Close to the southern border of the county of Somerset stands the largest hillfort in Britain, called Ham Hill or Hamdon Hill, covering an area of 85 hectares. Its earth ramparts and defensive ditches are thought to be largely of the Iron Age, over 2,000 years ago, although there is evidence of fortifications dating to the Late Bronze Age. There are also indications of activity on the hilltop as far back as the Mesolithic period, with Neolithic, Roman and medieval finds as well. In short, the hill has been used throughout prehistory and into the historic era. An annual fair took place here from soon after the Norman conquest in 1066 until well into the 17th century, and there is still a flourishing pub called The Prince of Wales. Indeed, it is the only hillfort in the country to have a pub within the ramparts! Nowadays, much of the hill forms part of a country park, providing pleasant walks and stunning views of the Somerset landscape.
A GOLDEN QUARRY
Such a large hill dominated the surrounding countryside, but its influence spread far wider through its main natural resource – the beautiful, honey-gold coloured ‘hamstone’, which has been quarried from the hill and used in buildings throughout the region. The stone was used from at least Roman times, such as for stone coffins at Roman Dorchester in the neighbouring county of Dorset. In more recent times it has been used in buildings right across southern England. Hamstone is a Jurassic limestone, and being easily worked and with such an attractive colour, it has often been used for architectural details such as door and window frames and fireplace surrounds. It makes a fine contrast with the more mundane grey limestones commonly used for building.
Standing alongside Ham Hill is a much smaller hill, almost conical in shape. The village of Montacute took its name from this hill, which was described as ‘Mons Acutus’ (Latin for ‘steep hill’) after the Norman Conquest. It may well have been given this name by the new Norman overlord, because in Saxon times the village was called Lodegaresbergh and the hill seems to have been a holy site. A legend recorded in a manuscript at Waltham Abbey in Essex tells the story of how a local Saxon lord by the name of Tovi found a miraculous flint cross in a deep hole on top of the hill. Tovi also owned land in Essex, and he founded a church there to hold the cross, which later developed into Waltham Abbey, a few miles north of London. The cross allegedly had miraculous powers and was said to have cured King Harold of sickness. On the eve of the Battle of Hastings, Harold was supposed to have prayed before the cross, and on the day the English battle cry was ‘the Holy Cross’.
So much for the story of the manuscript at Waltham Abbey. Despite the miraculous powers of the cross, Harold lost the battle and the Normans took control of England. Whatever the truth behind the legend, the hill at Montacute may well have been a holy site to the Saxons, and soon after the Conquest the Normans erected a castle on the summit – one of only two such castles in Somerset. It was built by the local Norman lord, Robert of Mortain, who was a half brother of William the Conqueror. The castle, in part at least, may have been intended to neutralise the holy site. Some years ago, we did a small excavation on top of the hill and found evidence that this early castle had been built of stone.
In 1068 there was a Saxon revolt against Norman rule, and the castle at Montacute was attacked. It was unsuccessfully besieged, and the revolt was put down. By 1102 the castle was no longer needed, and the site was given to a newly founded priory at the foot of the hill. A chapel dedicated to St Michael was built on top of the ruins of the castle, and from then on the hill itself was known as St Michael’s Hill.
By the mid-18th century both the castle and chapel were gone, although some stone ruins may have been visible, and the hill formed part of the estates of the Montague family [this is wrong! we should have written Phelips]. In 1760 a folly in the form of a tower was built on top of the hill, using the local hamstone, and it still stands today. The hill is in the possession of the National Trust, which also owns the nearby Elizabethan mansion of Montacute House. This is considered to be one of the finest stately homes of south-west England, and it is of course built of hamstone. Throughout the area there are many buildings, even whole villages, where the main building material is hamstone, giving a warm golden glow in summer sunshine and helping to lift the gloom in the dreary light of winter.
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