The Largest Pre-Historic Hillforts you Should Visit

The Great British countryside is littered with pre-historic hillforts which often blend seamlessly into the natural landscape and can tell of rich hidden histories involving Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and prehistoric communities.

Whilst all that remains today are their earthworks, these structures were once impressive defensive places surrounded by manmade banks and ditches and often housed entire communities within their walls. They could, therefore, be incredibly large spaces enclosing up to 210 acres. 


According to Historic England, there are a staggering 3000 hillforts in the British Isles most of which were constructed in the Iron Age and are located in what was once Wessex, the Welsh marches and the southeast of England. Today, you can walk on the ground these structures occupied and follow in the footsteps of the ancient people who once populated Great Britain.


The Old Oswestry

Old Oswestry hillfort
Old Oswestry hillfort, the earthworks, which remain one of the best preserved hillforts in the UK, have been described as “The Stonehenge of the Iron Age Period”.

Old Oswestry is an Iron Age hillfort located in Oswestry, Shropshire and is one of the best-preserved examples in the country.

It is thought that this multi-vallate (meaning multiple ramparts) hillfort functioned as a stronghold for one of the many tribes that occupied Iron Age Britain.

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The fort would have once been an impressive mark on the landscape and its collection of ramparts and ditches would have been both daunting obstacles to anyone who wished to attack, whilst also being spectacular displays of wealth and power.

Excavations by a man named William Varley which took place in 1939 (but not published until the 1990s) provide most of the information on the site.

This information revealed that the construction and occupation of the site took place across 1,000 years. Beginning in the Neolithic period when the site was first occupied, through to the Iron Age when the site was built on for the first time.

The earliest physical evidence of occupation uncovered at Old Oswestry included a Neolithic stone axe and some flint tools. They also uncovered the Iron Age remains of hearths and pottery suggesting that during this period light industrial activities took place at the site.

3000 Hillforts

Old Oswestry hillfort
3D view of the digital terrain model of Old Oswestry hillfort, over 3000 hillforts are have been recorded in the UK

They also found evidence of Iron Age roundhouses built within the fort. These were constructed with wooden posts and a building method/technique called wattle and daub. They were most likely topped with thatched rooves which would have been supported by a post in their centre.

Read More: A Graveyard of our Ancestors – 6000 Years Old

Aerial photos have also shown that the site was surrounded by settlements during the Iron Age. It is thought that these farms provided those who occupied the fort with produce and labour for the constant building work that took place.

Archaeologists believe that the fort was abandoned after the Iron Age. It was then incorporated into Wat’s Dyke (one of several earthworks that lie the length of the Welsh border) and later used for military training during the First World War.

Today, the Old Oswestry hillfort remains an impressive feature of the countryside, jutting out dramatically and encircled by the remnants of its ancient ramparts. The site is currently owned by English Heritage and is open to the public.

Cadbury Castle

Cadbury Castle, Somerset
Cadbury Castle, Somerset. Like many Iron Age hillforts there is evidence of occupation from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

Located in Cadbury, Somerset, Cadbury Castle is not only an impressive example of an Iron Age hillfort, but it is also strongly connected to the mythical history of England.

According to John Leland (1542), this was the site of Camalot, the headquarters of the legendary King Arthur.

Leland wrote:

“at the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth

Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle…The people can

tell nothing there but that they have heard say Arthur much

resorted to Camalat…” (Source)

Leland’s contemporaries, as well as others after them, advanced these claims by suggesting that the cave within which Arthur was said to be sleeping (and lying in wait until a time when England needed saving) could be found under the hillfort.

Whilst there is no physical evidence of such a cavern, there may be a blocked-up cave on the south side of the hill and this may be where the link came from.

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Aside from the links to King Arthur, the site has its own interesting history beginning in the Neolithic period. During this time the site was occasionally visited, by the Bronze Age it was occupied more regularly and then by the Iron Age a permanent fort was constructed.

The Iron Age fort once had large ramparts which surrounded the 18-acre plateau at the summit of the hill and at the height of its occupation, it was one of the most complex Iron Age forts (that we know of) in the south of Britain.

Saxon Mint

Further evidence of its long history was uncovered when the site was excavated and pits were found containing pottery and flint from the Neolithic period. Archaeologists also discovered a shield from the Bronze Age which was the first of its kind to be located in northwest Europe.

In addition to this, containers believed to be for wine and oil (which were imported from the eastern Mediterranean) were also found alongside evidence of an Iron Age settlement which included rectangular houses and temples/shrines.

During the Roman occupation of Britain, the site was involved in conflict but the nature of such involvement is unclear. Some sources claim that the fort was a site of British resistance against Roman rule, while others suggest that it was occupied by the Romans themselves. Of course, both could have been true at different times.

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Nevertheless, after the Romans left Britain the site was used again as the country was split into several small kingdoms. Then between 1010 and 1020 it was turned into a Saxon mint and may have also been re-fortified in the 13th century.

At some point during the medieval period, the summit was used for growing crops and as a consequence of the ploughing, the land and the archaeological remains were disturbed substantially.

Today Cadbury Castle is owned by the National Trust and it is open for members of the public who wish to follow in the footsteps of the legendary King Arthur.

Traprain Law

Traprain Law hillfort
Not only does the hillfort have its roots in the Neolithic Age, it is the site of the Traprain Law Treasure, the largest Roman silver hoard from anywhere outside the Roman Empire.

Traprain Law (or hill), located in Scotland, not far from Edinburgh is another impressive hillfort which rises about 724 feet (221 metres) from the ground. One impressive feature of this hillfort is the stone that can be seen near the path at the summit.

These stones are what remains of the facing of what was once the 0.6 mile (1.07km) long turf rampart which encircled the entire 30-acre settlement.

The site was first occupied during the Bronze Age when it was used to make tools and conduct burials, most likely among other activities. It is unknown, however, whether people occupied the site permanently at this time.

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The first concrete evidence of permanent occupation comes from the Iron Age when the site became the permanent home of a tribe named the Votadini who used the site as their capital. The Votadini held considerable power and controlled a large section of southeast Scotland. 

The defences of the hillfort were changed and developed over time. Before the Romans invaded Scotland in AD 80 the defences were strengthened once again. However, the area came under Roman control and Votadini land became a ‘client kingdom.’ In 1919 archaeologists uncovered the largest collection of Roman silver discovered outside of the Roman Empire at Traprain Law.

The hoard is believed to have been buried in the 5th century and is on display at the National Museum of Scotland. The site is now under the care of the National Museum of Scotland, open to the public, and remains an impressive feature of the Scottish countryside and one of the largest hillforts on the list.

British Camp

British Camp hillfort
British Camp hillfort

The beautiful British Camp is one of a collection of hillforts found on the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire and Herefordshire. The fort is located at the top of Herefordshire Beacon and is thought to date to the Bronze Age making it nearly 3,500 years old.

The earliest fort to be built on the site was constructed on the summit of what became British Camp and was much smaller than the fort which would eventually occupy the hilltop.

This first fort complex was later extended (around 400 BC) to the northern spur of the hill and to Millennium Hill. Two additional entrances were also added at this time, making four in total. One of these faces West, whilst the other three all face East.

British Camp hillfort
This digital view of the British Camp hillfort gives us lots of things to look at in the landscape – more questions than answers.

A survey conducted by English Heritage (now Historic England) in 2000 uncovered evidence of about 29 huts on the site of the first hillfort, and 118 in the later expanded one.

This information would suggest that the fort was originally built for defensive purposes but then became a rather substantial settlement. Whilst archaeologists have theorised about how the site was used, the exact purpose is still unclear.

4000 People

Whilst it is obvious the site played host to a great number of people who most likely eventually settled here permanently, the early periods of occupation are less clear. Some have theorised that the site was of ceremonial significance and would therefore have been occupied seasonally.

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The fort remained in use until the Roman invasion of Britain at which time it was occupied by a tribe of 4000 people. It is most likely that the fort fell to the Romans, as many across Britain did.

Unfortunately, the only excavation of the site to take place was a small one conducted by F.G. Hilton Price in 1879. Not much was found from the prehistoric period of occupation however, some Roman jugs and medieval objects were found.

Today the fort is protected as it is a Scheduled Monument and is under the ownership of Malvern Hills Conservators. It is open to the public and provides spectacular views across the English countryside.

Maiden Castle

One of the largest hillforts in Europe

One of the largest in Europe, the Iron Age hillfort of Maiden Castle, Dorchester, Dorset, is an impressive site and sight. Even after dominating the landscape for over 2000 years, the earthworks still leave you in awe. Its ramparts reach 20 feet (6 metres) in height and the total area is 47 acres – enough to be a safe retreat for 200 hundred families.

Maiden Castle LIDAR topography
Maiden Castle LIDAR topography

It possesses the earliest archaeological evidence of enclosure and bank barrow. In about 1800 BC, during the Bronze Age, the site was used for growing crops before being abandoned. The Maiden Castle that we see today is from 700-600 BC. Research has shown that the construction started around 5500 years ago as evidence has been found of a a Neolithic causeway.

The presence of Bronze Age burial mounds suggest that the location was held in high and sacred regard. It was believed that at the time of the Roman invasion in 43 AD that the hillfort was inhabited by the local tribe, the Durotriges.

It has been suggested that a bloody battle took place to conquer Maiden Castle. Current thinking by academia is that it was already abandoned, and had been for long while by the Durotriges.

In conclusion, the UK is full of spectacular hillforts which tell interesting stories about the history, both real and mythical, of the country.

Many have left their permanent mark on the British countryside with their bank-like ramparts and their incredible height.