Exploring three Iron Age hilforts that surround the Marshwood Vale. Towering above the landscape the views stretch for miles.
Distance: From a mile to as long as you like.
Time: At your own leisure.
Total climb: Coney’s Castle and Lambert’s Castle associated car parks are almost on a level setting with the hillforts. However, Pilsdon Pen does require a short, steep climb to reach the top, approx. 200ft.
Max height: Coney’s Castle – 689ft. (210m), Lambert’s Castle- 804ft. (256m), & Pilsdon Pen- 909ft (277m).
Terrain: Track, path and field. Small country roads in-between the forts.
Start: Coney’s Castle – Post code: DT6 6NR, Grid reference: SY371976; Lambert’s Castle- Post code: DT6 5QL, Grid reference: SY366987; Pilsdon Pen- Post code: DT6 5NX, Grid reference: ST413009.
Map: OS Explorer 116 Lyme Regis and Bridport
How to get there: Turning off the A35 onto the B3165, parking for Lambert’s is approximately 4 miles north on the right hand side. Turn right off the road to meet Coney’s Castle and further north on the B3165, turn right onto the B3164 to meet Pilsdon Pen, parking on your right.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Refreshments: None on route. The closest being The Bottle Inn in Marshwood, DT6 5QJ
There are actually four hillforts in this area. Lewesdon Hill is the highest peak in Dorset, 915ft. (279m), and there rests another defensive settlement. However, this particular adventure only incorporates the previously mentioned three forts. All these three sites are owned and managed by the National Trust and all are free to explore, with free parking too.
The close proximity of these hillforts is of no coincidence. As the population grew during the successful Iron Age, more demands were made on the landscape used for cultivation. At the same time the climate was becoming wetter, forcing older, lowland settlements to move to higher ground. Fields were becoming an important commodity. All four of these hillforts were ruled by the Durotriges tribe, but just across, what is now, the Devon border, the land was ruled by the Dumnonia tribe. Control became more forceful, skirmishes would occur over livestock, crops and/or better land. It can be claimed that the surrounding hillsides were utilised in the Durotriges’ defence against the Dumnonia. This high view point would also enable them to protect their land from above. By digging large ditches and erecting imposing banks, they created some gigantic monuments. It is hard to imagine the actual size of these colossal ramparts, as they have slumped slowly back into the ditches and eroded by nearly 3 millennia worth of the earths elements, yet they still exist at this size today.
In the late 18th century the famous poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy stayed nearby. Whist here, they were homesick for their native Lake District but were comforted by the surrounding hills. He even bestowed the view from Pilsdon Pen with the title ‘the finest view in all England’ (praise indeed from the arch advocate of his homeland).
The carpark is on the northern edge of the hillfort, nestled into the ramparts, immediately off the road. Disappointingly, for some, there is in fact no castle (the same at Lambert’s), but there are equally impressive views, tranquillity and ancient woodland. The name Coney is from the Old English for rabbit suggesting medieval use as a domestic warren, just like what has been recorded at Pilsdon Pen. The fort is on a narrow north-south ridge with linear ramparts, steep natural slopes to the west, and a high artificial rampart with ditch to the east. It consists of two different encloses, the smaller on southern the tip of the spur.
Less than a mile north of Coney’s Castle is Lambert’s Castle. The car park is slightly trickier to find as it is off the road, but on arrival you have only a minor incline to reach the fort. The views are impressive, slightly more open than Coney’s Castle due to the management of the land resulting in a fewer amount of trees. Immediately to the east is the Marshwood Vale. On a clear day, the curve of Chesil Beach can be followed just below the horizon leading to the Isle of Portland. Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill both tower above the vale to the north east and to the south the slightly lower peak of Coney’s Castle points you in the direction of the Jurassic Coast, the sea occasionally rising through the dips in the hills beyond.
Lambert’s Castle was built around 2,500 years ago. There are steep natural slopes on three sides of the fort with prominent ditch and bank still surviving near the western entrance. Since 1981 it has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on account of its geology, archaeology and ecology.
The area is rich in wildlife including such exotically named creatures as treecreepers, yellowhammers and willow warblers and in spring bluebells carpet the surrounding woodland. Lambert’s Castle is also one of only a few places in Dorset, even the UK, where the elusive nightjar can be heard on long summer evenings.
More recently in our history the area was host to an annual fair for over 200 years ,it ran between 1709 and 1947. To the south of the fort, but still on the hill, lies remains of an old horse racing track. The site was also part of a chain of signal posts from Plymouth to London, set up to warn of a French invasion during the Napoleonic wars. And in modern day, more than 100 people attended an illegal rave here in December 2019.
The car park for this hillfort is a small layby off the B3164. To access the fort there is a stile on the opposite side of the road. It then takes you straight onto the climb up the hill. Despite it being steep, it is short and well worth the effort. On a clear day you can see Golden Cap, the highest point on the Dorset coast, and the sea to the south. The Hardy Monument (Admiral Hardy, not Thomas Hardy!) Can be seen to the east, and the views even stretch as far as Exmoor and the Quantocks to the west and the Mendip hills to the north.
Pilsdon Pen is Dorset’s second highest point; it used to be the first until a recent survey knocked it off its post, by a mere 2m, to be replaced by nearby Lewesdon Hill. In comparison to Coney’s Castle and Lambert’s Castle, the peak has very few trees. This means that the panoramic views, extending for many miles, are never interrupted. The lush green undulating fields below appear like pillows with their borders softened by the frequent trees, it seems to never end.
The fort was bequeathed to the National Trust by the Pinney family in 1982. However, prior to this exchange, in the 1960’s, at the request of Michael Pinney, the hill fort was excavated by Peter Gelling of the University of Birmingham with his wife Margaret Gelling. In addition to this, surveys have been carried out by the National Trust in 1982 and by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in 1995.
Pilsdon has a long history of occupation. Flint tools over 10,000 years old and two Bronze Age burial mounds are evidence that the site was in use long before the hill fort was built. The remains of 14 roundhouses were uncovered near the centre of the hill fort. The rectilinear (square) structures in the centre are suggested to be remaining elements of medieval rabbit warrens, but could be earlier in origin. There is no clear evidence to distinguish the other mounds between pillow mounds and burial mounds and the acid soil causes almost all bone and pottery to be in very poor condition.
The advantage of all three hill forts is that they are easily accessible and can be enjoyed at your own leisure. Many bridleways also run through the area making it a good place to explore by bike. It is not hard either to appreciate the landscape and heritage once you are here. Not only thanks to the impressive surrounding views and the appearances of the other dominating hillforts, which rise above the landscape like growing siblings, but the understanding of the tribes that lived here too. There is no doubt that the people at each location would have known each other, communicated, interacted and teamed up against the Dumnonia tribe and even the Romans. Coney’s Castle can be viewed as the village, Lambert’s, the town and Pisldon Pen the city, all thriving on the same land we walk on today.