Blanche Parry

Forts tell tales of past farmers and fighters

September is a lovely month for exploring one of our Iron Age Hillforts. We are lucky to have 53 plus in, and around, Herefordshire for they needed many people to build them. Though not all were in use at the same time, they do show there were more people living here when the Romans arrived in 43 AD than at the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Around 97-98 AD the Roman writer Tacitus wrote in his book 'Agricola' that in Britain: 'The soil...is fertile. Crops are slow to ripen, but quick to grow - both facts due to the same cause, the extreme moistness of land and sky.' Climate changes meant more food and so more people survived to start families of their own. Conditions were just right to grow wheat and barley and Herefordshire did both. Most farmland we see today has been farmed since the Iron Age. At Croft Ambrey, Dr. Stan Stanford discovered querns for grinding grain, sickles and burnt wheat, all showing grain production. Similar evidence has been found at other hillforts such as Credenhill, our largest covering more than 20 hectares.

Iron Age farmers knew their soil – they had to because crop failure meant starvation! Finding weaving equipment for clothes shows the people of both Croft Ambrey and Sutton Walls kept sheep in surrounding farmland. Bones show Croft Ambrey had more pigs who forgaged in the woods, while Sutton Walls had more cattle, suitable for their richer pasture. Cattle were wealth then, so rustling was common. Hillforts, although built on the highest land, still had to be defended by huge ramparts and deep ditches. Entrances were weak points so they were especially strengthened with extra, or inturned, ramparts – so enemies had to negotiate a 'corridor' surmounted by defenders hurling stones and spears at them.

Some hillforts were like towns. In low sunlight 'platforms' for snug wooden houses can be seen at Midsummer Hill suggesting dense occupation at times. Others, though, seem to have been built for war, like Wapley with extra ramparts. The building took a massive amount of time so someone had to organise it all, with builders having a support team supplying food. Few hillforts had an internal water system. Herefordshire Beacon, Little Doward and Wapley now have wells. Credenhill, and Midsummer Hill have springs, and the huge Titterstone Clee, which towers over Ludlow, did have a spring before quarrying took place. This means hillforts were not built to withstand sieges like Medieval castles. Iron Age warfare was short, sharp skirmishes.

So, if you visit a hillfort, do think about the people who struggled to build it, without modern equipment, because it was necessary. Now peaceful places, we can enjoy the glorious views of their strategic locations. Credenhill has a carpark and easy–to–follow footpaths. Other hillforts are on the internet. See also blancheparry.com and my book, with Chris Musson's wonderful photographs, 'Herefordshire Past and Present, An Aerial View' (published Logaston, £14.95) has a chapter on the Iron Age.

©Ruth E. Richardson 2012

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