I keep going back to South Cadbury. If you’re looking for a picture-book castle, though, forget it; there are no crenellations, no towers, no dungeons. So don’t be disappointed if you think it looks just like a hill, because that’s exactly what it is. Yet this hill has a 5,000 year history and, once upon a time, people used to call it home. Not only that – there are those who believe it could be the site of King Arthur’s Camelot.
South Cadbury was first inhabited by Neolithic farmers around 3,000BC. It was in and out of use until around about 700BC when a farming community became established there. By 500BC, South Cadbury was a thriving fortified village. On the eve of the Roman conquest, from 43AD onward, it was heavily defended by four huge ramparts. Disciplined Roman troops relentlessly picked off the British hill forts one by one. Experts reckon that Cadbury fell later in the 1st century, its defenders probably slaughtered (the remains of 30 people - men, women and children – have been found near one of the entrances) and the place became derelict. Two hundred years passed; a temple was built there. Briefly, in late Saxon times, Cadanbyrig was fortified, a royal mint was established and an intriguing cruciform church was laid out (but never completed). Probably what defines South Cadbury Castle, though, is what happened about 5 centuries before that, after Roman rule disappeared from Britain in the 5th century.
Hard facts about the sub-Roman period are almost as rare as hen’s teeth. We know, of course, that Germanic invaders eventually overcame the Celtic British; but this did not happen overnight. There was undoubtedly resistance; many old hill forts were re-inhabited and re-fortified. South Cadbury was one of them. Sometime around the late 5th/early 6th centuries AD, someone built massive defences on this enormous 18 acre site. These included ramparts enclosing a perimeter of around 1200 yards, consisting of a dry stone wall supported by stout wooden horizontal and vertical posts, infilled with rubble and topped by a timber palisade. There appear to have been two gate towers. One of these had two pairs of doors, each about 5 feet wide, and a cobbled entrance. Significantly, neither the design nor construction of this lot (according to people that know about these things) are Roman. Inside the defensive perimeter, several buildings were constructed, one of which appears to have been a large feasting hall measuring some 63 feet long by 34 feet wide. Pieces of Mediterranean pottery of the time have been found, hinting at a luxurious – and wealthy – lifestyle. So the expert conclusion is that South Cadbury was occupied by a powerful Dark Age warlord; someone who could command a large amount of labour; someone who felt they could sustain such a large site; someone who had access to overseas products. And all at the time that the legendary King Arthur is meant to have lived, temporarily holding back the Saxon advance.
The association of South Cadbury with King Arthur dates back to at least the 16th century, when the writer and poet John Leland identified it with Camelot. He claimed that the hill had once been a famous town or castle, with natural defences, and that Roman coins had been found there. He went on to say that local folk had heard that Arthur visited frequently. Where did he get his information from?! There is a tradition that the hill is hollow, that Arthur and his knights sleep in it and will ride out when England is again in peril. Indeed, they are said to water their horses every seven years, on Midsummer Eve, at a spring close to the church in nearby Sutton Montis. Or gallop about on Christmas Eve. Or both. And then, twelve miles away is Glastonbury, which some say was the Isle of Avalon…
Camelot was, unfortunately, probably a 12th century invention. Arthur – well, he pops up all over Britain’s landscape and traditions, but is historically illusive. Even so, South Cadbury draws you in with a kind of mystical magnetism. It is at the very least possible to imagine that South Cadbury could have been the base for a powerful warlord who coordinated resistance to the Saxons. And one thing you can be sure of as you trudge the grassy ramparts – which are very impressive, even now – is that whoever fortified the place to defend civilisation against the rampaging barbarians must have had some authority.
Think about that as you gaze across to the Isle of Avalon.
South Cadbury is in Somerset, about 11 miles North West of Yeovil, just south of the A303. Follow the brown signs. There’s a small car park down the road from the fairly steep track next to the church that leads to the top of the castle. Advice – I’ve visited South Cadbury three times now and the track leading to the top has always been muddy. Leave your stilettos in the car; I always do.