Saturday, 11 September 2010

Maiden Castle yesterday

    In the third century BC, the inhabitants of Maiden Castle had fortified their hilltop home by the building of wood and earth ramparts that entirely circled the two knolls on which the settlements had been made. Never a castle in teh commonly understood sense, the ramparts had enclosed farming land and a village, to which most of the inhabitants of ancient Wessex had fled whenever hostile tribes invaded the region. In the twentieth century, by which time the walls had weathered to rounded, grassy slopes, such defences seemed inadequate, for they could be penetrated in a few minutes by even the most unambitious walker, but in pre-Roman Britain the ramparts and their closely defended gates were precaution enough against sling-shots and spears.

    The site had been thoroughly excavated during the 1930s. Remains similar to those found in hill-forts all over southern England had been discovered, and the more interesting fragments placed on display in the Dorchester Museum. There had been a massacre of the villagers by Vesapasian's legions in AD 43, and the most singular discovery in Maiden Castle was that of a primitive mass burial-ground, containing thousands of human bodies.

    The archaeological workings had been covered over before the Second World War, and from then until the early 1980s Maiden Castle had reverted to its earlier role: argricultural and pastoral land, walked over by casual visitor and sheep.

    She came to the first of the earth ramparts that surrounded the ancient hill-fort. On this northerly side of Maiden Castle there were three of these, each one higher and steeper than the one before it, and there was no other way in to the castle than to climb each one. A well-worn path took teh eastern route and she followed this, her hair blowing across her face in the stiff wind. ... The Castle often engendered an elemental unconcern in those who found it, whether they were casual visitors - who were still allowed access to certain parts - or the staff of the Wessex project. The Castle was ancient and solid, and permanent: its grass-coloured shoulders had shrugged off decay for five thousand years, and it would still be here in five thousand years' time. Julia felt this sense of abandonment whenever she arrived at the Castle, and today was no different.

    The city of Dorchester lay below her and to the left, spreading out untidily across the side of its hill. She could see the wireless telegraphy station on the heath behind it, and traffic moving on the roads around the town. A train stood at a signal just outside the station. Beyond, the soft rolling Dorset hills around Cerne Abbas and Charminster and Tolpuddle. She stared at the view for some time, drawn to it by the images and memories she had of another time, another summer ...

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