Iron Age hillforts must be one of the most visited types of archaeological sites in the country. Recently I have been up to Barbury Castle a couple of times and have been reminded how impressive and commanding this site is, not just because of its massive ramparts, but also its good state of preservation and all of the other archaeological features you can see from here. It is one of the most impressive of the 35 hillforts we have in the Wiltshire and Swindon area, with panoramic views that take in the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey.
Barbury is located between Wroughton and Swindon and the County boundary, as well as parish boundaries, run through the middle of the hillfort. The hillfort was built in the Iron Age, probably around 700 BC and is likely to have been continuously used until the Roman invasion in the mid 1st century AD. It was one of a string of hillforts built close to the line of the Ridgeway, considered to be an ancient long distance routeway. Three other hillforts, Liddington, Uffington and Martinsell are all intervisible with Barbury. It is the most developed and most impressive of the Ridgeway hillforts, having double ramparts on the south side and triple on the north side (possibly an unfinished circuit). In places the banks or ramparts stand over 3 metres in height even now and in the Iron Age would have been topped with wooden palisades and defensive towers. Located at 262 metres above sea level Barbury was built on the highest point of the local area, a beneficial defensive position with commanding views of the landscapes below.
The ramparts at Barbury enclose an area of about 5 hectares and there were two original entrances that survive today at the east and west sides. Unfortunately there has been little modern archaeological investigation to tell us details of the lives lived at Barbury. However, the results of a geophysical survey carried out by English Heritage in 1998 indicate that the interior is littered with hundreds of pits (probably for grain storage) and other features, some of which are the remains of huts or roundhouses.
The interior of the hillfort as well as the ramparts have suffered some damage in the 1940s from the activities of American troops and the Home Guard who were based at the nearby Wroughton Airfield during the war and used Barbury as a training ground. The original hillfort entrances were unfortunately widened by American troops in order to get their trucks into the interior. Fortunately, we have a measured survey drawn in 1884 by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, the first ever Inspector of Ancient Monuments, to show how they would have been.
The annual tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds’ or ‘perambulations’ has been carried out for many centuries in our parishes in England, Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the tradition was known as ‘Riding the Marshes’; a method of reaffirming the parish boundaries from way before the introduction of maps. In some parishes, this annual ritual is still very much part of village or town life. It is believed that this religious practice was first introduced in Vienne, France, around AD 470 by the Holy bishop Mamertus. There were many reasons for the ceremony but the parishioners believed that it would ‘avert great calamaties’. It would affirm their devotion to God; ask him for forgiveness from sins and for protection from evil and to bless the congregation and the fruits of their labour.
Other phrases were used for this ancient custom; ‘Rogation Week’ (from the Latin word ‘rogare’ meaning to ask or to pray), the ‘Common Walk’, ‘Gangdays’ and ‘going a- ganging’. Rogation Week is also known as Rogantide, the week in which Ascension Day falls in May, beginning with Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before Ascension Day. Religious ceremonies would take place over a period of three days of this week; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, involving the parish priest, churchwardens and other officiates of the church. Old parishioners mixed with the young to pass on the knowledge of the boundaries. The youngsters of the parish, usually boys, would be armed with long birch or willow twigs to beat the specific landmarks such as an old tree or stones. In some cases, the boys themselves were beaten with the sticks, so they should never forget the crucial information passed on to them by their elders. Usually, the boys would have their heads bumped against the boundary marker whilst prayers were read from the Litany of Saints. The girls and women would wear and carry garlands of flowers and foliage. The Milkwort flower (Polygala vulgaris) is also dubbed the Rogation flower and was often used in the garlands.
This printed account inside a parish register held in our archives at the History Centre, give details of the 12-14 mile route taken during the ceremony along the parish boundary of Leigh Delamere. The start of the route begins with; ‘from the old ditch on the Streta Fosseway. Here there is a cottage and a junction of a road to Littleton drew. The cottagers came out and joined in the short service, the sign of the Cross was made on the ancient roadway and the long walk began along the old Roman road...’