Cholesbury Camp (mistakenly called in the 19th century “The Danish Camp” but locally known as the Camp) is a large ‘multivallate’ hill-fort on the borders of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.
A multivallate hill-fort is defined as a fortified enclosure located on a hill and with two or more lines of concentric earthworks set at intervals. Such hill-forts date to the Iron Age period, mostly constructed and used between the 6th century BC and the mid-first century AD. In some cases they were on the site of earlier Bronze Age settlements from around 1000 BC or earlier. No evidence though has been found to confirm this in the case of Cholesbury Fort although there are numerous Bronze Age finds in the surrounding area. During Iron Age times they were mainly used as centres of permanent occupation, and could be defended in response to increasing warfare.
Description of the site
In common with other similar earthworks it consists of a double rampart (or vellum) enclosing a ditch, with access today provided by several entrances. There are two banks (internal and external) that enclose the large ditch, which is the only defensive boundary to the north-east and north-west, but there are further banks and ditches to the west and south-east. During the period of occupation there would have been wooden posts along the whole circumference of the inner bank. The ditch would have been well maintained and the sides supported by felled tree trunks. Entrances (probably two) would be heavily fortified with a palisade of staves. A vast area of oak or elm woodland would have been cleared (estimated from other sources to be between 10 and 15,000 trees) to supply the wood.
The earthen ramparts are now crowned by a belt of magnificent beech trees which encircle all but the southern quarter, where the banks and ditches have been removed by houses and gardens. Of the present four main entrances to the site, only one (to the north-west) is thought to be original.
It is estimated the ditches which are now 2.5 to 3 metres deep were originally much deeper, probably up to 4 metres below ground. The inner bank is on average 8 metres in width and 1 metre above the interior ground level. The outer banks are of similar width but lower in height.
There has been speculation that Cholesbury may have originally been an important Bronze Age settlement established like other forts on the escarpment of the Chilterns adjacent to an important trading route between Salisbury and East Anglia. The site itself may have be chosen as it could be easily defended and contained a reliable supply of water. (Two ponds exist within its boundaries).
Originally, for security settlers would have had dwellings inside the fortified area. Later during periods of peaceful occupation, displaced by cattle herds, smallholdings would have spread outside the boundary of the fort. Eventually (in the Middle Ages) developing into permanent farmsteads and grazing; to the North where Parrott’s Farm is today (Perot’s Farm c1330); to the South where Home Farm is; and to the open land where the Common spreads along now. Craftsmen smelting iron would have remained inside the fort but close to the entrance to benefit from passing trade.
Iron Age industry
Excavations in the early 1930’s by Kimble of the interior of the hill-fort uncovered well-preserved remains of prehistoric occupation including seven hearths or fire-sites, and the remains of a clay-lined oven. Three of the hearths showed evidence of iron smelting, and one was associated with fragments of pottery forming part of a single jar which was reconstructed, and dated from the Late Iron Age (50 BC to 50 AD). There were also numerous pottery shards from this period and from the Middle Iron Age (c. 300-100 BC). However, from the excavation evidence, it appears that Cholesbury was a sparse and possibly intermittent settlement, and possibly fully occupied only in times of danger. Conclusions drawn from the 1932 excavation were that there was no evidence to indicate Saxon occupation. The absence of post holes or storage pits suggested the site may have been abandoned during the period immediately following the time of the second Roman conquest in the mid-first century AD (but see further research below).
In 1952 a Belgic Gold Quarter Stater dated around 40 – 30BC was found within the Camp.
Subsequent observations in 1992 and 1997 during building works on houses on the perimeter of the site found no examples of this early medieval period. Quantities of medieval tile and pottery were found in the topsoil of the middle section. These have been believed to indicate the manuring of fields within the interior, using domestic waste from the settlement outside the hill-fort served by the 13th and 14th century church. The present church was extensively renovated during the 1870’s. The 1997 inspection revealed a possible iron-smelting site similar to that found by Kimble.
In 2000 a Geophysical Survey was carried out by John Gover as part of an MSc research project. Magnetometry readings confirmed that the site had seen multiple occupations. No evidence suggesting that there might have been Saxon round houses were found but rectangular features were found to the north of the church possible of a medieval origin. Gover speculates that this may indicate the presence of habitation again, but later than the Saxon period. Evidence elsewhere has confirmed that Saxon influence in the Chilterns arrived much after that in the surrounding lowlands. Wider authority asserted by Saxons not occurring before 571 AD and more likely not until the 7th century, (when the term Chiltern was first coined), or even later. More likely it is thought that the remaining British enclave in the remote Chilterns slowly integrated with the separate Saxons groups steadily advancing from North South and East. Christianity would have arrived late to these parts. Gover noted that dressed stones in the Church possibly indicated an earlier building on the site. This he tentatively suggests may indicate the later development into a medieval settlement complex such as a manor house and outbuildings, in use between the 12th and 15th centuries and connected to the church and a possible presence of a nucleated village.
Access to visitors
Cholesbury Camp is one of the most visually impressive prehistoric settlements of the Chilterns. There are other Chiltern Hill sites at Boddington Hill (Wendover), Whelpley Hill (Chesham) and Ivinghoe Beacon – all established during the late Bronze Age and Iron Age.
The site can be visited all year round and is best accessed from the footpath immediately to the west of Cholesbury Village Hall. Interpretation Boards provide visitors with additional information about the site.
Kimble G. D.(1933) Cholesbury Camp J. Brit. Arch. Assn. Vol 39(1) 187-212
Gover J. (2001) A Geophysical Survey of Cholesbury Camp Report Unpublished
Brackley H. R. (1953) St Leonards Church Newsletter (Feb / March)
Hepple L. & Doggett A. (1992) The Chilterns Publ. Phillimore