score firelocks got into the castle. Two hundred was the number intended and decided upon but ere all could be got in, they discovered us and shut their sallyport against us.’
As a National Trust archaeologist.. I have proper castles to occupy now. Back in the day, these castle garrisons were seriously engaged. The above quotation is from a letter jubilantly written in 1646 by a parliamentary soldier, Captain John Fitzjames. He was letting the Speaker of the House of Commons know that the mighty stronghold of Corfe Castle was about to be taken.
Of course, the natural chalk mound of Corfe in Purbeck has long been an obvious strategic position and the Normans knew that and created a castle there; Montacute too (it means steep hill in Norman) and Dunster, both in Somerset. These strongholds were first built during the reign of William the Conqueror: later, each developed differently through time.
St Michael’s Hill, Montacute
St Michael’s Hill, Montacute was unsuccessfully stormed by the Saxons in the 11th century and once peace was established, in the 12th century, its Norman lord gave the land to Montacute Priory. The monks had no need for the castle and used the hill top as a chapel. Only an 18th century prospect tower occupies the summit now.
Corfe in the 12th century was the scene of a siege by King Stephen’s men against supporters of the Empress Matilda. They built a ring and bailey siege-works on the west side of the castle which can still be visited. Corfe Castle proved impregnable on that occasion but Corfe’s capture during the English Civil War was its death knell as a stronghold. The parliamentary soldiers undermined the walls and turrets, set gunpowder charges and blew it to bits, creating the picturesque ruin we see today.
The First Tower, Corfe Castle. Blown apart in 1646.
Like Corfe, Dunster also supported the King but was allowed to live on as a mansion. However, it did not escape completely, its curtain walls and turrets were taken away to make sure it could not be defended again. Dunster was redeveloped into a wealthy family’s mansion house and much of the medieval castle is hidden or lost while Corfe’s medieval strength can still be appreciated even in its ruined state.
Dunster Castle, Somerset
In the South West, there are many ancient forts, castles and defences cared for by the National Trust. Most would have faced attack and danger ..though often these dramatic events have been lost in time, their stories never written down. There will always have been conflict and one of the earliest known battles took place at Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire …where many flint arrowheads were found embedded into the banks and ditches of the 5500 year old earthwork enclosure …still visible on the hill top.
The same hill was fortified in the Iron Age, 3000 years later. On two occasions the defences were burnt and its enclosed village abandoned. Who were these people? Who were their attackers?
The National Trust looks after over 50 of these prehistoric forts in the South West. They are high places, in strategic positions with amazing views out to the wider landscape. Walk along the ramparts and imagine the hundreds of people working together on these hills to create these earthworks of chalk and stone, digging deep into the bedrock with flimsy tools of bone, iron and wood.
Pilsdon Pen Iron Age hillfort, Dorset
The names of some of the British tribes were first recorded by the Romans. One such group, the Durotriges of Dorset, defended their land against the Roman army in AD 44. Though wonderful to see, these massive hillforts were not strong enough. National Trust hillforts such as Badbury Rings, Eggardon Hill, Pilsdon Pen and even the mighty Hambledon Hill all fell to the soldiers from across the sea. Hod Hill even has a well-preserved Roman fort built into one corner of the hillfort, clear evidence of the Roman conquest and suppression of this community. Roman artillery spear heads were found embedded in the footings of round houses which together with native sling stone pebbles provide evidence of the attack and defence of the fort.
We have always needed defences. There is the 1540s stone fort, built for Henry VIII, which still lies at the core of Brownsea Castle. There is one of Lord Palmerson’s follies, the 1870s gun battery at Brean Down, an example of a chain of forts built to ward of a French invasion that never materialised.
Brean Down, Somerset: Victorian Fort refortified in WWII
Then all along the coast and inland are the 1940s pill boxes and gun emplacements like those along Studland Beach and across the heath in Purbeck.
WWII Machine Gun Post Studland Heath, Dorset
Others guard installations like the deserted WWII airbase at Windrush on the Sherborne Estate, Gloucestershire. These concrete and brick structures have often survived remarkably intact complete with fixtures and fittings and sometimes graffiti. The narrow machine gun slits facing towards an enemy that never reached them.
Inside the pill box, Windrush WWII RAF station, Sherborne Estate, Gloucestershire
My childhood memory reminds me of my Bedford van fort experience and what happens to defenders in confined spaces if the ammunition runs out…
Thank you for your insights Martin
Hello Martin, when I went up to the Ridgeway castles, I realised soon that these surrounding rings had hardly the purpose to defend, and if so than it was a welcomed side effect. Their purpose was to keep the water and to provide a kind of hygiene.
Have you heard the English Heritage mp3 download for Maiden Castle? They claim 5,000 people, used to be there, including animals, houses and open fires. At Barbury Castle, they say a couple of hundred people stayed there.
If you go logically through this, then you realise soon that these hillforts had a different reason. You should do an archaeological experiment and try to stay as long as possible on such a hill with a couple of hundred people including animals and tents. I’m sure you can find enthusiasts but tell them that there are no cars involved in that experiment and they have to walk 10 miles before they can enter the castle.