You know... the more hillforts I visit, the more I'm convinced that there is a far greater symbolic aspect to them than is usually attributed by the authors of guidebooks and academics. In short, I guess what I'm suggesting is that in not all cases was defence the primary, overriding concern of the inhabitants. Far from being simply 'fortified villages', I reckon they performed a serious spiritual function, too, perhaps recognising that 'the spiritual world' was as tangible to peoples' everyday lives as the basic human necessities of water, food and shelter? Cow Castle is, I think, a case in point.
I decide not to take the longer, northern approach from Simonsbath - lazy sod - but walk from Horsen Farm at the terminus of a minor road leaving the Simonsbath/Braysford road at Blue Gate [incidentally also the route of The Two Moors Way]. I think it was the old time, cheesy entertainer Max Bygraves who's catchphrase was 'I want to tell you a story'. Well, the stream which flows roughly eastwards towards Great Ferny Ball says more or less the same thing... but with infinitely more style. Yeah, the traveller is compelled to literally 'go with the flow' towards what lies unseen 'around the corner'. Upon meeting a ford I decide to take the higher approach via the aforementioned Great Ferny Ball, to be rewarded with a jaw dropping view of Cow Castle to the north... in its magical landscape setting, within a natural ampitheatre of encircling hills. Is 'jaw dropping' over-eulogizing, perhaps? To be honest, I don't think so. A military engineer might disagree with Cow Castle's placement, but not those with a permanent spot reserved within the psyche for wild, uncompromising, down right beautiful landscapes.
A sharp descent brings me back to the main track [stay on this if you prefer and so avoid the climb] and a wooden bridge across the River Barle, followed by another crossing its tributary, White Water. Here a steep ascent northwards brings the traveller to the summit of Cow Castle. Just how a cow is supposed to get up here is anyone's guess? But there you are. Perhaps utilising rocket assisted cow take off, or something. The ramparts aren't exactly the most formidable you'll encounter, granted, but they are pretty well preserved, with entrances - original, I think - to south-east and north-east, the latter, it would appear, with additional outworks. So this was clearly a pretty defensible enclosure, well protected against surprise attack. And only your wannabe Beserker would attempt to storm it, surely? Not with flanks that steep. OK, our military engineer would no doubt cite the higher, surrounding hills as a weakness. Perhaps. But then again - even though we aren't talking anything as extreme as, say The Chesters up near Edinburgh - I reckon the inhabitants just felt compelled to occupy this isolated hilltop, no matter what. Their home just HAD to be here, perhaps to gain some supernatural protection, perhaps in veneration of a long time spiritual site? In many ways the landscape says it all, the enclosure more or less surrounded by water courses, save a gap to the north.... a 'meeting of the waters', no less. There are possibly other clues, too, most notably that the enclosure ditch is traceable on the INSIDE of the ramparts at several points. That this apparent absurdity echoes henge structure may be coincidental, or it may not?
Many walkers pass by below my hilltop perch. None, however, take the effort to join me. Consequently the vibe remains intact. Yeah, there's definately more to these hillforts than meets the eye.
This is my favourite spot on exmoor. For the best vibe walk from Simonsbath. The path will wind its way along the edge of a moorland valley and after half an hour it'll open out to reveal cow castle. This is a most serene place. There's a stiff climb up to the top of the castle but when up there you can see moors and valleys stretching out in all directions. I've been there in every type of weather and it's beautiful in the sun and beautiful on the filthiest day. The sky is enormous here and you can lie on your back and wait for the mothership. It's the best two hours you can spend on the moor. Almost total wilderness but a gentle area as well. And if you've got the time check out Shoulsbury castle near Mole chamber and five cross way about three miles west of simonsbath. This is a huge hill fort and on a clear day you can see to Bodmin moor.
Cow castle (aka Ring Castle) was built by the pixies at the confluence of the Barle and White Water. The good pixies were constantly at war with the bad mine spirits. The pixie queen decided to build the castle on this conical hill. Each stone and turf was carefully imbued with the memory of a good deed. Thus the whole place was infused with good vibes and the evil mine spirits just couldn't get in.
The Reverend George Tugwell (in his North Devon Scenery Book of 1863 - and noted in Bord's 2004 'Fairy Sites') also said that the fairies placed a standing stone at the entrance, and that people had seen them as bright lights flying around the fort.
In Toulson's 'Moors of the Southwest 1' (1983) she describes a conical outcrop of rock which is just to the south of Cow Castle, near the river. It is known as the Calf, and she says it was this that the fairies built to protect themselves from the earth spirits.