The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has one of the densest concentrations of hillforts in the country. At least 19 of these ancient structures are still to be found in the Chilterns. Some are on prominent hilltops, others are hidden deep in the woods. All are a fascinating reminder of the huge wealth of history in this area.
Three thousand years ago, Bronze Age communities in the Chilterns began to transform the landscape. They cleared the wildwood to grow food, expanded the network of tracks, and started building hillforts – large enclosures surrounded by a circular ditch and bank which sometimes had a wooden palisade fence on top. Over the next 600 years many more hillforts were built.
Despite the name, hillforts were not always built on hills. They were also not necessarily built for defence but had a range of uses – some provided a home for communities, others were used for trade or for tribal ceremonies. It’s thought that once summer grazing finished ancient communities moved into the enclosures during winter to keep their livestock safe from wolves and bears.
Many of the Chilterns’ hillforts are scattered along the ancient trading routes of the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way which run the length of the Hills. The hillforts at Ravensburgh near Barton in Bedfordshire, Ivinghoe Beacon near Tring, Pulpit Hill near Princes Risborough and Bozedown near Whitchurch-on-Thames are in prominent locations and would all have had commanding views over the countryside.
Beacons of the Past: Hillforts in the Chilterns Landscape Project
The Chilterns Conservation Board is currently developing an exciting project which will engage and inspire communities to discover, conserve and enjoy the Chilterns' Iron Age hillforts and their prehistoric landscapes.
The Chiltners has one of the largest collection of hillforts in the UK, yet many are poorly conserved, and little is known about them.
Supported and part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, this project will provide a real focus for community and public involvement through practical excavation work, technological and survey research, and a programme of events and educational activities.
Visiting Chilterns Hillforts
Cholesbury Camp near Wendover is one of the largest and best preserved. Surrounded by a circular double bank and ditch, the site covers 10 acres. It is covered in woodland nowadays and so is somewhat hidden. It is thought that even in its heyday it was not a prominent structure but was built in an unobstrusive location to be a place of refuge for the community in times of trouble. You can visit Cholesbury Camp on the Chilterns Country Iron Age Fort Pub Walk.
Boddington Camp in Wendover Woods is now much easier to see thanks to hard work by Chiltern Society volunteers in removing trees and scrub. Park in the Forestry Commission car park in the Woods and follow the easy access trail to Boddington Camp.
Ivinghoe Beacon near Tring, at the start/finish of the Ridgeway National Trail, is the most prominent hillfort in the Chilterns. The bare hilltop with its distinctive clump of trees on one side can be seen from miles away, and would have been an obvious place to build a defensive structure. Nowadays the Beacon is part of the National Trust Ashridge Estate. You can park nearby and walk up it, or do a longer walk from the Ashridge Estate Visitor Centre near Ringshall.
The second Chilterns Hillforts Conference, on October 2nd 2014, again brought together national and regional experts to paint a picture of life 3,000 years ago in the Chilterns and the factors that drove communities to build the hillfort structures we can still see today. The main presentations can be downloaded here as pdf documents:
On 29th November 2013, the first Chilterns conference on hillforts brought together local and national experts to present information on some of the area's best-preserved forts and to discuss what needs to be done to protect and promote our local hillforts. Delegates were updated on national work being undertaken to produce an Atlas of Hillforts in Britain and Ireland and were invited to get involved in researching the hillforts of the Chilterns to feed into this wider project.
The ten presentations can be downloaded here as PDF documents: