Monday, 23 January 2012

Reflections on the Roman Camp

I went for a walk round the Roman Camp over the weekend. The Roman Camp is situated on a high spot of the South Downs at the northern edge of the city of Brighton & Hove - but if you look for it on a map you will be disappointed. It's not on any map. Actually, that last statement is untrue; it is on many maps, but is always described as Hollingbury Hill Fort, not a Roman Camp. Hollingbury Hill Fort might be the official title but generation after generation of Brightonians have called it the Roman Camp. I don't suppose the Romans ever used the spot as a military outpost and there is no sign of a Roman villa. It's too draughty a spot for one thing. If the fort did date from Roman times it would be between 1,600 and 2,000 years old, but when the Romans were busy building their roads across England the Roman Camp was already ancient. It is not a mere sixteen hundred years old but a full three and a half thousand years so when the Romans were teaching the Celtic tribes about central heating and hot baths, this camp had already seen at least fifteen hundred winters.

The Camp is situated in the middle of a golf course and to reach it I prefer to drive towards Old Boat Corner and park at the edge of 39 Acre Field. This is a triangular field, possibly 39 acres in extent, which is owned by the Council and left as open grassland. It is mowed just once a year but dog walkers keep open a path right round the edge and one across the middle. In the summer one can see scabious and knapweed, cow parsley and sow thistle, Harebells, clover, vetches and daisies among other flowers. The song of the skylark can sometimes be heard overhead although they rarely nest in this field as it is too busy with humans and dogs.

I walk across the field and through a scrubby wood the top of the Wild Park before turning right to go uphill, round the back of the 7th (or 8th or whatever) hole of the golf course, and continue uphill to enter the Roman Camp by the eastern gateway. I know this is a gateway as archaeologists have marked the holes where the ancient gateposts stood by sinking iron pipes and filling them with concrete. This weekend I glanced back, as I usually do on entering the camp. I looked east across the modern housing estates of Moulsecoombe and the even newer buildings of the University of Brighton. As usual, I could quite easily see the white of the chalk pits outside Lewes but this time I could also make out the houses in the streets creeping up the slopes of Mount Caburn. Through the gap between Caburn and Castle Hill I could see the hills of the High Weald, perhaps forty miles away. The light was so good and the air so clear that those hills seemed closer than usual. Was it just my imagination that I caught a glimpse of pinpricks of light as the sun reflected on glass somewhere there?

As I walked the rampart round to the south the view opened up and I could see the Isle of Wight over fifty miles to the west. The island seemed to be floating on a bank of low cloud, something I have often read about but don't recall having seen before. That hump is St Catherine's Down and it might have been 59 years to the day since I had first walked over St Catherine's. It was in January 1953 that I was sent to school in Ventnor, a town huddling beneath St Catherine's Down. To the south-east was the grandstand of Brighton racecourse. Had it been a race day I could have watched the horses as they passed the winning post although the distance would have been too great for me to say which was the winner.

The ditch and rampart of the Iron Age (or is it Bronze Age?) fort are still there, even if the ditch has filled up a bit and the rampart shrunk since t was built all those years ago. As I walked the rampart I thought of those men digging that ditch to a depth of, what? Ten feet, perhaps. Not for them the ease of mechanical diggers of JCBs. It was the strength of their arms that used primitive picks and shovels to fling the earth up from the ditch to build the rampart so that attackers would have scale a steep incline twenty feet high, or more than the height of three men. There they would have been faced with an almost impenetrable wall of branches cut from thorn trees. In those days an army would have been only a couple of hundred men and battles would have been fought hand to hand, looking the enemy in the eye.

I did once try to calculate the area covered by the Camp. I came up with the answer of 48 acres but I think I must have made a mistake somewhere in my calculations as I'm sure it is not that big. But it's big enough. The centre should be typical downland but it seems more like moorland. The wild flowers growing here are different from those on 39 Acre Field. There are plenty of violets and wild thyme, orchids and other flowers I am unable to name and which I have seen nowhere else. I do recognise the gorse bushes which cover about a quarter of the Camp. These grow to a height of eight feet or more and, with the labyrinthine pathways threading through them, they make a natural maze.

The three graves in the Camp are never covered by the gorse. Indeed, little grows on them except grass. These are disc barrows, the grave sites of chieftains of the tribe who built the Camp. They are empty now, having been excavated in the middle of the 19th century. The grave goods are, I think, kept in the Brighton Museum.

No matter how still the day might be, there always seems to be a wind up here. The tang of the sea is on the breeze and if you lick your lips you will taste the salt. Herring gulls and black-headed gulls wheel overhead and just occasionally I might spot a green woodpecker as it flies between the stunted, wind-swept hawthorn trees. As I approach the northern side of the camp I can see across the rolling Downs to the Chattri, the site of the funeral pyres for Hindu soldiers who died in Brighton in the first World War, and, further on, there is a glimpse of Jack and Jill, the windmills at the top of Clayton Hill. Closer are the massed ranks of trees in Stanmer Great Wood. How many other people have, over the centuries, seen the same views, I wonder? What were their thoughts as they trod these ancient ramparts? How many were joyful, with something to celebrate? Or sad and mourning? Or, more likely, oblivious to it all?

But we have returned to the eastern gateway. It's time to descent the hill, walk back through the wood and across 39 Acres to the car. Fern has enjoyed the walk and the wind has certainly blown the cobwebs away. I shall enjoy that cup of coffee when I get home.


Stephen Hayes said...

I'm addicted to ancient sites (particularly Roman ones) and I'd give these a good look-see if I were in your neck of the woods.

Buck said...

Thanks for taking us on the walk with you, Brian. That was a great narrative.

Anonymous said...

I want to be there!