Ravensburgh Castle

RAVENSBURGH CASTLE Hill Fort lies on a spur of the Barton Hills, one mile South West of Hexton, and occupies the West half of a plateau surrounded by deep coombes on every side but the North West.

Ravensburgh Castle

Looking South towards Ravensburgh Castle

This fine example of a hill fort compares favourably with many of those to be found in counties notable for their earthworks, such as Sussex or Dorset. The work consists of a large, nearly oval enclosure, which covers 16¼ acres, and with its defences, 22 acres, the major axis lying North and South. It is protected on the East side by a single rampart, about 18 ft. above the external ground, the ditch and counterscarp bank having been nearly levelled. The width of the ditch, from crest to crest is 55 ft. On the South side is a single rampart, with a ditch and counterscarp bank, beyond which the steep hillside forms a natural glacis. The height of the inner rampart is from 16 ft. to 18 ft., and of the counterscarp, from 3 ft. to 7 ft. above the ditch and the width of ditch, from crest to crest is 40-60 ft. The defences of the West side are made stronger by a second outer rampart and ditch, with the steep hillside as a glacis. The height of the inner rampart above the inner ditch is 18 ft., and above the outer ditch is 25 ft.; the height of middle rampart above outer ditch is 9 ft. The width of the inner ditch, from crest to crest is 46 ft and of the outer ditch is 22 ft. The North side has an inner rampart, beyond which are two sloping platforms and two slight banks, with a small outer ditch and bank, and steep glacis to the valley. The height of inner rampart above the outer ditch is 22 ft and the width of the defences, from crest to crest 80 ft and the width of the platforms 16 ft. to 20 ft. The main entrance, which is about 90 ft. wide, is at the North West angle, where a neck of land joins the plateau to the body of the hill. There is a second entrance at the South East angle which is 40 ft. wide, and also slightly flanked. There are no inner or subsidiary enclosures. The greatest length from South to North is 1,435 ft and the width from West to East is 695 ft.

hexton-ravensburgh-castle map

Ravensburgh Castle is now heavily wooded and is on private land. It is said to be the biggest Iron Age hill fort in South East England. Limited excavations during the 1960s showed that it was built about 400 BC and refortified around 50 BC. Rectangular in shape, and enclosing 9 hectares, it is strongly defended by a double rampart and ditch on the north, west and south sides, with a more massive rampart on the vulnerable eastern flank. Of its two entrances, that at the north-west corner belongs to the original build, whilst the south-eastern entrance was added around 50 BC. A gap halfway along the eastern side is modern.

ravensbourg castle

Ravensburgh Castle hidden by woodland

Cassivelaunus

It has been suggested that Ravensburgh might have been the headquarters of the Celtic chieftain, Cassivelaunus, attacked in 54 BC. The excavations showed signs of burning on the eastern rampart.

Access to the site is strictly limited. Finds of pottery and a bird-headed weaving comb are in the Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton.

Hexton

Hexton is a small village and civil parish about six miles west of Hitchin in Hertfordshire, England. This parish is a peninsula of Hertfordshire jutting northwards into the county of Bedford. The southern half of the parish is part of the chalky downs of the Chiltern Hills, which are covered with short turf and plantations of fir trees. The hills end abruptly and close to their foot lies the village of Hexton. It stands among grass fields and orchards at the beginning of a low plain, which, sloping gradually to the north, becomes merged in the large plain of southern Bedfordshire. The southern boundary of the parish is the grassy Icknield Way.  Hexton stands in well wooded and hilly country adjacent to the Bedfordshire border. The church, dedicated to St Faith, is mediaeval with heavy 19th-century restoration. The Manor House in its extensive park dates from at least the 15th century, although it was substantially altered in 1901. Far older is the Iron Age camp of Ravensburgh Castle, a scheduled ancient monument which straddles a hilltop a mile to the south-west. 

Hillforts

Defended hilltops are known from the Neolithic period (c3000BC) onwards, but it was the Iron Age (c800BC – cAD60) that witnessed the main construction of hillforts. They appear in different shapes and sizes, from small homesteads of under an acre to enclosures of over 200 acres. The majority occupy between one and 30 acres. AHA Hogg’s 1979 survey identified 3,840 sites.

Aerial image of the Uffington White Horse with Uffington Castle hill fort, Berkshire Downs, Vale of White Horse, Oxfordshire, UK

Uffington Castle Hillfort

Hillforts sit in well-defined location: across most of the south, the Welsh marches and the West Midlands. Cheshire has a significant number but there are few beyond. North-east Yorkshire and Northumberland have spectacular examples and there are some on the Isle of Man and in southern Scotland. Hillforts on the Atlantic west coast, which has more in common with Brittany than with Hampshire, tend to be more prolific, smaller and made of stone. There are 294 in Devon and Cornwall and 282 in Dyfed.

The hillforts of Wessex, the Welsh marches and the south-east are more complex and larger, and include the well- known Maiden Castle in Dorset, Danebury in Hampshire and South Cadbury in Somerset.

Two types of hillfort are most common: the contour fort, with a bank and ditch dug along the contour line surrounding a knoll of high ground; and the promontory fort positioned on a spur of land with natural defences. There are also forts situated on plateaux and in valleys with man-made defences, and some hill-slope forts that lack defensive positioning and were probably used for stock.

They were defended by ramparts. The banks and ditches we see today are all that remains of these structures, along with the post holes that indicate how they were constructed. A univallate consists of one banked- and-ditched enclosure, a bivallate has two lines of defence, while multivallate describes three or more. This system of defence grew from the Bronze Age ditch-and-bank structure topped with a palisade to become more substantial during the Iron Age. About two thirds of the hillforts in England and Wales are univallate but, as sites developed, more defences were added, particularly to larger hillforts.

Ramparts were made of timber, stone or earth, whichever was readily available. A box rampart consisted of a double line of posts, approximately three metres apart, held to-gether by horizontals. In this type of construction, called lacing, the soil dug from the ditch was deposited inside the rampart and then topped with breastwork.  As wood rotted, eventually the back line of posts was abandoned.

In about 350BC the glacis rampart appeared. The soil from the ditch was dumped on the side of the bank, forming a bed of scree that attackers would have to scramble up to reach a palisade at the top. The V-shaped ditch and bank is typical of Iron Age hillforts.

The Iron Age workforce built these structures with antler picks and wooden spades, using baskets to transfer the rubble and soil. James Dyer in Hillforts of England and Wales estimated that at Ravensburgh Castle in Hertfordshire a rampart 14 metres high around a perimeter of 1,190 metres called for 19,040 lengths of timber in its construction. With these basic tools it would have taken 175,045 man-hours to complete, which equates to 109 days for 200 men. Only structures of importance would command such labour. Eric Wood in Historical Britain estimated that it would take 150 men about four months to fortify an eight- acre enclosure with a single bank and ditch.

The entrance was a hillfort‘s weakest point, and the earthworks show different Iron Age strategies for defending them. Ramparts could overlap, be constructed in front of a gateway or turned inwards to create a narrow passage.

Read more at http://www.thefield.co.uk/features/iron-age-hillforts

Barton and Pegsdon Hills Walk

Offering panoramic views across the rolling hills that stretch across the Bedfordshire-Hertfordshire border – believed to be the “Delectable Mountains” in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress – this walk starting and ending at the Raven pub in Hexton, climbs fairly steeply, then continues more gently along the hilltops. It follows in part the ancient Icknield Way path (one of the oldest routes in Britain) and crosses the Bunyan Trail, taking in two impressive nature reserves, before heading back to Hexton.  A rare hill walk amid the generally flat lands of Bedfordshire, this has been described as “probably the best walk south of the Peak District”. The looming remains of the iron age hill fort of Ravensburgh Castle are a particularly striking sight. The woodland, streams and chalk grassland of the nature reserves are home to many species of plants and animals rarely spotted in the rest of the region.

Chalk-loving plants such as horseshoe vetch, yellow-wort, milkwort and rockrose grow in abundance, plus five species of orchid and the uncommon slender tare. The locally rare small blue butterfly may also be seen looking for its food plant, kidney vetch.

blue small

Small Blue Butterfly

While the reserve is arguably at its best between April and August, the firm going underfoot helps make this an equally pleasing walk in winter.

John Bunyan

Born in Elstow, south of Bedford, in 1628, John Bunyan was imprisoned for 12 years from 1660 for preaching in public. It was during his incarceration that he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress – for his own enjoyment, he claimed, rather than publication. It has since been translated into more than 100 languages.

BedfordBunyan2c

 John Bunyan

Icknield Way

The Icknield Way is an ancient trackway in southern England that goes from Norfolk to Wiltshire. It follows the chalk escarpment that includes the Berkshire Downs and Chiltern Hills.

It is generally said to be one of the oldest roads in Great Britain, being one of the few long-distance trackways to have existed before the Romans occupied the country, of which the route can still be traced.

The name is Celto-British in derivation, and may be named after the Iceni tribe. They may have established this route to permit trade with other parts of the country from their base in East Anglia. It has also been suggested that the road has older prehistoric origins. The name is also said to have been initially used for the part to the west and south (i.e. south of the River Thames) but now refers usually to the track or traces north of the Thames.

From ancient times, at least as early as the Iron Age period (before the Roman invasion of 43 AD) and through Anglo-Saxon times, it stretched from Berkshire through Oxfordshire and crossed the River Thames at Cholsey, near Wallingford.

The earliest mentions of the Icknield Way are in Anglo-Saxon charters from the year 903 onwards. The oldest surviving copies were made in the 12th and 13th centuries, and these use the spellings Ic(c)enhilde weg, Icenhylte, Icenilde weg, Ycenilde weg and Icenhilde weg. The charters refer to locations at Wanborough, Hardwell in Uffington, Harwell, Blewbury and Risborough, which span a distance of 40 miles from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire.

The Icknield Way was one of four highways that appear in the literature of the 1130s. Henry of Huntingdon wrote that the Ermine Street, Fosse Way, Watling Street and Icknield Way had been constructed by royal authority. The Leges Edwardi Confessoris gave royal protection to travellers on these roads, and the Icknield Way was said to extend across the width of the kingdom. Geoffrey of Monmouth elaborated the story by saying that Belinus had improved the four roads so that it was clear that they were the protected highways.

Around 1250, the Four Highways were shown by Matthew Paris on a diagramatic map of Britain called Scema Britannie. The Icknield Way is depicted by a straight line from Salisbury to Bury St Edmunds which intersects the other three roads near Dunstable.

In the 14th century, Ranulf Higdon described a different route for the Icknield Way: from Winchester to Tynemouth by way of Birmingham, Lichfield, Derby, Chesterfield and York. This route includes the Roman road running from Bourton-on-the-Water to Templeborough near Rotherham, which is now called Icknield Street (or Ryknild Street) to distinguish it from the Icknield Way.

In many places the track consists or consisted of several routes, particularly as it passes along the line of the escarpment of the Chilterns, probably because of the seasonal usage, and possibly the amount of traffic especially of herds or flocks of livestock.

To the west the track can be detected below the escarpments of the Wessex Downs. Near Wantage, the route along the ridge of the Downs is known as The Ridgeway, and the name Icknield Way is applied to a parallel lowland route above the spring-line at the northern edge of the chalk. Between Lewknor and Ivinghoe there are two parallel courses known as the Lower Icknield Way and the Upper Icknield Way. In Cambridgeshire, Street Way (Ashwell Street), Ditch Way and others have been put forward as variant routes, possibly for use in summer or winter.

Many modern roads follow the Icknield Way, for example the B489 from Aston Clinton to Dunstable and the A505 from Baldock to Royston. In some places, especially from the east of Luton in Bedfordshire to Ickleford (so named from the Way crossing a stream) near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, the route is followed by minor roads, and is not distinguishable at all in many places, except by landscape features such as barrows and mounds which line the route, and indentation presumably from ancient and frequent use. It could be described as a belt studded with archaeological sites found at irregular intervals.

The Icknield Way used to form part of the boundary between Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and at one time Royston was cut in two by this boundary. Royston is where the Icknield Way crosses Ermine Street.

In the south-west some writers take the Way to Exeter, while others only take it as far as Salisbury. To the north-east, Icklingham, Suffolk, and Caistor-by-Norwich, Yarmouth and Hunstanton, Norfolk have all been proposed as the destination. In support of the western route, a road at Dersingham near Hunstanton was named Ykenildestrethe and Ikelynge Street in the 13th century.

Spencer_Gore_Icknield_Way_1912

Spencer Gore Icknield Way 1912

One Response to Ravensburgh Castle

  1. Pingback: The ‘Neolithic M1’: The Icknield Way (2) | The Heritage Journal

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