Forts in the South West
Forts are places of security, places to defend and to protect. Remains of strongholds can be seen across the countryside in the South West, many of which are cared for by the National Trust. All would have faced attack and danger, though these dramatic events are now often lost in time, their stories never written down. National Trust Archaeologist, Martin Papworth, captures some of the lost stories of the defences across the South West.
The National Trust looks after over 50 prehistoric forts in the South West. They are high places, in strategic positions with often uninterrupted views out to the wider landscape. You can walk along the ramparts and imagine the hundreds of people working together on these hills to create the earthworks of chalk and stone, digging deep into the bedrock with flimsy tools of bone, iron and wood.
At Crickley Hill, one of the earliest battles discovered took place; many flint arrowheads were found embedded into the banks and ditches of the 5500 year old earthwork enclosure still visible on the hill top. The same hill was fortified in the Iron Age, 3000 years later. On two occasions the defences were burnt and its enclosed village abandoned.
Hillforts such as Badbury Rings, Eggardon Hill, Pilsdon Pen and even the mighty Hambledon Hill all fell to the soldiers from across the sea. Hod Hill has a well-preserved Roman fort built into one corner of the hillfort; evidence of the Roman conquest and suppression of this community. Roman artillery spear heads were found embedded in the footings of round houses which, along with native sling stone pebbles, show evidence of the attack and defence of the fort.
Defences through time
We have always needed defences. There is the 1540s stone fort, built for Henry VIII, which still lies at the core of Brownsea Castle. One of Lord Palmerson’s follies, the 1870s gun battery at Brean Down, is an example of a chain of forts built to ward of a French invasion that never materialised. All along the coast and inland are the 1940s pill boxes and gun emplacements like those along Studland Beach and across the heath in Purbeck. These concrete and brick structures have often survived remarkably intact, complete with fixtures and fittings (and sometimes graffiti). The narrow machine gun slits face towards an enemy that never reached them.
The natural chalk mound of Corfe in Purbeck has long been a strategic position; the Normans knew that and created a castle motte there. Montacute (meaning steep hill in Norman) and Dunster both date from this time too. These strongholds were first built during the reign of William the Conqueror: later, each developed differently through time.
Montacute was unsuccessfully stormed by the Saxons in the 11th century and once peace was established, in the 12th century, its Norman lord gave the land to Montacute Priory. The monks had no need for the castle and used the hill top as a chapel. Only an 18th century prospect tower remains on the summit now.
Corfe in the 12th century was the scene of a siege by King Stephen’s men against supporters of the Empress Matilda. They built a ring and bailey siege-works on the west side of the castle which can still be visited. Corfe Castle proved impregnable on that occasion, but Corfe’s capture during the English Civil War was its death knell as a stronghold. The parliamentary soldiers undermined the walls and turrets, set gunpowder charges and blew it to bits, creating the picturesque ruin we see today.
Like Corfe, Dunster also supported the King but was allowed to live on as a mansion. It didn’t escape completely; its curtain walls and turrets were taken away to make sure it could not be defended again. Dunster was redeveloped into a wealthy family’s mansion house and much of the medieval castle is hidden or lost while Corfe’s medieval strength can still be appreciated even in its ruined state.