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June 2008 - Stamford Hill

From the Iron Age to the Ironsides

Stamford Hill in the Summer Sunshine

Bude in the 21st century is a comparative haven (off-season at least) from the struggle and strife that grips much of

the rest of the planet.

But even this half-forgotten outpost of Europe has had its moments.

Stamford Hill near Stratton in north Cornwall has been a place of occupation for many millennia. With its elevated position, rich soil, abundant water and woodland harvest, successive cultures have found it both habitable and hospitable - as they continue to do today.

The summit is crowned by an Iron Age ‘hillfort’, not that we found much evidence of fighting at that time. The heavily eroded encircling banks and ditches can still be dowsed, even though most of the features have been reclaimed by a massive circular hedge - evidently wonderful for wildlife, but probably less so for archaeological evidence. The main bank had also been reinforced by a wooden stockade, more to keep out the roaming carnivores than armed omnivores.

Inside the enclosure were the remains of several roundhouses, with stone bases and thatched upper structures, which were once home to 25 - 30 people living in small family groups. There were rectangular animal pens, which once sheltered sheep and perhaps goats. Also in the settlement is a small simple sacred space, used for just a couple of centuries, several thousand years ago.

We found the site of at least one well and a place where another well could have been sunk over crossing water lines. In the centre of the encampment was the site of a bonfire, used during summer festivals and perhaps as a beacon point throughout history.

Stamford Hill’s moment of history, its few hours of fame, came much more recently. During the English Civil War, this high ground was held by the Parliamentarians, but the area was surrounded by the Royalists.

Although the roundheads had geography on their side and were well equipped with, for the time, heavy artillery, the King’s men were far more numerous and their cavalry was much too mobile for the ironsides, who fell in large numbers.

You do not have to be a great sensitive to catch a whiff of the fear of the defenders.

I have the slight advantage of once having been a roundhead (for a day) during a re-enactment of the second battle of Newbury. I have always found it very apt that the only memorable life lesson from sixth form history was the one where we were used as live cannon fodder, amidst the firecrackers and rapiers of the rich royalists, for the entertainment of an assembled crowd of tourists.

That day we were able to retire to the pub, in the days when under-age drinking was an occasional stolen treat, rather than a way of life. On Stamford Hill, as at Newbury, the real roundheads never made it to the alehouse. Some of the remanences of the fallen still inhabit the ether and some of the remains of the defeated still lie in the soil.

We think of the heavily armoured soldiers of the 17th century as the champions and the gladiators of their respective causes, but in truth, apart from the leaders and officers, most were just local lads, local to somewhere - farm hands and labourers drawn into the foray by a mixture of evangelism and peer pressure. In a striking comparison with the Great War of 1914-1918, and the more recent ‘American’ war in Vietnam, most of the men I dowsed were just youngsters, with an average age of just 19. My own late teenage experience of standing briefly in a field of long grass with an eight foot wooden pike, a felt hat, and faced by onrushing thoroughbreds, was brought sharply back into focus.

I was surprised that so many of the remanences remained on Stamford Hill, but I found no one left in pain or fear, just that sense of the inexplicable limbo that exists between worlds. Perhaps those who were suffering most have long since been released - one way or another. Officers of both sides seem to have been removed or properly buried with due ceremony. Foot soldiers seem to have been left for the earth to reclaim.

Incongruously dug into the hedge bank of the Iron Age ‘hillfort’ is a strange memorial to the fallen cavaliers. The winners, after all, always compose the write-ups. The memorial is crowned by the remains of the spire of the nearby church in Poughill (pronounced ‘Puffle’). It was unclear whether this large stone artefact had fallen, or had been removed for this purpose. There were no significant energies associated with this part of the site.

We dowsed the outlines of the canons, long overrun, and mused on how they could have been brought to such a high, wooded place in the days before good roads and strong wheels. It seemed they may have been hauled by horses, using the buoyancy of a nearby stream, but that would be another set of questions for another day.

As ever, after a hard afternoon’s virtual battling, the English descendants of both sides retired for a welcome cup of tea, to the Stratton Gardens Hotel - just as welcoming, but much less imposing, than its name suggests.

Today’s dowsing lesson was that all sites have potential for conflict or conviviality. It’s up to us which we choose. Future dowsers will smile or shake their heads at whether we have taken a rounded or a cavalier approach to the world we are now passing through.

Many thanks indeed to Lucille for organising the day, for sorting out the access and for arranging for the refreshments - and to local landowner, Mr Goodson, for granting us access to his field.

Nigel Twinn

Tamar Dowsers

June 2008


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