SITE AND SURROUNDING AREA
Berry Castle is a small Iron Age hilltop enclosure (formerly known as a hillfort) which is believed to be about 2600 years old.
This type of ancient monument is rare with around 150 examples recorded in Britain and the majority occurring in North Devon and North Cornwall.
They date to between the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (eighth - fifth centuries BC) and examples which survive
comparatively well and have potential for the recovery of archaeological remains are believed to be of national importance and are protected in law as Scheduled Monuments. It is illegal to disturb the ground or to damage it in any way.
Berry Castle comprises a stony earth rampart (bank) which was once stone faced, surrounded by a deep outer ditch, which has a small low rampart (bank) along its outer edge, known as a counterscarp. The outer face of the rampart has now partially collapsed into the ditch, almost filling it. The single entrance into the enclosure is situated at the western end.
It may have been used as a stock enclosure, a market place for trade or exchange, a place for the performance of rituals (a bit like a modern day church) or as a safe place during times of strife.
Due to its prominent position in the local landscape it is also possible that Berry Castle was built as a status symbol.
In modern times, Berry Castle's isolated location within woodland helped preserve the ramparts and ditches from disturbance by agriculture.
Recently however, due to concern that tree roots were damaging the archaeology, Clinton Devon Estates, Historic England and the Friends of Berry Castle collaborated in a project that resulted in the removal of the trees.
The tree clearance allowed research to take place and geophysical surveys have added to our knowledge of its construction.
Berry Castle was built around 2600 years ago, in an era known as the Iron Age. At that time, the defensive rampart (bank) would have been taller and topped by a hurdle fence and the ditches would have been
The Iron Age in the Torridge began approximately 600 BC and lasted until the end of the first century AD.
The people were likely to have been mostly farmers who lived in small enclosures dotted around the valley, like the farms of today. The illustration above, shows how life at Berry Castle may have looked in its heyday.
Families lived in thatched roundhouses that would have been built from whatever material was readily available.
There would have been a wooden frame with walls made from either wattle and daub or local stone which is abundant in the Torridge valley.
Central fires heated the houses and there were no chimneys. The smoke from the fire filtered through the thatched roof, which discouraged insects and stopped birds from pulling the thatch out in their search for pests. The fires burned slowly which reduced sparks and lessened the risk of the house burning down.
Iron Age farmers reared cattle, sheep and pigs which provided meat, milk, hides and wool.
Oxen were used for pulling carts and simple wooden ploughs known as ards. Animal dung fertilised the soil which produced a greater yield in the crops that were grown.
Crops consisted mainly of wheat (Einkorn, emmer and spelt), oats and barley, and these together with meat, fish, fruit and game gave the people of the Iron Age an ample and varied diet.
Surplus produce and craftwork may have been traded with neighbours or even exported through trading networks into Europe.
Woodlands were managed by pollarding or coppicing to produce a regular supply of wood for fencing and hurdles and for domestic use.
Why was Berry Castle built?
An enormous amount of effort would have been invested by the local people, in the construction of even a modest enclosure such as Berry Castle.
The undertaking of such a huge communal task is thought to have bound a community even more tightly together, creating a very visual statement of the clan's ownership of the surrounding land, its unique identity, presence and permanence in the local landscape.
The Gateway and Western End
The Western end of the enclosure would have been visible from some distance across the valley. The community would probably have invested considerable effort into making the gateway and the rampart as impressive and prestigious as possible, as a statement of their power and occupation of the local land.
The above plan is the first accurate earthwork survey of Berry Castle and was undertaken in 2016.
The two deep quarry pits, one at the north-west corner and the other in the middle of the eastern end, were the result of stone gathering during the 1920s in order to mend local roads. It is likely that much of the remaining stone facing of Berry Castle's ramparts were also removed at this time.
Records show that Berry Castle has been under cultivated woodland for several hundred years, over which time its ramparts have been damaged due to tree felling and re-planting, and the ditches have filled with debris.
The 19th century trackway through the site may have been built to enable the removal of timber from the area and another track seems to have been made by the collapsing of the rampart bank into the ditch, along the southern side. The avenue of mature oak trees along this side of the enclosure may indicate the line of this trackway.
The Bank & Ditch
The illustration shows how the bank and ditch may have looked 2,600 years ago.
The ditch was generally V-shaped and cut deep into the bedrock, the stone removed being used to line the outer and inner faces of the rampart which had an earth and rubble core, much as a 'modern' Devon Bank. The rampart's inner face may also have been stepped to provide a walkway along its length. It is likely that the rampart was topped by a stout hurdle fence or possibly a palisade of closely set timber posts. The small bank along the outside of the ditch, known as a counterscarp, may have been added to give the appearance of a deeper, more impressive ditch. Although the rampart and ditch surrounding Berry Castle could provide security for the local community, and be defended during times of tension and strife, it is likely that this was not the main, or even the most significant reason for their construction.