The history of Pulpit Hill Iron Age Hill Fort

Tucked away in tranquil woodland on the edge of the Chiltern escarpment, you may stumble upon the small Iron Age hill fort at Pulpit Hill, which once formed part of a series of defended sites established along the Chiltern ridge during the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age. The monument is well preserved, retaining the complete circuit of defences and the entrance.

Pulpit Hill from below
Pulpit Hill from below
Pulpit Hill from below

Atmospheric Location

The hillfort’s isolated location helps to create the uniquely evocative atmosphere of a place forgotten by time. The expanse of dense and scattered woodland and scrub flanking Pulpit Hill provides an abundance of cover for both breeding and overwintering birds. Further down slope yew, ash, whitebeam and wild cherry occur among the beeches, accompanied by a greater variety of shrubs including blackthorn, hawthorn and buckthorn. These lower slopes are also home to a large number of juniper trees (a species which has been declining for at least 50 years).

Juniper at Pulpit Hill
Juniper at Pulpit Hill
Juniper at Pulpit Hill

Pulpit Hill is a small ‘multivallate’ hillfort. These are fortified enclosures of varying shape, generally between one and five hectares in size, which are located on hilltops. The enclosure is bordered by two lines of closely set earthworks, consisting of ditches and ramparts, which over time have become gentle but distinct undulations.

Pulpit Hill Iron Age hill fort
The location of Pulpit Hill Iron Age hill fort
Pulpit Hill Iron Age hill fort

The hillfort is located on a prominent position at the highest point on the north western end of Pulpit Hill: a wooded spur of the Chiltern Hills. Without the modern cover of woodland, this commanding position would have provided wide views over the Vale of Aylesbury to the north, while at the same time it was made inaccessible by the steep slopes on all but the south eastern side. This high location made the site easier to defend and it might also demonstrate the status of its former inhabitants.

The centre of the Iron Age enclosure at Pulpit Hill
Pulpit Hill Iron Age Hillfort
The centre of the Iron Age enclosure at Pulpit Hill

Inside the Fort

The interior of the enclosure forms a rectangle measuring around 90m northwest to southeast and 100m northeast to southwest. The northwest and southwest sides are defended by an artificial scarp, some 10m in width and between 1.5m and 2.5m in height. A shallow depression along the foot of the scarp indicates the line of a largely buried ditch, which would have further enhanced the defences provided by the hillfort’s location on a natural spur. The rampart is more pronounced on the other two sides of the hillfort, where the bank is some 6m in width and between 0.5m and 1m high, and the ditch averages 8m across and 1.5m deep. A second, outer bank, some 4m in width and 0.8m high, flanks the inner defences on these sides, accompanied by an outer ditch, about 0.5m in width and 0.7m deep.

Ramparts of Iron Age enclosure at Pulpit Hill
Ramparts of Iron Age enclosure at Pulpit Hill
Ramparts of Iron Age enclosure at Pulpit Hill

The hillfort can be approached over level ground on the south eastern side, where double ramparts, which were probably surmounted by timber palisades, were designed to compensate for the lack of natural obstacles. The entrance lies near the centre of this side of the fort, some 20m from the south of the eastern corner.

Iron Age ramparts at Pulpit Hill
Iron Age ramparts at Pulpit Hill
Iron Age ramparts at Pulpit Hill

Archaeological Excavations

A trench was excavated about half way across the interior in 1855, revealing occupation debris in the form of coarse-ware pottery sherds, animal bones, oyster shells and a boar's tusk. Fragments of Early Iron Age pottery have been found in the area more recently, as well as fragments of daub, a socketed iron spearhead, a knife blade (probably Roman) and numerous worked flints which suggest earlier, Neolithic or Bronze Age, activity on the spur.

Raparts on Iron Age enclosure at Pulpit Hill
Raparts on Iron Age enclosure at Pulpit Hill
Raparts on Iron Age enclosure at Pulpit Hill

How was the fort used?

The fort, though in a commanding location, was probably not primarily used as a fortress in times of war. It is more likely to have been a centre for storing agricultural produce or to enclose animals from farms in the district (perhaps as protection from cattle raids), as well as being a defensible site if and when the need arose. There is also some evidence that hillforts were used for ritual activities, possibly for religious purposes connected with agriculture..

The origin of the name ‘Pulpit Hill’ and ‘Pulpit Wood’ are unknown, but they are probably 19th century in origin.

Take a short walk to the fort: