In the Iron Age world where might was right, owning a hillfort as huge as Maiden Castle was a massive status symbol. With multiple ramparts and ditches rippling to the top of a prominent hill, Maiden Castle protected a tribe’s assets – livestock, crops and people – while also asserting its dominance over the farming landscape as far as the eye could see from the summit and beyond.
Nowadays, that view includes Dorchester and its famous modern suburb Poundbury, built on land owned by – and according to the wishes of – the Duke of Cornwall, aka the Prince of Wales.
Maiden Castle was not always this grand, however, having begun life as a stock enclosure about 6,000 years ago. The ‘castle’ itself was begun in about 600BC but tripled in size 150 years later to encompass almost 50 acres. The local tribe, the Durotriges, must have been doing very well.
Some archeologists have claimed it was besieged and destroyed by the Romans in the first century AD, but there’s little evidence for this – though the site may have held a Roman garrison. There are even the remains of a Roman temple within the hillfort dating from the late fourth century, just when the last legions were leaving Britain.
Visiting today can be a strange and eerie experience as you wander the maze of ramparts and ditches to arrives at the inner, empty grassy plateau where only skylarks and rabbits now live.
Without the benefit of aerial photographs, it can be hard to grasp the scale and strategic positioning of the various ramparts. The weathered information boards reveal how a large settlement might have been contained here. But it’s much more fun to simply allow your imagination to populate this rather desolate place.
The sheer bewildering scale
only serves to highlight just what an incredible feat of precision pre-industrial engineering Maiden Castle was. Even today, some of the ramparts rear up 6m (20ft). With wooden palisades atop each rampart, backed up by heavily armed defenders, it’s little wonder that there is no evidence the castle was ever stormed.
Maiden Castle is an easy two-mile walk from Dorchester. From the town centre, take Weymouth Avenue (a Roman road) south until your reach Maumbury Rings – a Neolithic earthwork within the town that was later adapted by the Romans as an amphitheatre. It’s now a public park and the perfect appetiser
for the castle ahead.
Head south-west along Maiden Castle Road. This lane takes you over the A35, and eventually on to well signposted footpaths that lead up through the outer ramparts and back 2,500 years.
HOW TO GET THERE
Dorchester is served by two mainline railway stations.
FIND OUT MORE
0870 333 1181
Dorset County Museum
High West Street
See archeological finds from the site. Adults £6.50, children £3.
The Westwood House
29 High West Street