Lockdown Antiquarianism, II: Castercliff hill-fort

As said a couple of posts ago, by summer of 2020 it was beginning to be possible to venture out into the world again, if you kept your social distance and took a mask, and given the previous few months it was quite important to do so, whether the weather favoured it or not. Not all the trips out I made that summer were medievalist ones, but some were and they probably deserve mention here. This one, however, is only questionably medievalist as the thing we were searching for was probably Iron Age in origin, and my only excuse is that it must have been there in the Middle Ages too, though the extremely limited investigation of it has nothing to tell us about what people were then doing with it. The target is a place called Castercliff, where in what since 1982 we believe was probably within a century either side of 600 BC someone made many other people do a lot of digging on a hilltop.1

View from the higher part of the platform of Castercliff hillfort to the lower and over the Pendle valley

View from the higher part of the platform of Castercliff hillfort to the lower and over the Pendle valley

We went looking for this because of hillforts coming up in conversation, as they do if you’re me, and my partner remarking that there must be some near us and we should go and climb them. Actually, it turns out, West Yorkshire is basically absent hillforts, which are a south-western or north-eastern British phenomenon with not much in between. But the north-west has a few, and our closest was Castercliff, near Nelson, just over that ideologically troublesome border with Lancashire. I should say at this point that the day was mizzling and, quite apart from several of my photographs being marred by rain on the lens, it looks as if I just didn’t take any good establishing shots that show the site from the ground. Happily there are some good ones on the Megalithic Portal, as so often, so I point you that way for context and detailed location if you want it.

View from within the platform of Castercliff hillfort

View from within the platform; it’s not easy to see, perhaps, but there is a very pronounced edge there

We had, however, done minimal preparation other than getting road directions, so were trying to figure the site out on the ground. I knew that it was a site with several ramparts, which had me excited because of similarity to Pictish ones, and that at least is something one can pick up pretty easily, though it’s still hard to get out of my photographs. (As said, try here instead for a clearer view of it.) The actual situation revealed from excavation is that there were two complete ramparts and a discontinuous third one where landscape required it, with main entry at the west (but then probably, we decided, skewed around the hillside at each level to keep incomers below the next rampart for long enough to ‘discomfit’ them), and finally a palisade on the inner platform, within which the buildings, whatever they were, presumably sat. You can’t see much of that now.

South-western edge of Castercliff hillfort, with exposed rampart

South-western edge, with exposed rampart being climbed by my fellow antiquarian, in the rain

But it was the state of the ramparts that really caught our attention. There is in the Iron Age hillfort trade, as I knew from my Pictish stuff and as I have, very long ago, talked about here, the phenomenon of the ‘vitrified’ fort. This is a surprisingly common situation in which a fort that had been built of timber-laced stone had its walls heated to such an incredible degree that the stone liquefied in the heat and set like glass. How and why this was done has occasioned a lot of debate, on which see that earlier post, but importantly in this context, we found we were standing on one.2

Fragments of vitrified stone in the ramparts of Castercliff hillfort

Vitrified fragments seen from standing height…

Vitrified stone fragment at Castercliff hillfort

… and uplifted for antiquarian inspection

Whether this was part of the construction of these forts or the opposite is part of the debate, and it’s safe to say we don’t know, but it still causes the mind to boggle a bit. What was going on here in this otherwise wild interspace of Iron Age Britain to make this necessary or desirable to do? What was being fought over, dominated or hidden from? We probably do have better answers to this than I know about, but it is, in that weak answer I used to think was OK, not my period, so whether or not I should know about it, at present time I don’t.3 From my Scottish learnings I know that the end of use, though not necessarily the destruction (which itself might not end use) of the forts is often associated with the arrival of the Romans; but whether that holds here I don’t know, and from what I can learn of the excavation, it didn’t answer this question.4

Possibly-medieval access path at the east of Castercliff hillfort

Wall and access path at the east of the fort

However, by way of thin justification for including this on the blog at all, this bit may just be medieval. I couldn’t see this on site, but this path up the hillside is reckoned to be part of a much longer medieval trackway that runs past the fort and right down into the Calder Valley.5 Apparently there are also pits and things on the surface which may be medieval iron-working sites, but it was too heavily grassed over when we were there to see such things, and in any case, it seems as if the dates for those were antiquarian conjecture. The only hard datings for the site have come out of timber remains from the ramparts. Still, as I say, it seems likely, given that it’s still there now, that at some point between 500 and 1500 CE someone was here doing something, and just because I couldn’t find it on a two-hour visit in the rain doesn’t mean this wasn’t a medieval site at some point in its lifespan.

Sheep guarding Castercliff hillfort

And indeed it is still occupied and indeed guarded in the modern period… just not by bipeds.

So there you have it! There will be more of this antiquarianism coming in future posts, but I can promise you more definitively medieval stuff for those (and more useful photographs). Still, it was a fun little exploration and one that’s very easy to imitate should you be in the right part of the world.

1. The reference here, if you can get it, seems to be D. G. Coombs, “Excavations at the hillfort of Castercliff, Nelson, Lancashire, 1970-71” in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society Vol. 81 (Lancaster 1982), pp. 111-130, but I am doing this from home and so, although my employers do have the thing, I can’t get at it now or justify that when I’m there. So I’m going on what others report of the archaeology online, and the only one of those that seems to be based on direct knowledge of Coombs’s work, including reproducing one of its plans, is Paul Bennett, “Castercliff, Nelson, Lancashire” in The Northern Antiquarian, 30 September 2010, online here, so that’s what I’m mainly resting upon in what follows.

2. See most easily (for me at least) Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), p. 182.

3. My web readings suggest that a helpful resort might be James L. Forde-Johnston, “The Hill-Forts of Lancashire and Cheshire” in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society Vol. 72 (Lancaster 1962), pp. 9-46 (but see n. 1 above); beyond that, however, all my available references for these structures deal with either their early medieval reoccupation or their Scottish examples, and I don’t think this is the same deal.

4. Michael Senior, Hillforts of Northern Wales (Llanrwst 2005), pp. 15-18; Bennett, “Castercliff”.

5. Sunbright57, “Castercliff Hillfort, Colne And Nelson, Lancashire” in The Journal of Antiquities, 2 March 2016, online here.

4 responses to “Lockdown Antiquarianism, II: Castercliff hill-fort

  1. You’ll be delighted to hear that I’ve located the Kingdom of Rheged. Dead easy: “the Mote of Mark once being the centre of the ancient Kingdom of Reghed.” See! (We must accept that spelling can change over the centuries.)

    Click to access Jubilee-Path.pdf

    But seriously, the Mote of Mark is, at least in my memories of boyhood, a lovely visit. Recommended.

  2. I should add: if ever you take yourself off to enjoy Galloway take binoculars. Because if you climb Merrick you can see not only the Lake District, Man, and Norn Iron, but also – if the weather is just right – Snowdonia.

    Not a lot of people know that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.