In the Footsteps of the Danes

In 858AD Hubba the Dane invaded England to be defeated by the Saxons at the Battle of Arx Cynuit. Recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Asser, biographer of King Alfred the Great, the site of the battle it is thought took place at Countisbury, a tiny clifftop community on Exmoor. Whether true or fanciful, a walk to Wind Hill hillfort* is well worth the effort. It is a place where it is possible to experience all the elements that Exmoor offers in one glorious 360 degree panoramic view.

Countisbury copyright

All the best English country walks should start and end at a pub and there are plenty of options to choose on this one. Mine started from the Blue Ball Inn at Countisbury which is as welcoming now as it was when I first crossed its threshold fifty years earlier.

Blue Ball (2) copyright

Turning left from the pub, walk down the road for a few yards before entering a gate to National Trust land, also on the left and the starting point of several extensive walks. Our destination is a short walk and is the high point close to the road. The path to the fort is well defined and grass covered; it merges with a field access track that leads gently uphill to its entrance. The second photograph below is taken from the fort: the pub is the white building.Wind Hill (9) copyrightWind Hill (5) copyright

The fort is a rare example of a promontory fort where the natural landscape has been adapted to create the defences. The coastal cliffs which form its northern defence are the highest in England rising to over 300 metres, to the west and south the East Lyn River has cut a deep gorge. Where necessary double ramparts were built to defend the weaker areas: at the entrance they still rise, after two thousand years or more, to an impressive thirteen metres.

Wind Hill (10) copyrightWind Hill (2) copyright

Although it is possible to make Wind Hill part of a longer walk I prefer not to do this. It is rare to meet anyone else here and to be able to explore the 85 acre site in splendid isolation gives a real feel of the place. Just spend time enjoying the silence,  lying down with your back propped against the ramparts listening to the wind and sheep calling.  As mentioned earlier, the views from the fort are magnificent: heather moorland, ancient woodland, hills, villages, sea, cliffs, the distant coast of Wales as well as wild creatures, ranging from the iconic red deer to seabirds and butterflies.

Wind Hill (8) copyright

 

* also known as Countisbury Castle

 

 

Links:

Historic England

The Megalithic Portal

Exmoor National Park

The Blue Ball Inn

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An Ancient Craft – Flint Knapping

The very earliest tools known to man were made of flint or antler and in the Chiltern Hills, where I was brought up and lived for most of my life, it wasn’t that unusual to dig up stone scrapers or even an occasional arrowhead, perhaps 4000 years old or more.  One scraper that I found many years ago is shaped perfectly to fit between the thumb and forefinger and still has an edge so sharp that it cuts card. 

To create these tools, the flints had to be chiselled or ‘knapped’, a technique that requires hitting the stone at an oblique angle with another hard object – such as another stone – to make it flake.  With the coming of the Iron Age, the need for stone tools was no longer required but the skill did not die out and even today there is a requirement for the finished material.

Flint, a type of quartz, is extremely hard and durable and, being found in quantity in the chalk hills of the Chilterns, was the natural material for housing there.  All types of properties used it from the humblest cottage to larger homes and churches.

One of the finest flint built villages can be found at Turville.  If the two photos below look familiar this is because they feature in the comedy television series, The Vicar of Dibley with actress Dawn French, playing the part of the Revd. Geraldine Grainger.  The village also featured in the 1998 film Goodnight Mr Tom, starring John Thaw.  The church dates back to the twelfth century.

 

In the hills of the Cotswolds, the honey coloured limestone is the premier building material for almost everything but is especially well-known  for its use in the dry stone field walls and village houses.  At Stow-on-the-Wold in the centre of the region is the building below, once the office of the local brewery.  It is rare to find flint used in the area and, as can be seen, it has been used decoratively, something that is not found to my knowledge in the Chilterns.

Although all of these images show properties that date back at least 150 years or more, flint continues to be occasionally used in modern housing and was even used as embankment supports on the M40 motorway when it was widened in the Chilterns a few years ago.  As found throughout the centuries, when digging through the chalk, it proves to be the cheapest and most readily sourced building stone.

To find out more about flint knapping or to book a course to learn the art visit www.flintknapping.co.uk .  It is worth looking at just to hear the magical sound of primitive flutes made from elder  tree stems.

 
 
 

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A Roman Villa in the Cotswolds

These days the Cotswolds, with its rolling landscape, dry stone walls and picture postcard villages, give the impression of being sleepy and sparsely populated, basking (or some may say smug) in its glory of being one of the jewels of the British countryside. But this is not so. For it is a working landscape with its people going about their daily business, admittedly often in an unhurried way – for our narrow lanes and lack of motorways limit the speed that one can travel. And often our straightest and, therefore, easiest routes have not been made in recent years but by Roman settlers, attracted to this region some two thousand years ago, for much the same reasons as we are now.
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Ryknild Street, Fosse Way, Akeman Street, Ermin Way – just their very names conjure up images of Roman legions marching long distances through the country – linked their towns and cities with Corinium, now our modern Cirencester, the centre of both their commerce and entertainment (it still has the remains of a Roman ampitheatre that held over 8000 people). And, as time passed, they settled in more remote parts of the Cotswolds too: one such place is the villa built at North Leigh, near Witney. The track that leads you to the remains is as straight as any other Roman road but was used solely by servants and traders, the owners and visitors arriving by a more grand approach no longer visible.

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Now cared for the nation by English Heritage, admission is free and the site is open all year. Strategically placed notice boards explain the layout of the 60+ rooms and of its history but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size of area which seems at odds with its present day position – somehow, you expect a small cottage sized building. In fact, the first thing I noticed was the irrepressible She-dog who had run on ahead, in order I imagine, to steal the limelight, as usual!
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One of the greatest pleasures of exploring the remains is that they are relatively unknown and so are rarely visited. I explored for over an hour and saw no-one – just perfect! The photos below show the north west range and also the south east range. Beneath the floor of the latter even earlier remains of a hearth were found , dating back to the Iron Age, circa BC100.
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Although the site was known as early as 1783 it was not until the early 1800’s that the ruins were excavated, the first plan published in 1823. Further excavations took place in 1908.
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The remains of the under floor heating can be clearly seen in the photographs below. It is strange how such an ‘advanced’ civilisation could then be plunged into the relatively primitive period of the Dark Ages after the Romans left.
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In amongst the stonework of the walls pieces of tile protrude. No matter how carefully I looked I saw no signs of pottery.
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The’jewel in the crown’ of the villa at North Leigh are the mosaic floors. Several were discovered and lifted, presumably to a museum although I do not know which. However, the floor of the dining room, discovered in 1816, in the south west wing has been preserved in situ and is protected from the elements by a modern building. The mosaics were laid by craftsmen from Corinium in the fashionable geometric style of the time.
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The dining room, again with underfloor heating, had a vaulted roof supported by columns, parts of which can be seen against the back wall of the shelter.
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Who were the people that lived here and why was the villa suddenly deserted in the fifth century when it was so obviously thriving a century earlier? It is probable that they were farming here so perhaps there was a change in climatic conditions or with the water supply. Whatever the reason, it is now the most perfect spot to sit and ponder in total peace and quiet.
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