Furnaces and festivals: the life and times of an English hill fort

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Once upon a time,  thousands of years ago, iron became The New Bronze.

And common wisdom has it that this changed everything.

It changed the balance of power. Iron was in different places to tin and copper, and the power of some men waned and others grew relentlessly because they were in the right place at the right time.

Trading patterns shifted. The old élites lost their status; and there was an explosion in the building of hill forts.

From 700 BC to 43AD they boomed. A flat high tabletop would be surrounded by incredible feats of early engineering, defensive earthworks which would enable a stable community animals, crops and all- to exist in some kind of stability.

There are around 2,000 hill forts scattered around Britain, and one of them is just outside my back yard. From Google Earth you can see it: a great settlement marked out in the shape of an enormous oak leaf. It was home to a village, just half a mile from the Roman Road from Londinium to Silchester, then Calleva Attrebatum. And slowly its star waned and it has lain silent. It did have a cottage at the far end  in the 19th century, but that has now long since been demolished.

And then, there was one crazy Summer reprise in 1978.

Windsor, in the seventies, was home to a series of free festivals. They were organised by members of London communes : hippies to you and I.

Bands of considerable repute would turn up, and people would flock to hear them. Free. From what I can gather there was some loose organisation: food tents for the hungry, generators for the band. The first festival attracted 800 people: but by 1973 crowds were at the 8000 mark.

And still they came.

By the 1978 festival, police seemed to have one agenda: to move the oiks out of Windsor. They had a 72 hour camping injunction in place throughout the Windsor area.

Everyone congregated on The Long Walk outside Windsor Castle and police simply shooed them off. They gave them directions out of the borough: straight to the iron age fort at the edge of the forest.

And they came.

You can read a slightly psychedelic report of the event here. Everyone trailed through the forest and, contrary to police predictions, turned up at the oak-leaf for action.

David B, proprietor of The Free Festivals archive, has a hastily typed piece of A4 paper from that day on his site. It reads:

“Hi, All ya people welcome to Windsor Free Festival.

“Some people have gone to suss out a generator. Water can be got from the bogs but you need a hose as a bucket won’t fit under the tap. Plenty of dead wood around so no need to cut down live wood.

“The police are not letting cars up onto the site. Has anyone got any dope as the people in the yellow tent are desperate for some. The Forestry Commission are going to take car numbers of people on site so take your number plates off. Free food kitchen at middle slope.”

One festival goer commented that the fort made a natural amphitheatre. Once again, there were people living out an existence on the tabletop.

Alas, when the musicians arrived the police had prepared a welcome. They blocked the site so that no heavy machinery could pass. A few bands made it up the hill but the campers were largely left to enjoy each other’s company.

After three days people began to drift away, and the hill fort was silent once more. These days it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and a nationally designated ancient monument, so building on it is banned.

I wonder if people will ever live there again?

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33 thoughts on “Furnaces and festivals: the life and times of an English hill fort

  1. Kate, what a fantastic post! I just love the words you use to describe the succession of the ages of man. Btw, I have two amazing hill forts near me: Maiden Castle and Badbury Rings. Both have inspired my writing over the years. Thanks, Paul

    1. Sounds like a lot of Woodstocks were taking place everywhere in the late 70’s. Flower Children and all.

      If you’re going to San Francisco
      Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
      If you’re going to San Francisco
      You’re gonna meet some gentle people there

      For those who come to San Francisco
      Summertime will be a love-in there
      In the streets of San Francisco
      Gentle people with flowers in their hair

      All across the nation such a strange vibration
      People in motion
      There’s a whole generation with a new explanation
      People in motion people in motion

      For those who come to San Francisco
      Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
      If you come to San Francisco
      Summertime will be a love-in there

      If you come to San Francisco
      Summertime will be a love-in there

    2. Hi Paul! Maiden Castle I know well – i used to visit it on hols when I was a child. Not so Badbury Rings. Makes one want to visit every one. Wouldn’t that be some endeavour?

    1. Tandy, I would hazard a guess they did. The site talks about a gentleman turnign up with a biro case packed full of red stars. Everyone became very comfortable indeed after that.

  2. Oh your a sly one! Subversive even. Well done, good shtufffs!

    Copper, iron and now it’s dual processors. Will people ever live there again? Doubtful. The hill has gone global. We are wavelengths closer and mega pixels apart. People now gather digitally. Converse and exchange ideas electronically. Many etch out an existence with mind not hands. Still, I think your hill, my creek has purpose and meaning -a kind of mindful reminder of where we came from.

    1. I think you’re right, Hudson. even the festival goers wouldn’t have decamped just anywhere: they were looking for somewhere which had significance. Interesting what you say about exchanging ideas digitally: I loved the typed notes they would pin to signposts or trees to communicate. These days they wouldn’t need to, would they?

      An addendum: last night just after midnight, 30 police were called to a rave in the forest. It was further in than the camp, but it shows these things still happen.

      1. response to your addendum, the song inside my head….from a song by the Tragically Hip.

        I’ve got a job, I explore, I follow every little whiff
        And I want my life to smell like this
        To find a place, an ancient race
        The kind you’d like to gamble with
        Where they’d stamp on burning bags of shit.
        Looking for a place to happen
        making stops along the way

        Wayward ho! Away we go,
        It’s a shame to leave this masterpiece
        With its’ gallery gods and its’ garbage-bag trees
        So I’ll paint a scene, from memory,
        so I’d know who murdered me
        It’s a vain pursuit, but it helps me to sleep
        Looking for a place to happen
        making stops along the way

  3. It may not see activity on the scale it saw in ’78, but as you pointed out with the ravers, it will never go silent. Plus, if they’re smart and stealthy enough, perhaps hobos will set up temporary residence on the slopes.

  4. Fun to get “on the ground” with Google Earth and explore your neck of the woods, Kate. It’s interesting to learn of the history that surrounds you, and makes me contemplate a bit of internet digging to see what might be revealed about our surroundings here. It’s been many, many years since I studied Indiana history, but even that was not a localized study. If I can get motivated, it could be a project to occupy me while the cold holds me housebound this next couple of months. 🙂

  5. The oak leaf is amazing. Someone should unfuzz the edges again, here and there.
    I would have thought the banned bands would have banded together to get their equipment through somehow. It could have become another Woodstock.

  6. My thoughts immediately ran to Woodstock, also. Those were interesting times! 🙂 I’m probably most impressed that you live near a google earth “observable.” That’s very cool. You’ve mentioned this fort before but without this additional story material and I feel the need to warn you to keep an eye out for remnants of magic mushrooms…not good for dogs or children!

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