Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Romans, Giants, Hill-forts and Redcoats - JJ's & Mr Steve's Dorset Walk

A few weeks ago, Mr Steve and I spent some time to take a day walking and visiting some historic sites in Dorset.

Time constraints had meant that the normal two-day beano with an overnight stay had to be squeezed into a day, but we wanted to go to somewhere with lots of history, great countryside and within relatively easy travelling distance from Exeter and Cardiff.

Thus it was that we arranged to meet on a Thursday morning in October at Hod Hill in Dorsetshire to commence our odyssey, exploring some of the history of this beautiful county, starting with the hill fort and Roman camp atop said hill, then making our way to Cerne and ending up in Dorchester, the County Town.

In the Iron Age, the area of Dorset and neighbouring Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire was home to the Durotriges, a tribal confederation who, prior to the Roman invasion in 43AD produced their own coinage and put up strong resistance when Vespasian led II Augusta Legion through their territory on their way to establishing Exeter as the principal Legionary fortress at the southwest end of the Fosse Way.

The Emperor Vespasian, came to Imperial power following the Year of the Five Emperors in 69AD,
prior to which he had served Emperor Claudius as Legate of II Augusta Legion during the invasion of Britain in 43AD.

The evidence that the Durotriges resisted the Roman incursion into their lands can be seen in the finds uncovered here and at other centres such as Maiden castle and Cadbury Castle with casualties from fighting discovered in burial pits, some still with ballista bolts embedded in their bones.

Bolt heads recovered from Hod Hill as pictured on my visit to the British Museum back in 2016

In fact here at Hods Hill, Sir Ian Richardson carried out a dig in the 1950's that uncovered what was thought to be the chieftain's roundhouse in and around which was discovered eleven such bolt heads. The lack of any skeletal remains led to the hypothesis that the occupants surrendered after this show of strength before the Romans pressed their assault.

I have attached a link at the bottom of this post to a PDF covering the finds from the exploration of this site and that at Maiden Castle which we visited later in the day together with thoughts about how the Romans developed the successful tactics for attacking these positions.

The picture below shows the ramparts of the original hill fort atop the hill above the River Stour at the foot of the western rampart, and its proximity to the river may well have prompted the Romans to construct the legionary fort in its top left (northwest) corner with the double rampart playing card shape clearly seen here.

The fort is capable of being occupied by over 700 troops and was probably occupied by a mixed force tasked with policing the area following the occupation, but fell out of use after 50 AD as the Augusta moved into Wales in pursuit of Caractacus and the later campaigns against the Silures.

You can follow the activities of II Augusta Legion as they headed north in a series of posts I have done previously looking at places that mark this progression.

There is nothing quite like parking up the car, putting on the walking boots and starting out on a day of walking, talking, eating and just enjoying good company and glorious countryside.

Thus it was as Mr Steve and I set out up Hod Hill, travelling back in time to the mid first century, and trying to imagine Vespasian making a similar climb, at a similar time in his life, and then concluding that he probably came up on horseback and wasn't half as knackered as we were on reaching the top.

It's 10.30 am and you can almost hear Mr Steve panting behind me as I stopped to take this morning shot of the fields below Hod Hill as we climbed up it from the car park.

However the views over Dorset on a crisp midweek October morning, with a slight morning mist still clinging to the gently rolling hills, more than made up for the effort of getting up there and served as a ready reminder of what fun this kind of exploring really is.

Not only that, but we had a pub lunch in a traditional historic English pub to look forward to as a reward for all our effort!

The incline to the top of Hod Hill is captured well in this picture and its close proximity to a water supply makes it much more defensible than other such hilltop positions and was probably noted by the Romans, when they built here later.

The ramparts of the northwest corner come into view on the path leading up from the roadside car park.

Hod Hill is a remarkable monument and historic fortification and when stood on the rampart above the northern ditch it was easy to imagine how secure against attack the Durotriges must have felt, looking down upon the Roman army assembling below them.

Of course they likely didn't really appreciate what they were up against, although it seems a few well placed ballista bolts soon brought them up to speed.

Stood on top of the outer rampart on the northwest corner gives a dramatic impression of the depth of the ditch and the imposing position of the fort as a whole over the surrounding country

The path leading into the northwest corner and into the Roman fort circled in the satellite picture above

The view from the northwest corner looking out over the interior of the Roman position

Heading along the northern rampart with the Roman fort to the right of picture

The double ditched rampart in front of the Roman works is instantly recognisable and brought back memories for me, of standing in front of the reconstructed section of the Roman fort of Aliso-Haltern am See  in Germany we visited back in 2017.

The junction on the northern rampart of the original hill fort where it is met by the double ditch arrangement of the later Roman construction also circled in the satellite picture above

The bend in the rampart marks the end of the norther rampart of the original hillfort

Following the rampart and ditch around as we continue to walk along the eastern rampart towards one of the original entrances

The main gate on the eastern rampart, circled in the satellite picture above

The view form the rampart looking out over east Dorset on an October morning

Having continued along the rampart we are on the eastern side looking at the tree line close to the fort as shown in the satellite picture above

With the morning fast approaching midday and still with lots to see and do in the rest of the day, Steve and I made the short drive to visit Cerne Abbas set among those rolling hills observable from the top of Hod Hill.

In 2008 the village was declared by a certain estate agent to be the most desirable village in Britain, a village that enjoys a long history going back to the founding of the nearby Benedictine Abbey in 987AD, around which it grew and developed; surviving the abbey's destruction by King Henry VIII in 1539 and, in the centuries that followed, at one time boasting fourteen public houses serving its local population.

The pretty village of Cerne Abbas, our stop off for lunch and a chance to pay our respects to the giant

Of course, before we could check out one of the local public houses, where we sat down to enjoy what is becoming a rarity these days, namely a simple ploughman's lunch accompanied of course by a suitable beverage and pudding, we needed to pay our respects to a certain well endowed giant who dominates the hill slopes above the village.

The Royal Oak at Cerne was a welcome site after our bracing walk up and around Hod Hill

The rather 'proud and loud' Cerne Abbas giant is a popular attraction with an uncertain history, with many proclaiming him to be an Iron Age fertility symbol, with the remains of an Iron Age settlement close by on the downs above.

However others suggest that the monks of the nearby Abbey were unlikely to have tolerated such a flagrantly pre-Christian symbol and all the sensitivities it might have evoked at the time and that it is more likely to have been created in the seventeenth century before which no records of its being there exist.

From Cerne Abbas we headed south to Dorchester or as the Romans would have called it, Durnovaria, originally an encampment and fort for II Augusta Legion, and in 70AD following the Roman army leaving to head north, developed into the civilian town; with the name changing to Dornwaraceaster under the Anglo-Saxons, evolving into Dorchester, the modern day county town of Dorset.

I wasn't aware of much remaining of the original Roman settlement having been to the town many times, that was until Steve mentioned the Roman Town House, that can be seen close to the offices of Dorset County Council.

The Late Roman town house was discovered during an archaeological dig in 1937 and the earliest parts of the house date from the first part of the fourth century.

Overtime the Romano-British owners expanded the house and around 350AD it was adorned with a fine selection of mosaic floors, suggesting a high status owner within the town.

The range of rooms are constructed in two distinct buildings with two of the rooms showing the addition of an under floor hypocaust heating system.

The condition and preservation of these on site mosaics are simply stunning and some of the best I have seen.

From the Roman town house we next headed, to just around the corner to the Dorchester Keep Military Museum which houses a fine collection of military memorabilia and exhibits primarily focused on the local regiments that compose the Devon & Dorset Regiment, namely the 11th, 39th and 54th Regiments of Foot whose heritage and traditions are now honoured and maintained by the new formation of the 'The Rifles' created in 2007.

Normally when visiting Military Museums around the country I like to do a 'deep dive' on them and try to give a broad picture of the amazing items they have on display and I know I could do a post just looking at the items held by this museum having visited it several times previously.

I may well do that going forward, but on this visit, given that Steve and I were trying to squeeze a lot of places into one day, I share with you some of the items we looked during our quick visit, focusing primarily on the 'Horse & Musket' era items.

John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll and first colonel
of the 54th Foot raised in Salisbury in 1755

The 54th (West Norfolk) Regiment of Foot were raised in 1755 John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll for service in the Seven Years War serving garrison duty in Gibraltar and Ireland during the period.

In the American War of Independence the regiment was sent to North America in 1776 seeing service at the Battles of Sullivan's Island, Long Island and Rhode Island in that year. It would participate in the assault on Fort Griswold and at the Battle of Groton Heights in 1781 before shipping home later that year.

A Light Company soldier of the 54th Foot in the dress of a redcoat typical of the early 1800's still wearing his hair
in a queue and wearing the black gaiters, a style of dress that would continue until the Battle of Vimeiro in 1808.

With the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War in 1793 the 54th served in the ill-fated Flanders Campaign before returning home to be sent to the West Indies in 1796 to suppress the Carib rebellion in St Vincent.

In 1800 a second battalion was raised and, following the return of the first battalion, both were deployed to take part in the unsuccessful assaults on the Spanish harbours of Ferrol and Cadiz, before deploying to Egypt, seeing action at the Battles of Aboukir and Alexandria in in 1801.

The Marabout Gun and Carriage

It was during the siege of Alexandria that the 54th successfully assaulted Fort Marabout on the 16th August 1801 against fierce opposition from its French garrison.

The Devon & Dorset cap bade with the castle keep of Gibraltar, awarded to regiments who served in the
siege 1779-1783, , which included the 39th Foot. The 39th Foot were the first regiment to serve in India
in 1754, hence the 'Primus in Indis' honour. The Sphinx and Marabout honours record the service of the 54th Foot who were granted them by Queen Victoria in 1847
The motto is Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful), also the motto of the City of Exeter and the US Marine Corps

The 10,000 French troops running low on supplies, suffering from disease and cut off from any hope of escape, surrendered on the 2nd September 1801.

The gun is one of two brass cannon captured when the fort fell and presented to the regiment which had them towed before them on ceremonial parades and fired during salutes for the next forty years.

The guns were withdrawn from duties in 1840 by Queen Victoria whilst at the same time bestowing the honours 'Egypt' and 'Marabout' to the regiment.

From one gun to another, the 25lbr is the ubiquitous British gun of the Second World War, seeing service in Royal Artillery Field Regiments around the globe, with this later model complete with muzzle break and displaying the markings of the 43rd 'Wessex Wyverns' Division, used to great effect in the Normandy and later campaigns in North West Europe.

Given that my Dad served as an OP to a regiment of twenty four of these guns, whose ability to deliver rapid, accurate amounts of high explosive shells on a given target once identified and was the cause of breaking up many German counterattacks; most notably that of German tanks of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions just after Operation Epsom, that caused captured shocked German soldiers to ask to see the automatic rapid fire gun that the British were using against them, it was nice to see it having pride of place in the entrance lobby.

Of course I don't suppose most of the guns in Normandy looked quite this 'bulled up' on active service!

Global service for British regiments meant just that, with the implied ability to deploy and fight in hedgerows, deserts, mountains and of course jungle terrain; as the XIVth Army or better known as Slim's Forgotten Army serving in Burma in 1943-44, did, fighting the fierce close combats with the Japanese in battles such as Kohima and Battle of the Admin Box.

Perhaps one of the most accomplished generals to emerge from WWII,
General William 'Bill' Slim commander of XIVth Army in the Far East.

The Martini Henry rifle in the iconic weapon of British Imperial fighting equipment from the late 19th century and as well as the weapon itself, the thing that caught my eye in the display below was the example of the slug delivered by this weapon seen on the ammunition box.

The size and potential stopping power of this bullet can only be horrifically imagined, but just as interesting the box it came in, blamed for being too cumbersome to open rapidly during the disastrous Battle of Isandlwana, with the pull back foil covering seen in the model below.

That is until it was demonstrated that the veteran soldiers of the 24th Foot were more than capable of dismantling one of these boxes with a few well aimed blows from the butt of their Martini Henry's.

Ah the 'Horse & Musket' period and a British soldier kitted out in a redcoat, with spontoon and Brown Bess, even the odd plug bayonet, now I was right into my comfort zone.

The museum houses an excellent collection of jackets from the Revolutionary/Napoleonic War period both regular army and local militia which really captures the look and peculiarities of these garments.

On the left is a Majors coat worn by an officer in the Roborough Battalion of the Devon Militia circa 1790, and the right, an Ensign's coat circa 1790 of the 46th 'South Devon' Regiment of Foot. In front is a 1786 pattern officers sword that replaced the spontoon carried in the American War.

It would appear by the bugles on elite company wings that this ensign was serving in the light company

Major John Andre

Major John Andre rose to fame during the AWI after being executed for spying and his assistance to General Benedict Arnold in his attempted surrendering of the fort at West Point, New York. 

Another Militia jacket worn by the East Budleigh Volunteers, the town along the coast from my home at Exmouth

Steve reckons this might have been worn by one of his ancestors, namely Thomas Hallett of the Axminster Local Defence Volunteers circ 1800.

In the picture below is the coatee of then Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert William O'Callaghan commander of the 1st Battalion 39th Foot

Colonel's coatee 39th Foot worn by Sir Robert William O'Calaghan

At the action of Garris in the Pyrenees Mountains, on the 15th February 1814, Colonel O'Callaghan had his horse shot from under him and was forced to lead the battalion on foot, personally killing three of the enemy.

He was later promoted to Major General and then Lieutenant General in 1830 and was Colonel of the regiment from 1831 to 1840.

His awards include the Gold Medal for the Battle of Maida, Peninsular Gold Cross, Star and Sash of Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath.

In front of Colonel O'Callaghan's coatee is a Baker Rifle with sword bayonet together with powder horn carried by riflemen to deliver the fine grain powder they carried for the weapon.

Lieutenant General O'Calaghan's awards as detailed above

The Peninsular War Campaign medal seen below was issued to Sergeant Major James Duffy of the 11th 'North Devon' Regiment of Foot.

He was born around 1788 in Augnamullin in County Monaghan, Ireland, enlisting in March 1805.

On the 22nd July 1812 after the Battle of Salamanca, only he and two Privates were left standing in the Grenadier Company.

On the 16th January 1814 when leading a fighting patrol, he captured two-hundred French soldiers together with six officers seized 'whilst entertaining a lady'.

He would later go on to assist his officer in the capture of a two-hundred man French piquet by pretending to be a deserter.

The Peninsular War medal belonging to Sergeant Major James Duffy, 11th Foot, whose extraordinary career is outlined above and is only enhanced by the bars his medal carries including Busaco, Salamanca, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Orthes and Toulouse. Duffy died in January 1867 aged 79, collecting the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and serving as Yeoman at the Tower of London.

Waterloo medal issued to James Barnes who was at the time of the battle a young drummer in the 54th Foot.

The 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sabre, standard issue for Light Cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars and in this case issued to the Dorset Volunteer Rangers

Following our whistle-stop tour of the Keep Museum we were off to our final venue for the day, and frankly any visit to Dorchester had to include a visit to Maiden Castle, with the sun starting to dip on a mid October day.

The day ended as it began with the Vespasian and his II Augusta Legion tackling a hill fort full of  aggressive Durotriges tribesmen and Steve and I able to imagine the scene whilst enjoying glorious views over south Dorset.

The picture below shows the route of our walk from the castle car park with the large barrow pictured later circled top left and the Roman temple circled within the fort.

The satellite picture illustrates the route of our walk around Maiden Castle from the car park (circled) showing the position of the large burial mound top left above it and the Roman temple within the ramparts

If you have never been to Maiden Castle and you get the opportunity, then go and have a look at this extraordinary hill fort that for size alone makes it truly remarkable.

Neolithic Maiden Castle - Peter Dunn

Human occupation of the Maiden Castle site goes back 6,000 years to the Neolithic period where excavations have revealed that the hilltop was cleared of woodland and two oval enclosures with a segmented ditch was constructed on the eastern end of the hill top and the dating means this is one of the earliest type of monument in the UK.

The hillfort we can see today dates to the early Iron Age enclosed originally by a single rampart with a later extension to the west that doubled the area enclosed with additional ramparts added over time together with a higher inner rampart and a much more complex access to the main gate.

Dr Eric Marsden shooting at the ramparts of Maiden Castle with a three span Scorpio for a BBC TV programme about the site

Maiden Castle at its peak in the mid Iron Age with both sides of the plateau occupied

The site would develop over several hundred years to become the pre-eminent settlement in southern Dorset comprising multiple roundhouses and grain stores.

For an impression of how this settlement may have appeared, follow the link to the post I did last year when Carolyn and I visited the Butser Ancient Farm where replica buildings of this type can be seen today.

The victim discovered at Maiden Castle with a bolt head lodged in the spine, probably aged 20-30 years old with the bolt entering the body in an upward direction around about the belly-button.

The view looking towards the eastern end of Maiden Castle from the car park

The arrangements of the buildings went through changes from the middle of the period when the layout became more regimented with rows delineated by access roads, to the late period when it seems the western part of the enclosure was abandoned and buildings located towards the eastern end.

Dorchester on the horizon from the car park showing the proximity of Vespasian's main camp

The site was excavated in the 1930's by Sir Mortimer Wheeler during which an Iron Age cemetery was uncovered containing 52 burials with several male skeletons displaying obvious battle wounds.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler archaeologist who led the work excavating Maiden Castle from 1934 to 1937 

Wheeler postulated that these casualties were likely caused by an attack by Vespasian's troops during their campaign in the area in 43AD. However subsequent speculation is less certain on that idea, suggesting that the casualties may well have been a result of internecine fighting as much as from Roman activity.

The Scorpio bolt shooter together with bolt heads similar to those discovered at Maiden Castle, I pictured on my visit to Xanten in 2017.

That said, some of the casualties were more likely killed than not because of Roman activity, particularly the chap discovered with an iron ballista bolt lodged in his spine that was probably fired by a similar weapon to that seen in the Xantan museum in Germany that I featured in my visit there two years ago.

Another skeleton displayed a square shaped hole to the skull proved to have been caused by a pilum thrust, where a catapult bolt would have shattered the bone around the impact hole.

The large barrow or burial mound stands out against the horizon when viewed from the car park

Wheeler's report also records a few catapult bolts discovered in the hornwork of banks and ditches covering the eastern gate, and this discovery chimes well with an eyewitness account of Roman tactics using these weapons to clear battlements as recounted by Josephus (Jewish War III, 166-8) where the same commander, Vespasian used the weapons to provide covering fire;

'Vespasian ordered his artillery, numbering a total of 160 machines …to fire at the defenders on the wall. In a coordinated barrage the catapults sent long bolts whistling through the air, the stone-throwers shot stones weighing one talent, fire was launched and a mass of arrows. This made it impossible for the Jews to man the wall or even the area behind it that was strafed by the missiles. For a mass of Arabian archers, spearmen and slingers was in action along with the artillery.' 

A panoramic view of the castle's northern rampart with an October sun on the wain 

The convoluted series of ramparts and ditches that cover the approach to the main gate on the western edge of the enclosure all designed to entrap and ambush an enemy assault party 

A model that interprets a possible Roman method of attacking the main gate at Maiden Castle with testudos to the fore

The complicated network of multiple ramparts and ditches in front of the gate is well illustrated with this picture from atop the outer rampart looking in.

As wargamers it is fun to stand on the ramparts of a site such as Maiden Castle and speculate how you would go about planning an attack on a place like this and just putting yourself in the position of Vespasian, trying to work out where to place the artillery, how you would position troops to cut the place off from outside support as well as preventing hope of escape.

Working our way along the western outer rampart and the deep ditch still impressive despite the centuries of erosion

These kind of visits really bring the history alive and give a much better focus to our tabletop engagements when you have experienced the difficulty of moving in and around these kind of defences and we were doing it without anyone lobbing pointy sticks or large stones at us.

Looking the other way along the western ditch towards the south provides an even more impressive view of the outer ditch with two more to the left of picture

The high ground to the left overlooking the western rampart may have been an ideal site to have located Roman catapults

The defences on the western rampart curve to the left of picture as the line of defences follows an easterly course

The outer rampart and ditch on the southwestern corner of the enclosure

The views from Maiden Castle were a fine way to end a great day exploring the local area and the autumn sun hanging low in the sky, creating shadows among the rolling hills left an impression that will remain long in the memory.

Looking out over southern Dorset from the southern rampart

A last look at the western ramparts as the sun begins to sink

English Heritage provide some really helpful signs to guide the visitor with really interesting information and facts about the site

A picture from my youth with the 'Look and Learn' magazine artwork depicting the scenes of panic and carnage as the Romans break into Maiden Castle

With the sun light fading fast we made our way into the main enclosure, now wide open and exposed to the elements, but back in the mid first century would have been a crowded vista of roundhouses and wattle fencing and you try to imagine what happened in the closing stages of Vespasian's assault on the inhabitants, as his troops broke in through the defences.

Pictures of the work carried out by Sir Mortimer Wheeler's excavations in the 1930's

Walking back towards the northern rampart we took a look at the remains of the Romano-British temple thought to be dedicated to the goddess Minerva following the discovery of a plaque depicting the deity in the dig carried out here.

Along with the plaque, hundreds of coins were discovered, possibly votive offerings, together with several statues, some imported from the Mediterranean.

The foundation remains of the fourth century Romano-British temple possibly dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, war and art 

A small plaque depicting Minerva, found at the temple 

From the temple, we walked out to the northern rampart to take a last look out towards Dorchester and to take in perhaps the most impressive section of ditch along this, the inner rampart on this section of the defences.

With the sun sinking fast a last view out over the northern rampart towards Dorchester before we headed home

The ditch is a truly remarkable piece of construction when one considers the amount of manpower and time needed to construct something like this in the days before modern earth moving equipment and in someways ensures the modern world that drives past this place along the A35 everyday cannot forget about the history of the place and the people who fought and died here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the walks Steve and I have done in the last couple of years which have taken in The Ridgeway, the Three Castles, Offas Dyke and now here in glorious Dorset because we certainly enjoy doing them and just spending time out in some spectacular parts of the country.

We hope to continue things with other places under discussion and as time permits.

Thanks to Steve for his company and another great day out and here's looking forward to the next one.

Links referred to in this post

For a really interesting analysis of Roman tactics for attacking Maiden Castle and Hod Hill the link below is well worth a read

Other useful links


  1. Thank you for this informative and enjoyable post. I find it really amazing that there isn't a soul in sight on those Hill Forts. If I ever get over the pond, I'm going to visit one of these!

    1. Hi Ed, my pleasure, glad you enjoyed the read.

      Sadly, it doesn't surprise me that there are not that many people about. History education in the UK is not what it used to be and a lot of younger generations would struggle to tell you what D-Day was all about.

      That said there was a dad showing his young son about Maiden Castle on the day visited and it was midweek, so lots of people are at work.

      I hope you get the chance to come on over, there is plenty to see in a relatively small space.


  2. Replies
    1. Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your comment, much appreciated.


  3. This is an absolutely wonderful post. I lost track of time, and almost forgot to go to work, I found it so interesting. Thanks for sharing your advenures.

    1. Thanks for your comment,and really pleased that you enjoyed the read, but I would hate to be the cause of any problem with work.

      All the best