We had only a short way to walk to our second site of the day. We were only going to climb a hill, which sounds simple enough, but there can be few places where fact, fiction, folklore and otherworldly dreams are more intricately interwoven than the hill known as Cadbury Castle. Setting our feet to its path would transport us back through thousands of years of history and archaeology and into another world… of myth and legend, where King Arthur held the land.
The hill towers above the little church we had just visited, dominating the landscape in both scale and presence. The trees on its slopes are relatively young compared to the earthwork upon which they now grow and serve to veil much of the magnificence of the structure. Without the information board and a sign for ‘Castle Lane’, you might be completely unaware of where you were going as you enter the wormhole that leads through the encircling guardian trees.
The green lane leads steadily upwards, opening occasionally to give a glimpse of a patchwork landscape of fields and apple orchards, sheltered by Sigwells, the ridge that embraces Cadbury and which holds many archaeological clues to the history of the area. You climb to five hundred feet above sea level and then the landscape suddenly makes sense as you enter the eighteen-acre expanse of the summit and see the panorama unfold beneath and around you. There is no medieval castle at Cadbury, no turrets, no pennants fly… the hill itself is the castle, sculpted from the earth and surrounded by ramparts, embankments and a ditch three quarters of a mile long.
Five and a half thousand years ago, our Neolithic ancestors occupied the hill, leaving behind them sherds of pottery, flint tools and the bones that tells us when they lived there. The advent of metalworking in the Bronze Age changed the way we lived. Ovens remain from that period, as well as evidence that metal was worked on the site. And three thousand years ago, a bronze shield was buried, for some reason, two hundred years after it had first been made. I wondered about that; it would have been a prized possession, being not only sturdy but ornate. Perhaps it was passed from father to son and buried when the last male of the line died? Or was it an offering to the gods?
The Iron Age occupants of the hill constructed enclosures, fortifications and rectangular timber buildings which were later replaced by the roundhouses we more commonly picture from that time. Temples and shrines were added, one upon the other, as a more complex society came into being. These were people of the La Tène culture… the Celtic culture that left us so many artefacts of great beauty and so many clues to how they lived.
Cadbury was further fortified around 100BC and it became a multivallate fort, with many-layered defences surrounding the hill. In AD43, the hillfort was attacked and, a few years later, both weapons and flame were used against it. The timing suggests that it may have been a place of defence against the invaders from Rome, when the Durotriges and Dobunni made their stand against Vespasian’s second Augusta Legion. It would appear that the tribes finally lost the battle for Cadbury, though, as the next thing to appear on the hill was Roman military barracks, complete with Roman temple and they stayed there for the next few hundred years. And this is where it gets really interesting, and where fact, folklore and legend meet.
Unusually, after the departure of the Romans, the hillfort was reoccupied for about a hundred years, starting in 470 AD. Archaeologists found the Great Hall of a Brythonic leader, a stronghold where he would have lived with his family, horses and warriors. The inner defences had been reinstated and reinforced to double the size of any known fortress of this period. Pottery from the Eastern Mediterranean shows the occupants had wide trade links. And local legends have named the plateau King Arthur’s Palace for at least five hundred years…