Monday, 19 April 2010

Powys and Maiden Castle

I have just returned from a blissful break in Dorset, the skies blue and free of vapour trails thanks to our unpronounceable, sulphurous friend in Iceland. Though Dorset is at the heart of Alfred’s Wessex and the fictional version of of Thomas Hardy, it is the Wessex of the novelist John Cowper Powys that intrigued me on this occasion. Powys, among the most metaphysical and historical of English 20th-century writers (as well as one of the least read), is the author of a quartet of Wessex novels: Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle and Weymouth Sands. I read the first and third and was prompted to visit Maiden Castle.

The name suggests mottes and baileys and crennelation, but what you get are the remains of a massive Iron Age hill fort overlooking the county town of Dorchester, on a site first settled in the third and second millennia. Around 1800 BC a neolithic bank barrow was built on the site and the hill fort was established about 350 BC. From around 100 BC it became a stronghold of the Veneti who remained there until Vespasian’s Second Legion turned up in AD 44. Like Skara Brae, at the opposite end of the United Kingdom, it leaves the visitor in no doubt as to the vintage of these islands, humbled by space and time.

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