Barbury Castle: Fine Views and Fortifications

on Monday, 31 July 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Wiltshire Places

Iron Age hillforts must be one of the most visited types of archaeological sites in the country.  Recently I have been up to Barbury Castle a couple of times and have been reminded how impressive and commanding this site is, not just because of its massive ramparts, but also its good state of preservation and all of the other archaeological features you can see from here.  It is one of the most impressive of the 35 hillforts we have in the Wiltshire and Swindon area, with panoramic views that take in the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey.

Barbury Castle from north west. Aerial photo from 1991. Wiltshire Council

Barbury is located between Wroughton and Swindon and the County boundary, as well as parish boundaries, run through the middle of the hillfort.  The hillfort was built in the Iron Age, probably around 700 BC and is likely to have been continuously used until the Roman invasion in the mid 1st century AD.  It was one of a string of hillforts built close to the line of the Ridgeway, considered to be an ancient long distance routeway.  Three other hillforts, Liddington, Uffington and Martinsell are all intervisible with Barbury.  It is the most developed and most impressive of the Ridgeway hillforts, having double ramparts on the south side and triple on the north side (possibly an unfinished circuit).  In places the banks or ramparts stand over 3 metres in height even now and in the Iron Age would have been topped with wooden palisades and defensive towers.  Located at 262 metres above sea level Barbury was built on the highest point of the local area, a beneficial defensive position with commanding views of the landscapes below.

The ramparts at Barbury enclose an area of about 5 hectares and there were two original entrances that survive today at the east and west sides.  Unfortunately there has been little modern archaeological investigation to tell us details of the lives lived at Barbury.  However, the results of a geophysical survey carried out by English Heritage in 1998 indicate that the interior is littered with hundreds of pits (probably for grain storage) and other features, some of which are the remains of huts or roundhouses.

The interior of the hillfort as well as the ramparts have suffered some damage in the 1940s from the activities of American troops and the Home Guard who were based at the nearby Wroughton Airfield during the war and used Barbury as a training ground.  The original hillfort entrances were unfortunately widened by American troops in order to get their trucks into the interior.  Fortunately, we have a measured survey drawn in 1884 by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, the first ever Inspector of Ancient Monuments, to show how they would have been.

Section drawings of the entrances at Barbury Castle by General Pitt Rivers in 1884

From the hillfort you can see an array of other archaeological earthworks dating to earlier and later use of the landscape for settlement and agriculture.  There are a number of Bronze Age burial mounds in the area, indicating that Barbury was a significant place even before the hillfort was built.  Just to the north of Barbury Castle you can see a well-preserved Roman enclosure.  Just to the south west are the well-preserved Deserted Medieval Village earthworks at Barbury Castle Farm.  To the north east is a very well preserved area of “Celtic fields” on Burderop Down which probably date from the Bronze Age.  You can access this area via a byway where you can visit the memorial stone erected in the 1930s to commemorate the lives of two local well known men of literature who both wrote about this landscape in detail in their works, the poet  and author Alfred Williams (1877-1930) and the author and nature writer Richard Jefferies (1848-1887).

Barbury Castle is a spectacular archaeological site, well worth a visit, especially on a sunny day.  There is an ample car park provided by Swindon Borough Council and toilets on site.  On your drive up to the hillfort look out for the traces of archaeological earthworks all around.

Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger
County Archaeologist

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