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Prehistoric Sites of the Malverns

By Liam Rogers

Published at Imbolc 2001

The Malvern range dominates the local skyline; the hills form a north-south axis stretching for eight miles, rearing a thousand feet above the surrounding plain. The name of Malvern itself comes from the ancient British moel-bryn, or "the bare hill", and was first recorded as Maelfern in around 1020 CE. Stray finds from the Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods have been found on the hills, probably from passing flint traders - for example flint flakes and a stone axehead have been discovered on the Worcestershire Beacon - but actual evidence of settlement comes later in the Bronze Age.

Mathon Mid-Late Bronze Age Cemetery

By 1000 BCE or earlier, a settlement seems to have existed at Mathon. In 1910 a mid-late Bronze Age cemetery was discovered at Southend Farm, where the remains of at least thirteen cremation burials were unearthed. Some of the burials were surrounded by and overlaid with flat stones, and fragments of bucket-shaped urns decorated with bosses were discovered - suggesting similarities with the Urnfield culture of the continent. It was thought that the Urnfield culture (or Halstatt A & B) had not been taken up in Britain until c.800 BCE, but associated with the burials were bronze lance-heads dated to 1600-1000 BCE. In 1937 an urn of definite mid Bronze Age provenance came to light, it had an overhanging rim and was patterned with incised parallel lines, chevrons, and dots. Finds nearby suggest continued use well into the Iron Age.

Bronze Age Burials on the Northern Hills

Just two miles east of Mathon, further burials were found atop Worcestershire Beacon and North Hill. An eighteenth century book (M.Southall's Description of Malvern) mentions a collapsed tumulus on North Hill known as the Giant's Grave, and another possible one just to the south on Table Hill. In 1849, Private Harkiss discovered a cremation on the south side of a summit-top cairn on Worcestershire Beacon - ashes, a skull and other bones, and a decorated urn were uncovered. To the north of the cairn was a second cremation. If connected with the probable settlement at Mathon, there may be some symbolic significance in these hilltop mounds - which may have been visible on the eastern skyline from Mathon. Between North Hill and Worcestershire Beacon is the well-known St.Anne's Well which may have been in use even in the Bronze Age. Roy Palmer speculates that its name may come from the Celtic goddess Anu.

The Shire Ditch Barrows

Midway along the range (heading south now), on the summit of Perseverance Hill, are two round barrows that may date to as far back as the early Bronze Age. Lying by the thirteenth century Shire Ditch, both barrows were robbed out long ago, and now resemble doughnuts. The barrows are only visible from higher hilltops, not from the surrounding countryside, or from the approaching slopes - you tend to almost trip over them in surprise as they suddenly pop up! The matter of the visibility (or otherwise) of prehistoric monuments is a complex and uncertain one, but Children and Nash speculate that:

"... it may be that the barrows act not only as burial monuments, but also as either territorial markers or even symbolic places within the landscape. Previously, during the Neolithic, areas around chambered tombs may well have had access restricted to certain strata of society, and these restrictions may have been later adapted to exclude visitors to ritual or sacred areas around Early Bronze Age barrows."

Before moving on, follow the Shire Ditch on a little and peer over the quarry to a field below. You may notice a suspiciously round grassy mound in the corner of the field - it may be a round barrow that the Ordnance Survey haven't noticed. It stands just east of Upper Welland at around SO 407 777.

The Colwall Stone

To the west of these barrows, just west of Colwall train station, is a monolith standing at a crossroads. The Colwall stone has several stories surrounding it. A giant is thought to have hurled it there from Clutter's cave (see later) after seeing his wife with another man, killing her. Another story says it was due to a boundary dispute between two giants, they agreed that one should throw the stone over the hills and where it landed should be the boundary between their lands. A third option was told to Alfred Watkins - the Devil was carrying the stone and his apron strings broke at this spot. It is also believed to turn around nine times when it hears midnight strike.

Palmer says that the stone was only set up in the late eighteenth century, but Smith claims that it is a replacement of an earlier monolith. Therefore we cannot rule out the possibility that a genuine Bronze Age standing stone once stood here or nearby.

Herefordshire Beacon or British Camp

Allegedly the site of British warlord Caratacus's last stand against the Romans, this mighty hillfort may well have housed the British leader but was certainly not his last stand, as anyone who has read Tacitus will know.

It is, however, one of the most spectacular Iron Age hillforts in Britain. Originally only the summit of the hill was enclosed by banks and ditches, but later huge extensions were created to the north and south. The ditches are still very impressive, and to really understand the strength of the defences is to try to storm them from the east (no chance from the west!). The ditches would have been deeper over two thousand years back, the banks higher and defended by further walls or fences - and you'd be under attack from arrows, slingshots, and maybe boiling oil! The four entrances once had guard towers and heavy wooden gates. It was a mighty fortress indeed.

It was probably much more than a fortress, however, since it probably housed a large permanent population (of maybe two thousand people) and rectangular four-posted buildings were set out over virtually the whole of the thirteen hectare interior. The fort may have had a symbolic or religious function as well. Brian Hoggard has noted that from here the equinoctial sun rises over the Bambury stone within Kemerton Camp on Bredon Hill, and many other hillforts are visible on a clear day. That pottery from the Malvern area has turned up in the Bredon Hill area suggests this alignment may reflect economic links as well as, possibly, an understanding of temporal and spatial cosmological ideas.

British Camp had no internal water supply but several nearby springs existed. One lay to the east under the present reservoir, also Walm's or Waum's Well to the south, and Pewtress Spring to the north. This last was probably the spring where William Langland fell asleep and had his Vision of Piers Plowman in the fourteenth century. He describes British Camp as such (I have updated the language):

"As I beheld to the east and high to the sun,
I see a tower on a choicely knoll made,
A deep dale beneath, a fortress therein,
With deep ditches and dark and dreadful of sight."

The tower may have been a Norman castle that stood in the centre of the fort since 'The Citadel' here is thought to be a Norman motte. By the side of the good old Shire Ditch as you leave the southern gate is a small long mound. Archaeologists, not really having a clue, call such sites 'pillow mounds' and reckon they may be medieval rabbit warrens.

Clutter's Cave

Also known as Giant's Cave and Waum's Cave (after the spring that once lay beneath it) this is an artificial cave that lies just to the south-west of the pillow mound. Its age is a mystery, but one has to guess that it was the hangout of some hermit in the Middle Ages. This is where one story has a giant throw the Colwall Stone from, and a smooth-faced stone that lay beneath it (called the 'Sacrificial Stone') is rumoured to have once either been the cave's doorway or a site for sacrifice. A person reclining upon the stone will find it quite a snug fit, and their head would be in a great position for chopping off.

Smith notes a belief that from the cave the sun can be seen to set on Midsummer's day over Arthur's Stone Neolithic chambered tomb, and that the same day's sun rises over Sunrising Hill in the Cotswolds. There is nothing to block the view of Arthur's Stone from sight looking out of entrance to the cave, but you'd need a clear day and good eyesight. To see the Cotswolds, you'd need to stand on top of the cave. I've checked it out on a map and have found a slight problem - it's a load of rubbish.

However, Alfred Watkins reports the possibility that when the Midsummer sun rises over the ridge of Clutter's Cave, the rays fall upon the Sacrificial Stone. Watkins proposed a ley connected with Clutter's Cave. In alignment with the cave and stone are the Gospel Oak by the Ridgeway, three churches and the highest point of Aconbury Camp. The last site is the only one of any relevance, and then only if Clutter's Cave was used by the Iron Age inhabitants of British Camp.

Midsummer Hill Iron Age Hillfort

A mile or two south of British Camp is this largely wooded fort which spans both Midsummer and Holybush Hills. It is less visually impressive due to the trees but is of a similar design, although it may have only had two entrances at the north and south. it also boasts a much larger pillow mound which looks temptingly like a long barrow - indeed Painter claimed it as such in the 'sixties. There is also a large round mound, and two smaller ones which have been claimed as round barrows. All are unlikely, but far from impossible. If such claims are correct, then Midsummer Hill was an important site.

The ramparts were made of an earthen wall given a vertical face by a stone revetment. At places this revetment is still visible. The two entrances are inturned as is common in hillforts of this period (c.390 BCE). Oblong wooden buildings were built within the ramparts upon semi-circular platform, as is also the case at British Camp. Around half the buildings contained hearths and were thus probably houses of wood and wattle and daub. Up to 1,500 people may have lived here. Unlike British Camp, Midsummer Hill had springs within its ramparts.

Duck-stamped pottery similar to that found at Bredon Hill was found at Midsummer Hill, and was probably produced locally and exported to the inhabitants of Bredon Hill. Around 48 CE, the Romans seem to have brought Midsummer Hill's settlement to a violent end, and many huts showed signs of fire. Talking of fire, Watkins reckoned the hill was a beacon site, and claimed that he'd proved it by excavation. This might even explain the hill's name since Watkins thought such beacon fires may have acted as a "substitute sun". Of course there may still be an alignment with the Midsummer sun when viewed from some unknown place. Anyone got any ideas?

Bibliography

G.Children & G.Nash, Prehistoric Sites of Herefordshire, Logaston, 1994
Brian Hoggard, "Dead Sunny", The Ley Hunter #125, 1996
William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman, Everyman, 1995
K.S.Painter, Regional Archaeologies: The Severn Basin, Heinemann, 1967
Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Hereford & Worcester, Logaston, 1992
Brian S.Smith, A History of Malvern, Alan Sutton, 1978
S.C.Stanford, The Malvern Hillforts (3rd edition), Malvern Hills Conservators, 1988
Tacitus, The Agricola and the Germania, Penguin, 1970
Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, Abacus, 1974

Editor's Note

For those unfamiliar with this part of the UK, draw a line between the English cities of Birmingham and Bristol (in central and western England); from the mid-point take a line directly west for around 40 miles (65km) to find the Malvern Hills.