Iron Age

Maiden Castle

The light is very bright and the wind is making my eyes water. I’m in that post-viral haze when you emerge from an underworld of strange dreams and find the world has changed. In the past two weeks bare hedges have greened over and the flowers are out on the horse chestnuts.

Either side of the chalky path clumps of cowslips tangle with the long grass. Tiny blue birds-eye flowers (Veronica persica) wink from the edges. The path gets steeper and a skylark is singing high above. I stop to look back. A dark green tumulus rises from a fluorescent sea of oil seed rape. The new buildings of Poundbury are marching closer.

I always choose the path that peters out to nothing. However hard I try to follow the trodden ways, somehow my track always ends in nettles, sheer drops or just nothing at all. Perhaps I unwittingly chose the sheep’s way … I tight-rope walked along a spindly ridge with that feeling you get when you walk on a pier out to sea – a feeling that you are defying gravity. You walk with a sense of excitement on your precarious thread of land, the world falling away either side and only the horizon in front of you. I stepped over a tortoiseshell butterfly pinned to the path by the strong wind then forged on head-down towards nothing at all, my shadow stealthily creeping ahead like a negative ghost.

I stopped at the final precipice and watched the sheep on the next rampart, envying their agility. Maiden Castle is a labyrinth of ditches and concentric hills which make up the ancient Iron Age hill fort. I tried to imagine how life was then – the practicalities of living permanently in such an elevated location in all weathers. What did they eat? How did they cook? Did they wash – probably not. I suppose they smelt like nothing on earth, their hair was matted and there were no comforts if illness struck. But the bond between everyone in that community was what kept them going – their survival depended on mutual support, trust and love.

What must it have been like when the Romans with their clean-shaven faces and military uniform arrived? Each side must have looked at the other with amazement – that human beings could be so different. The hill fort became a last stronghold of the old ways, a bloody battlefield where huts were burnt and trampled, women raped and children crushed in the conflict. It is something I can hardly bring myself to imagine.

I remembered visiting Maiden Castle one summer as a child with my brother and sister and how we ran up and down the hills shouting with excitement in this prehistoric playground, only dimly aware that long ago people called this home. Clouds of small blue butterflies rose up from the grass as we ran about. I looked them up in my Observer book when I got home and found a whole section – chalkhill blue, blue skipper, silver-studded blue, common blue . . . all of which summed up for me my childhood summers on the chalky downs.

As I walked back down to the lower levels there were fresh molehills among the clumps of nettles. A dead mole lay beside the path, one small pink hand raised as if in surrender, a metallic blue fly on its breast.

Eggardon Hill

I took the old narrow road to Eggardon Hill – ‘The Roman Road runs straight and bare/ As the pale parting-line in hair’ (Thomas Hardy). The hedges either side were stark against the pale December sky, a few leaves still clinging to the bare whips despite the gales. Dog wood and coppery beech leaves added touches of colour to the otherwise monochrome landscape. A buzzard flew up in front of me like a shape cut from the hedgerow.

Eggardon Hill in West Dorset is the site of a prehistoric hill fort. A dramatic chalk escarpment bears the remains of an Iron Age settlement. Bronze Age tumuli top the skyline and the whole area has an ancient atmosphere. I have known it since childhood, but found out later that, in the Middle Ages, a gallows was sited in the centre of the hill fort. There are traces of henges and ring barrows which pock-mark the hillsides when the winter sun is low in the sky.

I took the single-track lane west where strange happenings have been reported over the years. I remember in the early 1970’s hearing about a strange blue light sighted here, and of cars’ engines stalling suddenly. It is said that raised voices have been heard here – perhaps the sounds of a battle from long ago.

The track-way is raised like a causeway above the fields either side and, several years ago, I was driving along it in thick fog at twilight. The mist swirled around me like a sea and it was quite difficult to stay on the track. I stopped at the cross roads at the end and suddenly two white deer appeared in the middle of the road. They hesitated for a moment as if on the cusp of the real world and the underworld before disappearing back into the mist.