Maiden Castle

In 1975 I wandered through the gate; my aesthetic sensibilities now tuned to a better understanding of the romance England could conjure. The old England of memory and myth, barely tangible; its cultural warp and weft now seemingly faded beyond recognition.

I turned to Janet and Colin Bord’s Mysterious Britain for guidance. Scattered across the pages of a Paladin paperback their revelations fed my yearnings, and mapped-out a course I follow still, some forty-odd years later. The book was more than a guide to me, it became a topographical wants list. Over time, driven by an irresistible imperative, I visited those places, and still do.

And so, on a blustery mid-June morning, I open-out the old Ordnance Survey One Inch map, and search for the reference. And there it lies, on Dorchester’s fringe. At once a brooding scar, a human re-alignment of nature’s ancient bed, Maiden Castle.

Having cautiously circumvented Dorchester I embark upon a circuitous route to nowhere. All the while Maiden’s unattainable profile taunts me from a distant ridge. So near, and yet so far. Eventually we locate the track, passing-place narrow and pregnant with anticipation. I slow to give wide berth to a rider and smile at our shared acknowledgement. Her hand raised from the reigns; mine raised from the steering wheel.

I park the car and change into my walking boots. Standing for a moment to gain my spiritual bearing I glance at the tires of the car, then lift a foot to examine the sole of my boot. Each is whitewashed with chalk, each newly baptized in Dorset’s downland dust. I smile.

My father was here before me, transplanted to this place with no recollection of when or how. And now I stand with little understanding of what comes next. One foot before another, onward. And as we open the gate, our path climbing before us, the rider gives her horse full reign. To the thunder of hooves, a diminishing crescendo, we climb. Above us, imperceptible to the human eye, skylarks sing. We stand and peer, training our eyes on the invisible, ignoring the amoebas that taunt with their suggestions of form. And then we see her rise to join the throng, the elusive sisterhood that counterpoints our steps. Their gift, a scattered polyphony, borne on the wind for the fortunate to hear.

Through the folded tessellations of the western entrance we wend our way, upwards and inwards, ever cognizant of our forebears’ watchful gaze. It seems like a despoilment of sorts, a wanton act of intrusion on our behalf. We beg forgiveness, forbearance, and press our way onward. A tacit approval of sorts, divined from the land, settles our minds.

As we peak the ramparts I reel from an overwhelming spirit of place; that genius loci the English neo-romantics strove so diligently for. Mapped out before us is a landscape of another time, a landscape drafted by the diligent pen of Alan Sorrell. Boyhood illustration made real in the permanence of piled chalk and folded loam. An overwhelming flight of sensory bewilderment. A sight. A sense. An immersion.

The day has blessed us with benign warmth and a stirring breeze, contrary to all forecasts of torrent and tempest. And so we stride on in anticipation of an exhilarating circumnavigation of the castle’s one-and-a-half mile circumference. In the distance we see a seated couple, and shamefully shrink from their presence, as if we only should enjoy this right to roam, this distant connection to those errant spirits of our past. As we pass, we smile, say “Hi”, and immediately atone.

They were nice” I say and feel the prick of conscience. Conjuring the grace to share this place, inwardly I acknowledge my guilt, and slowly feel its benevolent warmth; smug but suitably humbled.

As we walk on our steps are punctuated with the erratic flight of Small Copper butterflies, and the coral-red fire of Cinnabar moths. The first moth is a tiny revelation, the second just the same, and soon we realize they pepper the landscape like jewels cast from a reckless hand. We bend to take a closer look, and marvel in their beauty.

We pause to take photographs. Digital processing enables a curious transformation, from coloured snapshot to grainy monochrome, as if stolen from the pages of a Betjeman Shell Guide, focused through Mr. Piper’s discerning lens. The mobile phone, the living antithesis of this English idyll, kindly transports us to a nostalgic Metroland perception of the landscape, and somehow enables an enhanced way of seeing. A perceptive focus on lost detail, on altered realities, on a sense of place rid of the accursed sense of present time.

As we near the tortured undulations of the eastern entrance I think of Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Back in the susceptible mists of boyhood I harboured a string of romantic notions. I would be an architect, I would be a designer, or maybe, just maybe, I’d be an archaeologist. It was Sir Mortimer who sealed it for me. Although I was never to tread that path, nevertheless it was he who captured my imagination. Tweed jacket, aristocratic bearing, manicured moustache, the archetype was there, and if not my ambition, then certainly my imagination was steered by him.

Between 1934 and 1937 Wheeler, with his wife Tessa, excavated both the interior and the ramparts of the Castle. This was the first major investigation of the site, although Augustus Pitt-Rivers had been here before in the 19th century. With his prime focus on the eastern entrance Wheeler and his team uncovered, amongst other things, over fifty late iron-age burial sites. Time and other pressing objectives did not allow a full excavation of the cemetery, but we can assume that perhaps half of the burials remained undiscovered. Whilst many of the burials suggested no foul play, a number (around fourteen) evidenced violent deaths. From this Wheeler drew (now discredited) conclusions that this was in fact a war cemetery, and potential proof therefore of an overwhelming Roman attack.

The romantic notion of a Roman inundation fuelled my fascination and helped plant me firmly on the side of the iron-age incumbents. Forever one to follow a banner, from peasants to parliamentarians to Peterloo, I rallied to their distant cause; and a peculiar sense of solidarity surged through me still, as I looked down upon their resting places.

From this point, heading westward into the interior of the settlement, we find the low lying remnants of the Romano-British temple. A few scant courses of stone break the turf and suggest its once noble form. A native fusion of Celtic British and classical Roman religion, the temple was once testament to a hybrid paganism of the 4th century. I bend to place a hand on these stones, to seek a connection, a vertical ley-line to some underlying meaning. And then I realize he’s been here before me … the velvet archaeologist who digs where we dare not.

Wont is Dorset dialect for a mole. And there within the sacred inner sanctum of the temple he’s left his mark. Wonthills, several of them, punctuating that special place. I move to take a step and am forbidden. “No, it doesn’t seem right.” I pause and crouch once more. I sift through the soft riddled loam of the hill closest to me, black earth beneath my fingernails. Not daring to transgress this holy place, with one knee firmly planted on the ancient stone course, I lean precariously towards the next wont barrow.

As my fingers sift the soft earth, I hold my breath as one, then another, now a third and fourth tiny fragment of fractured terracotta reveals itself. Diminutive and alluring, these wont-gifted fragments resonate with potential. Theirs is an eloquent tale of devotion and destruction. There was no hypocaust here in this desolate place. This priest, this bard, this sage … call him what we will … he would shiver in his devotion, worried only by the keening wind, untroubled by under-floor comfort. More likely these tiny fragments once formed part of the tiled roof that sheltered him from the rain and protected the deity from the sun’s searching eye. What fate brought them crashing down, and crushed them to obscurity? Was it fire or the hammer? Or maybe the irresistible attrition of time, the inevitable passing of the seasons, and mankind’s transient care?

With a sinner’s shame, but an accompanying frisson, I place the terracotta remnants in my pocket, and stoop towards the final wonthill. I hardly dare for anything, and yet my fingers search expectantly, yearning for that tantalizing touch. I see it before I feel it. A slim shard of coarse black pottery, as wide as my thumb, and half its length. It displays a barely perceptible curve to its form, its inner side plain, its outer revealing shallow marks of an incised pattern, a grid perhaps. Words flit, definitions fly. Is it Roman? Is it British? Was it a beaker? Was it a pot? Not least, is it the wont’s, or is it mine?

We walk on, and I whisper a silent goodbye to this sacred place.

The seductive folds of Maiden Castle guide us back to both our starting point and our exhilarating conclusion. As I turn finally to survey the vastness of its inner enclosure, I can do nothing but wonder. Wonder at the overwhelming ambition of its creators. Wonder at the harshness of their existence. Wonder at their faith and commitment, not least their undoubted tenacity. But wonder also at our scant understanding, our diminished responsibility, our shameful disconnectedness with both the wider world and our own hallowed patch.

That evening I wash black earth from red terracotta and wonder still at what latent potential lies in such diminutive scraps. I cup them in my palm and close my eyes.

We return home four days later, and its then I claim them for my own. On an old Georgian chest in the bedroom I keep a miniature cabinet. A wunderkammer, a display cabinet, a cabinet of curiosities, call it what you will. Of black lacquered wood and early Italian pedigree, it conceals behind its locked doors seven internal drawers. But to the initiated it reveals an eighth, a secret drawer hidden within its depths. As I release the Maiden drawer from its hiding place and peer into its tiny, red-lined frame, it reveals its treasures to me now … four terracotta fragments and one black shard.

© Steve Hobbs 2020