September’s Fingle lecture began in warm evening sunshine on top of the magnificent Iron Age hillfort, known on the map as Wooston Castle. Though not a true castle, the impressive ramparts and vantage point in the Teign gorge provide a clue about its strategic position, standing on a promontory high above the river. Further along the valley two other hillforts are visible at Cranbrook and Prestonbury* and, for many years, questions have been asked about why such significant structures were built during the same period of history.
To answer these questions, the Woodland Trust and National Trust have been making plans to reveal some of the secrets of Wooston hillfort and, as an audience of more than thirty people gathered, Dave Rickwood (Woodland Trust) and Tom Wood (National Trust) explained how these plans would work. The Fingle Woods restoration project is an excellent example of how the previous generations have given us the woodland environment we have today; conservation of heritage and ecology are one and the same thing, tied together in time. But the woodland managers and archaeologists have had to make compromises to agree the best way forward. Dave explained that “there is a large area of bracken here and the rhizomes can cause damage to underground features. A practical solution to reducing the vigour of the bracken is to roll it, breaking the stems and stunting its growth. This is a job that has been done recently by horse drawn rollers, and this way, enough bracken remains to provide the dried thatch that the pearl bordered fritillary caterpillars need for a winter shelter. They also need violets as a food plant in the summer and opening up a patchwork of habitats will help them to grow.” He went on to explain that “the conifers planted on the site in the past are also a risk to archaeological features. Wind-blown trees can tear up soil from the earthworks so targeted zones of conifers will be removed over the next couple of years”.
To prevent the regeneration of the introduced trees a controlled grazing programme will begin after the first trees are cleared, and Tom went on to explain how this would happen. “A method known as fenceless grazing has been developed in other areas like Epping Forest and we will be using it here. Essentially the livestock wear a collar against their skin and will receive a small shock as they approach a wire laid along the ground. To show them where the wire is, a series of flags will be set up so they can learn to back away from the edge of the grazing area and remain in the hillfort”. All of these methods are designed to impart the minimum disturbance to the heritage features and this low impact ethos will be continued over the coming months as the felled conifers will be drawn by working horses to a point where a chipper will convert them to biofuel. From September to November this year, visitors will be able to see the horses and chippers in action while the giant 2000-year-old hand-built earthworks will be revealed.
Further intriguing stories from the past will be uncovered by the archaeologists. Jim Parry of the National Trust described the next stage of the process. “We will be using geophysics techniques as a non-invasive way to find out what has been going on here in the past. A lot of speculation is required until we have completed the survey work and, once the features of greatest interest have been discovered, archaeological excavations will reveal more detail. We hope to discover remains of hut circles, hearths and other structures. We also hope to find some pottery and other artefacts that will help us to decipher the various stages of occupation at the hillfort”.
This project will be continuing through the coming year and regular reports will be available to keep people up to date. If you want to see, first hand, what is going on you will be welcome to visit Wooston hillfort but please take note of any warning signs around the site.
*(please note that Prestonbury hillfort is on private land and not accessible to the public)
Written by Matt Parkins
Images: Paul Moody