Whether prehistoric earthwork or loater stone castle, a defensive stronghold was built to last, and it is still possible to visit a number around the Peak District.
Here, where natural strongholds abound, several hilltop plateaux were fortified during the Iron Age to protect settlements and farmsteads from rival tribes.
The largest and highest, at 1700’, is Mam Tor at Castleton, a sixteen-acre plateau protected by an earthen rampart and ditch some 1200 yards in circumference. Aerial photographs reveal ground detail, barely noticed by the thousands of annual visitors to this spectacular viewpoint, in the form of several hundred ‘hut circles’. With an average diameter of 23’ these were the indented floors of wattle and daub dwellings from which charcoal has been carbo dated to the twelfth century B.C.
Less obvious traces of other, smaller Iron Age hillforts are scattered around the Peak – Fin Cop above Monsal Dale, Burr Tor near Camphill at Great Hucklow, Ball Cross near Bakewell and the 3/4 acre Castle Ring on Harthill Moor.
Finds from these sites have confirmed domestic activity, with axes excavated too at Mam Tor. We have no knowledge of how often these hillforts were besieged, if at all, but whilst serving as permanent strongholds they also provided some protection to livestock from wild animals.
From Roman times to the dark ages
From the first century AD the native Britons shared a common enemy, the Romans, who found it necessary to protect their soldiers inside the Peak’s first stone fortifications. Initially, however, a timber fort was constructed at Navio – now Brough, near Bradwell – by the Roman Governor Agricola in A.D. 78. When the native Brigantes openly revolted eighty years later, it was rebuilt in gritstone, 340’ long by 285’.
Deserted in A.D. 360, little is to be seen now of its great walls, 20’ high and up to 7’ thick, although they stood long enough to be recorded by historians before being dismantled and carted away. Lying beside the River Noe, the site is accessible on foot from the B6049 at Brough.
Extensive grassy stone mounds mark the outline of the Roman military fort known now as Melandra Castle, near Glossop. Founded at the same time as Navio, during the Romans’ northern advance, it was abandoned after barely sixty years. Excavations revealed baths, timber barracks and stone-built headquarters, with an extensive civilian settlement close to the military area.
Recent visitors to Melandra may have been hampered by lack of signs; it lies to the west of the A57 some two miles north-west of Glossop. There is car parking down the service road signposted to the treatment plant of the sewage works.
In a most commanding position on Hathersage Moor is the Carl Wark hillfort, a small plateau on the slopes of Higger Tor buttressed along its most vulnerable edge by massive boulders. Ramparts of turf and stone protect the other sides. Until comparatively recent times Carl Wark was thought to date from the Iron Age too, but is now believed to have been constructed in the 5th or 6th century A.D. The hillfort is accessible on foot only, from the A625.
On the Staffordshire / Derbyshire border the well defined earthworks of Pilsbury motte and bailey castle stand high above the River Dove. Its man-made mound (motte), with outlines of a structure on top, is 120’ in diameter, and two enclosures (baileys) are protected by bank and ditch defences. It is believed that Pilsbury was subject to ‘wasting’ in the early Norman period, and the fortification dates from this era.
Pilsbury Castle cannot be reach by car, but by a choice of public footpaths, including those from Hartington and Crowdecote.
Stone-built castles were introduced to England by William the Conqueror, who was responsible for the construction of Peveril Castle at Castleton. Also known as Peak Castle, it was given by King William to his sone, William Peveril as a personal stronghold from where Normal rule could be adminstered. Norman herringbone masonry can be seen in the north curtain wall. Its keep, added in 1176, served frequently as a prison but was never under siege, and remains one of the Peak’s most distinctive landmarks.