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Malvern Hills

The Malvern Hills, in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, are perhaps known above all for their spring water - initially made famous by the region's many holy wells, and later through the development of the 19th century spa town of Great Malvern, a process which culminated in the production of the modern bottled drinking water. The region is protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). 

Woodland industry: a mature coppice in Frith Wood, Ledbury. (photo by Mark Bowden © English Heritage).

Woodland industry: a mature coppice in Frith Wood, Ledbury

Our project, which is a partnership between English Heritage, the Malvern Hills AONB, the relevant county archaeological services, the National Trust and other interested parties, falls into two main phases. In the first phase, we completed a programme of archaeological reconnaissance and field survey. We began with a detailed re-examination of all the Scheduled Ancient Monuments; that is, all those already identified as being of 'national importance' and therefore protected by law. Our colleagues in the Aerial Survey Team played an important role by carrying out a rapid assessment of the AONB, comprising both new reconnaissance flying and mapping using the existing aerial photographs held in the National Monuments Record.

This was followed up with rapid survey on the ground by archaeologists from the county archaeological services, this time targeting the wooded parts of landscape where aerial survey could reveal very little. Now that we are armed with accurate information and a better understanding of how the whole landscape has evolved, we are beginning to discuss phase two: the formulation of a long-term plan for improving the day-to-day management of the historic environment.

One of the most significant and exciting results of our research has been a complete re-assessment of the origins of the 'Shire Ditch', also known as 'Red Earl's Dyke', a boundary earthwork which runs along the crest of the hills. According to the history textbooks, the accepted story is that this earthwork was built by Gilbert de Clare, the 'Red Earl' of Gloucester, in about 1287, during a boundary dispute with the Bishop of Hereford. Careful examination and survey of the form of this earthwork and, more particularly, of its relationship with the defensive ramparts of the prehistoric hillfort on Midsummer Hill tells a very different story, however.

To the north of the hillfort, the Shire Ditch seems to have been built in two separate phases. While one phase overlies the ramparts, and must therefore post-date them (as expected), the other phase underlies them, and must therefore be of earlier origin. In other words, the Shire Ditch, or at least part of it, must be prehistoric - possibly dating to the late Bronze Age (about 1000 BC). The 'Red Earl', it seems, just refurbished an existing boundary earthwork, rather than starting from scratch.

The ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort known as British Camp (photo by James Davies © English Heritage)

The ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort known as British Camp

The relationship of the Shire Ditch to the other hillfort on the Malverns, known as 'British Camp', is not so clear. There is no sign of an earlier phase to the Ditch here. Nevertheless, the discovery that the Shire Ditch may be of much earlier date than has previously been realised does have implications for understanding the story of the medieval 'ringwork' castle which crowns British Camp. The ringwork was probably built by the invading Normans between the late 11th century and the end of the 12th century, that is, at least a century before the traditional date of the construction of the the Shire Ditch in about 1287. Now, by reversing the long-accepted chronological relationship between the Shire Ditch and the ringwork, we have effectively overcome any difficulty in connecting the two monuments. The location of the medieval ringwork castle, on a high hilltop, far from any known medieval settlements, is rare, but not unique. It has been suggested that the castle served as a hunting lodge and that it was built in connection with the establishment of the hunting forest of Malvern Chase. There seems to be some merit in this theory. But alternatively, or perhaps additionally, it now seems possible that the castle owes its location to the existence of the earlier boundary, apparently a disputed one, marked by the Shire Ditch.

Given the castle's remote location, it is interesting to speculate whether it was sited here as a functioning military outpost, or purely as a symbol to Norman power, or perhaps as a combination of the two. The ringwork is relatively small, encompassing an area only 45m by 30m, and its attached platform bailey is tiny. On analogy with other castles, one might expect that the prehistoric defences would have been re-used, so that the whole interior of the hillfort became the medieval bailey. But there is scant convincing evidence for medieval building activity around the prehistoric ramparts. So the castle was not, it would seem, established as the base for a substantial permanent garrison which could control the surrounding area and communication routes, nor does it seem well placed to act as a defended residence or a refuge. It may, nevertheless, have formed a useful and well-defended lookout post.

What is equally clear, however, is that the ringwork is an outstandingly prominent feature in the landscape, visible for miles around. If it was intended as a symbol of Norman lordship, it is certainly a very imposing one. Yet its symbolic value may be more complex than simply its conspicuous location. The fact that it stands on top of a more ancient defended enclosure, and may even have re-used the earlier defences to protect its new bailey, may have been seen as legitimating the Norman claim to power, or as overwhelming a legendary stronghold of the past. It would not be stretching the evidence too far to see this castle acting as a focal point for any ceremonies - in the nature of 'beating the bounds' - connected with the Shire Ditch.

The results of our research have been published recently in an illustrated book 'The Malvern Hills an Ancient Landscape' by Mark Bowden (ISBN: 1 873592 82 5)

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