Keys to the Past

The Castles, Bedburn

Former County Archaeologist for Durham, Niall Hammond, explains his choice for his favourite site in County Durham.

At the end of the summer of 1991 I headed north from a job in Italy to a new challenge back in England as the archaeology officer for County Durham. At that time the post was based in the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle and the following few months proved to be both an extremely sharp learning curve and full of constant surprises. Days were spent in an odd mixture of vetting planning applications and persuading developers that thanks to new policies yes they did have to take archaeology seriously, to caring for collections at the museum which ranged from Bronze-Age carved rocks to a dark leaky room at the top of the building which housed hundreds of stuffed animals including a wonderful old alligator. What made life most enjoyable though was exploring County Durham with something new and exciting to look at and search out every day. Before heading out of the office I would always have a look on the Sites and Monuments Record (now the HER) to see if there was anything interesting to have a look at on my way to or from some official business. One fine autumn day this led me to the little hamlet of Bedburn just to the east of Hamsterley Forest. Anywhere else the walk I took which passed a medieval mill, an iron bloomery and the enigmatic ruin of Hoppyland Hall would have been memorable, but this walk took me to a site called "The Castles".

Set on a shallow south facing hillside and amidst a light canopy of birch and hazel woodland is an enormous rectangular enclosure whose walls are made of hundreds of thousands of tons of stone. Although they stand in places 2 or 3 metres high the walls were never held together with mortar and are now slumped. Only on the east side are there any signs of clear purpose where a gate way leads across into the enclosure and built into the wall is a small chamber, to the south of this the wall stands straight and proud and has steps on the inside leading to the top. So who built this and what was it for? There is no historical documentation which provides a builder's name and a date and the structure does not appear on a map until 1820, though the first written description was made by Hutchinson in 1794. Excavations were undertaken in 1909-11 and 1932 by Hodgkin (who we find out rebuilt the gatehouse and the straight wall with steps), but he could find nothing to date the site or identify its use. Snippets of information gradually accrued including comparisons with a late Iron-Age site at Whitcliffe Scar near Richmond, the finding of a burial inside the wall and an iron-age quern, and through the 20th century a number of theories emerged. It was an Iron-Age fort built by the Brigantes; it was a Roman slave encampment used in the mining of North Pennine lead; it was the fortress of a Dark Age chieftain who could recall a Roman Fort but no longer knew how to build in the Roman style with mortar. For all these grand theories it may as well have been built by the fairies for all the hard evidence there was and indeed at twilight it does have a fay air about it. In 2007 Time Team were invited to solve the mystery of The Castles once and for all, but despite resources, celebrity, energy and the best technology available the site gave up little new evidence and to this day remains an enigma. Personally I'm glad the site still retains its secrets and remains a wonderful place to sit and be inspired to muse over different theories.

My advice, thanks to Keys to the Past, is to do what my younger self did; next time you have a dull or every day journey to make, look at Keys to the Past and see what a little deviation from your route will lead you to, I'm sure County Durham will inspire and surprise you as it did me.

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