Wandlebury Hill Fort - Myths and Legends

Plan of The Iron Age hill fort at Wandlebury
The Iron Age hillfort
at Wandlebury

 

"Wandlebury Iron Age hillfort occupies a prominent position below the crest on the south facing slope of Gog Magog Hill. " Phase 1: 400 BC

 

 

Wandlebury - Phase 1: 400 BC

The three phases of occupation at Wandlebury
The three phases of
occupation at Wandlebury

Wandlebury Iron Age hillfort occupies a prominent position below the crest on the south facing slope of Gog Magog Hill. Although Neolithic and bronze age hill-top occupation is known from finds of pottery and stone artefacts, the form of the settlement is unclear. However, in the 5th century BC one settlement concentrated on what is now the southern third of Varley's Field, where large groups of storage pits were cut into the chalk bedrock, over an area of at least 150 sq. m..

Around 400 BC the first hillfort was constructed, cutting through the earlier settlement which appears to have continued both outside and inside the rampart. The hillfort consisted of a substantial outer ditch and an inner rampart bank of chalk rubble and soil, enclosing a circular area of about 6 ha. A recent archaeological survey suggests that there was a major entranceway to the east. This display of earthmoving and enclosure signifies both a centralised control of local human resources, and a powerful stronghold following a tradition widely seen across north-western Europe at this time.

Phase 2: 50 BC

In the 1st century BC a second ditch and bank circuit was dug on the inner side of the first rampart. At the same time, the outer ditch was cleaned out with this material forming a low counterscarp bank around the perimeter. Settlement contemporary with the hillfort appears to have shifted southwards, downslope, and other similar circular enclosure sites had been constructed nearby at War ditches, Cherry Hinton and Arbury on the north side of Cambridge.

Considerable evidence of Roman occupation has been found within the eastern entranceway of the hillfort and beneath the site of Gog Magog House, but no direct evidence of buildings has yet been found.

Phase 3: 1685- today

Wandlebury excavation
Excavation at Wandlebury

From the end of the Roman period, around AD 410, until the 10th century AD, we know very little about the use of the former hillfort. However, documents record that the place had been named by the Anglo Saxons--Wendlesbiri--and it was used as an important meeting place of nine administrative districts known as Hundreds.

wandlebury excavation
Ring Ditch at Wandlebury
In about 1685 a racing stable was built inside the old hillfort for King James II which was later acquired by Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin, in the 1730s. He created a major racing stable, also building a substantial house and garden, during which time the inner rampart and ditch of the hillfort were levelled. So major were these changes that the hillfort is only just about recognisable today, hidden by trees and shrubs, but as you enjoy the shaded circular walk remember that your path leads along a ditch of an Iron Age hillfort which once stood conspicuously on the edge of the hill, surrounded by its own landscape of fields and buildings.

Publications

Want to know more about the history of Wandlebury? The Cambridge Preservation Society has published a full history by Wendy Clark: Once around Wandlebury, priced £7.

In addition we also have:
Wendy Clark's 'The Godolphin Arabian', a history of Wandlebury's world famous stallion, price £3.00.

Landscape Historian, Twigs Way's 'The Lost Gardens of Wandlebury'. Price £3.00

For details contact the office - address and contact numbers on our Home Page.

Myths and Legends of Wandlebury

Lethbridge chalk figures
Lethbridge chalk figures

Wandlebury has long provided a rich vein of legend and lore, usually focussing upon the gods of Gog and Magog, from whom the hills take their name.

In the early 1900s, local children were told that the gods themselves were buried nearby. And somewhere on Fleam Dyke, or even at Wandlebury itself, a golden chariot lies. One theory has it that Wandlebury is a far-flung outpost of Helen of Troy; another that it was one of King Arthur's domains - a kind of Cambridge Camelot!

One ghostly tale comes from Gervase of Tilbury who, in 1219, told that Wandlebury was once ruled by a dark night-rider who seemingly no mortal could defeat. Anyone brave enough to test his prowess had to ride up into the camp on a moonlit night and cry 'knight to knight, come forth!' The warrior would appear on horseback, ready to fight until he or his opponent was dismounted.

Mists for the myths of Wandlebury
Mists for the myths
of Wandlebury

One day a brave Norman knight called Osbert took up the challenge. He rode alone into the camp in full armour, shouting out loud the required defiance, and as predicted the warrior appeared. Shields and levelled lances clashed and blows were parried, and eventually Osbert managed to unseat his opponent. In triumph, Osbert seized the steed of the stricken knight, a token of victory. But as he led his prize away the fallen warrior picked up a lance and with an almighty effort hurled it at Osbert, piercing his thigh. Hardly noticing his wound, and with his adversary now defeated, Osbert returned to his friends and family, to display his prize and receive his applause. However, the following morning the horse broke free from its reins and vanished without trace... and upon each anniversary of the moonlight tournament, Osbert's thigh wound, though apparently cured, would open up again!

Aerial view of chalk figure
Aerial view of chalk figure

In more modern times we make our own legends. In 1955 the archaeologist, TC Lethbridge had become convinced that at one time there had been an ancient hill-figure at Wandlebury, cut into the chalk - and went in search. Tales of a giant having been cut into the chalk had existed for some time: in 1605 Bishop Joseph Hall described a 'picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills', of a giant called 'All Paunch'. In 1640 historian John Layer wrote of a giant 'within the trench of Wandlebury Camp', cut there by students at the University. And in the 1720s a Dr Dale found a gigantic figure 'cut on the turf in middle camp' and William Cole, the antiquary, remembered seeing 'the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury'. Lethbridge set to work and soon made his 'discovery'. His technique was to drive a heavy bar into the ground, attempting to find areas of disturbed chalk; soft patches indicating the trench formerly outlining the giant. A curious pattern gradually emerged, showing a three-breasted female astride two horses pulling a chariot, a gigantic sword-wielding warrior, and a sun-god, all three of distinctly Celtic style. Lethbridge offered a date for their construction of around 200 BC and from his findings built a new explanation of the foundations of Celtic Art, reported in his book 'Gogmagog: the buried gods' published in 1957.

chalk figure - outline
Chalk figure - outline

Lethbridge's findings have subsequently fallen out of favour and are now much chided and criticised by archaeologists and historians. Lethbridge seems to have been led astray by plough marks, water gullies, pits caused by fallen trees and geological features that really created the pattern of chalk trenches he found. What Lethbridge discovered was more likely to have been the product of a fertile imagination and a desperate wish to unearth what he wanted to find, than the result of firm evidence and sound scientific investigation. But like all legends... perhaps there is always an element of truth in what is said?!

For more on the myths and legends of Wandlebury see Wendy Clark's book, 'Once around Wandlebury' (Cambridge Preservation Society, 2000) or Paul Newman's 'Lost Gods of Albion' (Sutton, 1997).

Cambridge Past, Present & Future

www.cambridgeppf.org

Loading