Visited Sunday 23 May 2010
It was already very hot when we made our way mid-morning from Devizes along Quaker's Way up by Roundway Hill to Oliver's Castle. In restrospect it was probably unwise to embark on an 11 mile walk along a section of the Mid Wilts Way during one of our rare heatwaves. The highlight for me was definitely reaching Oliver's Castle.
Once up there the heat was relieved by a breeze, the views, needless to say, were spectacular. I noticed a small glimpse of purple in the grass and went to investigate; was treated to the sight of a whole bank of early purple (or fragrant) orchids. I have never seen wild orchids in such abundance - on the grassy slopes of a hillfort.
Oliver's Castle is truly fantastic. I'd go so far as to say it beats Adam's Grave hands down* (so long as you don't want a longbarrow)..
It need require no uphill walking, which will please some people. If driving here persevere and park at SU 004647 - the track is perfectly flat and navigable though you might initially feel you're heading off into the back of beyond.
Stroll down the path to the end of the fort.. and you will be gobsmacked by the view. Surely you can see the whole world from up here? Well of course you can't really, but it's a manageable size universe, and I think that's why it has such appeal. It looks like all the everything you could require. It might not be the grand vista from a more dramatic mountain, but it's more fertile and comfy.
The barrows couldn't be in a better spot, stuck out right at the end. But the manmade lumps and bumps are utterly overshadowed by their natural counterparts - to the north of the fort are the most amazing undulating intricately folded dry valleys. The light when I visited made them look even nicer. You want to roll down them or something.
The fort is sprinkled with beech trees, with their obligatory bubbled carved writing on the trunks, but they masquerade as scots pines from afar, because they are so wind blown. It is very windy up here. The site is a nature reserve, and is full of lovely plants at the moment - beautiful pink sainfoin, thyme and greater knapweed, and many others. [A few weeks later and it was a botanist's dream].
*Is this sheer exaggeration? You'll have to visit and find out.
The camp was more anciently called Roundway or Rundaway Castle, and its present name of Oliver's Camp or Castle seems to have arisen out of a popular tradition that Oliver Cromwell occupied, if he did not actually build, the camp. The only foundation in fact for this tradition is that the battle of Roundway in 1643 was fought on the neighbouring Downs, when some of the combatants may have been posted close to, if not actually within, the boundary of the camp. Cromwell himself was not present on the occasion, but the fact that Cromwellian troops fought on the adjacent Downs was quite enought to give rise in the course of time to the popular association of the camp with the name of the great man himself. Cromwell has always loomed large in the imagination of the people, and it has been said that he has achieved an unenviable notoriety only second to the Devil himself.
Notes on Excavations at Oliver's Camp Near Devizes, Wilts.
M. E. Cunnington
Man, Vol. 8. (1908), pp. 7-13.
The Parliamentary Western Army because they were pretty much demolished by the Royalists at the Down. Their cavalry were forced over the steep escarpment just north of Oliver's Castle, and "in fact" more men died of their falls than did in the battle. It's said that 800 of them still lie where they fell*, so it wouldn't be surprising if this place has a strange reputation. It's immensely steep - in fact unless you see some people at the base of the hill it's actually quite difficult to appreciate how far up you are and how steep it is.
*I think this little factoid might be in Katy Jordan's 'Haunted Landscape'.
Headless Ghost.--On Roundway Down a headless ghost is said to walk. Some years ago a shepherd declared that he met it, that it walked some distance by his side, and then vanished. The gentleman to whom he told the story asked why he did not speak to the ghost. "I was afraid," he replied, "for if I hadn't spoken proper to him he'd a tore 'un to pieces." A barrow is near the place, which was excavated some time ago, when a skeleton (not headless) was found. Since the barrow was opened the ghost has ceased to walk.
Death and Burial Customs in Wiltshire
L. A. Law; W. Crooke
Folklore, Vol. 11, No. 3. (Sep., 1900), pp. 344-347.
I don't know how well this equates to the source of the following:
We have been reading the story of the man who carried his head under his arm and disappeared by a barrow on Roundway Hill, near Devizes, but has not been seen since the opening of the barrow and the finding therein of a skeleton lying on its left side in a doubled-up position.*
You can see that the area around Oliver's Castle has attracted a lot of folklore over the years. It seemingly continues to collect Strange Stories.
Oliver's Castle is (according to Miller and Broadhurst's book 'The Sun and the Serpent') one of those spots where the country-traversing Michael and Mary Leys cross each other. "There was a node just yards from the prehistoric dew pond, in the middle of the central enclosure."
Katy Jordan includes the following story in her 'Haunted Landscape' book. It's rather like the story of St Dunstan, who pinches the devil's nose with his red-hot blacksmith's pincers. Remember, the line of the blacksmith goes back to the awesome way skilled people could create metal objects out of rocks. And don't forget, if you've got a bit of iron in your pocket you'll be safe from the fairies at the very least.
Many years ago there lived at St Edith's Marsh, Bromham, a blacksmith whom the Devil was very anxious to convert for his purposes. The unfortunate thing was that all his envoys, the devilkins, could not win the blacksmith over. As a last resort the Devil called on the blacksmith at his forge in the shape of a very well-dressed gentleman. The blacksmith recognised him, however, and clapped the red-hot horseshoe he was making onto the heel of the Devil, causing him to jump into the air. Legend says that he landed on Roundway Hill, at the spot still known as the Devil's Jump. As a result of this experience the Devil does not like the shape of the horseshoe and will always avoid it. Thus many people nail a horseshoe over the door of their house to keep this evil one away.
Kathleen Wiltshire, in her 'More Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside' spoke to a young couple who had experienced something there in September 1973. They were walking there one evening when suddenly a mist came down. As it got thicker they saw several trotting white horses. 'A strange atmosphere prevailed' and both the young people felt very scared. The horses disappeared into the mist, and slowly this too disappeared.
White horses are rather a Celtic motif, if you would like to read that into the story.
For some reason, I just find this stretch of hills fantastic and inspiring to look at, with its mad chalk undulations. Legend has it that a man carrying his head under his arm haunts Roundway Down above the fort. This area is famous for its Civil War battle - but perhaps the ghost isn't associated with this era as you might expect. A Mr R Coward, who farmed at Roundway, stated that on three occasions prior to 1848 the apparition appeared to people he knew, and they had been drawn by the ghost towards an almost imperceptible barrow. The barrow was opened in 1855, and (perhaps) the figure hasn't been seen since. But the vicinity is also haunted by a black dog - his arrival is announced by the sound of chains rattling.
This information was told to Kathleen Wiltshire in 1960, and is in her book 'Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside'.
At the foot of the hill the map shows 'Mother Anthony's Well' (ST 999642). Apparently it is probable that a major Roman shrine was associated with this spring*... and could this have been a continuation of earlier beliefs?