Maiden Castle, Dorset: An ancient hill fort the size of 50 football pitches

The mysterious and ancient Maiden Castle occupies a vast site in Dorset. Clive Aslet takes a look.

Maiden Castle is a mystery — but that was intentional, as part of a defensive strategy. An attacker would have had no idea what lay in store on the further side of the ridge on which the great earthworks were built, which was followed by others, separated by deep ditches.

The entrance to the enormous site — the size of 50 football pitches, making it one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe — was protected by a kind of maze, at any twist of which defenders, hurling pebbles from their slings, could spring out.

Maiden Castle is the largest Iron Age hillfort in Britain. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The first earthwork was constructed 5,000 years ago. However, Neolithic people deserted the site, only returning hundreds of years later to use it for burials. The present complex was redesigned and improved towards the beginning of the 1st century BC.

Artist Paul Birkbeck’s impression of what Maiden Castle would have looked like in its heyday, the 5th century BC. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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It was a stronghold, but also a settlement, with artisans — potters, blacksmiths, jewellers — living among the tribesmen maintaining the defences. Roman legionaries pierced the earthworks in AD43 or AD44 under the efficient generalship of the future Emperor Vespasian.

Some of the earth banks were pulled down and a new town, Dorchester, was built on the plain. In about AD70, Maiden Castle was abandoned. The cloak of mystery descends.

Today the sheep are the kings of the castle…

How to visit Maiden Castle

The castle is just to the south-west of Dorchester, and easy to find: Maiden Castle Road runs straight there from the centre of the town. Entry is free, and you can roam the site at leisure. Best of all, English Heritage — who manage the site — have a free 40-minute audio guide which will tell you what you’re looking at, and the history of the site.

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