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Maiden Castle

South Dorchester

Nr A354

Maiden Castle is one the most complex and significant Iron Age hillforts in Europe. Its size, that of around 50 football pitches would have provided protection for several hundred people and their livestock. The enormous ramparts would have been dug out by hand and would have provided a refuge for people at times of crises.

Its name is believed to stem back to ancient Celtic (the language spoken around Great Britain) and had its roots in ‘mai dun’ meaning ‘the Castle of the Great Hill’. An alternative interpretation from Warton (from his History of Kiddington) was  that the word Maiden is derived from the Celtic ‘Maidian’ which is defined as ‘strong, chief, great, distinguished’.

Excavations over the years have revealed some of the site’s 4,000 years of history, including a late Iron Age cemetery where many of its occupants had received fatal injuries probably suffered during many of the skirmishes and attacks over the ages from other local tribes. Perhaps the most daunting of adversaries would have been the Roman Legions who were thought to have attacked in or about AD 43 under the leadership of Vespasian.

When the Romans did lay siege to the site it was not a pleasant result. The British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler spent four summers excavating on the site between 1934 and 1937. He dramatically reported how the Romans, eager to stamp their authority on the local population, set light to the hillfort and ‘savagely cut down men and women, young and old’. A much later excavation (1985) cast some doubt as to whether the fire was initiated by the Romans or was a result of normal iron working.

The Romans did however occupy the hillfort as evidenced by the erection of a Romano-British temple in the eastern half of its area.

A visit to the hillfort can be inspiring and when walking around the top of the ramparts a sense of the effort involved with the construction and ensuing battles that raged over the centuries can offer a faint sense of the druids and tribes that occupied the area.

The hillfort has no doubt inspired some artists and one British composer in particular - John Ireland. Ireland was deeply interested in the ancient races and rites, and in prehistoric sites. Ireland discovered the author Machen and read all of his books as they were published including ‘The Hill of Dreams (1907)’ which probably was the inspiration of Ireland’s orchestral piece ‘Mai Dun’. The composer Edward Elgar first reacted to Ireland’s manuscript when it first appeared on the same Queen’s Hall programme as one of his own “That is an very fine work of yours’ he declared to Ireland.

Ireland’s ‘Mai-Dun’ is recommended listening for those about to visit the hillfort and for avid readers Thomas Hardy semi-fictionalised Maiden Castle into ‘Mai-Dun’ - as Ireland was a fan of Hardy it is not far fetched to suppose that he chose the title from Hardy’s work “The Mayor Of Casterbridge”.

Opening Times: All Year - any reasonable time.

Facilities: Car parking. Information panels provided to guide visitors around the site designed to illustrate its history.

Disability Access:  Steep ramparts are not accessible.

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