Cholesbury Camp sits quietly tucked away under the cover of majestic beech trees and bluebells. Now a fantastic green space for countryside walks, the site once was a hive of industry and production.
The valley of River Chess is richly strewn with the remains and reminders of past generations and their connection to the river. From the earliest post-glacial presence of hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic drawn to the reliable clean waters and abundant springs, to the first farmers of the Neolithic who more than 5,500 years ago began to plant the rich soils of the valley bottom, the Chess has influenced human settlement in the region.
By the later prehistoric period, the entire catchment was well populated and here at the very top of the river catchment, we find the Iron Age hillfort known as Cholesbury Camp. The site has been protected as a Scheduled Monument since 1921 and is also one of the few in the region to have seen an informative excavation, although that was nearly a century ago.
The hillfort has been removed from Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register after successful restoration and maintenance work.
Historic sites are considered ‘at risk’ if threatened by decay, neglect, natural processes – like tree growth and burrowing animals – or pressure from human activities. Cholesbury Camp was added to the register in 2021 (exactly 100 years from its first Scheduling) due to threats from increased tree and scrub growth, and animal burrows.
Condition of the site has improved after work carried out in 2021/22 as part of the Chilterns Conservation Board’s Beacons of the Past project. The four-year project, which ended in October 2022, focussed on conserving Iron Age hillforts and prehistoric chalk landscapes in the Chilterns.
Iron production was a major innovation in the later prehistoric period. The peoples of northern Europe had been using copper and copper alloys (bronze, which is copper mixed with tin for some time before the introduction of iron from the East. Initially, iron was a relatively rare material, which was generally used for objects destined for elite gift exchange. Possibly the collapse of the Hittite Empire in the Middle East c.1100 BC led to a disruption of the Afghan tin trade and the wider relocation of smiths who knew how to work iron into the West.
Here at Cholesbury Camp, there is strong evidence for iron working over the later centuries of the Iron Age, before the site was abandoned and the increased demand in the Roman period moved production to nearby Cow Roast.
Explore the hillfort with the Chilterns' Heritage & Archaeology Manager
Dr Wendy Morrison explains some of the site’s features
Geophysical results from 2022
The dark lines and shapes are the locations of disturbed earth – either ditches and pits or sites of heavy burning (like a furnace). To the right of what looks like a diagonal dashed line, there are some dark half-circles – these are likely Iron Age roundhouses!