History passing by
Head for the hills and get high on history – discovering hill forts just off the beaten track in the Westcountry.
The main routes into the Westcountry pull visitors back and forth through the unspoilt landscapes of West Dorset, South Somerset and East Devon, but treating yourself to an easy detour will make your journey as exciting as your destination. To take a deep breath of fresh air, to stretch cramped legs, to stand on top of the world and to ground oneself in a sense of ancient history, are all welcome contributions to any traveller’s tale.
You can’t miss noticing the rings of Maiden Castle, as the A35 bypasses Dorchester, nor Cadbury Castle as it takes pride of place in the landscape just off the A303 near Yeovil, but our lovely countryside holds some hidden treasures close to its chest too. Here are three for inspiration.
Eggardon Hill, outside Bridport, is just moments off the A35 at Askerswell. Better still, you can peel off the main road at Winterbourne Abbas and follow the old Roman road – a wonderfully appropriate route to set the scene for an adventure back in time. This stunning iron age hill fort holds high court just before the hillside plunges down towards Bridport. There are wide open views across the Marshwood Vale, a gentle scoop of land on the Dorset and East Devon border, and to the Jurassic Coast. Standing at the top, the rings fall away in dramatic tiers below you and on a clear day the views are simply breath-taking. The greatest gift here is a panorama that leads your eye as far as the South Devon coast. Parking is easy and the little crisscross of lanes deliver you effortlessly to the very top of the hill.
Castle Neroche is just a few miles west of Ilminster. A short detour from the A303 offers an easy and welcome break from the trudge of one of the single carriageway sections that takes its flow of travellers up and over the Blackdown Hills. You get two castles for one here with clues tracing the remains of a Norman castle on the site of an Iron Age one. The moment you step out of your car you will feel the wonderful stillness of this deeply wooded site. There is a large car park, never full, and within seconds you will find yourself amongst the tall trees and breathing in the scent of the forest. There is a sense of Narnia here too, in the air and underfoot, especially when there is snow. Every now and then the trees draw back and offer up a view far across the Somerset Levels, encircled on the distant horizon by the Quantock Hills and the Mendips.
Woodbury Castle is an iron age fort in East Devon, between Ottery St Mary and Budleigh Salterton, on the coast. This amazing place is a bit more of a detour from the A30 as it rushes you south to join the M5, or north to join the A303, but it’s a very straightforward one and the setting, overlooking the very start of the Jurassic Coast, is definitely worth it. The first revelation is that the road actually follows one of the rings of the fort. Perhaps a long-gone drover’s track evolved over time into what is now a surprising route through this ancient site. It is therefore not out of place that the car park is right there too. Majestic beech and oak trees have populated the fort but the layout is still so clear and the sense of history so real. Beyond the fort itself, the landscape is extraordinary, opening up into a savannah of sloping natural grassland interspersed with solitary trees and areas of woodland. Beyond that, the sea sparkles timelessly, quite literally, as it always has done.