Fort for the Day

 

The view from Warton Crag. Any threatening sails in sight?

Ever since I was a child I’ve known what was on top of Warton Crag. Everyone round here knew. The four neat gothic letters on the Ordnance Survey map merely confirmed that knowledge: fort. More precisely, it was an Iron Age hill fort. Three concentric walls – tumble-down, entwined with tree roots and very difficult to make out. But they were there. They’d been there since before the Romans came. And they’d been recognised as a Scheduled Ancient Monument by the men from the Ministry.

Antiquarian William Hutchinson’s 1789 sketch of the fortifications on Warton Crag

Alas for the certainties of childhood! Historic England has now put us all right. There is no fort on top of Warton Crag.  After more than a year spent examining a detailed Lidar (Light detection and ranging ) survey, Historic England’s Historic Places Investigation Team (HPIT) have reached an historic conclusion: the walls that crown the Crag are “some form of non-defensive hilltop enclosure, possibly dating to the late Bronze Age.”

So why are the experts so sure that we’ve all been mistaken for so long? Sadly, their arguments seem pretty convincing.

  • The highest parts of the wall that survive are a metre and a half tall. They are made from up-ended stones – too tall and thin to support another layer. The wall is too low to repel attackers or protect defenders
  • The walls are not all constructed in the best possible defensive position.
  • When the builders dug up limestone pavement for building material they didn’t dig on the outside of the wall, ie they didn’t attempt to make a defensive ditch.
  • The walls have too many gates to make them easily defensible.
  • There is no permanent source of drinking water inside the walls.

“What is plain,” they conclude, “is that Warton Crag…is not an enclosure constructed with defensibility as a major consideration, and for that reason should be dismissed as an Iron Age hill fort.”

So goodbye then to all those boyhood daydreams where the rugged tribesfolk of Warton spy the war-like sails approaching across the Bay and shout: “Quick, the enemy is upon us, fall back to the fort!” It couldn’t have happened. Even less likely is the idea of the villagers shouting: “Quick…fall back on the non-defensive hilltop enclosure.”

But I need to be adult about this. We want and need new research. And if the facts change we need to change with them. Nothing Historic England has said destroys the importance of Warton Crag as an archaeological site. The walls have turned out (probably) to be older than we thought: Bronze Age rather than Iron Age. And there is an intriguing new conundrum to chew over. If it isn’t a fort, what on earth is it?

Historic England detects similarities between Warton Crag and other sites, particularly a place called Gardom’s Edge in Derbyshire. This seems to have been an important centre for tribes dealing in livestock: “A central place for the gathering of local herdsmen where animals could be sorted, exchanged or served…feuds settled or bonds renewed between communities.”

So there we are. It’s definitely not a fort. It could be a kind of hill-top cattle market. Less like “Vikings” with Kirk Douglas and more like “All Creatures Great and Small” with that nice Robert Hardy.

What we need now is some trowel-in-the-ground exploration to tell us more. It’s all really very intriguing. I’m getting used to this idea. I really am.

 

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