Last month, with two of my kids I got the chance to visit Uffington Castle hill-fort. Having visited Dragon Hill and the White Horse in terribly wet and windy weather, we returned to visit the area in sunshine. Having exploring the Ridgeway to Wayland’s Smithy (which I have recently presented about in a research paper at York), we walked back along the Ridgeway and explored the landscape in glorious weather.
Despite heavy agricultural ‘improvements’ in recent centuries, this is a landscape that has long been the subject of antiquarian and archaeological interest given its many surviving earthworks and its striking natural topography. As well as Neolithic monuments, Early Bronze Age barrows, Later Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British settlements and field systems, hill-forts whose use spanned these later prehistoric and early historic periods, and the upland artery of communication known as the Ridgeway.
Gosden and Lock have considered this landscape in terms of mythical and genealogical perceptions of time, but it is also a landscape of habitation and embodied movement around a key cross-country land route: the Ridgeway. The Berkshire Ridgeway itself therefore deserves our close attention; it was more than a single track that has persisted through millennia, it is a tract of upland that, prior to enclosure, would have allowed people to travel across open country with relative ease even in the winter.
The Anglo-Saxon Ridgeway
Alex Langlands and Andrew Reynolds have recently penned a fascinating exploration of the significance of long-distance land-routes during the Anglo-Saxon period, including their functions, stations and perceptions. For the Ridgeway, their argument has numerous implications. For example, as a premier land route, it held the status as a king’s road, a war road and an artery for trade and other forms of communication during the early medieval period. Unsurprisingly, the shire moot for Berkshire lay on this Ridgeway: at Scutchmer Knob and along its line were key conflicts of the Anglo-Saxon era fought between emerging Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their British rivals, conflicts between Mercia and Wessex, and later between Wessex and the Danes.
What is evident in walking along even a short stretch is how hill-forts mark key points of transition along the ridge. In particular, moving east from Wayland’s Smithy, one is always overlooked by Uffington Castle. Consequently, in addition to their wider impressive view-sheds, hill-forts visually control the Ridgeway. This interpretation is not only valid for later prehistory but for the remainder of the historic period too. Understanding hill-forts in this landscape involves considering their Roman and medieval afterlives, even in instances when there is no categorical evidence for their reuse for settlement.
Heritage on the Ridgeway
Here and in a previous post, I celebrated the restoration of the stretch of the Ridgeway around Uffington Castle with its closure to off-road vehicles. At Wayland’s Smithy, one can see the striking contrast in the shift between management strategies between the section to the west of the monument and that to the east.
Also evident are the signs that explain the landscape to the visitor. These focus on monuments and the routeway itself, rather than the broader worked landscape. Still, they were the focus of interest, not least from my kids.