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Earthwork defences of Countisbury Castle promontory fort

A Scheduled Monument in Brendon and Countisbury, Devon

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Coordinates

Latitude: 51.2298 / 51°13'47"N

Longitude: -3.8058 / 3°48'20"W

OS Eastings: 274014.113966

OS Northings: 149395.067907

OS Grid: SS740493

Mapcode National: GBR L2.2X93

Mapcode Global: VH4M9.ZCD2

Entry Name: Earthwork defences of Countisbury Castle promontory fort

Scheduled Date: 10 August 1923

Last Amended: 16 October 2002

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1020807

English Heritage Legacy ID: 33056

County: Devon

Civil Parish: Brendon and Countisbury

Traditional County: Devon

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Devon

Church of England Parish: Countisbury with Lynmouth St John the Evangelist

Church of England Diocese: Exeter

Details

The monument, which lies in two separate areas of protection, includes the
artificial defences of a promontory fort, considered to be of Iron Age
date, known as Countisbury Castle but more commonly referred to as Wind
Hill. The fort made use of the steep natural defences on three sides of
the promontory formed by the precipitous sea cliffs overlooking Lynmouth
Bay to the north and the deep valleys of the East Lyn River to the south.
The defensive circuit was completed by a high rampart and ditch placed
across the only gentle approach from the east. Together the combination of
artificial and natural defences enclosed a large irregular area of
approximately 35ha.
The scheduling encompasses the defensive earthworks which extend for about
400m from the coastal sea slopes at the north west to a steep-sided cliff
at the south east which overlooks the East Lyn River. The rampart stands
to a height of 13m in places above the ditch bottom, notably at its
southern section, and is no lower than 2.3m elsewhere; it varies in width
but has maximum dimensions front to tail, of 17m. On its outer, eastern
side the rampart is fronted by a flat-bottomed ditch which is about 5m
wide over most of its length and is 1.5m deep, although the full depth may
have become obscured by natural slippage over the course of two millennia.
Fronting the ditch is a counterscarp bank which varies between 0.7m and
1.7m in height and which is on average 4.5m wide. It has a vertical rear
face of drystone walling and this may be the result of post-medieval
adaptation. The rampart is cut through in two places, in one instance to
accommodate the main A39 coastal road, and in the other to provide a
simple 3m wide gap which is believed to be the original entrance. This
entrance exists just to the south of the centrepoint of the earthwork; it
would have given access to Wind Hill, the highest point of the defended
promontory, and in 2002 it carried a modern track. Forward of the entrance
are the remains of a defensive outwork which has been reduced by
agriculture although it still survives over part of its length as a scarp
up to 2m high and 9m wide. It extends in a curve fronting the entrance at
a maximum distance of 30m forward of the main defences and it is visible
as an earthwork over a length of about 95m from a point against the
counterscarp bank 30m north of the entrance. The outwork is considered
likely to have rejoined the counterscarp bank at a point some 70m south of
the entrance but this section appears to have suffered from agricultural
damage and is no longer visible on the ground.
The earlier popular name for the monument of Countisbury Castle or Camp
derives from the Domesday `Contesberie' and it has been suggested to be
the `Arx Cynuit' or fortified hill where the Viking Ubba, the brother of
Ivar the Boneless, suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the
Anglo-Saxons in AD878 according to the chronicler Asser. In modern
literature, Countisbury Castle is often referred to as Wind Hill which is
the highest hill within the enclosed area.
All fixed signposts, fencing, gates, and gate posts are excluded from the
scheduling, although the ground beneath all these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT
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
important.

The promontory fort of Countisbury Castle is defined by a combination of
artificial and natural defences. The artificial defence, which takes the
form of an earth rampart fronted by a ditch, survives exceptionally well
and is only seriously disturbed in one place where it has been cut through
by the A39 road. The remains provide a visible reminder of the measures
taken to defend areas of land and to signal their presence in the late
Iron Age and the fort forms part of a group of diverse and broadly
contemporary monuments which give an indication of the nature of
settlement in the area. The earthworks will retain archaeological
information relating to their construction, the lives of the inhabitants
of the fort, and the landscape in which they lived.

Source: Historic England

Sources

Books and journals
Grant, N, The Occupation of Hillforts in Devon during The Post-Roman, (1995), 106
Riley, H, Wilson-North, R, The Field Archaeology of Exmoor, (2001), 58-59

Source: Historic England

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