You can get a hair-raising feeling of closeness to the past as you stand on the airy ramparts of Mam Tor, the 2,000-year-old hillfort that dominates the head of the Hope Valley in the Peak District.
Here is our guide on the history of British hillforts, looking at why these impressive structures were built and the best hillforts to visit in the UK
As you look east down the broad, tree-lined valley and north to the frowning heights of Kinder Scout, you are experiencing the same sense of dominance of the landscape as our ancestors who built the fort must have felt. This is especially true on a winter’s morning when mist fills the valleys and the earthworks are more sharply defined now the cloaking vegetation has died back.
Mam Tor is one of our most impressive hillforts, dating from the late Bronze to early Iron Age. Its embankments were built to abut onto the collapsed ‘shivering’ east face, thought to have formed part of the ancient defences.
Hillforts are little understood by most people, perhaps due to the militaristic name that the Victorians gave them. In fact, Mam Tor and many others seem to have been peaceful summer shielings, used by Celtic tribes to watch over their flocks. They would probably have been abandoned during winter months. But in others, such as Maiden Castle in Dorset and Danebury in Hampshire, there is evidence of an Asterix-style resistance to the Roman invaders.
How many hillforts are there in Britain?
Oxford University has published an online atlas of hillforts that doubles the number thought to exist. It has identified 4,147 hillforts in Britain and Ireland, where formerly the number was thought to be 2,000. There are 1,694 in Scotland; 1,224 in England (271 of which are in Northumberland); and 535 in Wales.
Aerial image of Maiden Castle, an Iron Age hill fort, Winterborne Monkton, near Dorchester, Dorset/Credit: Getty
Why were hillforts built and who built them?
So how and why were these enigmatic structures built? The construction of a hillfort was a massive engineering and logistical task. It has been estimated it would take 150 men about four months to construct an eight-acre enclosure with a single bank and ditch, using nothing more than antler picks, wooden spades and woven baskets to transport the soil.
The method of construction is illustrated at Ladle Hill, an unfinished hillfort near Newbury, Berkshire. It isn’t known why it was abandoned but archaeologists are grateful, as it reveals how hillforts were built. It appears that gangs of workers were used to deepen and widen an initial encircling shallow ditch in sections.
Wooden palisades were often constructed first. Around these, embankments and gateways – often with intricate interlocking entrances such as those at Maiden Castle – were designed to give the defenders maximum advantage against potential attackers. Archaeologists still argue about the purpose of hillforts. They seem to be most common in disputed areas, such as the Welsh Marches and Northumberland, where in the College Valley, every hilltop seems to be crowned by a hillfort, each visible from its neighbour. This would support one theory – that they were the Iron Age equivalent of a nuclear deterrent, warning off opposing tribes or potential invaders.
When did hillforts stop being used?
When Roman commander Vespasian (later emperor) was sent to ‘subdue’ southern Britain in AD43, he attacked a string of about 20 hillforts. The Celts’ main weapon of defence appears to have been simple slingshots and spears. At Danebury, a collection of more than 10,000 slingshot stones were discovered and the skeletons of severely injured bodies have been found buried in ditches there and at Maiden Castle. One, in the Dorchester museum, has a Roman ballista bolt embedded in its backbone.
Many hillforts have hut circles in their interior, such as at Danebury, Tre’r Ceiri on the Llŷn Peninsula and Croft Ambrey in Herefordshire. The circular thatched huts were simple one-roomed homes made of wattle and daub. They would have been inhabited by people much like us, grumbling about their neighbours and the weather, or arguing over a missing sheep or pig. An open hearth stood at the centre of the hut; beds were made of straw covered in animal skin.
Iron Age economies were essentially pastoral, with livestock moved to the uplands in summer and down to the lowlands in winter for more sheltered grazing. Crops of emmer and spelt wheat, barley, rye and oats were grown in small, enclosed fields in the lowlands, and evidence has been found of storage pits for these grains in some hillforts.
The Roman Invasion signalled the beginning of the end for hillforts, although some, such as Hod Hill and Maiden Castle, were reused by the invaders as sites for forts or temples. Among the many things the Romans did for us was to construct roads, towns and an urban culture, and those Iron Age castles in the air were gradually abandoned to become the evocative, lonely monuments they are today.
As archaeologist James Forde-Johnson wrote in 1976: “Of all the earthworks that are such a notable feature of the landscape in England and Wales, few are more prominent or more striking than the hillforts built during the centuries before the Roman conquest.”
Britain’s best hillforts to visit
British Camp, Malvern Hills
British Camp, the Malvern Hills
A beautifully constructed, multi-banked hillfort, which contours around the Herefordshire Beacon at the southern end of the rolling Malvern Hills. Built in the second century AD, its scale is awesome, enclosing an area of 44 acres. It was later topped by a Norman motte-and-bailey castle mound known as The Citadel. Seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn called the view from the hill “one of the godliest vistas in England”
One of the most daunting hillforts of the Brigantes, the Celtic tribe that once controlled much of northern England. Their leader Venutius rebelled twice against the Romans before his defeat in 69AD; who knows – perhaps this was the scene of his last stand.
At 723m, the exposed summit of Ingleborough would have been a bleak place in bad weather ©Getty
The 15-acre fort tops one of Yorkshire’s most popular summits – one of the famous Three Peaks – with views as far as the Lakeland hills and Morecambe Bay.
Tre’r Ceiri, Llŷn Peninsula
The ruins of Tre’r Ceiri stand at more than 400m, on the lefthand peak – part of Yr Eifl ©GettySome of the drystone walls of Tre’r Ceiri – ‘The Town of the Giants’ – on the beautiful Llŷn peninsula still stand an impressive 15 feet high. The 150 hut circles within the ramparts could have housed up to 400 people. There are stunning views towards the Snowdonia hills. museum.wales
Mam Tor, Derbyshire
A cloud inversion in the Hope Valley ©Getty
One of the largest (15 acres) and highest (1,695ft) hill forts in Britain, Mam Tor – or Shivering Mountain – commands the length the sylvan Hope Valley, with the brooding plateau of Kinder Scout to the north. One of the fabled’ Wonders of the Peak’, Mam Tor dates to the late Bronze Age.
Maiden Castle, Dorset
The deep ditches and ramparts around Maiden Castle were dug by hand ©Getty
Surely the grandmother of all British hillforts, Maiden Castle, overlooking Dorchester, is certainly one of the biggest (it covers 47 acres), best-known and most impressive. Evidence has been found of an attack by the Romans, who later built a temple at its heart. One of the largest (15 acres) and highest (1,695ft) hill forts in Britain, Mam Tor – or Shivering Mountain – commands the length the sylvan Hope Valley, with the brooding plateau of Kinder Scout to the north. One of the fabled’ Wonders of the Peak’, Mam Tor dates to the late Bronze Age.
The fort slowly expanded over the centuries to become one of the largest in Europe, with space for dozens of roundhouses. The inner rampart of the fort would once have been topped with a stockade. english-heritage.org.uk
Mither Tap, Aberdeenshire
The hillfort at Mither Tap would have dminated the surrounding landscape © Alamy“They create a desolation, and they call it peace.” So said Caledonian chieftain Calgacus before the fateful final battle of Mons Graupius with the Romans in AD 84, according to Roman historian Tacitus. The battle is thought to have been fought on the slopes of Mither Tap, the hillfort-topped easternmost summit of the five-mile Bennachie ridge.
The hillfort at Danebury was built around 2,500 years ago ©Alamy
High on a wooded chalk knoll near Andover, this is probably the most thoroughly examined hillfort in Britain. Archaeologists have pored over it and its environs for more than 50 years and found extensive field systems covering the surrounding landscape. Several hundred people are thought to have lived in it for more than 400 years, from around 550 BC. hants.gov.uk
Hambledon and Hod Hills, Dorset
The ramparts at Hambledon Hill were dug using picks made of red deer antlers ©Getty
Hambledon is a magnificent multi-banked hillfort which winds sinuously around a chalk outlier overlooking Blackmoor Vale. It was built almost 5,000 years ago, using antler picks, and abandoned around 300BC. Its southern neighbour Hod Hill is only about half its age, and includes the only known example of a Roman fort superimposed on a native hillfort.nationaltrust.org.uk
Cadbury Castle, Somerset
There is evidence of a great hall at Cadbury Castle – which some believe may have been King Arthur’s Camelot ©Alamy
The fabled site of King Arthur’s Camelot, Cadbury Castle is a late Bronze and Iron Age hillfort five miles north east of Yeovil. Its four terraced earthwork banks and ditches stand 500 feet above the low-lying Somerset Levels, and have revealed evidence of vigorous resistance to the Roman invasion of AD 43.
Caer Caradoc, Shropshire
The hillfort of Caer Caradoc occupies a spectacular spot near Church Stretton ©Getty
The legendary site of the Celtic leader Caractacus’s last stand against the invading Romans, Caer Caradoc dominates the beautiful Church Stretton valley in the heart of the Shropshire Hills. This six-acre hillfort encloses a spur of the 1,506-foot, volcanic crag-rimmed summit, where a shallow cave is said to have given Caractacus shelter.
How to find hillforts in your local area
Seek out your local hillfort to share the feeling that people millennia ago surely experienced – that they were monarchs of all they surveyed. Visit: hillforts.arch.ox.ac.uk