Chapel House

Dorchester Rd, DT2, Dorchester, DT2 7BN, United Kingdom
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Travel Tips for Dorchester

Maiden Castle and so much more (or so I hear)!

by CatherineReichardt

I feel a bit of a fraud to be writing about Dorchester, as all I've seen of it to date are the signs to the town off the main road and Maiden Castle on the outskirts! So, if you want a great overview of what the town has to offer, then I can highly recommend visiting freya_heaven's excellent page which I fully intend to put to good use when I finally get to visit Dorchester myself!

However, if I don't compile a Dorchester page, then I don't have anywhere that I can rhapsodise about astonishing Maiden Castle, one of England's most spellbinding tourist attractions, and yet another of Dorset's many, many gems!

As you can see from the photo, Maiden Castle is, in fact, not a castle, but rather an ancient hill fortification - the name is thought to derive from the Celtic term 'Mai Dun', meaning 'big hill'. But it's no ordinary hill fort - Maiden Castle is the largest and best preserved Iron Age hill fort in Britain (possibly in the whole of Europe depending on which definition you use to rank such things).

Hill forts were clearly a burgeoning form of real estate development on the chalk downland of southern England during the Iron Age, with over a hundred being identified (of which 30 exist within Dorset alone). Of these, Maiden Castle is by far the largest and most complete.

Human settlement of what was to become Maiden Castle is believed to have begun in the Neolithic period around 3000BC and the original structure underwent several phases of expansion to eventually covers its current area of 19 hectares - that's nearly 40 soccer fields for the unmetricated! It was subsequently 'recycled' by the Romans, who knew a thing or two about how to put a wonderful strategic location to good use, and established a garrison here, although its significance waned when Dumoravia (now Dorchester) was established as the regional centre. Although it may have been briefly occupied in early Saxon times, from the 6th century onwards it only seems to have been used for agricultural purposes.

The scale of Maiden Castle is staggering, and makes it virtually impossible to photograph effectively (which is why I've filched an aerial view from the Internet). The hill rises gently from the surrounding countryside, and although its visible from the main road, you would probably miss it if you weren't specifically on the lookout for it. However, as you approach the hill, the huge ramparts rear up before you, and you start to feel dwarfed by the sheer enormity of the fortification.

There is very little left of the human habitation that once existed at Maiden Castle, except the massive earthworks and some ruins of the Roman fort. Other than some information boards, there is virtually no tourist infrastructure (and no entrance fee). In many other places, extensive tourist infrastructure would have been developed on the site, including reconstructions of the Iron Age village and the Roman fort. For whatever reason - probably at least financial - English Heritage (who look after the site) have chosen not to do this, and I think that this has been a wise decision. Maiden Castle is such an atmospheric place that the absence of tourist infrastructure allows your imagination to run riot and frees you to conjur up your image of the structures and events that may and could have taken place in this amazing place. From the windswept top of the hill, you can imagine the panic of the inhabitants as the Roman legions advanced upon their stronghold, and small boys could play soldiers forever on the ramparts!

The ultimate bonus is that Maiden Castle doesn't appear to be heavily touristed and is so large that unless you visit in high summer or are unlucky enough to time your visit to coincide with a coach party, you will probably only have to share it with the odd hiker and some sheep.

This is the sort of extraordinarily evocative place that makes you realise that past, present and future are indeed a continuum, and, for fear of sounding desperately New Age (not something I'm commonly accused of) there is a strong sense of linkage to ancient lore, Earth Mothers and ley lines. If I had been given complete carte blanche to chose somewhere to see in the New Millenium, I suspect that this would have been a very strong contender!


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