Castle Hill, Almondbury

© Richard Harvey (2003)

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.

History

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[1] 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."[2]

Varley's Excavations

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.

Early History

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.

The Castle

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.

Modern History

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 Scarbrough 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.

Historic England Listing

  • Scheduled Monument
  • first listed 30 May 1925
  • listing entry number 1009846

Castle Hill is situated south of Huddersfield at Almondbury, on a hill top above the Holme Valley south of its confluence with the River Colne. The monument includes the remains of a late Bronze Age or early Iron Age univallate hillfort, a later Iron Age multivallate hillfort, a twelfth century motte and bailey castle and the site of a deserted medieval village. Evidence for the occupation and development of Castle Hill comes from a series of partial excavations carried out by W.J.Varley between 1939 and 1973. The earliest period of use was approximately four thousand years ago, as shown by the discovery of Late Neolithic flint tools and part of a polished stone axe. This predated the first hillfort by circa one and a half thousand years. The earthworks encircling the hill were constructed in stages over a period of roughly two hundred years. The earliest enclosure, dated by radiocarbon and thermoluminescence techniques to the late seventh century BC, consisted of an area of c.2ha at the south-west end of the hill enclosed by a single bank measuring c.3m wide. This first enclosure did not have an external ditch but the bank would have been surmounted by a wooden palisade. A simple inturned entrance bisected the bank that crossed the hill and had a small guard room to one side. Early in the sixth century BC, the first enclosure was surrounded by a wide, flat-bottomed ditch and the upcast was used to construct a new bank, also 3m wide, which roughly followed the line of the old bank but in places had a different alignment. In the mid-sixth century BC, this univallate hill fort was refortified and expanded to become a complex double- banked and ditched enclosure. New ramparts, of identical structure to the earlier, were built across the ends of the transverse ditch and were continued round the north-eastern half of the hill, effectively doubling the size of the enclosure. A new entrance was created at the north-east approach and the single bank and ditch of the original enclosure were reinforced by the addition of a second rampart. Post-holes at the front and rear of these defences were found to be contemporary and would have supported the timbers of a shelter attached to the rampart. Approximately one hundred years later this bivallate hill fort was fundamentally rebuilt. The inner rampart was widened and raised and now almost entirely consisted of two parallel drystone revetments separated by horizontal timber lacing infilled with shale and clay. A deeper V-shaped ditch was cut beyond the rampart and a short length of shale rampart was added parallel to the north-east extension. A longer stretch was built outside it and continued to the north-east entrance where an outwork was also added. This outwork shared the outer ditch of the latter rampart and created an oblique approach to the hillfort, carried along a holloway from the north- east. Two new banks, almost continuous and spaced wide apart, were built lower down the hill to entirely surround the complex. By the end of the fifth century BC, however, this multivallate hillfort had been abandoned. The vitrification of the inner rampart indicates that it was destroyed by fire at about that time, possibly during hostilities. The site does not appear to have been occupied again until the early twelfth century AD when the earthworks were modified and reconstructed to create a motte and bailey castle. A broad ditch, 27m wide and 9m deep, was cut across the top of the hill, south-west of the transverse ditch belonging to the original univallate hillfort. The upcast from the ditch was used to build a motte with a surrounding rampart. In the first half of the twelfth century, licence to fortify was granted by King Stephen and the timber palisade that would originally have surmounted the motte was replaced by a stone wall. The remains of timber buildings, and others of timber and stone, have been found on the motte. These had a number of functions and were accompanied by a 27m deep well in which was found well-preserved organic material of the medieval period in addition to medieval pottery and metalwork. Ancillary and garrison buildings, and pens for cattle and horses, would have occupied the bailey and the remains of these will survive in the south-western half of the site overlying deposits relating to the internal layout of the hillfort. The north-eastern half was, at this time, the site of a small medieval settlement which survived the abandonment of the castle by circa two centuries, being still occupied in the fifteenth century. This settlement was characterised by a row of dwellings on either side of a track that ran from the north-east entrance to the gap in the rampart of the univallate hillfort. Each building occupied a strip of land which lay at right-angles to the track and was separated from its neighbours by a shallow ditch. After the desertion of the settlement, Castle Hill remained unoccupied until the nineteenth century when a tavern was built that is still in use as a hotel and public house. In the interim it was twice used as a beacon hill, with one fire being lit there at the time of the Spanish Armada and another being prepared in the event of a Napoleonic invasion. Traditionally, in the past, it has been held to be the site of Camelot and, less fancifully, a Roman fort or the headquarters of the Brigantian Queen Cartimandua. These theories have been discounted, however, due to the complete break in occupation between the fourth century BC and the Middle Ages. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling. These include the surfaces of the approach road, carpark, drives and paths up to and round the monument, all modern walling and fencing, the Victorian Jubilee Tower which is Grade II Listed, the buildings and fixtures of Castle Hill Hotel and the buildings of the house on Hill Side, the safety grille over the well, the Armada anniversary beacon, all modern steps up to and on the monument and the telephone poles crossing the monument. The ground beneath these exclusions, however, with the exception of that beneath the hotel which will have been disrupted by cellarage, is included.

Further Reading

Gallery

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Location

The area of the Scheduled Monument is shown in green.

Links

Notes and References