A retrospective check of the 'log book' divulges the slightly unwelcome fact that I last visited here back in June 2001. Yeah, doesn't time (seem to) fly? More to the point, I guess, is the realisation that the Iron Age earthworks didn't make that much of an impression upon the would-be prehistoric antiquarian back then, the - it has to be said - frankly bonkers Norman motte apparently having blown the somewhat younger mind. To be fair the incredible 80ft castle mound is peerless in its class ... if I understand correctly, second only to the one and only Silbury in the UK artificial mound stakes. Yeah, I know. There's no comparison. But nonetheless.... simultaneous plaudits and pity are due to those poor Saxon peasants who no doubt struggled to raise this monster for their Norman 'overlords'.
It therefore fair knocks me back to approach this time around from Castle Hill - that is to the north - and come face to face with towering bivallate banks... and I mean towering. Hell yeah! According to Norfolk HER records excavation has proved these to be of Iron Age origin, although no doubt 'touched up a bit' a millennium or so later. The surviving defences form a roughly east/west barrier, the original plan, although not clear to me, possibly using the loop in the River Thet (and presumably, resulting marsh?) as natural defence to other points of the compass? A sort of promontory fort, without the promontory. Or something like that. Whatever, impressive in the extreme.
Which is a lot more than can be said about the tediously puerile, pathetic reaction of a group of Thetford's yoof to a lone man daring to take pictures of this wonderful site. Vile chants - I'll spare you the details - ring out from the top of the motte.... safety in numbers. Sure, I'm intimidated by such odds. But I won't back down. Oh no, not with such wondrous evening light playing upon these ancient, and slightly-not-so-ancient earthworks. Later on I climb to the top of the motte for a rare, aerial view of a hillfort and meet another group of 'yoofs', one of whom again states a distaste toward me taking images. Why? Well, clearly (?!?) it proves I'm a pervert. Sorry... don't get your logic. Hmm. Call me what you will. But I will not stand for that. I really, really hope I'm wrong. Truly, I do... But the young man doth protest too much, methinks.
Hence there are conflicting emotions generated from a return to Thetford. Wonder at the overpowering, overwhelming nature of not only the Norman, but Iron Age defences. And sadness at what visitors to 'in-town' sites sometimes have to go through. I would therefore recommend you take a friend, just to be on the safe side. But please go. Don't let the bastards grind you down. Having said that, I found Castle Hill difficult to locate. So no change there, he says. In retrospect, make your way to the roundabout co-joining the A1088 and A1066 (Hurth Way) and look out for Castle Street - bit of a give-away, that. The earthworks will rise up to your left... parking is within a small free car park (signposted).
[visited 10/1/03] Head into Thetford from the direction of the A1075 and you should go straight past this amazing earthwork. I took the road just before it and parked on the road just past it. This site is visually very rich though I believe most of the visible earthworks are Norman. The huge mound is very reminicent of Silbury Hill, though nowhere near as large. Plus this mound is surrounded by buildings and ramparts.
Watch out for the excessive mud in January as it makes climbing the Motte an "interesting" addition to the day.
The central mound is termed by the townspeople the "High Castle Hill," and the ascent may be made by various paths, two of which are called the "running path" and "the steps." One of the ramparts is called the "wooded hill," and the others are known as the "little hills." [...]
On the summit of the Castle Hill there is a strange depression from 8 to 10 feet below the surrounding ramparts, and in this five elms were planted in 1823 and still flourish. [...] Almost every person who visits this hill after a lapse of years is convinced that the depression at the top has been greatly lowered in the interval, but for this there appears to be no foundation in fact.
[...] It has been supposed that the ballast from the ditches would not have sufficed to build up the ramparts and mound - the latter alone being nearly 1000 feet in circumference at the base - and local tradition says that the big Gallows' Pits a few hundred yards away were partly excavated for this purpose.
Tradition throws little light upon the possible origin of the Castle Hill. It is said that after the devil completed the long dykes at Narborough and Newmarket - both are mentioned - he jumped to Thetford, swirled round on one foot and made the earthworks. He is still alleged to haunt a depression - sometimes a muddy pool - in the moat north-east of the wooded hill, and will appear if one walks around seven times at midnight.
One tradition states that there was formerly a splendid royal castle on the site of the hill. It was filled with treasures, which at some period were in danger owing to the raid of a neighbouring tribe. The king, therefore, assembled his mighty men, and by their united efforts the castle and treasure were hidden beneath this huge mound of earth. Tradition, unfortunately, does not state why they were left there. Perhaps, however, the most general belief concerning the hill is that beneath it are seven silver bells, brought hither from the church of the Cluniac Priory, a tradition implicitly accepted by many inhabitants of the town.
From 'Thetford Castle Hill' by W G Clarke, in 'Norfolk Archaeology' v16, 1907.
The mound is the result of the devil scraping his spade after he'd dug his 'Devil's Ditches' in the locality. If you walk round the hill seven times at midnight you'll get to meet him. A hollow in the hill is known as 'the Devil's Hole'.
There are also said to be golden or silver bells buried in the mound.
The castle was Norman, but the earthworks are from a previous Iron Age hillfort. The mound is 80ft high, so is one of the largest man-made mounds in the country. It uses the river as defence as well as a double rampart, and possibly controlled the ford of the Icknield Way where it crosses that river.