Stopped off at Belsar's Hill during the course of a long-delayed visit to the wondrous Stonea Camp... and duly discovered that it was round-about here that the equally wondrous Hereward The Wake gave William the Bastard's lot a bloody nose in 1071. Or rather a damn good soaking... OK, only 'yesterday' in terms of TMA, I know, but of fundamental importance in proving The Bastard wasn't exactly 'the people's choice' as he liked to pretend. Belsar's Hill lies due east(ish) of the Cambridgeshire village of Willingham - appropriately enough within Willingham Fen - and is reached by a rather unusual, single track 'causeway' road. A causeway across what is now dry ground. At least today. Parking is available at the gated entrance to a public access green track - the fabled Aldreth Causeway leading to The Isle of Ely, once a virtually impregnable fenland redoubt. Yeah, Hereward knew his stuff. How William must have cursed. An information noticeboard relates the history... and duly throws a great big oily spanner in the works by stating that the enclosure bisected by the track is private, out of bounds. You what? Why?
However, despite copious barbed-wire, there are (currently) gaps.... and somehow I, er, inadvertently take the wrong turn, finding myself upon the circular bank of this.... well.... guess it depends on your point of view? Although nowhere near the 4m quoted from other sources, the defences are relatively upstanding - quite substantial, in fact - the morning mist - fog even - evoking an ethereal vibe. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the site is the sheer circumference... in my experience much too large to be of Norman origin, looking very much a typical Iron Age enclosure. But what better place for a Norman army besieging Ely to make its base camp, its home.... following some necessary improvements? Yeah, on balance I'm happy to go with the 'Iron Age adapted by Norman' hypothesis. It's not exactly unknown, is it?
The sun gets to work upon the mist mantle and, suddenly, I'm basking beneath a pristine blue sky. In late March? Whatever next? The enclosure actually continues to the east of the green track, again out of bounds to the general public. However once again gaps in the fence afford access. The bank here is much more denuded - shame on them - but nevertheless remains, a couple of horses looking on in that trademark combination of curiosity/fear so typical of those wonderful creatures.
I'm also far from happy with access to this legendary, lost site. The Normans got a severe kicking from the local resistance and.... I'd never heard of it. Strange that. One can only assume the ghosts of the original builders - assuming they were Iron Age - placed 'the mockers' upon the sour-faced barbarians for violating their former home. Right on!
In Willingham field, on the edge of the fen, about half of a circular entrenchment remains, which, when entire, contained about six acres; it consists of a high vallum and a ditch, and is situated near the end of Aldreth causeway, leading across the fens towards Ely: this entrenchment s known by the name of Belsar's hills, and is supposed to have been thrown up by William the Conqueror, when he beseiged the isle of Ely; it seems, nevertheless, more probable, from the resemblance it bears to the two works already noticed, of Vandlebury and Arbury, that it was originally a British work, afterwards occupied by the Conqueror, who probably threw up some additional works: it must at all times have been a very important station, as commanding the pass into the isle of Ely.
This source's phrasing seems to suggest a local story, rather than just an academic theory? From p74 of Magna Brittanica, by David Lysons, 1808 (vol2, pt1, Cambridgeshire). Online at Google Books.
The story of the seige is dramatised in Kingsley's 1865 'Hereward the Wake', as it was Hereward (and others) that resisted the Normans' move into Ely. Belasius, one of William's knights, is able to capture the city by bribing some of the monks to show him a safe route across the marshes. Hereward escapes to fight another day.
The round banks at Belsar's Hill rise up to 4m high - but although this site was originally an Iron Age fort, it was reused in (perhaps) William the Conquerer's time, and also in medieval times [info from SMR on MAGIC].
A green lane runs through the centre of Belsar's Hill - the Aldreth Causeway. It runs through the marshes to the Isle of Ely. It seems reasonable to suppose this route is at least as old as the original fort? Dyer's 'Southern England' says that Bronze Age artifacts have been found beside this causeway. The surrounding marshes would have surely put off anyone from sneaking up to this fort by any route other than the causeway.