The main A303 road past Stonehenge carries tourists onward to the beautiful South West of England and the popular holiday counties of Devon and Cornwall. Popular but very, very busy! Visitors looking for somewhere more peaceful should turn left onto the A350 and drive into the beautiful county of Dorset.

I spent many summer holidays here when I was younger, first in Bridport and later in Wareham and Poole. It is a county of quiet and attractive old villages, fine walking country, a beautiful coastline, many historic and prehistoric sites and a unique geology.

For example, the coastline from Lyme Regis in the West to Kimmeridge in the East is now known as the Jurassic Coast. Many fossils from ammonites to complete skeletons of ichthyosaurs have been found in the crumbling cliffs of Blue Lias and Kimmeridge clay.

Halfway along the coast, the ridge of pebbles and shingle known as Chesil Beach or Chesil Bank runs for 29 kilometres from Abbotsbury to the ‘almost island’ of  Portland Bill, home to vast limestone quarries. The bank is up to 14 metres high and the pebbles are naturally graded by the flow of the ocean current from small stones in the west to larger pebbles at Portland. It is said that smugglers landing on the beach in the past could tell their position by the size of the stones under their feet. The bank stands between the sea on one side and the brackish Fleet Lagoon on the other, and visitors with stamina and strong feet and legs can walk along the pebbles from one end to the other.

Map of Chesil Beach
Chesil Beach from Portland Bill

Inland, the rolling hills of Dorset provided an ideal home for prehistoric man, and many hillforts can still be seen and visited. These include Eggardon Hill, Hambledon Hill, Hod Hill, Pilsdon Pen and Badbury Rings.

Hambledon Hill, Dorset
Badbury Rings, Dorset
Inside Badbury Rings, Dorset

One of the most impressive and largest hillforts is Maiden Castle, still a prominent feature in the landscape south of the county town of Dorchester. Archaeologists know that the site was in use from as early as 3,500 BC and the first hillfort was built during the Early Iron Age in the first century BC. As big as 50 football pitches, the high ramparts of Maiden Castle stretch across a saddle-backed hilltop 914 metres long and would have presented a formidable obstacle to any enemies.

Ramparts of Maiden Castle, Dorset

Even for welcome visitors, access to the fort would not have been easy. The original entrances were probably just narrow openings in the ramparts, but later both the eastern and the western gateways were developed into a system of narrow, complex passageways. This meant that visitors could be watched and stopped at any point. Archaeologists believe that the western entrance eventually became a winding and confusing corridor up to 200 metres long.

West gate and ramparts at Maiden Castle

At the eastern entrance, over 20,000 sling-stones have been discovered. These were small round pebbles brought from the Chesil Beach and stored in large pits ready to be thrown or slung at attackers.

At first, the fort was home to a small, self-sufficient community, but in the following 400 years it became the pre-eminent settlement in southern Dorset. At the height of its occupation, the fort was densely populated and various finds show that activities such as textile production and metalworking were taking place here.

Reconstruction of the late Iron Age hillfort at Maiden Castle.   © Historic England

In the middle Iron Age, the layout of the interior was reorganised. Houses which had once been randomly arranged were now built in regimented rows, with traffic guided along roads. This suggests that some control existed over social life within the fort. Later in the Iron Age, this organised system broke down, and the focus of the settlement became once again the eastern end of the hillfort. At this time, there was increasing trade with the continent, and specialised industries such as metal-working were becoming very important.

Maiden Castle was still occupied at the time of the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43. In the 1930s, excavations by the famous British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler uncovered an extensive late Iron Age cemetery of more than 52 burials. Some of the male skeletons displayed horrific injuries and Wheeler thought this was evidence for a Roman attack on the hillfort.

Two skeletons found during Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations          © Society of Antiquaries of London

However, more recent research has shown that only a few of the individuals had actually died of violent injuries. Moreover, they had been carefully buried with grave goods – not only personal ornaments such as beads, brooches and rings, but also pottery and joints of meat. This does not suggest hastily dug graves after a single battle, but a cemetery used to bury soldiers and others over a period of time. It is of course possible that the battle-scarred warriors may have been injured defending Maiden Castle from the Romans, but it is equally likely that they had been involved in local skirmishes.

Whatever the truth may be, within decades of the Roman invasion the hillfort was abandoned and the Romans established the town of Dorchester (Durnovaria) to the north-east as the regional capital of the Durotriges tribe. Today, the only remains still visible within the hillfort are the foundations of a Romano-British temple, built at the end of the 3rd century AD.

Foundations of the Roman temple at Maiden Castle

Maiden Castle is 2.5 kilometres south west of Dorchester and can be reached by car or by cycling or walking from the centre of Dorchester along Maiden Castle Road. Entry is free during daylight hours.

Visitors to Dorset will find many other places of interest for all the family, without the crowds!

Maiden Castle is maintained by English Heritage and the brief description here is based partly on information from their website.

You can find out more at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/maiden-castle/history/ and there is also a very lengthy and detailed article on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maiden_Castle,_Dorset

Alun Harvey

 

 

 

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