Following a very brief - and, I'm afraid, all too tentative - visit quite a few years ago, I've harboured an ambition (one of many, it has to be said) to come back to Yarnbury and see if it was as good as it appeared 'back then'. Well, inspired by Chance's notes as I was, not to mention a recent visit to The Chesters up near Edinburgh, today was the day....
Approaching along the A303 (ah, the A303!!) from Stonehenge, the environs of the great circle incidentally occupied by a myriad camper vans and, frankly, looking a shambles, I park in a layby just beyond the deceptively squat earthworks of the hillfort. Luckily the 'chicken' manages to cross the road in one piece and a couple of gates and grassy field later [no signs, no barbed-wire], I stand overawed by the immensity of Yarnbury's earthworks.... duh, these are big! Bi-vallate, with what would appear to be a somewhat half hearted effort at a third rampart in places, the main ramparts and ditches are some of the most impressive Iron Age fortifications I've seen for a long while.
And wait, there's more... for the original entrance to the east, a typically inverted affair of parallel banks, is protected by a boldly projecting, kidney-shaped earthwork, this playing much the same aggressive role as an castle gatehouse - you approach in the exact, vulnerable manner we want you to approach, thank you very much. The large, roughly circular interior of the settlement is defined by barbed wire, traces of an additional, smaller enclosure visible within. Unfortunately, however, Dyer does not cite this as being a causewayed-camp, or otherwise of a much earlier date than the other works. More's the pity.
The highest point of the main, inner rampart is crowned by an OS trig point, a bit lower than the usual, perhaps, but nevertheless a fine viewpoint for the sweeping Wiltshire countryside. I walk the ramparts in turn, the resident flowers and fauna perhaps the greatest incentive for a summer visit, a startled hare making off amongst blooms of exquisitely vibrant hues, a wise precaution to avoid being trod upon by a clumsy Gladman. The ramparts are bisected at one point by barbed wire flanking another (modern?) entrance, but metal bar gates allow a full circuit. It is a wonderful walk, it really is, but all too soon the hours have flown by and I must leave.
At this moment I see four figures approaching from the far arc of the ramparts with a small dog ... tourists upon Yarnbury, surely not? Intrigued, I decide to hang around and have a chat, only to be greeted with 'what are you looking for?' by a very young looking chap with very upper class accent. Hmm, difficult question, perched as I am upon these massive Iron Age ramparts with a camera. Er, actually I think I found the hillfort, thanks...Anyway, I'm informed this is private land and, basically, that he sees nothing untoward with using one of Wessex's finest Iron Age hillforts as a mere sheep pen. And there I was hoping that - taking a lead from my recent, invigorating meetings with numerous enlightened Scottish farmers - perhaps the landowner of Yarnbury was actually taking his (arguably) inherited moral responsibility for this exceptional piece of our heritage seriously? Well, you be the judge of that. He flatly dismisses my suggestion to post a contact 'phone number by the entrance, or an address to request access through. Clearly too much trouble, I guess. However I must state that, to be fair, he was in no way aggressive and, I assume, fully within his legal rights. There are always two sides to every story, but I just somehow expected more this time, I guess.
So there you are. In my opinion Yarnbury is one of the great 'lost' hillforts of Wiltshire. But most certainly one with no public access. It deserves far better than that. It really does....
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 130 - Scale 1:25000
Salisbury & Stonehenge inc. Wilton & Market Lavington.
I visited this site last Lammas as part of my tour of the Stonehenge area. It was the last site on my hit list and I'd planned to spend the afternoon there. My transport was, as usual, my bike. It meant cycling down a dual carriageway to get there, but it was the most practical route for me to take. Having read the other field notes, or lack of them, it looks like I was the only one to make it.
The site lies just off the A303. At this point, the road is a dual carriageway with a central reservation. I would suggest you try to get to SU 04104 40144. This point is a farm track, just off the South bound A303. You should be able to turn a sharp right off the A303 to get there, but I haven't tried this. If you miss the turn, and there's no signpost, you will have to travel down to Deptford or Wylye to turn round. There is a farm track running alongside the North bound side of the A303, but I couldn't tell you how to get on this, let alone get off it.
If your travelling on the North bound side of the A303, you could try a sharp left turn on the other side of the farm track, just past the site, otherwise you should travel up to the B3083 and turn off towards Berwick St. James. Turn round here and travel back along the A303 South bound.
The other alternative is to travel on to Berwick St. James, and travel or walk along the Langford Waie. This track leads to the summit of a hill with a water tower on top. Turn right here and travel up until you reach the A303. There is a milestone at this point indicating that it was once the roman road from Old Sarum to Bath. The milestone is actually listed as scheduled monument AM419 (SMR No. SU04SW525). Once you get to this point, the last obstacle is the A303 itself. You must wait for a gap in the traffic and sprint across to the central reservation. Do this again over the Northbound lane and the delights of Yarnbury Castle can be sampled. Bit of a game all that, but that's it's not up a mountain.
I have no idea if this is private land or on MOD land or anything. I did get buzzed by a MOD helicopter while there, but thought nothing of it as they were flying around all the time. I cycled down the track till it drew parallel with the fort and stashed the bike well off the track. There was a section of wire fence down and a path though it, so I took that.
I walked up the side of the earthworks until I got to the original, eastern entrance. This is a strong interned entrance, 9 metres wide, with elaborate outworks including a kidney-shaped enclosure, which forces the entrance passage south and east.
Once inside the circular earthwork, the ground is level and encloses over 10 hectares. The fort is surrounded by two banks 7.5 metres high and deep ditches, with traces of a third, slighter outer defence. An OS trig station sits on one bank, indicating that you stand on the highest point for miles.
Inside the fort are traces of an earlier 3.6 hectare enclosure. When this was excavated by Maud Cunnington in June 1932, pottery fragments and human burials were recovered. This area has been dated to 300BC. A geophysical survey was carried out in 1987, and another year earlier, by the RCHME. This revealed the remains of at least 120 circular structures and associated pits within the hillfort defences.
While the outer ditch has been dated to 100BC, a small triangular enclosure of Roman date was added to the outside of the fort on the west. This has been shown by excavation to have a V-shaped ditch 2.7 metres deep, together with an entrance that had been closed by a wooden gate.
The entrance on the south side is modern and probably dates from the eighteenth century. As Rhiannon says, an annual sheep fair was held inside the fort. This ended in 1916, maybe due to the military demands on the area, or maybe through the gradual demise of the old ways. This pattern was repeated throughout countless communities up and down the country, let alone the county. The sheep-pens have left rectangular ridge-traces on the eastern side of the central enclosure.
I really enjoyed visiting Yarnbury. It had a true atmosphere of the past, even though the busy A303 gave out a constant hum of traffic. The parking is the major problem, but once you overcome that, you get a place the size of Avebury to yourself. The banks and ditches reminded me of Avebury too, they were probably bigger. It felt a little like Old Sarum too.
My exit strategy was simple. Leave by the way I came in and retrieve the bike. I then cycled out, over Madington Down to Shrewton.
Here in Yarnbury Camp, said the man, his shadow falling across us sunned and silent, they dug up a Roman soldier.
complete with all his gear they found him, even to the rivets, brass-bronze, I should say - that fastened his leather sandals.
I'm interested in these things myself, whenever I come here I make a special point of looking in all the rabbit-holes.
He paused a little, and went; and after him came the Roman. shadowless stepping the turf that hid him unsunned and silent,
here in Yarnbury Camp, saying, we dug up a Briton, buried with all his goods, his worked flints and his amber.
Mortality is a strange thing, I muse and ponder about it as I stand here on my watch, so still that at dusk the coneys nibble the grass at my feet, heeding me no more than a dead man.
I looked at your wrist, at the transient flesh and the bone beneath it, and time bound dancing there with a viper's-tongue flicker.
To that coranto, I thought, north-east of us the shadows of Stonehenge veer onward into another evening.
Once a year Yarnbury becomes reanimate, on the day of the Horse and Sheep Fair, October 4th, held in this lonely trysting place by immemorial tradtion. Here.. the flocks..stand close packed in pens; bunches of young ponies are tied up in one corner.. and near by are the sober cart-horses, their plaited manes and tails aprick with ornaments of straw. The vendor of sheep bells spreads his metal wares upon the ground.. the purchase of sheep bells is a serious matter, good ones costing as much as five shillings..In the good old days, up to within the memory of people still living, the fair was followed by horse races next day, and sports of all kinds. But now the pleasure part of the meeting has been abandoned; the folk disperse quietly soon after noon, when business is done, leaving Yarnbury to the silent occupation of its prehistoric ghosts for another year.
From Ella Noyes's 'Salisbury Plain' (1913) (taken from a quote in Katy Jordan's 2000 'Haunted Wiltshire').
Interestingly(?) the parish boundary crosses the centre of the fort (though I'm afraid bridleways only skirt the edges).