Portingbury Hills is an earthworks now partially overgrown, within Beggarshall Coppice, and made up of three components. The origin is not fully established. Iron Age remains have been found, suggesting an Iron Age farmstead. The shape of the ditches is however more suggestive of a much later, medieval, origin. Equally, different components of the earthworks may have different origins.
What can you see today?
The earthworks are located within Beggarshall Coppice, in a clearing by the side of a minor ride, about 300m west from the main open area. They can be found by following National Trust marker post 10 from the main area, past post 11, to post 12 (OS Grid Reference: TL53222040) (see Forest Walk for further directions).
Three components are more or less visible. The first, most westerly component, is a small rectangular mound, about 34m by 22m and 0.9m high, surrounded by a ditch, originally about 10m wide and 0.6m deep. This is connected at the eastern edge to a longer, thinner, less well defined mound, about 40m by 14.5m, surrounded by a ditch 3.5m wide and 0.5m deep.
The third component, less visible through the trees, comprises two ditches 8.0m wide and 0.3m deep, emerging from the eastern corner of the second component and which do not quite meet to form a larger rectangle about 73 m by 93m.
The earthworks are best seen in winter when the vegetation has died down, the trees bare and the ditches filled with water.
An outline of the earthworks is shown in the OS map extract.
Three trial trenches were excavated in 1964 and 1965. The first trench, cut through the mound and ditch, suggested that this probably consisted of an enclosure with a timber strengthened rampart, separated from a U-shaped ditch. Finds dating to the Iron Age included a small flint blade, four pot shards, animal bones, burnt flint and charcoal.
The second trench, across the ditch of the eastern enclosure, showed this was V-shaped. The third trench was in the middle of the central element. No dating evidence was found in these two trenches.
An Iron Age farmstead or a medieval feature?
It has been suggested, on the basis of very limited dating evidence, that the western mound, at least dates back to the Iron Age (700 BC to 43 AD). On account of its size, it would more likely have been a farmstead. It is too small to be a hill fort and is not in a defensible position.
It is however much smaller than most of the excavated Iron Age sites in Essex, although some smaller sites are known. The ditches of these sites are much narrower than those at Portingbury Hills. These more closely resemble a medieval moat.
The larger, eastern enclosure is of similar size to other moated sites in Essex. Indeed, a possible moat of similar size exists in the plain north of Forest Lodge. Conjoined moats are also known, usually with one containing the house and the second either other buildings or the garden. What is unusual at Portingbury Hills is the linking middle earthwork, between the first and third (western and eastern) components.
It is possible that the earthworks predate the medieval period and were then adapted and enlarged in the medieval period. The location within Beggarshall Coppice may suggest it pre-dates the coppice, or, alternatively, that it was the location of a residence for one of the Forest officials.
Hills or Rings?
The OS map names the earthworks as “Portingbury Hills”, although the alternative “Portingbury Rings” is sometimes used.
A scheduled ancient monument
Portingbury Hills is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SM 98).
Do you want to see an authenticated local Iron Age fort?
Wallbury is a much larger earthworks with lying about 5km south of Hatfield Forest, on the outskirts of Little Hallingbury, on a site overlooking the eastern bank of the River Stort.
It has a double rampart and is approximately oval in shape, occupying 16 hectares, and measuring about 500 by 500m (OS Grid Reference: TL49251780).
The earthworks are considered to be a hillfort dating from the Middle Iron Age, taking advantage of the lie of the land to provide a defensible position.