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  Vortigern Studies > Wansdyke > West to East > Section 1

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.Wansdyke Project 21
is part of
Vortigern Studies



Wansdyke from West to East
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West Wansdyke 1
Robert Vermaat

old maps
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maps of
Section 1

Section 1:
Maes Knoll
No access for the disabledFree access to the monument
Nearest town: Bristol
Nearest village: Norton Malreward
Map reference:
OS ST600660
Location of Maes Knoll by UK Streetmap
click here for plans of Maes Knoll
here for directions to Maes Knoll

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 one’s 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 Woden’s 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’ Offa’s 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.

Butterfly near Maes Knoll, 1996Maes 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 escarpment.

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.

Panorama of the views to the south from Maes Knoll
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 1996)

The 'Tump'

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 Wansdyke.

Panorama of Maes Knoll Tump
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 Brunel’s 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.

The Tump, the large Iron Age bank which closes off Maes Knoll to the west. Pictures shot during visits in the summer of 2003.
Click here to enlarge this panoramic shot from the east.

The hillfort and Wansdyke

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 Wansdyke.

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.


Click on each picture to enlarge it.

Maes Knoll seen here from the Valley near Norton Malreward as drawn by Burrow, 1926
Maes Knoll seen here from the Valley near Norton Malreward as drawn by Burrow, 1926.

Air photo of Maes Knoll.
Air photo of Maes Knoll. .

Maes Knoll-stood southeast of The Tump.
Maes Knoll-stood southeast of The Tump.

Maes Knoll defeces, the NE cicuit.
Maes Knoll defeces, the NE cicuit.

Close to the spot where Wansdyke actually starts.
Close to the spot where Wansdyke actually starts.

Two shots of Maes Knoll. This one shows the 'Tump', coming from the west.
Two shots of Maes Knoll. This one shows the 'Tump', coming from the west.

On top of the Tump, looking towards Bristol.
On top of the Tump, looking towards Bristol.

Looking across the Tump to Bristol.
Looking across the Tump to Bristol.

Tump looking north.
Tump looking north.

Big sky at Maes Knoll..
Big sky at Maes Knoll.

Same spot, looking south.
Same spot, looking south.

Wansdyke at Maes Knoll Tump, with Chew Magna Reservoir in the background.
West Wansdyke at Maes Knoll Tump, with Chew Magna Reservoir in the background.

Less pleasant - litter. Too close to the big city...
Less pleasant - litter. Too close to the big city...

Tump looking SW to the Chew Valley lakes.
Tump looking SW to the Chew Valley lakes.

Maes Knoll Tump, seen from the south.
Maes Knoll Tump, seen from the south.

Directions to Section 1 can be found here.

Follow Wansdyke further through Section 2.


  • Burrow, Ian C.G. (1981): Hillfort and Hill-top Settlement in Somerset in the First to Eighth Centuries AD, British Archaeological Reports (British series) 91, 1981.*
  • Burrow, Ian C.G. (1981a): Hill-Forts after the Iron Age: the Relevance of Surface Work, in: Guilbert, Hill-Fort Studies, pp. 122-149.*
  • Crawford, O.G.S. (1960): Archaeology in the Field, (London).*
  • Fox, Cyril and A. Fox (1958): Wansdyke reconsidered, in: Archaeological Journal 115, pp. 1-48.*
  • Major, Albany F. (1926): The Course of Wansdyke through Somerset, in: Major and Burrow: The Mystery of Wansdyke, pp. 9-78.*
  • Mike’s Out ‘n About Pages – Maes Knoll, formerly at: http://www.roundtable.freeserve.co.uk/maesknoll.htm
  • Tratman, E.K. (1963): Maes Knoll Camp, Dundry, Somerset, 2: The Iron Age Defences and Wansdyke, in: Proceedings of the Spalæological Society, University of Bristol 10, pp 11-15.*

Several images by kind permision of Mike's 'Out 'n About' and Jonathan Fryer.

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