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Sharpenhoe Clappers: an Iron Age promontory fort, medieval warren and associated medieval cultivation earthworks

A Scheduled Monument in Streatley, Central Bedfordshire

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Latitude: 51.9603 / 51°57'37"N

Longitude: -0.4495 / 0°26'58"W

OS Eastings: 506630.739522

OS Northings: 230231.080647

OS Grid: TL066302

Mapcode National: GBR G4B.15T

Mapcode Global: VHFR1.5Z6L

Entry Name: Sharpenhoe Clappers: an Iron Age promontory fort, medieval warren and associated medieval cultivation earthworks

Scheduled Date: 30 September 1982

Last Amended: 7 December 1994

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1009400

English Heritage Legacy ID: 24411

County: Central Bedfordshire

Civil Parish: Streatley

Traditional County: Bedfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Bedfordshire

Church of England Parish: Barton-le-Cley

Church of England Diocese: St.Albans


The Sharpenhoe Clappers is an imposing promontory on the northern edge of the
Chiltern Hills, approximately 1.5km to the south west of Barton le Clay. The
Iron Age fort is situated in a commanding position on the northern end of the
this spur, some 90m above the surrounding countryside to the north, east and
The promontory fort is roughly rectangular in plan, measuring 250m north to
south and 150m from east to west, defined by steep slopes on all but the
southern side. The area contained by the abrupt edges of the natural scarps
rises gently towards the central spine of the promontory, forming a relatively
level plateau. A mature beech wood now covers this plateau which forms the
interior of the fort. There is no evidence for ramparts on the eastern or
western rim, although a timber palisade would have provided sufficient defence
in addition to the natural gradients. Two shallow terraces cut into the
northern slope are thought to indicate more elaborate fortifications added to
the most imposing side of the site, perhaps for the purpose of displaying
status as well as defence.
Two banks aligned across the neck of the spur separate the fort from the high
ground to the south. The western bank measures between 0.7m and 2m in height
and between 10m and 12m in width, and extends for about 60m from the edge of
the natural slope. The height of this bank is accentuated by an irregular 7m-
10m wide hollow area to the south. The second, less substantial bank lies
about 35m further east and continues for 35m to the edge of the opposite
slope. It varies between 8m and 10m in width and between 0.5m and 1m in
height. The banks have long been considered to represent the southern defences
of the fort. However, although partial excavation of the western bank in 1979
demonstrated that it overlay a palisade trench (containing Iron Age pottery),
the bank itself was constructed in the medieval period.
The U-shaped palisade trench measured c.0.5m across, and retained several
impressions formed by the removal of posts. Two larger holes cut into the edge
of the trench indicated the settings for substantial timber posts thought to
mark the eastern side of an entranceway. A 1.5m deep, 4.5m wide hollow located
c.3m to the south of these postholes is thought to represent the terminal of a
defensive ditch flanking the palisade to the west. A geophysical survey in
1980 revealed a second, similar ditch extending to the east from the other
side of the 4m-5m wide entranceway.
The western bank is thought to have been constructed as a breeding place (or
pillow mound) for rabbits. The section cut through the bank in 1979 revealed
sequential layers of soil and chalk disturbed by numerous burrows, and
containing fragments of 14th and 15th century pottery. The bank overlies a
buried surface containing fragments of Iron Age and Roman pottery, and was
originally constructed against a series of posts set into holes beneath the
northern edge. These posts were later removed and replaced by a solid
revetment of chalk rubble, which would have enabled more effective culling of
the stock by restricting the number of entrances. Two parallel channels had
been dug across the slope beneath this section of the bank prior to its
construction. These channels would have provided drainage for the interior of
the bank, and are a characteristic feature of medieval warren mounds. The
interior of the Iron Age fort remained as pasture until the establishment of
the beech plantation in the 1840's, and is thought to have formed a warren
associated with the bank. The warren may have been enclosed by a fence
separating the rabbits from surrounding areas of cultivation. Two medieval
cultivation terraces (lynchets) lie to the south of the western bank. The
larger, northern terrace measures approximately 15m by 20m, and is separated
from a smaller example to the south (10m by 50m) by a steep, 1.2m high scarp.
Further scarps, between 1m and 1.5m in height, define the upper and lower
limits of the terraces.
The monument was first identified as a `British Camp' in 1874, based on its
commanding location and apparent southern defences. The name `Clappers' is
thought to derive from the medieval latin term `claperius', or the french
`clapier': meaning a heap of stones or rabbit hole. The name was first
documented in 1575, at which time it may have referred specifically to the
warren. Since the 19th century the name has applied to the entire spur.
The concrete obelisk in the southern part of the hillfort along with all
fences and fence posts are excluded from the scheduling, although the
ground beneath these features is included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

Promontory forts are a type of hillfort in which conspicuous naturally
defended sites are adapted as enclosures by the construction of one or more
earth or stone ramparts placed across the neck of a spur in order to divide it
from the surrounding land. Coastal situations, using headlands defined by
steep natural cliffs, are common while inland similar topographic settings
defined by natural cliffs are also used. The ramparts and accompanying ditches
formed the main artificial defence, but timber palisades may have been erected
along the cliff edges. Access to the interior was generally provided by an
entrance through the ramparts. The interior of the fort was used intensively
for settlement and related activities, and evidence for timber- and stone-
walled round houses can be expected, together with the remains of buildings
used for storage and enclosures for animals. Promontory forts are generally
Iron Age in date, most having been constructed and used between the sixth
century BC and the mid-first century AD. They are broadly contemporary with
other types of hillfort. They are regarded as settlements of high status,
probably occupied on a permanent basis, and recent interpretations suggest
that their construction and choice of location had as much to do with display
as defence. Promontory forts are rare nationally with less than 100 recorded
examples. In view of their rarity and their importance in the understanding of
the nature of social organisation in the later prehistoric period, all
examples with surviving archaeological remains are considered nationally

The Iron Age fort on the Sharpenhoe Clappers forms part of a series of
defended sites established along the Chiltern Ridge during the Late Bronze Age
and Iron Age. It is, however, the only regional example of a promontory fort,
relying for its defence primarily on the strength of its topographical
location. Its commanding position dominates the local landscape, providing not
only defence, but also displaying the status of its former inhabitants.
Additional fortifications on the most imposing, northern side may also have
served this purpose.
The trial excavation of a section across the western bank only affected a
small part of the monument, but demonstrated that the site retains many well
preserved features including evidence for timber fortifications crossing the
spur incorporating an entranceway flanked by external ditches. The interior of
the fort will retain further buried features relating to the period of use,
and evidence of additional timber fortifications may be found on the edges of
the promontory. Comparison between the Chiltern hillforts (the nearest
examples being Ravensburgh Castle some 3km to the east and Ivinghoe Beacon
15km to the south west) will provide important information concerning the
nature of their use, and their relationship with the surrounding countryside.
Warrens have a long history of construction and use dating from the medieval
period to the early years of the present century. Documentary sources suggest
that the zenith of warren construction lay in the late medieval and post-
medieval periods, although the practice is thought to have been established
following the introduction of rabbits from Normandy in the 11th century. The
warren usually consisted of an enclosure surrounding one or more purpose-built
breeding places known as pillow mounds or buries. Existing monuments including
burial mounds, mottes and boundary banks were sometimes adapted to this use.
Warrens provided a consistent supply of meat and skins, and formed a
significant part of the economy of both ecclesiastical and secular estates.
The northern end of the Sharpenhoe Clappers promontory was adapted to serve
this purpose during the 15th century, when part of the southern bank was
constructed as an artificial breeding place. The bank has been shown by
limited trial excavation to be well preserved and to retain numerous features
of its original design, including a solid revetment on the northern side, and
drainage channels beneath. The bank also seals an earlier ground surface which
overlies part of the Iron Age defences. The importance of the site is enhanced
by the survival of two cultivation terraces to the south of the bank, which
provide further evidence for the medieval management of this area of the chalk
uplands, which complements the evidence from the warren itself.
The importance of the site is further enhanced by its inclusion within a
public amenity area.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Dyer, J, South England Archaeological Guide, (1973), 4
Wainwright, R, Guide to Prehistoric Remains in Britain, (1978), 284
'CBA Group 9' in CBA Group 9, , Vol. 3, (1980)
Coleman, S R, 'Streatley' in Bedfordshire Parish Survey, (1980)
Dix, B, 'Beds Arch J' in An excavation at Sharpenhoe Clapper, Streatley, Bedfordshire, , Vol. 16, (1983), 65-74
Dix, B, 'Beds Arch J' in An excavation at Sharpenhoe Clapper, Streatley, Bedfordshire, , Vol. 16, (1983), 65-74
Dix, B, 'Beds Arch J' in An excavation at Sharpenhoe Clapper, Streatley, Bedfordshire, , Vol. 16, (1983), 65-74
Dyer, J, 'The Bedfordshire Magazine' in Sharpenhoe Clappers, , Vol. 8, (1962), 114
DOE AM Lab report, Bartlett, A and David, A, Geophysics G 2/80, Sharpenhoe, (1980)
EH FMW AM107 report, Patterson, H, Site No. 16492, (1993)
Estate map, CRO SM 136, (1824)
Estate Map, CRO SM/E 72, (1770)
Estate of Lawrence Smyth, CRO SM/E 72, (1770)
Simco, A, Sharpenhoe Clappers: Hillfort, (1978)
Simco, A, Sharpenhoe Clappers: Hillfort, (1978)
site visit report, Simco, A, (1978)
Tithe Map and award, CRO MAT 42/1 & AT 42/1, (1824)
Tithe Map and Award, CRO MAT 42/1 & AT 42/1, (1844)
View of the Clappers from the north, Fisher, CRO Z102/73, (1820)
view of the north side of the Clappes, Fisher, CRO Z102/73, (1820)

Source: Historic England

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