The sun has been in and out all day – it can’t decide if it is a taps oan or taps aff kind of day. Right now it’s out, with a late evening burst of sunlight making up for the brief and intense shower that passed over a few moments ago. In fact, it is suddenly quite lovely – time to seize the moment and set out for a walk.
The campsite is immaculate – an appealing mix of open spaces and woodland that almost give it a natural feel. But the grass is manicured, the gravel paths neat and the woods seem to have been swept – not a twig or fir cone litter its tidy floor. The place is so pristine that it comes as something of a relief to leave by the back gate and find myself in a boggy wood. A forest rises out of the murk, the treetops catching the sun in contrast to the dank pathway. Rival cuckoos are calling as I emerge into pinewood – the path now soft, weaving its way between the trees. This is alright – the air feels fresh and cool. Invasive rhododendrons, for all their faults, give splashes of colour. Soon I am in more open woodland, silver birch this time, dappled light playing on the young bracken unfurling below. Now open heath. Gorse and heather grow on the sandy soil as I begin to climb the low hills that lie before me.
I’m looking for a hillfort – this one is apparently not as tricky as some to find. As it happens, there are signposts, although the summit of the hill ahead is so obvious a place that I think I would have found it anyway. It’s not yet dusk but the shadows are lengthening – the perfect time of day to meet with the ancestors. A sign points left but I can’t see any path so I pile off into the heather and up onto the bluff. It isn’t hard to see why this place was chosen – it commands a 360 degree view. Hills to the north and west, maybe even to the sea in the east, before the forest grew up around.
Marching right through the middle of the fort is a line of electricity pylons – the highest situated bang in the middle of this ancient site. Disrespectful? Certainly disdainful, but the human has always been a pragmatic beast, especially when it comes to getting from A to B. Roman roads, railway tracks, and electricity – straight lines all, regardless of what lies in the way.
I need to pee, and this seems as good a place as any. Perhaps this is the disrespectful act? It feels as if it might be, but I console myself with the thought that the previous occupants would have been doing much the same in this very place. Reassured, I set off for home through the tangle of undergrowth but catch my foot on a branch – I land hands first in some particularly prickly gorse. The ancients have had their revenge – they’ll decide if I’m being sufficiently respectful or not. It doesn’t take long to pick out the thirty or so razor sharp needles that are embedded in my hand – but there is a surprising amount of blood and my hands will continue to smart for several hours yet.
I try again for home, more cautiously this time, and happen across the path. It leads to the very edge of the fort, over the land below looking east towards the approaching darkness. Dusk has now arrived and the sky is a mixture of purple and orange. It is time to leave these ferocious badlands and return to the sterile safety of the campsite.
A day or so later, back in my armchair, I google Woolsbarrow Fort. I am confused to see pictures of huge earthworks. How did I miss them? Were they perhaps on the northern side? I didn’t really make it that far over. Except that these photographs seem to show them going all the way round the camp – these are serious fortifications. Slowly, and with a rising sense of discomfort, I realise that I hadn’t made it to the fort. A quick look at the map confirms it – I was about half a mile short. It must have been beyond the trees. Feeling stupid, it occurred to me that far from communing with the ancestors, I had spent my evening tramping through the scrub and peeing on the National Grid, whilst the ancients were looking down at me from the ramparts, laughing at the folly of man.
Photos by Tim Prevett