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Horseshoe-shaped hill fort hides a history we may never know

PUBLISHED: 11:12 15 January 2019 | UPDATED: 16:59 15 January 2019

Warham camp from above. Picture; DRIFT MEDIA LTD

Warham camp from above. Picture; DRIFT MEDIA LTD

Archant

The remains of an Iron Age hill fort, once possibly occupied by the Iceni, bear testament to a little-known age in Britain’s windswept past. ALAN TUTT from Cromer Museum explores the legacy of the intriguing remains at Warham.

A map of the Iron Age hill fort at Warham. Image: COURTESY OF CROMER MUSEUMA map of the Iron Age hill fort at Warham. Image: COURTESY OF CROMER MUSEUM

Sometimes one can sit in a desolate English landscape and keenly imagine what it would have been like to live 3,000 years ago.

One such spot is the Iron Age hill fort of Warham Camp which lies south of the village of Warham, hidden in an anonymous field, just off-centre from the Stiffkey-Wells coast road.

There are a handful of such forts in Norfolk – Thetford, Holkham, Narborough and South Creake – but the best preserved and most atmospheric, is Warham.

The others are all to a greater or lesser degree, disadvantaged; Thetford merges into its medieval castle; South Creake ploughed to near extinction; Narborough submerged by woods; and Holkham swallowed up by salt marsh. Warham dominates its position and, when freshly built, the uncovered white chalk would have shimmered provocatively in the sunlight, the watching warriors on its parapets scanning the horizon for foes, daring them to challenge its supreme position.

A depiction of Queen Boudicca by John Opie, published in 1793. There is speculation that her Iceni tribe occupied the hill fort at Warham. Image: PUBLIC DOMAINA depiction of Queen Boudicca by John Opie, published in 1793. There is speculation that her Iceni tribe occupied the hill fort at Warham. Image: PUBLIC DOMAIN

Though a little off the beaten track, the fort is free for the public to access. Go south from the quaint Three Horseshoes alehouse in Warham, proffering ‘pie and pudding’; over a small bridge, then right, through a gate, over a stile, down an overgrown footpath, laden with blackberries and other hedgerow fruits when I visited at summer’s end, another stile and, breathtakingly, there it lies.

The two concentric earthwork ramparts, with a heart of chalk rubble, and their related, deeply-dug ditches, remain impressive, though flattened a little by time. There would have been wooden platforms and a palisade for enemies to contend with too. Originally it would have been completely circular but it is now a horseshoe shape, intersected by the River Stiffkey, diverted from its natural course several hundred years ago.

An 18th Century map shows the fort ring intact. This defensive outcrop stares intimidatingly out across the valley, commanding 360 degree elevated views across a vista barely changed in millennia. The ‘camp’ lies close to a barrow, or burial mound, named Fiddler’s Hill, and is known locally and affectionately as Danish Camp – perhaps a folk memory of a sort, that the fort was reoccupied and re-used by the Viking invaders in their British incursions.

Roman pottery fragments and detritus have been found in and around the site, so they were here as well, way before the Norsemen – many holm oaks grow, not as plentiful as the rabbits the Romans brought with them though.

Warham's village sign, north Norfolk. Picture: ALAN TUTTWarham's village sign, north Norfolk. Picture: ALAN TUTT

The site is an SSSI, Site of Special Scientific Interest, with chalk grasslands providing a home for wildflowers, insects and butterflies. Some to look out for are Chalkhill Blue, Brown Argus, Common Rock-rose, Pyramidal Orchid, large Wild Thyme and Quaking grass.

There is speculation that the Iceni were in occupation.

The story of Boudicca is a brave but tragic one. Her sack of Camulodunum (modern Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Londonium brought brutal Roman retribution. Perhaps Warham was abandoned after Boudicca’s defeat and annihilation by Suetonius at Watling Street, marking the end of her tribal uprising in 61 AD.

I return on an autumnal day, a hoar frost lies over this exposed site, the memory of a summer picnic now faded, like the dead peoples of the past.

The sign at the Three Horseshoes pub in Warham, north Norfolk. Picture: ALAN TUTTThe sign at the Three Horseshoes pub in Warham, north Norfolk. Picture: ALAN TUTT

A church bell tolls from nearby medieval All Saints church. The raking low light is unearthly and it’s still a special place to absorb history. I kick over a molehill in the hope of a pot shard, to no avail.

Warham remains a peaceful and evocative place whose significance we may never fully know. Perhaps future archaeology will uncover more secrets. It is certainly well worth preserving, a rare place, where one can find tranquillity in a helter-skelter world of technology.

A poem about the hill fort: By Chrissie Rayner, Wells-next-the-sea

When I’m sitting alone on the ramparts, with nothing around but the air,

I imagine I hear ghostly voices, but it’s only the wind in my hair.

All the same, it’s an uncanny feeling, when I’m here by myself on the mound,

as I ponder on those who once lived here, as I wonder who walked on this ground.

When I gaze straight across to the river, a picture begins to unfold

of people in coarse, woollen clothing, with goatskins to keep out the cold.

In the centre, a cluster of dwellings, with a crackling fire at each door,

on the ramparts cloaked figures stand silent, keeping watch on the far distant shore.

Some say it was used by the Romans, the most powerful force ever seen,

whilst others embrace different theories, they maintain it was home to a Queen.

But whether a queen or a Roman, this stronghold through time has survived,

a mysterious aura still lingers, where once a community thrived.

And here it remains, now deserted, a circular bank swathed in green.

Of the people who once made their home here, not a trace nor a relic is seen.

Though the campfires have long ceased to smoulder, those who sat around them are gone,

when I wander these ancient defences, I feel never completely alone.

Explore the site

Cromer Museum is running an archaeological walk of Warham on May 4.

It will be followed by three more archaeological walks during the year. There will be details of these and other historical walks on the website, www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk and also, nearer the time, on Facebook.

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