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Shadows and tall trees – Herefordshire hillforts 25 February 2012

Another weekend of crocked leg beckons, but the forecast is excellent and I am determined to get out somewhere. Since the turn of the year I have been largely visiting hillforts, filling in gaps that I have put off “for a rainy day”. And very rewarding it has been, particularly those in the borderland between England and Wales, where place-names are often an amalgam of the two languages and where few TMA-ers seem to visit. On our last Offa’s Dyke trip in January the bus home took us close to Wapley Hill, a hillfort I remember from my childhood but which I haven’t been near for twenty years. Time to rectify that particular omission then.

Wapley is a wooded hillfort, on Forestry Commission land at the very edge of Herefordshire (the nearby town of Presteigne is across the border in Wales). It appeals today partly as it will be a fairly short walk from the bus-route and partly because the time of year should make it easier to see the earthworks under the trees and vegetation.

The day starts promisingly with a beautiful sunrise across the River Severn/Hafren as the train skirts the Forest of Dean. The Black Mountains whizz by, splendid in the early morning sunshine. Then the bus ride from Hereford to Kington is a delight of rolling hills with the backdrop of the Black Mountains escarpment. As we leave Hereford, the bus passes close to Credenhill Camp and I make a mental note to get myself here soon as well. The final leg of public transport, a bus from Kington to Knighton, drops me off at Balls Corner, just north of the charming village of Titley. Then it’s feet the rest of the way.

A footpath (part of the Herefordshire Way long distance route) leaves the road at the hamlet of Stansbatch, crossing a paddock with two disinterested horses and then an open field, mercifully dry and mud-free today. The climb here is fairly steep and worth a pause to look backwards, as the Black Mountains come into clear view, the prow of Mynydd Troed marking the western edge. Beyond, further southwest, the Brecon Beacons are now visible as a lighter blue-grey line, the peaks of Cribyn, Pen y Fan and Corn Du, over thirty miles distant, standing sentinel over South Wales.

Across the field and I’m into the trees. The woodland here is mixed and actually quite open in comparison with the Welsh forests further west. Although there are tall conifers, they are relatively well-spaced and the sunlight diffuses pleasantly through the branches. Gladman’s photography skills would be rewarded here. The path follows a wide forestry track, climbing steadily as it goes.

I remember coming to Wapley Hill when I was at school, with my Dad. The visit sticks in my mind for a particular reason – Dad had found an injured bird (I can’t recall what it actually was, possibly a wood pigeon) and Wapley Hill was known to him as the home of The Birdman. That is to say, there was a guy who lived here who took in and tended injured birds. So we took the bird to see him and needless to say he took it from us. He also showed us the fort.

So with these thoughts in mind I carry on through the woods, meeting a dog walker on her way down as I go. At a junction of paths, there is a carved wooden seat, an owl about to take flight, and then other birds as well, a kingfisher, a buzzard. A small plaque on the side of the seat reads:

This seat is a gift from friends of Miles Baddeley 1936-2004 ‘Birdman of Wapley’ who lived here and loved this place

I’m happy and sad at once, another of those moments when my Dad seems that bit closer, that I’m coming to welcome at sites in this part of the world. And Miles Baddeley, I salute you as a gentleman, in the literal sense. You certainly deserve a memorial in such a lovely place.

The path continues uphill, past a house that I think may have been the Birdman’s home when we came all those years ago, now home to a couple of seemingly fierce (and very large) dogs, thankfully there’s a fence between us!

Wapley Hill — Fieldnotes

Immediately beyond the house, the trees stop and here’s the rampart and the entrance. Wow! I was expecting the fort to be in the trees but it’s not (other than parts of the outermost ramparts that the forest seems keen to reclaim into its darkness). The entrance is very impressive, banks turning inwards to funnel the visitor into a perfect trap, if so wished. The route takes a sharp turn to the left and then comes out into the fort itself. To my right the bank heads away enticingly, but I want to investigate the multivallate defences in the southwest corner first and so I head down off the inner rampart into the first ditch on that side. Inside the ditch, there is rather more vegetation, self-seeded trees and shrubs and plenty of brambles. I think a summer visit might be more of a challenge.

The inner bank is very well-preserved and towers above my head to a height of about 5 metres I would think. At which point I startle a small deer very close by, which disappears off towards the tree line. I can’t help grinning now, as it’s apparent that this is an absolutely magnificent fort. And it just gets better.

Beyond the inner ditch is another rampart, lower but still very impressive. The ditch outside that is much more overgrown and I don’t investigate further although I know there are another two lines of defences beyond that. Instead I head back into the inner ditch and follow it along to the southwestern corner of the fort. The manpower that must have been needed to make these enormous earthworks, using available tools, beggars belief. I suspect that if you put the entire population living within five miles of this site in 2012 (including Presteigne’s residents) onto it, it would be an undertaking of years.

At the southwestern corner, the ground slopes steeply away to the west. Fleetingly through the trees the unmistakable cone of The Whimble appears. What a vista this place would have if the trees all went! Turning northeast (the fort is triangular in plan), the steep slopes provide the fort with a natural defence that doesn’t require the same augmentation as I’ve seen so far. The nearby valley of Hindwell Brook, on its way to its imminent confluence with the River Lugg, is 200 metres lower than the fort. Forestry works are underway on the northern slopes, although not actively today.

I follow the northern rampart round, until the most awesome part of the fort becomes visible. The northeastern rampart is as strong as that on the south side. A gap allows passage alongside the top end of the rampart, where another rampart lies beyond, then another. In total, there are five separate lines of defence here, making this one of the most strongly built forts I have ever seen. As impressive as Maiden Castle, but without any fanfare, I would say this little known fort is up in the front rank of Iron Age earthworks.

Outside the two innermost ramparts, the earthworks are more overgrown and once again a summer visit might well be a bit more of a challenge. The “entrance” at the southeast corner is apparently a modern incision into the banks. There is a signboard there, next to a kissing gate that gives access to the fort. Personally I would recommend not coming to the fort this way, as you see the ramparts straight away, whereas the approach through the southern entrance allows the wonders of the site to unfold bit by bit.

I have to applaud the Forestry Commission (and English Heritage, with whom they have a partnership relationship for this place). The fact that the majority of the fort is now cleared and has been made open-access land is a brilliant thing and it deserves to be much better known.

Standing on the northeastern rampart, the outstanding views just keep on coming. Rolling hills of Mid-Wales over to the northwest, then NNE you can see The Long Mynd and another of the Marches’ premier hillforts, Caer Caradoc near Church Stretton, with The Lawley beyond. Looking northeast, the unmistakable scarp profile of Titterstone Clee draws the eye. Then round to the east, where Herefordshire rolls away in a landscape of pathwork fields and wooded hills, one of which I think is Credenhill Camp. I suspect if the trees were cleared the ridge of Croft Ambrey would also be visible. And round to the south and the Forest of Dean, then the Black Mountains edge and over once more to the Central Beacons. Wow.

Walking back along the southern rampart affords a good view of the interior, where ridge and furrow marks show past cultivation and pillow mounds evidence medieval use of the site. Towards the western end, passing the entrance once more, there is a fenced-off well, capped with a concrete lid. This is “ritual shaft” that was uncovered during excavation of the site in the middle of the 20th century. Not much to see now, but an intriguing bonus.

At length I decide to head off, as I realise now that the bus times would allow me to fit in a visit to Credenhill Camp on the way home. I walk back to Titley along the Herefordshire Way footpath, itself a pleasant stroll on a lovely sunny day. I don’t often “recommend” TMAers to visit particular sites, but Wapley Hill has deeply impressed me and it deserves your attention. Visit.

Credenhill Camp — Fieldnotes

The Kington bus deposits me near to Credenhill church. As this is an unprompted and unplanned visit, I don’t have a map (the horror), so I rely on the brown tourist sign pointing up a minor road (also signposted “Tillington”). I do at least have Children and Nash’s “Prehistoric Sites of Herefordshire” in my bag, so I have got a plan of the fort itself.

Reaching the parking area, there are a number of signboards about, including one with a picture of a rather stylised Iron Age warrior (nice blanket). Of more interest, given my maplessness, are the two trails shown on the plan. There’s a lower trail (red squares) and a higher “ramparts” trail (yellow triangles). Which proves to be invaluable and means that you can easily find your way around without a map.

The hilltop is managed by the Woodland Trust and they have allowed access to the whole site. There are quite a lot of cars parked up, so it looks like a popular spot.

The path climbs up through the trees, easy walking and not particularly steep. At length I come to a gate (yellow triangle painted on it) and the path curves round to the left. What appear to be earthworks, heavily tree-covered come into view on my left and then an enormous entrance looms. The forestry track cuts straight through and so do I. I don’t realise that I’ve missed a crucial yellow triangle, painted on a tree-trunk above the path to the right, just before it went through the rampart, so I’m actually walking onto the fort interior now. Signs warn me of forestry operations and eventually I emerge at the edge of trees onto a very large open space. Various forestry apparatus is about, but no people, so I carry on.

I’m now standing in the centre of the fort. The clearance extends for at least half of the site and a very big site it is too. The largest hillfort in Herefordshire by some distance, and bigger than Dorset’s Maiden Castle too. The views open out, the Black Mountains looking almost near enough to touch to the south, the Malverns more distant to the east. I cross the open and silent interior, heading for the far treeline. Here the vast rampart reveals itself, a tremendous earthen bank stretching away to my left and right around the northern end of the fort. Beyond there is a deep ditch, rather overgrown, and then the natural slope of the hill. I head westwards along the rampart, now back on the yellow triangles. At the northwestern corner I come across the “red squares” trail – it’s apparent that this gives a good view of the rampart from its outside.

I climb back up onto the inner trail and head south. The eastern rampart and ditch are strongly built and still rather awe-inspiring despite the covering vegetation. I think though that I’ve been rather spoiled by the earlier visit to Wapley Hill, as I’m not quite as blown away by this fort as I might otherwise have been.

The path re-enters the trees and once more I think of Gladman. I think you’d like it here Mr G. Unfortunately my camera battery is now almost dead, the sheer volume of earthworks seen today have been too much for it! I head around the southern rampart, back towards the entrance at the southeast corner where I first missed the yellow marker. Seen from above, the entrance is even more impressive, with massive inturned banks to daunt the visitor (friend or foe). I now carry on around the eastern side. The ditch is partly silted up here, a muddy plunge pool in one place. But the size of the earthwork is enough to make me stop and wonder, as I did at Wapley, the manpower that such an undertaking would have required.

Further along to the east is a second original entrance, again with inturned banks flanking it powerfully. I wonder why the two entrances are so close together? If, as has been speculated, this was a regional capital rather than a purely defensive site there must be some significance, but I have no idea what. Tradesmen’s entrance?

Back out of the trees, the light is now low and long shadows are cast. Sadly my camera gives up the ghost at this point. This turns out to be not all bad, as I spend a quiet time just sitting on the bank at the northeastern corner of the fort. It’s so quiet, the silence broken only when a woodpecker hammers away in the woods.

Eventually I head on, back along the northern rampart but this time head off the rampart onto the “red squares” trail. This gives a different perspective on the rampart from the outside, reinforcing its power. What a statement this place must have made.

It’s a lovely walk through quiet woods back to the village. As I emerge from the trees Ysgryd Fawr comes into view, basking in the pinky glow of the lowering sun. A perfect end to a perfect day. It seems these “rainy day” sites have more than enough wow-factor to hold their own.
thesweetcheat Posted by thesweetcheat
26th February 2012ce
Edited 27th February 2012ce

Comments (3)

Sounds like a wonderful day out. Maybe we should all visit some of our "Rainy Day" sites. They might surprise us ! Meic Posted by Meic
2nd March 2012ce
More good reading. postman Posted by postman
2nd March 2012ce
Thank you both.

Mike, you're right, there's some real treasures out there.
thesweetcheat Posted by thesweetcheat
2nd March 2012ce
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