Legends abound about Cheshire's Sandstone Ridge

Legends abound about Cheshire's Sandstone Ridge. Examined from a landscape historian's perspective, its truths are even more fascinating. Words by Craig Bryant<br/>Main PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS

The hills around Beeston and Bickerton are particuarly striking because they stand out so much from the surrounding terrain.

This gently rolling, plain-like region of western Cheshire is known for its fertility, producing great cheese and ice cream, not for high ground and jaw-dropping views. But this part of the Mid Cheshire Sandstone Ridge offers stunning vistas beloved by many. Nowadays these hills delight and inspire, although in the past their usage was anything but recreational.

At either end of the Bickerton and Peckforton hills, Maiden and Beeston castles remain as markers of a centuries old strategic need – to build fortresses on high ground. When you consider that they were built more than 1,500 years apart it is perhaps surprising that they share so many characteristics.

The first important distinction to make is that Maiden Castle is not really a castle at all. According to most definitions, that term describes a medieval structure, and this is an Iron Age hillfort, predating even the earliest English castle by well over a millenium. That said, it does share many characteristics with the later fortified residences of the medieval period, and particularly with its near neighbour at Beeston.

The key to both of these sites is their topographical situation. Maiden Castle is a promontory fort, meaning it makes use of natural features such as cliffs in its defensive design. The siting at the western edge of this particular spur of raised ground is not coincidental and is advantageous for three main reasons: it affords fantastic, wide-ranging views over the surrounding countryside, it can be seen from a long way off, and it would be potentially very difficult to attack.

The visitor to Maiden can easily appreciate this when they walk along the north-western edge of the hill. The ground drops suddenly away to the side of the path, and the views, particularly across the plain towards Wales and up towards Liverpool, are simply breathtaking. It is worth bearing in mind that in the hillfort’s heyday there would be less tree cover around it, meaning this vantage point would be even more impressive.

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Hillforts are the subject of extensive studies, but so many questions remain about who built them and why. They clearly had defensive capabilities in a time when that was very important, but they were also used to process and store grain and other key foodstuffs, so they were closely linked to the agricultural life of the countryside around them.

Maiden Castle sits at the centre of a fertile agricultural region, but also looks out towards other hillforts further north in Cheshire, to the West in Wales and South to those in Shropshire. It was probably an important territorial marker and the central hub of its local society.

Nowadays, heather and bilberry cover the banks which are the only outstanding remains of the fort. The section leading east from its western edge is the best preserved part, and here you can still see how its defensive principles worked. There are two lines of ramparts running parallel to each other, with a ditch in between.

These earthen banks would once have been topped with timber and stone walls. In hillfort studies, this arrangement of more than one banked palisade is termed multivallate, but medieval castle scholars will often call a similar arrangement concentric - one line of defence inside another. It can be seen up the road at Beeston, a basic similarity shared with Maiden Castle.

Beeston also employs natural topography to its best advantage. The rocky outcrop on which it was built is smaller and stands alone in the landscape, even more striking than Maiden. In a similar design to the hillfort, the most defendable part of the castle, the inner bailey, is built right up against the natural cliffs at the northern and western edge of the hill, making an assault from this side virtually impossible.

The use of ditches as defensive features continued well into and beyond the medieval period and are very obvious at Beeston. The inner bailey quadrangle is cut off from the rest of the hill by a deep ditch cut into the natural rock. Before any medieval visitor made it here though they had to pass through the large outer bailey, defended by its own line of walls and towers, with a gatehouse. Just outside this, clearly visible on the left as you walk up to enter the castle, is another outer ditch and bank.

Similarities in design did not stop there. Beeston incorporated strong gatehouses into both the inner and outer baileys, but even this was far from original. Archaeological excavation at nearby Maiden Castle found the remains of an Iron Age gatehouse, consisting of guardrooms on either side of a protected entrance passage.

There was also an Iron Age hillfort on Beeston’s rock. Excavation around the outer walls revealed how closely the later building followed the line of the one created over a thousand years earlier. This is not unusual.

Human circumstances might change a great deal through different historical eras, but geography changes little, and the importance of sites like this endure.

Like its Iron Age predecessors, Beeston stood out in this corner of Cheshire as a symbol of power, wealth and military strength. It made use of its natural surroundings in a similar way, but there were important differences too. Whilst the size and nature of hillforts suggest a degree of communal use, castles were very much the residences of the elite.

Beeston was begun by the Earl of Chester and soon passed into the hands of the King of England. It would have cast a dominating shadow over local life as well as playing a role in national politics, but it was very much a privately owned building.

A visit to both sites is a worthwhile way to spend a day. The views are glorious, and the two buildings link together perfectly to show how human lives can change so much over time, whilst in some ways barely changing at all. Beeston’s Iron Age past has been submerged below its fascinating medieval exterior, but the remains of nearby Maiden Castle offer a glimpse into the lives of people who laid claim to this land long before the days of the Earls.

Beeston Castle

Beeston also has a prehistoric past, but the castle we see today was begun by Ranulf, Earl of Chester, in 1225.

In 1237, King Henry III took the castle into his hands, aware of its strategic importance close to the border with Wales.

Following the conquest of Wales by his son Edward I and the constuctrion of a ring of castles around the coast in the 1280s, Beeston lost some of its military importance and began to decline.

Although it seems impregnable, it did see action during the Civil War of the 1640s, and following a length siege, the Royalist garrison did surrender.

Today, it is in the care of English Heritage and is open for visits all year round.

Maiden Castle

Maiden Castle hillfort was mostly built in the period known as the Iron Age, roughly 800 B.C. to 43 A.D., but archaeological evidence suggests it may have begun life in the late Bronze Age (roughly 2,500 B.C. – 800 B.C.).

It was probably constructed in three phases: around 900 B.C., 470 B.C. and 400 B.C.By the time of its completion it would consist of two lines of banks with ditches, topped with a stone faced rampart, and a protected entrance area. Inside was a large communal area in which evidence of domestic and agricultural use has been found.

Maiden Castle was at the southern – most tip of a chain of hillforts on the Mid Cheshire Sandstone ridge. To the north are Beeston, Kelsborrow, Eddisbury, Helsby and Frodsham. For more information on them and their preservation, go to http://www.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk and search ‘Habitats and Hillforts’.

The hillfort is owned and managed, together with the surrounding land, by the National Trust.

A free car park is provided, accessed by a track from the hamlet of Bickerton, midway between Larkton and Bickerton hill.

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