Caer Y Tŵr
What is a Hill Fort? At the risk of pointing out the obvious, they are very large circular defensive enclosures, protected by one or a series of steep ditches carved out of the earth, and they can usually be found occupying prominent hilltop positions, overlooking areas of strategic importance; sentinels keeping watch over the horizon. The foundations of some can be traced back to the Bronze Age, though their heyday came in the Iron Age after 500 B.C., especially in the centuries leading up to and including the Roman Invasion of 43 A.D. The Mediterranean influence brought this culture to a swift end, though it underwent a reprise after the departure of the Legions in 410 A.D. Having been instructed to "look to your own defence", the native Britons obligingly reoccupied Hill Forts in response to the Anglo-Saxon threat; who in their turn, centuries later, followed suit during the Viking Age.
The name "Hill Fort" is a legacy of their misinterpretation in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when enquiring gentlemen scholars, raised in a society that was in awe of the classical world and its grand empires, at first concluded that the structures were Roman in origin, and that they must, therefore, be fortified hill-top outposts, in spite of the fact that there are no parallels whatsoever in the central Roman world. This impulsive conclusion was made on the basis that the forts were a prodigeous feat of engineering, and so plainly far beyond the capabilities of the primitive natives. This condescending view of their own ancestry is a recurring theme in British archeology, and it can still be encountered even today: anything in the ancient world that is unexplained or unusual, obviously it must have come from a more sophisticated people from abroad. Time and again the evidence eventually proves these fashionable suppositions to be without foundation, and so it proved with Hill Forts. Towards the end of the 19th Century, proper archeological excavations revealed that they had no Roman connections at all, and that they were, instead, thoroughly British in nature.
The purpose of Hill Forts remains a matter of some dispute. Early archeologists looked upon them as wholly military structures; earthen castles, heavily garrisoned and designed to repel a determined attack. More recent investigations though have uncovered a wealth of evidence within the ramparts for a wide variety of other activities, domestic and industrial, clearly implying that these were not purely military installations but defensible towns. Their sheer size surely reinforces this argument; typically enclosing anything between five and thirty acres, there is an immense space inside which, considering the subsequent length of the ramparts, would require an extremely large garrison to adequately defend. Medieval forts, by contrast, were much smaller and so enabled a negligible garrison to keep a substantial attacking force at bay. To apply this model to the vast ramparts of Hill Forts would utterly negate their object.
Yet they were surely constructed in a time when defence was the first priority of any community, for without it there would be no community, and if they were in fact settlements then the positions that they occupy surely indicates that they had been built with defence as the primary factor. Hill Forts typically dominate entire landscapes, boasting clear views for miles in every direction, and they are commonly within sight of other forts. Ordinary settlements, however, commonly evolve in areas of convenience; by a river for drinking water, trading routes, a harbour, or good road communications. Why, therefore, put a settlement on top of a barely accessible and windswept hill with no water source immediately to hand? Defence must have been their overriding purpose for there is no other logical explanation.
Hill Forts can be found all across the British Isles, though they are most prevalent in Southern and particularly Western England; the Welsh border country is positively infested with them. This frontier has always been contentious; the Romans built numerous forts along it; the Anglo-Saxon King Offa dug his eponymous dyke from the River Dee to the mouth of the Severn; and in the centuries following the Norman Conquest a vast chain of castles were erected by the English, in locations and at distances not so very far removed from the Hill Forts of an earlier age. Over a period of some 2,000 years, therefore, the English side of the border has been occupied and controlled by several very different peoples, yet it would appear that their purpose here has always been the same; to keep out the troublesome Welsh.
The only tribe we know of who inhabited this general area, naturally at the time of the Roman Conquest and the introduction of writing, are the Cornovii. It could be that the Forts we find scattered across the Midlands arose out of this tribe's desire for a grand series of defensive works to secure their frontiers and interior against the envy of less happy lands. However, the Forts tend to pre-date the Roman Invasion by as much as 500 years, and so, given the habit of tribal communities to combine into ever larger power blocs over a period of centuries, it seems likely that a single large tribe encompassing such an area did not exist in these early times, rather a plethora of much smaller communities who, presumably, built their own places of refuge in a fearful response to the endeavours of their neighbours; a sort of Iron Age arms race. We cannot know.
At the time of the Roman Invasion, though, most of the Forts in this wide region were likely under the control of the Cornovii, and at the centre of it all was their tribal capital, the Wrekin; the Ayres Rock of Shropshire, which dominates the surrounding terrain. The Roman road of Watling Street skirts its base and runs directly through their city of Viriconium, which lies in its shadow. Stand on the site of the old road, just in front of the Forum colonnade, and no less than twelve Hill Forts are visible to the naked eye on a clear day; all of them formidable, all of them dominating their surroundings, none of them routinely accessible. In this part of the world, Hill Forts come in clusters. It seems reasonable to speculate that these groupings represent tribal areas, perhaps permanently manned by look-outs in visual touch with the others, possibly by beacon.
In times of attack by marauding warbands or a neighbouring tribe, local families may have withdrawn into the fort until the danger was past or a counter-attack could be mounted; though by necessity this could only be a temporary state of affairs as a shortage of water would soon become apparent and, as far as is known, no cisterns or wells have ever been located in these structures. In addition to this apparent forerunner of the air-raid shelter, it makes sense that the tribe would permanently secure its essentials inside the Fort, such as the harvest, the treasury, and other fundamentals of Iron Age society which would otherwise be vulnerable to theft. And within the walls of a fort they should be well secure; we might imagine what an enemy felt as he came within sight of one, taking note of its deep and almost sheer ramparts, topped with a wooden palisade bristling with spearmen and slingers, confident in the indomitability of their position. Until the arrival of the Roman Legions, with their superior organisation and preparedness, surely only the most determined of foes would have been able to summon the will to assault such an imposing obstacle.
If you happen to live in the South of England and are in the habit of emptying your dog along the Ridgeway, or tearing up its surface with a trail bike, you may take the view that Alfred Watkins might have been on to something with his "Old Straight Track" theory. There are a number of Hill Forts sited along this ancient trading route, stretching 200 miles from the Wash to the Dorset coast, and they are strung out at regular intervals, almost in the manner of railway stations or motorway service areas. The inference is that the gentle, rolling slopes of the Malborough Downs provided a relatively safe passage along which traders could move their goods or drovers their herds, far removed from the hidden dangers and rough-going of the heavily wooded valleys that dominated the English landscape in the ancient world. Anyone who walks this section of the Ridgeway will notice that they are each within a comfortable day's walk of the next, and so, although the forts are well-sited defensive structures, it may be that they also acted as secure way stations; overnight hostelries for man and beast.
Hill Forts, therefore, may be thought of as wholly defensive structures, utterly pragmatic and harbouring nothing of the ceremonial. Yet there may be exceptions. Again along the Ridgeway, there is an unassuming hill fort called Uffington Castle, which, with the White Horse chalk figure and Neolithic burial mounds immediately outside it, and the Wayland's Smithy long barrow a short walk away, appears to have been a spiritual site rather than a defensive one. There are other forts with similar religious connections, some with much older tombs located inside them.
The population of Britain was exceedingly large during the Iron Age, so it is inconceiveable that everyone in the tribe lived within the confines of their local fort. We may, therefore, consider applying the medieval model of castles to them, and imagine Hill Forts as the administrative centre of the community, home to a tribal king or the local chief, as well as their retainers and other prominent citizens. Such a place would also be the beating heart of cultural and economic life, where men and women would come to trade, buy goods at the market, or seek judgement in a matter of law. Occupying quite pivotal roles in matters of defence, and possibly also in administration, industry and commerce, Hill Forts clearly had a central position in Iron Age life.