With help from Friends, ancient hillfort is saved

A partnership formed by Clinton Devon Estates, Historic England, local people and a team of dedicated enthusiasts has been instrumental in helping preserve a nationally important Iron Age hillfort. The Friends of Berry Castle was set up early in 2015 and made such great progress that in just two years the ancient fort was removed from Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register.

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With help from Friends, ancient hillfort is saved

John Wilding, Clinton Devon Estates’ Head of Forestry and Environmental Economy, said: “In some ways, this success at Berry Castle is down to larch disease! Berry Castle was pretty much undisturbed for hundreds of years under the protective cover of woodland. But then the larch crop immediately adjacent was infected with Phytophthora ramorum, which is a pretty nasty tree disease. The plant health notice which was issued meant there was a real risk of windblow damaging the monument. So we acted promptly to remove tree cover, safeguarding the monument. The formation of the Friends of Berry Castle and the dedication the site has inspired is a very positive outcome from what appeared at first to have been a very bad situation.”

The chair of the Friends of Berry Castle is Audrey Alimo. She takes up the story: “After many years undisturbed in woodland on Clinton Devon Estates land in Huntshaw, Berry Castle has been removed from Historic England’s At Risk Register.  This great achievement has come about as a result of collaboration between Clinton Devon Estates, Historic England and a recently formed Friends of Berry Castle. Berry Castle is an Iron Age hillfort that is estimated to be 2,600 years old.  The site covers almost two hectares, located on a wooded hilltop overlooking a steeply sloping isolated river valley in Huntshaw, North Devon.   It was placed on the Heritage At Risk Register in 2010 being largely planted and worked as part of a commercial coniferous plantation, and subject to damage and anti-social behaviour.

“The Friends of Berry Castle (FOB) is the umbrella term for the partnership group formed from Clinton Devon Estates, local people from surrounding parishes and other interested parties, who work together to rescue and secure the future of a remote and nationally important scheduled monument, located in one of Britain’s most deprived rural districts, Torridge. The main aims of the project were to rescue, recover and preserve the site for the future and to facilitate wider enjoyment of the site by local people and enthusiasts.  

“The landowners form part of FOB and coordinated the first major capital works phase of the project, which involved clearing the site of the conifer trees.

“The Estate has now withdrawn the site from commercial forestry and agreed it will be managed as a woodland clearing dedicated to the preservation and display of the hillfort. Permissive access has been agreed and Clinton Devon Estates provide support and training to FOB members. 

“A positive management regime has now been implemented which involves FOB volunteers removing vegetation debris and timber from the site, preparing it for regeneration of a more appropriate, less damaging ground cover. Around 40 local army cadets undertook part of their Duke of Edinburgh service through attending site clearance days.  The clearance work encourages soft native vegetation and wild flowers to colonise the clearing.

“FOB’s work has facilitated greater public engagement and access and over the past year social events including a very successful open day have been held on site.  Transport to on-site events is provided for less-abled access. 

“Four local newsletters are produced each year and some members are now presenting at meetings. FOB have affiliated with the North Devon Archaeological Society and now link into wider archaeological themes and projects. Young people have been inspired to undertake a creative writing project about the site. FOB also monitor the site against damage from activities such as mountain biking, off-road 4x4 racing and antisocial behaviour, reporting to Clinton Devon Estates and Historic England.

“The final phase of the work is to work towards a better understanding and interpretation of Berry Castle.  Over the past six months two geophysical surveys, an earthworks survey, a dowsing survey, drone aerial photography and an ecological survey have been conducted.   The results of the recent surveys are being analysed and it is possible that a small-scale excavation will be conducted in the near future which will complete the research programme.  The information gained from the research will be used to develop a series of interpretation boards placed in strategic positions around the site.

“The Friends of Berry Castle are grateful for the ongoing support of Clinton Devon Estates and for the permissive rights granted to the group.  The friends would also like to acknowledge support from Alverdiscott and Huntshaw Parish Council, Weare Giffard Parish Council, The Coastal Recycling Community Fund, Torrington Cavaliers, Tamar and Devon Dowsers and Ian Kevern of Skyz Inc.”

To see the site in all its glory, go to: https://youtu.be/jQpCxrCVsZU

Previous successes

A focal point for our ancient ancestors: More than 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, our ancient ancestors were hard at work at High Peak Camp, near Otterton in East Devon, creating what is known as a causewayed enclosure, to serve as focal point for, perhaps, feasting or rituals.

Modern-day excavations have unearthed polished stone axes from Cornwall, and a fragment of an axe from the Alps.

Many hundreds of years later, after the Romans left Britain, and High Peak was once again an important place for the inhabitants of East Devon, as our early medieval ancestors built a fortified settlement there. Storage jars found there suggest the sixth century residents were part of a wide trade network, in wine, oil or olives from Europe.

Today the land is owned by Clinton Devon Estates, who felled trees to open up the site to assist preservation work – and provide stunning views into the bargain!

Like Berry Castle, High Peak is a Scheduled Monument. Following work by the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in conjunction with the Estates, to protect it, it was removed from the At Risk Register in 2012.

Bronze Age barrow recognised by Historic England: Bowl barrows are ancient monuments to our departed ancestors. These mounds made of earth or rubble cover single or multiple burials, and can be found across lowland Britain.

They first appeared in the late Neolithic period, and most date from 2400 to 1500 BC. A Bronze Age barrow a few metres north of the disused Petrockstow Station in north Devon, in the Heathermoor Plantation, is said to have survived comparatively well.

It is a scheduled ancient monument, described by Historic England as “a 33.8m diameter circular flat-topped mound standing up to 1.65m high. The surrounding ditch from which material to construct the mound was derived is preserved as a 2m wide buried feature.”

Careful management of the site and its surroundings by landowner Clinton Devon Estates is contributing to the long-term survival of the site, and it was removed from Historic England’s At Risk Register in 2010.

But our power for good or evil in this world’s affairs in a countryside is enormous

– Robert Lipscomb, Steward 1865 – 1892

…and the Lord Clinton was, by the whole Council, brought to the King’s presence, who after like thanks was given, was pleased that he should be made High Admiral of England and one of his Privy Council…

– Official record of appointment of 9th Baron Clinton as Lord High Admiral for life on 4th May 1550

Do what you can to elevate your profession. It is an honourable one

– Robert Lipscomb, Steward 1865 – 1892

Handing over something more valuable than we have today,

– Estates ethos

We are trustees for life of the countryside

– 22nd Baron Clinton, 2002