An unfinished Hill Fort and an English Earl

hill fort

One hundred years ago Dr J P Williams-Freeman felt that Ladle Hill was a prehistoric camp caught in the process of being flattened by early 19th century farmers, desperate to break-in new agricultural land to make a quick profit in the troubled times resulting from the Napoleonic Wars. It was aerial photography, in 1930, that gave Stuart Piggott the opportunity to look at its layout more objectively and, with O G S Crawford, come to the conclusion that it was a hillfort that had been started, but never finished.

The existence of an apparent palisade (visible between the segments of ditch) leaves open the possibility that there was already an enclosure in existence before fort construction began, but in the absence of excavation, this cannot be proven. It may, for example, have been a deeply cut ‘marking out’ feature.

What is clear, however, is that the west side of the fort picks up the line of a Bronze Age boundary ditch – a ‘Wessex linear’ – which runs along the edge of the scarp, and there is also a fine Bronze Age disc barrow just to the north of the defences.

Beacon Hill (3.8 ha) is one of the finest hillforts in the county. It has never been ploughed, or excavated to any extent, and it contains quarry scoops, hut circles and pit hollows in abundance. The Royal Commission made a masterly contour-survey of these features, published in 1991, and English Heritage followed with a varied menu of remote sensing techniques, published in 2006 as part of their Wessex Hillforts survey.

Williams-Freeman noted numerous ‘hut circles’, some large, some small (pit hollows) within the fort. He was not aware of the probable blocked entrance on the west side of the site, or the subtle, centrally-located folds which have been considered as possible traces of a much earlier Neolithic enclosure.

Nor would he have seen the Trig Point, near the site of which Leonard Woolley and Lord Carnarvon, owner of Beacon Hill and nearby Highclere Castle, excavating in August 1912, found a brick hearth, clay tobacco pipes and other evidence of the manning of the eponymous beacon.

The enclosed grave was also a thing of the future. It was while in Egypt, just four months after Howard Carter had summoned him there to view the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb, that Lord Carnarvon cut an infected mosquito bite while shaving, contracted blood poisoning, and died of pneumonia. His body was brought home to Highclere and interred in his lofty tomb on the last day of April, 1923.

Image: Ladle Hill on an April evening in 2008 – a Bronze Age ‘linear’ links the camp to the scarp, and the ‘saucer barrow’ describes a perfect circle to the north. The many dumps inside the fort are ditch spoil waiting in vain to form the rampart.

J P Williams-Freeman (1915), Field Archaeology as Illustrated by Hampshire.

S Piggott (1931), Ladle Hill – an unfinished hillfort, Antiquity 5, 474-85

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone for Hampshire Cultural Trust

With thanks to pilot extraordinaire, Ginny Pringle.