The restoration of Wooston Castle

I went on Thursday and had a look around a project which is in the process of restoring Wooston Castle. This was a project I was involved with when I worked for the National Trust. Wooston Castle is part of Fingle Woods – the joint partnership project between the NT and the Woodland Trust.

Many people will be familiar with Wooston Castle, the Iron Age hill fort above the River Teign and they may have thought that the open area you can visit today is the total extent of the place.

Wooston map 2
This map however shows that the hill fort is actually much more extensive – the open area people visit is the ‘circular’ part at the top of the map – but there are number of deep ditches running away to the south – these are currently under trees – mostly conifers.

The hatched area on the map is the extent of the Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM). Thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund the WT and the NT have been able to devise a project to clear all the trees from the SAM and if the Stage 2 HLF bid is successful (decision expected within a month) then a series of archaeological projects will be carried out over the next 5 years to try and understand more about Wooston Castle.

Wooston Lidar
The NT and the WT have already been able to carry out a LiDAR survey of the valley (courtesy of HLF funding) and one of the early outputs is this wonderful 3D terrain map of the ditches at Wooston Castle. In total the SAM is around 15 acres in extent.

Working in parallel with the survey and research aspects of the project work has now begun to clear the trees off the entire area.

Wooston 4
This is an area that has been cleared adjacent to the road which runs from the Saw Mill car park to the Wooston Car Park

Wooston 1This is the ditch at the very southern end of the site

Wooston 2Same ditch looking the other way

Wooston 3An old oak tree on the ditch

Wooston 5This is another ditch in the middle of the site between the road and the Castle

It will be really interesting to see this site reappear from the trees as the felling continues. In addition to restoring the open status of Wooston Castle it will also create a large area of open habitats (a very rare feature in Fingle Woods) which will hopefully benefit wildlife such as pearl bordered fritillary butterflies.

There are many more questions than answers when it comes to our understanding of Wooston Castle but hopefully over the next few years some of these will begin to be answered. If the HLF Stage 2 application is successful it is proposed that some excavations will take place.

We might then begin to understand what the purpose was of the ditches to the south of the ‘main’ fort was and why there are four blind alley ditches.

We might even have a chance of understanding how Wooston Castle relates to the two other nearby Iron Age hill forts Prestonbury and Cranbrook (both less than a mile away) – were they contemporaneous, all occupied at the same time etc etc?

Exciting times ahead and with a bit of luck it might encourage some academic archaeologists to get involved with the site and help unravel the mysteries of two to three thousand years ago.

Maiden Castle – more amazing than Stonehenge?

We visited Maiden Castle on the way back from Poole yesterday. It is an huge and amazing Iron Age Hill fort just outside Dorchester. It is owned and managed by English Heritage and is open all year round – access is free. See here for more details.

The site originally dates back to the Neolithic (c 5500 years ago) when a small settlement was located on the top of the hill at the eastern end. However the huge ring ditches which characterise the site were constructed by Iron Age people around 800BC. At that time several hundred people lived on the site.

In 43AD the Romans came and defeated the inhabitants and set up a new town where the Iron Age people were moved to – Durnovaria – now called Dorchester.

Maiden Castle 2
Three ring ditches (defensive slopes) on the south west corner

Maiden Castle 4
The three ring ditches on the south east corner with sheep grazing the grass

Maiden Castle 1
The ditches are at least 30 metres deep

Maiden Castle 3
It is hard to comprehend how these ditches were dug without the aid of modern machinery.

The site is huge – English Heritage say that the area inside the ring ditches is the size of 50 football pitches.

I have always wondered at sites like this and the bronze age settlements on Dartmoor where the water came from for the inhabitants and their stock to drink. Maiden Castle is on the top of a chalk hill and there are no obvious streams or springs. Anyone know the answer to this? Did they have special ways of water harvesting which we no longer use or know about?

I also wonder whether the Romans simply blockaded the Castle and waited for the inhabitants to surrender? Maybe that is how they managed to relocate them to Dorchester. It seems to me that a huge battle around Maiden Castle would have led to huge loss of life and it is hard to imagine Roman Centurions scaling the ditches ….

Update via Simon Cranmer …. I was quite wrong about this…. apparently there was rather a large battle – see here.

In many ways Maiden Castle is as amazing as Stonehenge but unfortunately it is almost completely unknown and little visited except by local dog walkers. There are no facilities and very little information – in these days of austerity it will no doubt remain that way perhaps for the better. Nevertheless the place is on my list of England’s Great Wonders.


Lydford ‘Castle’

I was a few minutes early for a meeting at Lydford Gorge yesterday so I stopped and had a quick look around Lydford Castle and took a few photographs. The site is owned and managed by English Heritage.

Lydford Castle was built as a prison and not a Castle and had a fearsome reputation ‘the most annoymous, contagious and detestable place within this realm’. As a result there are many legends and ghost stories associated with the place – see here for example. William Browne, the Tavistock poet wrote these often quoted lines:

“I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after

This link gives a detailed history of Lydford Castle if you are interested in more information.

Lydford Castle 2 The bleak ‘Castle’ perched on its mound

Lydford Castle 3You can go inside (access is always open and free of charge) – here is the first floor

Lydford Castle 5The ‘ground floor’ – prisoners were dropped into here via a trap door….

Lydford Castle 4Views across to the Willsworthy Ranges

Lydford Castle 6

Lydford Church – in the heart of this Saxon Village – note the green hummock to the right of the tower – this is the Motte of the earlier Norman Castle (owned by the National Trust despite what the website says!)

Lydford Castle 1 The pub sign in the village – it looks like Richard the Lion Heart is paying a visit!

A good place to see deer

We went to the Powderham Castle Estate yesterday  and it’s free to walk around the estate! It must be the best place in Devon to see fallow deer.

Deer5Powderham Castle still has its deer park intact which contains over 600 fallow deer. Historically Whiddon Deer Park (in the Teign Valley) would have contained a herd of deer too.

Deer1This is a young male fallow deer – called a pricket.

Deer3Here is a male with a full set of antlers


The Normans brought fallow deer to Britain as they liked to hunt them. The only deer which are native to Britain are the roe and red deer.

Drogo in the sunshine

I was over at Castle Drogo yesterday morning (in the sunshine) for a couple of meetings and afterwards decided to pop down to the Castle to see how the building project was getting on and say hello to the Castle volunteers who I had worked with in the past. Drogo is currently undergoing an £11.5m project to stop it leaking – see here for details. I took quite a lot of pictures – the photo set can be viewed here.

One of the highlights of a trip to Drogo at the moment is a visit up the viewing tower – from the top you can look down onto the Castle ‘roof’ and watch the repairs being carried out.

Roof panoramaView from the top of the Tower
If you double click on the picture it will increase in size revealing the amazing detail involved with the work (and the scaffolding)

Roof2A Castle covered in dust

StonesAll the granite blocks from the roof laid out and numbered on the lawn in front of the Castle

Adrian DreweInside the Castle Adrian Drewe’s room has been restored too – Adrian was killed in 1917 at Ypres.
The Castle is open and a special series of installations have been created to explain the project and the history.

The libraryLooking into the library – Mr and Mrs Drewe!

PoppiesLovely display of orange poppies at the Visitor Centre

The Project is progressing well and is definitely worth a visit – Drogo as a building site is an attraction in its own right. The volunteers and staff are all geared up to tell you what is going on and why. The Tower visit is a must (unless you don’t like heights) and inside the Castle there are some real surprises.

Dunster Castle – what a treat

I visited Dunster Castle today with my Mum and Caroline – Mother’s Day treat! What a great day – have never been before – possibly because it is a long way from anywhere! I live in Exeter and Mum lives in Barnstaple – 200 mile round trip – but it was really worth it.

Was a great day out and only the second day of the new Season. The staff and volunteers were really up for it – very friendly, professional and engaging.

The weather wasn’t perfect and indeed on the way home snow was beginning to lay on high Exmoor. My full photoset of photos can be seen here and here a few snaps from the day.

Castle panorama

Panorama of the front entrance

Carved coins

Carved coins on the staircase


Archway down to Dunster


The library

Palm 2

The convervatory


The snooker table


A tiled floor

Castle 1

Approaching the Castle.

Definitely worth a visit – the weather meant we didn’t explore the grounds or the village but wish we had – a full day out for all the family I reckon.