New Year’s Eve and I’ve finally finished the Battlesbury report!
As locals, we’ve walked there for years. A 5 minute trip from home – through the barracks and past the Land Warfare Centre. Up the hill – U-turn at the RA base by the tank and the guard with the machine gun.
Open the boot by the path and drag out the wheelbarrow…I’ve done this so often in the past 6 months. The big blue builders bucket filled with tapes, pegs and lines, put in the cable drum, add the data-logger suitcase…drape the dual probe frame over all.. and I’m ready.
The path to the hillfort is a gentle incline, the cowslips are just coming out. Up through Battlesbury’s west gateway. This is the steep bit. Time to rest and admire the panoramic view across Warminster and Salisbury Plain….
Then the steady trudge up to the highest point- the concrete pillar trig point, the survey base centre line.
The army are here today, spaced along the rampart with equipment and aerials. A Hercules flies over and then trails parachutists, floating down onto the chalkland horizon.
It always takes time to relocate the yellow plastic survey grid tent pegs. Stretch two 100m tapes out along them, link them with the two marked lines to start the next grid and then assemble the earth resistance meter.
I’m on my own today.. I need to pace backwards and forwards from the control reference point to the datalogger. I can sometimes persuade a passing stranger to stand by the machine and call out the number as I move the remote probes.
‘Can I ask you what you’re doing?’
The question is put by a large authoritative man in uniform. Presumably the officer in charge.
‘I have a permission letter from Defence Estates… and a licence from Historic England. It’s in the bucket somewhere..’
‘That’s fine.. I’m just interested.’
‘I’m an archaeologist..work for the National Trust… but while on furlough I’ve volunteered for Defence Estates. Nobody’s ever mapped the archaeology under the grass here.. it seemed a good opportunity to come out and do it.’
‘Found anything ?’
‘Yes it seems the hill’s covered with stuff. Traces of timber framed round houses and storage pits. I put the spikes in the ground, the readings are collected in the logger on top of the frame and the data is downloaded into the computer when I get home. Yesterday it found a circular drainage gully for a building just over there beside the rampart, probably over 2000 years old.’
I point towards the hillfort edge where the soldiers are making calculations.
‘What are you doing today.’
‘We’re sorting targets for the artillery’
I look towards the tiny figures in the far distance packing their white parachutes.
He smiles. ‘Just a training exercise’ and walks away.
This has been such a good place to gradually get to know as the seasons change. I look up at the huge clouded skies, out across the hillfort defences, east towards the lyncheted Middle Hill and to Scratchbury Camp beyond.
Why are there two large hillforts so close together? It’s like NT’s Hod and Hambledon in Dorset. This would still have been Durotrigan territory in the Late Iron Age.
I look back towards the town and see NT’s Cley Hill rising out of the level lands towards Bath and Trowbridge. This huge chalk mound, a boundary marker between the Durotriges and Dubunni, their distinctive coinage concentrations meeting at the chalk escarpment which rises from the east side of Warminster.
Dave has brought up the Bartington and so there’s both resistivity and magnetometry across the same grid. Janet often helps me. After a few grids we stop and open flasks of coffee. One lounges in the wheelbarrow, the other rests on the upturned blue bucket…we eat chocolate … the wind in our hair and the larks singing above us.
An unexpected flash of excitement… the meter numbers rise to a crescendo down the normally 40-60 ohm resistivity lines….65, 80, 92, 105, 100, 95, 74, 58…..and in neat sharp blocks too. Definitely something under the ground….something solid and building like.
The foundations of a structure appear on the computer.. 30m long and 15m wide..
The conversations with regular visitors circling the rampart. Encouraging my marathon effort. Did people actually live here once? I have promised an article in the Warminster Journal…..
So extraordinary, to experience the vegetation and landscape changing slowly. No two days here were ever the same. The autumn’s steady loss of bright leaves; the shortening sunlight hours and those intense red dusks towards Cley and Frome. The sharp frosts and glowing mists of mornings. But then, the evenings lengthening, the green sparks beginning, lighting up the twiggy trees. At the last, the flowers, already the grasslands thicker and harder to walk through. The grid disappearing.
Since then, I’ve been trying to write up the survey report.
Looking through all the historic maps and aerial photos. Carol sent me information in the Wiltshire database. No evidence of a building where the readings were high. I was looking closely for something military… a likely explanation would be that it was a structure built and demolished at some time since Battlebury’s acquisition by the War Department in 1928.
1812, Richard Colt Hoare in his Ancient Wiltshire describes Roman coins found in Battlesbury’s plough soil. The building-like anomaly is located near the east gate. Just like the Romano-Celtic temple found by Wheeler at Maiden Castle in the 1930s. A Roman temple would be my tentative suggestion in the report. Its outline looks a bit like the one built high on Brean Down in Somerset with annexes on its north and south sides.
Up in the attic, I locate Mr Manley’s notes on Battlesbury, photocopied years ago in Warminster Museum. He was there in May 1922 when they built the reservoir near the trig point and dug a water pipe trench down across the hillfort to the west gate. His conclusion, that the streets and gullies he saw in the trench section demonstrated a town layout of timber framed buildings like those he had seen in Palestine during WWI.
Victor Manley was a schoolteacher at Sambourne School ..it’s where our children went. There is still a picture of him in reception.. though it was a secondary school back then.
He produced detailed sketches of Battlesbury and wrote about the active quarry by the west gate where in 1773 they found a Roman coin hoard….where the cemetery was disturbed. He writes of a scatter of bones…which he kept and then discarded. Was this an Iron Age war cemetery like the one Wheeler found at Maiden Castle’s east gate? The chalk pit is just grass now.
A scatter of clues hinting at past events.
In 2020-2021, there was only time for the east third of Battlesbury hillfort to be geophysically surveyed.. It’s a huge place. Perhaps one day they’ll be time again to do the rest.
Though the National Trust only owns Cley Hill (see ‘Upon Cley Hill’), it is only one of four local hillforts linked by a network of field systems and farmsteads… Cley is only a small part of this significant but still poorly understood Wiltshire landscape…
Of course, the true significance….of any one place.. can only be understood in its wider context. So much more to discover.