Saturday, 6 September 2014

A Quest For Camelot

In search of King Arthur at Cadbury Castle

We all know the legends of Arthur: the round table, Merlin, Excalibur and the quest for the holy grail, but did he really exist?   John Leland, a 16th century chronicler, had no doubts that South Cadbury Castle in Somerset was the 'Camelot' of this celebrated king, and, apparently - evcn then it had been known to have been his residence for centuries: the tales and folklore of the site having been handed down from generation to generation.  We don't really know if Arthur existed - or even if a tribal leader of the Dark Ages went by that name - but what we do know is that someone very important lived in the south of England just after the Roman period - and that they lived right here in Cadbury Castle - supporting Leland's view that this was inded the 'Camelot' of the round table.

The name of the nearest village, Queen Camel - adds further fuel to the fire.  Seen from a distance, the great hill fort dominates the landscape for miles around.  It is not a castle in the strictest sense, but a massive hill fort carved out of the prominent limestone outcrop - and it tells us not just of Arthur, but of thousands of years of British history.  Cadbury Castle is an enigma.

Cadbury Castle from the air.  The south west gateway through the ramparts - so important to our understanding of the site, is seen to the bottom left of the summit plateau.  A raised area of the  summit plateau on the left (west) side is known as 'Arthur's Palace' and with good reason - as you will see later on.  The north-east gateway - through which I will now take you - is hidden in the trees at top right - with the best of the ramparts being at the south east.

The locals in the tiny village of South Cadbury have no doubts about the Castle in their midst.

Heading up through the trees to the north east gateway - we meet the massive system of ramparts: a series of bankings and ditches which, in Iron Age times, would have supported timber buttresses making entrance without permission virtually impossible.

From the north-east gate we emerge onto the summit plateau itself - with bank 1 encircling the summit for a distance of nearly a mile.

An enthusiastic and informed archaeologist named Leslie Alcock carried out a series of excavations of Cadbury Castle in the 1960s, revealing the entire history of our ancient past on one hillside.  It was a massive task as the site itself is of huge dimensions - but he did it!

Neolithic and Bronze Age skeletons were found in these ramparts - and there was evidence that the castle had been modified or rebuilt at least five times; last being used as a mint during the ill fated reign of Ethelred the Unready in the 11th century.

In fact, here - at the South West Gate, Alcock found a Roman road surface beneath which were a mass of dismembered bodies; men, women and children.  Here, the Romans finally massacred the Iron Age inhabitants who must have put up a last resistance - leaving their bodies to rot while they were pulled to pieces by scavenging wolves!

But what of Arthur?  Well .. beneath the surface here - Alcock found the eveidence of rebuilding on a grand scale - especially of the gated area over the massacre site, and dated it to the early 500s AD, exactly the time we sometimes refer to as 'Arthurian.'  Nowhere else in Britain has there ever been found such elaborate fortification (of the same time period) with unlimited resources - so clearly the man responsible was very important and wealthy - in an an era when there was no single king of England.  Was this great leader the basis for the legendary tales that have developed over many centuries?

Strange it is to walk up here and think you are treading in the very footseps of a Roman army, bent on massacre ....

Looking back to the South West gate - scene of the massacre and the elaborate rebuilding of Arthurian times.  It is an enigmatic spot.

Now I have climbed onto the highest point of the summit plateau of Cadbury Castle - known as 'Arthur's Palace.'  Here, Alcock uncovered evidence of Iron Age, Roman and Arthurian occupation, including the remains of a Round House structure and, most amazing of all, a timbered Great Hall dated to about 500 AD.

Looking down the north-east gateway - our point of entry. It is largely shrouded in trees.

Looking back at the north-east gate and the scale of the ramparts.

Walking in ditch 1 - with a great view of bank 2.  The manpower used to construct such massive ramparts must have been phenomenal.

In fact, if you walk around the castle inside the first ditch, you get an even better sense of its massive scale than you do encircling the summit.

Leslie Alcock found Bronze Age and Neolithic skeletons in this area in the1960s.

Looking down at the alternating series of banks and ditches in the south-east section - with the great views beyond.

The south east ramparts of Cadbury Castle - inside the first ditch.

Looking over the vast Somerset landscape from the south sector of the castle.

And finally - here's a view of the disturbed 'Arthur's Palace' area. Beneath here lie the foundations of a large rectangular hall - where the world's most legendary king may well have sat down to supper!  Standing here today - you're as far away from the world we live in as it's possible to be.  Galahad, Lancelot and Guinivere - I salute you all!!

Written and illustrated by Stephen Oldfield.

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