The Brent Knoll Crosses

View of Brent Knoll from the west on the way back from Brean Down on the coast.

View of Brent Knoll from the west on the way back from Brean Down on the coast.

Brent Knoll like Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor is a landmark rising out of the Somerset Levels. Beyond it to the west lies the flat land towards Brean Down and the sea.

The National Trust acquired the hilltop in 1979 and the way up is along footpaths from either the churches of East Brent or South Brent. Brent Knoll and the surrounding land was owned by Glastonbury Abbey from Saxon times.

This is such a prominent place that there has long been a tradition that three wooden crosses should be erected on the east rampart to celebrate Easter.

The old cross foundations had deteriorated and the local community applied to English Heritage and the National Trust to relocate the cross foundations in a better, more visible location. This was agreed and so I was asked to supervise the excavation.

View from the east rampart of Brent Knoll towards Crook Peak on the Mendip Hills (also NT).

View from the east rampart of Brent Knoll towards Crook Peak on the Mendip Hills (also NT).

We jumped into Ian’s landrover and he drove me and Laura to the top of the Knoll. A perfect day. We stepped out onto the rampart and the views were spectacular. We each took a spade and dug the holes at the marked locations.

The excavation for the three cross post-holes

The excavation for the three cross post-holes

Strange for just the three of us to be spaced along this exposed earthwork digging the holes for crosses just before Easter. Then I found a fragment of Black Burnished ware bead rim bowl within my post-hole. 2000 years old..contemporary with the crucifixion of the person who changed the world.

At that time, this Iron Age hillfort was probably still occupied…just a few years before the Roman Conquest. Perhaps the first christian arrived with the legions.

My post-hole where I found the fragment of bead-rim bowl.

My post-hole where I found the fragment of bead-rim bowl.

200 years before my visit, the Rev Skinner a renowned Somerset antiquarian and also curate of South Brent church had walked up to the top and wrote this in his diary on July 20th 1812
“after breakfast we took a pick-axe and shovel and climbed the Knoll in order to dig within the entrenchment; in the course of a few minutes Mr Phelps and his brother, my companions, collected a good many pieces of the coarse Roman pottery…I understand that a good many coins have been found here…The ground at present is very unequal within the vallum having been turned up by the quarrymen, who without doubt removed the foundations of the buildings and walls”

The quarried interior of the hillfort. There are only a few islands of stratified archaeology left.

The quarried interior of the hillfort. There are only a few islands of stratified archaeology left.

Within the hillfort, much of the archaeology has been removed in the past because of the extent of the quarrying Rev Skinner described. Quite an ornate late Roman building once stood here. Perhaps a temple. Many Somerset hillforts were re-occupied after the Romans left in the 5th century and there may be evidence for this fortification to hold back the Saxon advance.

We walked around the edge of the hillfort and found the slit trenches dug by Brent’s home guard during WWII. Then we took one last panoramic scan of the beautiful Somerset countryside and bumped down the hill in the landrover.

Glastonbury Tor, Sacred Centre

The National Trust looks after lots of hill tops and they’re all pretty special.. but this week.. I went to a meeting at Glastonbury to talk about conservation repairs to a nearby hill that is so popular it receives 350,000 visitors a year. We were struggling for a description of it and tried to avoid the obvious ‘i’ word.

The steep walk up to the tower from the east side.

The steep walk up to the tower from the east side.

Glastonbury Tor has a very distinctive profile rising from the Somerset Levels with its medieval chapel tower like an obelisk on the top, visible for many miles around.

Approaching the Tor from Shepton Mallet and Pilton

Approaching the Tor from Shepton Mallet and Pilton

We walked to the summit. A perfect day, cold but very clear. There is a small level area there. At one end a toposcope and at the other the tower. Between them a worn trough of erosion. We took away a concrete path in 2008 and planted grass reinforced with a plastic grid. The idea was to improve the visual appearance but the footfall is too heavy. We need to replace the hard surface again to protect the underlying archaeology.

This years erosion between the 15th century tower and the 1983 toposcope. 350,000 visitors this year.  This is where the medieval St Michael's Chapel used to stand from the 8th century, before that there was a Dark Age monastic site, traces of a Roman temple and before that prehistoric flints of various types demonstrate people have valued this spot for many thousands of years.

This years erosion between the 15th century tower and the 1983 toposcope. 350,000 visitors this year. This is where the medieval St Michael’s Chapel used to stand from the 8th century, before that there was a Dark Age monastic site, traces of a Roman temple and before that prehistoric flints of various types demonstrate people have valued this spot for many thousands of years.

The tower from the south side.

The tower from the south side.


Back in 2003, the tower was in a bad way and needed repair. A Royal Navy helicopter from Yeovilton kindly carried the materials up there.
The Royal Navy transport of conservation materials to the summit 2003

The Royal Navy transport of conservation materials to the summit 2003

Scaffolding was erected and loose stonework was rebedded and the tower repointed. Fragments of older medieval carving were found in the structure and the whole tower was drawn and analysed by Jerry the historic buildings specialist. Local archaeologists Nancy and Charles watched while a new path was laid around the tower, recorded buried archaeology and carried out a survey of the site.

Building repairs to the parapet on the top of St Michael's Tower 2003

Building repairs to the parapet on the top of St Michael’s Tower 2003

We looked out towards the Mendips and the city beneath. Wells cathedral was clear picked out by the bright sunlight.

The Tor has been a place of pilgrimage and fascination for thousands of years. Pagan and New Age worshippers are most visible now. Glastonbury Abbey built a chapel here and this was repaired and rebuilt from the 8th-15th centuries. In 1275 there was an earthquake that demolished the nave and in 1538 the last abbot was hung here when Henry VIII closed the Abbey and ordered the demolition of many if its buildings.

Philip Rahtz dug here from 1964-6 and found a Christian monastic site in use during the 5th-6th centuries. This find helped feed speculation that this might be the Isle of Avalon linked to Arthur. In 1190, the graves of Arthur and Guinevere are said to have been discovered at the Abbey.

Rahtz also found Roman material on the summit and it is possible that there was once a Roman temple there. Finds of prehistoric flint also demonstrate that people have been drawn to the hill since the Mesolithic.

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But then.. they were much like us and who wouldn’t want to climb up here and marvel at the beauty of the Somerset landscape fading out in all directions far into the horizon.