Antiquities: Camps and earthworks

Pages cccxlix-cccliii

Magna Britannia: Volume 6, Devonshire. Originally published by T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1822.

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Camps and Earthworks.

The numerous ancient encampments in this county have been by some attributed wholly to the Romans; whilst others have supposed, that they were all of Saxon or of Danish origin. Both opinions are, perhaps, in some degree erroneous, and it may be fairly supposed, that many of the encampments were constructed by the Britons at that early period when this island was divided into several petty kingdoms, inhabited by people who were engaged in perpetual warfare with each other. Indeed, it has been the avowed opinion of some antiquaries, that the chain of strong posts on the eastern side of the county were constructed by the Damnonii as a frontier defence against the Morini. The opinion which attributes them all to the Danes is the least probable of any. Their invasions were of a temporary and predatory nature; they did not establish themselves for any time in the county; nor is there the least probability of their having fortified the coast on the frontiers from the invasion of others. The camp on Stoke-hill, near Exeter, which is semicircular, and 256 paces in diameter, was, probably, the fortress of the Danes, spoken of in the Saxon chronicle.

That some of the encampments were constructed by the Romans, can scarcely be doubted; that others were occupied by them is certain, from the coins of that nation found in them; particularly at Hembury-fort, and Berry-head. We are not to conclude, indeed, that any of these fortresses were not constructed by the Romans because they are not of that form which, when they had the choice of site, they are known to have adopted; when occupying a commanding height, they were obliged to adapt the form of their encampment to that of the ground. There is no reason, however, to suppose that this county was so much the scene of military transactions during the Roman period, as to induce a belief, that many of the camps and fortresses, of which vestiges now remain, are to be assigned to that people. It is very probable, that they constructed or occupied fortresses on or near the coast, as a defence against foreign invasion. The most decided Roman camps, are those of Countesbury, on the British channel; Bradbury castle, near Bratton Clovelly; Berry castle, in the parish of Witheridge; and perhaps Shrewsbury, in the parish of High Bray.

The principal fortresses in the eastern part of the county, are Membury, Musbury, and Oxendown-hill, near Axmouth. These are within sight of each other, and about three miles apart. Membury consists of a single vallum, containing about two acres of ground. The camp at Musbury is said to be of great extent, containing an area of about twenty acres, with a double entrenchment nearly elliptical, following the form of the ground, the vallum being a good deal levelled by frequent ploughing: it is at the extremity of a ridge of hill, and was accessible only on the north.

At Widworthy, is an ancient entrenchment on the north-east side of the highest hill in the parish: there is an ancient earthwork also near the church, in a field called Castlewood.

Proceeding westward, we have Dumpton and Hembury forts; Belbury castle, commanding the vale of the Otter; Blackbury near Southleigh; a camp near Seaton, called Honeyditches, an oblong square of about three acres (fn. n1); and another on the hill above Sidbury. Dumpton fort, in the parish of Luppit, is an irregular oval on the tongue of a ridge of hill stretching out from Black-down: it has a double entrenchment on the only accessible side; the extreme length of the inner area is about 1000 feet; the greatest breadth about 350. Hembury fort, which is nearly similar in form to that of Dumpton, is entirely surrounded by a double entrenchment; the inner area is about 1150 feet in length, and about 400 wide in the widest part.

The fort at Sidbury has only a single entrenchment; it is formed on the narrow tongue of a ridge of hill, and is about 1400 feet in length, and not quite 300 wide at its broadest end. Belbury is a small oval fort, with a single trench, about 400 feet in length, and a little more than 200 wide, and preserving the same width nearly through the whole of its length.

West of the Otter, are Woodbury castle; the camps on Haldon and at Ugbrook, on Milbourne-down; a small camp near Newton; that at Denbury; another fort called Hembury, in the parish of Buckfastleigh; a considerable camp at Berry-head commanding Torbay; the ancient fortress of Stanborough castle, in the parish of Morleigh; and a large camp at Blackadon, in the parish of Loddiswell.

Woodbury castle, on the high down between the Otter and the Exe, is a pretty regular oval, with a single vallum about 500 feet in length within the rampart, and about 250 feet wide. There are some outworks connected with this camp, and some tumuli near it. This ancient fortress was occupied during the war with France by the park of artillery. The camp on Little Haldon, in the parish of Ashcombe, is circular, and has a single vallum, containing about an acre and a half of ground. The camp near Oxton is nearly circular; about 160 yards by 120. There is another on Sir Lawrence Palk's estate. The camp at Ugbrook, called Castle Dyke, is an irregular oval; its greatest length about 780 feet, its greatest breadth about 580: the camp on the hill above Newton is an oblong square, with a triple ditch about 112 paces by 90. The camp on Milberdown (fn. n2), near Newton Abbot, is elliptical, with a triple ditch, containing about six acres. The Prince of Orange stationed his park of artillery within this camp after his landing at Torbay. (fn. n3) Denbury camp, about half a mile from the church, is near oval, and is said to contain about eight acres; another account describes it as 200 paces from east to west, and 180 from north to south: on the south and east is a double fosse of considerable depth; on the west and north little vestiges of any fosse. Hembury fort, on the brow of Hembury hill, in the parish of Buckfastleigh, is somewhat of a circular form, comprising nearly seven acres. At the north end is a prœtorium 44 feet by 17. The ancient encampment at Berry-head was constructed on a promontory projecting into Torbay: this fortress was walled. It was probably constructed by the Romans soon after their conquest of this part of Britain. Roman coins were found there about the year 1730.

Blackadon camp, in the parish of Loddiswell, is an irregular oval, the extreme length being about 1000 feet; in the broadest part about 500: the whole is said to contain about 11 acres. The keep at the north-west corner is about ten feet higher than the vallum; on the south and east of it, the vallum is double and irregular. The ancient fortress at Stanborough, which gives name to the hundred, is similar, but of smaller dimensions: within the area is a large barrow, constructed of stones, some of which are of large dimensions: near the fortress are three smaller barrows or kairns.

It may, perhaps, be considered as a confirmation of the conjecture before noticed with respect to the frontiers of Dorsetshire, that there are no remains whatever of such fortresses on the western side of the county on the frontiers of Cornwall, which is known to have been inhabited by the same tribe of Britons. The most remarkable fortress on the western coast, is that of Dichenhills, or Clovelly dykes, about two miles from the British channel, situated on very high ground, and commanding the only practicable coast road in the north-west of Devon. It has three great trenches about 18 feet deep: the inner trench forms a regular parallelogram of about 360 feet by 300. The second and third are of very irregular form, the trenches being sometimes straight and sometimes curvilinear: the outer one is about 1260 feet in diameter. There are also some outworks. At whatever period this was originally constructed, there can be little doubt that it was occupied and improved by the Romans, and that it was intended as a defence against invaders from Ireland.

Near Appledore, are two fortresses call Hennaborough and Godborough, about two furlongs apart, the latter being of small dimensions. Near Daddon also, are the remains of an encampment. About a mile and a half north of Barnstaple, is a camp called Roborough. Half a mile from Braunton, on a hill, is a camp called the Castle, containing about four acres: on the north, which is the only accessible side, is a large vallum with a fosse. In Berry Narber, about half a mile from the coast, on Mr. Basset's estate, is a small circular work called the Castle. On Brattondown, in the parish of Bratton Fleming, is an ancient camp; another, of a square form, two miles to the east, in the parish of High Bray, called Shorsberry, or Shrewsbury: in the parish of Paracombe, one called South Stock; Holwell castle, with a long entrenchment; and another in the parish of Linton, about a mile from the last mentioned, called Stock castle. Dean Mills mentions a circular camp in the parish of Charles.

Among the principal inland camps and fortresses, may be mentioned Cadbury, in the parish of that name; Broadbury or Bradbury, between Ashbury and Bratton Clovelly; and Romsdon, near Kelly. Cadbury castle, as it is called, is of an oblong form of about 560 paces circumference; the vallum being from 25 to 30 feet high. The area, which is elevated above the fosse by a slope of 20 feet, is about 100 paces from north to south. Towards the south-east is a pit six feet deep and 12 feet wide. (fn. n4) Bradbury lies about three miles from Bratton Clovelly church: it is a rectangular oblong square, with a single vallum, and a fosse 25 feet wide, measuring from north to south, within the vallum, 225 feet; and east to west, 186 feet. Romsdon castle, which has a single vallum, is of an oval form, 400 feet in length, and about 234 in width.

In a line from Exeter to Dartmoor, are the following strong posts. A small camp in the parish of Holcomb Burnell; Cranbrook castle, near Moreton Hampstead, an irregular encampment, containing about six or seven acres, with a double ditch on the south, a single ditch on the west, and none on the north and east; and Prestonbury castle, on the brow of a precipice over the Teign, with a vallum and a broad and deep fosse, on the east side.

Nearly in a line from Exeter, through Crediton to Molton and Molland, are several camps and posts — at Posbury hill, in Tedburn St. Mary, a camp called Leathern Castle, in Colebrooke parish; Berry castle, in Woolfardisworthy, on the borders of Washford parish, a circular work containing about two acres; another small post of the same name, of a square form, in the parish of Witheridge, containing about two thirds of an acre; Wemworthy and Winkleigh; Burridge wood, in Chawleigh, a small post with a double vallum, both together about 30 feet wide, circular, enclosing not more than a quarter of an acre; a camp on Beacon-down, at Chulmleigh, with several barrows; a post at Castle-down, near South Molton; and another on the summit of a high hill near North Molton. The Bishop of Cloyne mentions two encampments near Molland Bottreaux. (fn. n5)

At Stoodley-beacon is a circular entrenchment containing about half an acre: in the parish of Shebbeare is an ancient earth-work called Durpleigh castle. (fn. n6)

On Uffculme-downe is a singular small earthwork, about 20 paces square, called the Pixy-garden, formed with banks about two feet high, divided into four compartments like a parterre, and in the middle of each of the divisions an oval raised bank: the square is open at the corners. There is a large kairn, called Simonsborough, at the northern extremity of the parish of Hemiock. There are many barrows on Haldon, and in other parts of the county: those near some of the principal camps have been already spoken of.

Mr. Chapple mentions numerous pits on the summit of Blackdown, about three feet deep, commonly called iron pits, which he supposes to have been as ancient as Hembury fort, and to have been made by the soldiers. These pits have been supposed by some antiquaries to have been a British town.


  • n1. Stukely.
  • n2. There is a small square earthwork at Haccombe in this neighbourhood
  • n3. Paper by P. J. Taylor, Esq. Archæologia, vol. xix.
  • n4. Polwhele.
  • n5. See p. cccxxi.
  • n6. Risdon.