Sometimes I look at some of the photos people post of hill forts on this website and think, uncharitably, yeah yeah another photo of a ditch. But, walking round Battlesbury, I realised why people feel compelled to do this. If you're lucky, the banks and ditches at hill forts are impressive. They can be pretty monumental. They're utterly sculptural. The light catches their shape. I felt an overwhelming urge to capture that at Battlesbury – but not being a photographer, I soon ended up with a series of weedy snaps. It was frustrating. I'm sure many people make a much better job of it, but I can't. And it's not just the forms – it's how to capture the space outwards, and the strange combination of silence and noise - the wind howls so hard your ears hurt, but yet it's tranquil and still up here.
I was thinking of the name 'Battlesbury' and how probably inappropriate it is. Well it seems appropriate as you walk round and see the firing range and the shells of tanks – directly next to the fort is the off-limits military part of Salisbury Plain. But truly, how much battle did this fort see in its day? It reminded me of something fitzcoraldo had said about ceramics – that the revolution in everyday life that this new technology must have brought seems barely discussed. Ok sherds are used for dating sites, but who needs pottery when you've got sharp pointy weapons to talk about. Maybe wars and skirmishes did go on, but there have been plenty in historic times too, yet most of the time people are getting on with ordinary life.
It struck me walking round that 'those banks and ditches didn't dig themselves' – they were a great deal of work to undertake. But it would have had its symbolic value, to bind the local people together, as well as to act as a clear visual symbol of their determination and strength, besides being a good physical defence. It's actually in a super spot here, as there are steep hills around on all sides. You'd be bloody knackered before you got anywhere near poking someone with a spear.
Exhausted after dashing up here in my usual half-panic I sat down with the view directly out to Cley Hill. This would definitely have been my favourite spot if I'd been living here in the Iron Age. I can tell you, Iron Age people definitely wore hoods, or if not, ear muffs. You wouldn't last ten minutes up here without them at this time of year, it'd be far too painful. I wondered about the other people whose favourite spot this had been too, looking out at Cley Hill all those years ago. I wondered if they knew the people who lived out there, maybe there were friends and relations and people they fancied. It's funny how these forts are so empty today and it's just you and the sheep, yet at the same time my thoughts are always centred on the experience of the people that lived here. I know it's just imagination to consider what went on, but you always know that the view and the weather were there the same.
[on a more useful, gradient related note: I think you can drive pretty much up to the level of the fort. I left the car opposite the footpath at ST 896462 but the path is steep and goes up some steps before levelling out - there's a kissing gate to get in. I think really you could park higher up the road (don't be put off by the enormous tank) and use the track at ST 898464, getting a pretty level walk to the fort (presumably there's then a gate). Once at the fort there's some element of clamber to get on the banks and walk round.]
Naturally you would assume that once upon a time a great battle was fought here - that was certainly the current story recorded by Ella Noyes in 1913 (and quoted in Katy Jordan's 'The Haunted Landscape' (2000)). There are indeed many camps around here, and battles have no doubt been fought (eg at Bratton) but Jordan supports the idea that the name originally came from the name Paettel - it's the burh of Paettel or 'Paettel'sburh' - and has gradually been changed over the years.
What is remarkable, at the south-west angle of the camp there are three barrows: one of them, a large circular tumulus, fills the entire space of the inner ditch; and the other two are placed in the line of the inner rampart. These last, on opening, proved to be sepulchral; but no interment could be discovered in the other. They are all evidently of anterior date to the camp itself, and throw some light on the era of its construction: for, as Sir Richard Hoare observes,
"We still see them untouched and respected, and the ground taken from excavations near the large barrow to raise the rampart, rather than disturb these ancient memorials of the dead. I doubt if the barbarous Saxons would have paid such a tribute of respect to their British predecessors."
Oh Sir Richard I so want to like you but do you not see any irony in your pronouncement at all.
Again Nicholas Thomas....but he is good on description.
"Battlesbury is irregular in shape, its defences following the contours of the hill. Its triple ramparts, double on the S.E. enclose 23.1/2 acres. There are entrances with outworks N.E. and N.W, Pits found within the fortifications contained late I/A pottery, the hub of a chariot wheel, an iron carpenter's saw and a latch-lifter for a hut door. These indicate permanent occupation and a date in the 1st C. That its inhabitants came to a violent end is indicated by the discovery of many graves containing men, women and children outside the N.W. entrance...It is not known whether roman legions put people to the sword, or whether this was the result of inter-tribal warfare before the roman conquest".
An interesting page about a dig carried out near Battlesbury camp, which uncovered the grave of a late Bronze Age boy buried with a Neolithic axe, the traces of roundhouses, and a Mediterranean coral bead, amongst other things.
Also there's a link to an e-book about excavations in the area along the southern range road from Battlesbury to Tilshead.