Castle Hill is hilltop in Almondbury which overlooks Huddersfield and much of the surrounding district. It is a scheduled ancient monument and has been periodically settled for at least 4,000 years.
Together with Victoria Tower, the Victorian monument which stands on the hill's crest, Castle Hill is arguably Huddersfield's most recognisable landmark.
The hill itself is formed from a cap of hard sandstone, with the lower slopes comprised of alternating bands of shale and sandstone.
Much of what is now known about the hill, and of the various settlements that have existed upon it, comes from a series of excavations carried out under the supervision of renowned Yorkshire geologist and archaeologist William J. Varley between 1939 and 1972.
Prior to Varley's work, some historians and antiquarians speculated that the hill had been the site of a Roman fort, the stronghold of the Brigantian Queen Cartimandua, or even King Arthur's Camelot. However, what was generally accepted was that a castle once stood on the hill.
In 1584, cartographer William Camden wrote of the hill: "... Almondbury, a little town standing upon a high and steep hill, which has an easy passage of even ground upon in but on one side, are seen the manifest tokens of a rampart, some ruin of walls and a castle, which was guarded with a triple strength of forts and bulwarks."
Varley initially began work in 1939, but ended prematurely at the outbreak of the Second World War. Work resumed during 1946 and 1947, before being completed in a final phase that took place between 1969 and 1972. Radiocarbon dating was used to determine the age of the various layers.
The first phase of the excavations was summarised in Castle Hill, Almondbury, Excavation Committee: Report of the First Year's Excavations, published in 1939.
In his final published report, Castle Hill, Almondbury: A Brief Guide to the Excavations 1939-1972, Varley identified that the hill was settled in several phases, with long periods of non-occupation in-between.
The earliest settlement on the hill was radiocarbon dated to circa 2151 BC, during the Neolithic Period. At that time, much of the lower ground was still heavily forested or prone to flooding. The settlers built no defensive structures and eventually abandoned the area.
At a later date, around 5 acres of land was enclosed with a single rampart but this too was abandoned and left to fall into ruin.
There then following a period of open settlement, with shelters built across the summit of the hill, but without the erection of any defensive walls.
Around 590 BC, an univallate fort was built in approximately the same 5 acres of land as the previous enclosure but with more sophisticated defences, comprising a surrounding ditch behind which stood a 6 foot high stone rampart topped with a wooden palisade fence. The core of the rampart was primarily built from clay, but Varley found that pieces of timber had been thrown into the core during construction.
By around 555 BC, the fort had been extended to create a bivallate fort that covered around 10 acres.
Around 90 years later, the defences were significantly improved to create a multivallate hill fort. The external ditch was deepened and the ramparts raised by adding more timber, rocks and clay. A separate structure from this period, dubbed "The Annexe" by Varley, was found to the north-east of the fort.
During the first excavations in 1939, the team had found initial evidence that the fort had met with a catastrophe and Varley made an initial assumption that the Romans had burnt it to the ground. However, subsequent radiocarbon dating estimated that the fire which destroyed the fort had occurred around 431 BC, several hundred years before the Roman Conquest.
Careful examination of the burnt timbers, together with a series of experiments to try and recreate what had been found in the excavated trenches, led Varley to believe that the fire started by accident. He suggested that the most likely scenario was that the timber buried within the rampart's core had decayed to release methane which spontaneously combusted. In order to achieve the level of heating found in some of the trenches, it was estimated the fire burnt at a temperature of at least 1300°F (700°C).
The unexpected burning of the then uninhabited fort may help explain folklore that a dragon resided within the hill and also references to the hill being named "Wormcliffe" in the Late Middle Ages.
The excavations found no evidence that any parts of the fort were rebuilt after the fire, or that the area was resettled during the next 1,500 years.
Following the Norman Conquest of 1066 AD, the Manor of Almondbury became part of the Honour of Pontefract which was held by the de Laci family. By the 1140s, the family had built a small motte and bailey castle on the hill, which remained occupied until around 1260. Varley's excavations found evidence that the castle was also used as a hunting lodge and that parts of the hill had been returned to arable use.
By 1340, recorded references to the castle were in the past tense and Varley speculated that it was deliberately demolished following the transferral of the Manor of Pontefract from the executed Earl of Lancaster to the Crown.
Varley found evidence of later smaller buildings built on top of the debris, but not of any permanent occupation.
The next occupation of the hill occurred with the building of a small alehouse circa 1810 (later acquired by the local Temperance Movement). This was superseded by the Castle Hill Hotel in the early 1850s, designed by architect William Wallen.
Castle Hill was a popular venue for sports and for large outdoor meetings. A bowling green was laid near the hotel and other pursuits, such as dog fighting and bare-knuckled prize fights are recorded. Chartist rallies on the hill took place in the 1840s and up to 3,000 people attended a rally during the 1883 weavers' strike.
As noted by historian Philip Ahier, the Victoria Prospect Tower Company was formed in February 1849 with the proposed purpose of erecting an 80 foot tall tower upon the hill's summit (from a design by William Wallen). It seems likely the company wished to repeat the success of a similar tower built in Matlock a few years previously to celebrate the Queen's reign. Despite support for the scheme, the Ramsden Estate objected and the project was abandoned.
In the mid-1890s, the idea was resurrected by a number of prominent figures — including Isaac Hordern (cashier of the Ramsden Estate), G.W. Tomlinson (historian) and R.W. Harper (editor of the Huddersfield Chronicle) — as a way of commemorating Queen Victoria's upcoming Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Having gained the support of the the Ramsden Estate, as well as the Mayor and Huddersfield Corporation, the scheme went ahead and the laying of the tower's corner stone took place on Saturday 25 June 1898.
Victoria Tower was officially opened by the Earl of Scarborough on 24 June 1899.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, it was suggested that the tower might be of use to the Luftwaffe as a landmark and it should be demolished or camouflaged.
The hotel came under the ownership of the Thandi Partnership, who sought to renovate and expand it. Conditional planning permission was granted in 2000, but the work subsequently carried out was far in excess of what had been approved and a Stop Notice was issued. By that point, the entire hotel had been demolished.
Despite further planning applications by the Thandi Partnership, public opinion had reportedly swung against there being any sizeable new building on Castle Hill. Formal objections to the applications were also raised by a wide number of local organisations, including Huddersfield Civic Society, Honley Civic Society, and Huddersfield and District Archaeological Society.