West Hill

The hillfort on West Hill (NT909295) is fairly well preserved and it is possible to find the features shown in the diagram below if conditions are good. The structures here are unusual in that they all have a pronounced tilt to the north. Instead of simply following the contours of the hill they are deliberately angled so as to present a more impressive façade to the valley below. In the picture above, taken from an easterly direction, you can see the tilt clearly.

The central stone built Iron Age hillfort can be seen as broad spread of tumbled rubble. It measures roughly 65m from north to south and 50m East to West enclosing an area of 0.28ha or 0.7 acres.

Although it is mostly overgrown with grass it is possible to see isolated facing stones as you walk around the fort and the entrance, on the eastern side is very well defined. A short stretch of the internal face of the dry stone wall can also be seen on the south east side. At this point the base of the wall was around 3 metres wide and would have been at least 2m in height.

The stones used are angular and unweathered suggesting they have been split or quarried. In fact there are several quarry sites on the hill, one can plainly be seen near the fort to the north west. There is a slight hollowing behind the stone rampart at its North and South Eastern sides which may also be caused by quarrying during the construction of the walls.

As with the other hillforts in the area the newly quarried stones would have a very striking pink colour which would have lasted quite some time. The sight of so many of the hilltops in the northern Cheviots topped with glowing pink walls sometimes more than 2m in height must have been staggering.

A number of circular features can be defined inside the ramparts. These have been interpreted as being Iron Age hut circles constructed at the same time as the fort. However Iron Age huts were usually timber walled, the upright timbers being rooted in a ditch for support sometimes with packing stones. On the ground today this type of hut shows up in what is known as a ‘ring groove’. A circular feature which can appear as subtly as a change in vegetation type or more lushly growing grass. The hut circles on West Hill are of earth and stone bank construction. Some of them are connected by walls, similarly constructed, forming little yards. The walls may have had hedges on them. This is typical of settlements of the Romano-British period of around the third or fourth century AD. These, then, are later additions to the site.

The outer enclosure runs more or less parallel to the central hillfort though, especially on the south eastern side, it has a few odd straight runs and changes of angle. There is an entrance on the eastern side but offset to the entrance to the hillfort. The outer enclosure measures 120m north to south and 100m east to west bounding an area of 0.7ha or 1.8 acres.

It is less massive than the hillfort and, on closer examination, constructed differently. A walk around the outer enclosure again reveals stretches of facing stones. However the stones here are rounded and weathered unlike those of the hillfort ramparts. These have not been quarried or split but may have been collected from the ground or dug up from the shallow ditch which can be seen behind the course of the enclosure.

The structure seems to suggest that this was not a dry stone wall but an earth and stone bank more typical of the Romano-British period. On the north west section the outer enclosure is composed entirely of stones and it is possible that these could have been robbed from the ramparts of the hillfort above. The evidence for this is not clear cut but it suggests the outer enclosure could have been constructed after the collapse of the Iron Age fort.

Earlier investigators of West Hill have, quite naturally, assumed the hillfort and the outer enclosure were both Iron Age. This may not, it seems, be the case. However, without further investigation, this remains speculative.

A small ‘D’ shaped settlement can be found breaking the line of the outer enclosure in the north east section of its circuit. The settlement is Romano-British and later than the outer enclosure as it overlies it.

The line of the outer enclosure can be seen as a feint hump running through this area. There are earth and stone hut circles here, lying inside the line of the outer enclosure and it is possible this settlement started life inside the line of the outer enclosure and was later extended over the line forming a sort of courtyard area.

The photograph to the left shows the entrance to the ‘D’ shaped settlement.

Archaeologist George Jobey investigated West Hill in 1964. He identified what he described as a ‘palisade trench’ between the hillfort and the outer enclosure in the south and west. In 1999 Al Oswald, Marcus Jecock and Stewart Ainsworth undertook a detailed survey of West Hill for English Heritage. They detailed the course of this ditch and suggested it underlay the stone built ramparts of the hillfort. Pre-dating the construction of stone hillforts it is known that some sites had substantial timber beginnings known as palisades. The foundation to these wooden enclosures would have been a sizeable trench. I have marked a ‘possible ditch’ on the site diagram. Here, in places almost 2m wide is evidence of just such a trench.

Although there have been no excavations at West Hill it is generally thought, because of the structure and location, that the stone built hillfort dates from the late Iron Age. Many hillforts of this type were constructed around 600BC. However if the ditch proves to be evidence of an earlier palisade enclosure on West Hill then there is the possibility that the hillfort was constructed on a much earlier site dating, perhaps, to the Bronze Age.

There is evidence of even earlier interest in the hill. A cup marked rock was found on the southern slope of the hill which is certainly Neolithic. This rock is very unusual as it is igneous Andesite. Almost all the rock art in the area is carved on the softer fell sandstone.

It is worth noting that there is little evidence on the ground for any Iron Age occupation of the site. There is the possibility of one and perhaps two timber huts dating from this time but the picture is far from clear. Unlike Yeavering Bell and Humbleton Hill this was not a ‘fort’ and the term ‘hillfort’ is used for convenience.

Here we have the more typical defended settlement found in the area. Occupation by a single extended family is likely.

West Hill is one of the most interesting sites in the north Cheviots with its layered history and the potential to reveal so much more if subjected to, literally, deeper examination.