Maes Knoll Iron Age camp
For starters, a word of warning:
West Wansdyke is far less pronounced today
compared to East Wansdyke because of the
different soil conditions and subsequent
population. Anyone interested in following the
trace of this grand earthwork on the ground would
be well off realizing this. That way, finding out
that instead of a mighty bank and ditch, West
Wansdyke at times seems nothing than more than an
ancient track or worse, will not lead to all too
much disgust. For miles at a time, West Wansdyke
has been lost to us, while for those part where
it's still visible, it is usually just a simple
bank. Only a few points of West Wansdyke can be
called grand, contrary to the more famous East
Wansdyke. This is another reason why I usually
recommend visitors to start in Somerset and not
in Wiltshire. One should build up ones
experiences, not wind down.
Having said that, Maes Knoll,
which you can see here from the Valley near
Norton Malreward as drawn by Burrow in 1926,
(click here to
enlarge the drawing) is a grand enough place to
start a visit to Wansdyke! Ah yes, it is usually
pronounced just Wansdyke, not THE
Wansdyke. The name is derived from Wodens
Dyke, a rather honorary name given to this
linear earthwork by awed Saxon settlers, who
apparently could not fathom a human achievement
on this scale and named it after their god Woden,
who happened to have boundaries in his portfolio.
Therefore it is just Wansdyke,
as it is just Offas Dyke
or Hadrians Wall.
Anyway, back to Maes Knoll, which
is conservatively regarded as the western
start/termination of the western section of
Wansdyke, named West Wansdyke for short. There
are theories that Wansdyke at one time extended
further west, but I will discuss that elsewhere.
Never mind, the features of Maes Knoll are very
satisfying for the unsuspecting visitor, who only
expects Wansdyke to terminate here.
Maes Knoll Iron Age camp
Maes Knoll is an Iron Age
hillfort, triangular or rather more Africa-shaped
when viewed from the air, as can be seen on the
left (click here to
enlarge the photo). It occupies the Oolite ridge
that commands the hills south of Bristol. This
ridge, which stretches from Dundry Hill to Maes
Knoll, steeply descends down to the north and the
Avon Valley, creating a fine view over the Lower
Avon Valley from Clifton Gorge to the Cotswold
The camp itself covers 20 or more
acres (12.1 ha) and was probably built by a local
subdivision the Celtic Dobbuni tribe. This tribe
was spread out over a wide area of north
Somerset, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and the
western parts of Oxfordshire. The hillfort (also
called a camp) was constructed
around 250 BC for defensive purposes,
although no excavations have taken place that
could substantiate that date. The hillfort lost
its role and occupation during Roman times, but
it may have been re-used in the short period
between the end of the Roman occupation and the
English conquest in the 7th century.
This is also the time Wansdyke was constructed,
which clearly used Maes Knoll as a vantage point.
click here to enlarge this panorama
of the views to the south
The original Brito-Celtic name of
the fort is not known, but may have been the same
as the rest of the ridge, which is called Dundry.
This seems to have derived from a Celtic name,
meaning fort of refuge, which would fit
the role of a hillfort perfectly. The English
name of Maes Knoll is derived from Maerc-,
which means boundary. This is almost
certainly a referral to its position on Wansdyke.
The southern approach is reached
by a track starting from the junction of the (see
the instructions) to Norton Malreward village.
Maes Knoll is quite a large
hillfort, with the flat, sloping inner terrain
which is in use as a field. It is recommended to
ask permission before visiting the fort (no
right-of-way (ProW)!), though the footpath
acts as a permissive entry. Keep to the side of
the fort if possible, to prevent any damage to
crops or boundaries. Although the map shows the
path following the western edge, I can recommend
following the east side of the fort for not only
the best views, but also for the least wires and
the closest contact with Wansdyke. A warning
though it can be very muddy up there.
Bring your sturdy boots along! (see my report of a visit in
Right on the northwestern edge of
this fort sits a dominating cross-bank of
enormous proportions, about 7,5 meters (25 ft.)
above the rests of the fort defenses. This
is Maes Knoll Tump, 6o meters
across and a staggering 15 meters above the
defensive ditch. It causes small wonder when one
stands on top of this massive structure, that
this is usually considered the termination of
Click here to enlarge this panorama
of the Tump from the west.
It IS a fitting one! From the top
of that bank, the views to all sides are
staggering. From the south the Mendips and the
Chew Valley Lakes. To the north one can see
Bristol, while a good day you can also see
Brunels Clifton Suspension Bridge, new and
old Suspension Bridges and the Welsh coast. To
the north are also the Avon valley and the
Cotswolds escarpment. To the east, Wansdyke
disappears towards Publow Hill and Bath.
Click here to enlarge this
panoramic shot from the east.
Some archaeo-talk now. The site of
this fort, which encloses 12,1 h., is virtually a
promontory fort. The only access was from the
east along the ridge to Dundry Hill, which was
blocked by the builders by the enormous earthen
wall known as The Tump (see above). This
wall was once considered to have been erected by
the builders of Wansdyke, because the defenses of
Maes Knoll seemed too run-down to date from the
same time. Wansdyke supposedly continued on the
north flank of the fort, but supposedly slid
downhill since. Another view, by Fox & Fox,
was that Wansdyke stopped short, 75m east of the
ramparts. However, such a large blocking
earthwork as the Tump is not unusual for
Iron Age earthwork, especially where short
blocking dykes are concerned. It would be unique
were it to belong to a sub-Roman linear
earthwork. Dropping the Tump as part of
Wansdyke would also lessen the need too see the
northern ramparts of Maes Knoll as part of
As is understood today, Wansdyke
does not actually overlay the old Iron Age
defences, but the northern defences may still
have been used by the builders of Wansdyke.
Wansdyke then starts only at the east flank of
the fort, thereby probably cutting through the
oldest defences on the northeastern corner. The
banks still to be seen today are therefore
clearly a later development, but it remains
unsure when they were refurbished.
Either these defences were changed
during the Iron Age, or maybe they were only
upgraded during sub-Roman times, when Wansdyke
was constructed as well. The point of junction
between Wansdyke and Maes Knoll is right below
the rampart (see map left), where the ditch (with
no longer a bank attached) peters out.
Wansdyke therefore probably made
use of the refurbished northern defences of the
probably re-occupied hillfort. This may be
confirmed by the notion of Burrow that the
defences to the south were already degraded by
the time of construction of Wansdyke. Of the Tump
we can say nothing, but Tratman has drawn
attention to the fact that the ditch in front of
it seems rather like that of Wansdyke. Combined
with Burrow's conclusion that only the banks
looking north were in any state of defence when
Wansdyke was constructed, I think it remains safe
to say that the refurbishment was therefore in
accord with the building of Wansdyke, and thus at
the same time.
Therefore, we may see the
beginning of the Wansdyke ditch only as starting
from the northeastern parts of the ramparts,
immediately descending the hill to the east, but
we may safely say that it started on the Tump.
each picture to enlarge it.
Knoll seen here from the Valley near Norton
Malreward as drawn by Burrow, 1926.
photo of Maes Knoll. .
Knoll-stood southeast of The Tump.
defeces, the NE cicuit.
to the spot where Wansdyke actually starts.
shots of Maes Knoll. This one shows the 'Tump',
coming from the west.
of the Tump, looking towards Bristol.
the Tump to Bristol.
at Maes Knoll.
spot, looking south.
Wansdyke at Maes Knoll Tump, with Chew Magna
Reservoir in the background.
pleasant - litter. Too close to the big city...
looking SW to the Chew Valley lakes.
Knoll Tump, seen from the south.