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13 November 2014

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You are in: Bradford and West Yorkshire > Places > Places features > Castle Hill: Myths, legends and the truth!

Shadow from tower across top of Castle Hill

The outer bailey...

Castle Hill: Myths, legends and the truth!

Wiltshire has Stonehenge, Dorset has Maiden Castle, but West Yorkshire has Castle Hill! Huddersfield's best-known landmark has been inhabited on and off for at least 4,000 years but do you actually know what it is? We've been finding out more...

You certainly can't miss Castle Hill. It provides a visual backdrop for people in Huddersfield, it can be glimpsed from far away and, from the very top of Victoria Tower, you can certainly see for miles and miles around. It's here that we meet with three people who can tell us all about its past, present and future: Kirklees historian Brian Haigh, Castle Hill Ranger Julian Brown and volunteer Tracey Mitchell.

Victoria Jubilee Tower

On top of the world!

If Castle Hill could be said to be on a par with Stonehenge it's because of its human inhabitants, but how much do we know about them? Brian Haigh explains: "The earliest evidence we've got of people actually settling or using this site comes from about 4,000 years ago - these were people of the Neolithic Period, the New Stone Age. What was found here was some stone axes and bits of broken stone things. We don't know who lived here or much else. That doesn't mean to say there's nothing else to be found - the whole site hasn't been excavated and previous excavations haven't been conclusive. There's a lot that could be done that might tell us more and with the changes that have taken place in archaeology it's no longer all about digging things up. It's often about analysing things that we do find."

But while we know so little about these people, they and those who came after them have left their mark on the land. Brian tells us more about what can be seen from the top of the tower: "It's divided into three sections - there's the outer bailey which is the largest flat area, the middle bailey where the car park is located and we are on the highest point, the inner bailey.

"As you come into the tower the rock is very close to the surface and its cap of grenoside rocks has helped to shape the whole hilltop. The rocks around here are coal-measures in alternating bands of soft shales and clays. They get worn away very quickly and this does lead to these sort of plateaus being formed. The hard cap in the rock of this particular promontory made it attractive to settlers. They divided it up into three parts and at different times people have established ramparts around forming fortifications.

Brian, Julian and Tracey

Brian, Julian and Tracey

"What we can see today are mostly parts of a medieval castle established around the 1140s but the fortifications follow the lines of much earlier ones that go back to the Iron Age. This was quite a significant Iron Age fortification, very unusual in this part of the world. I think people know about Maiden Castle but in this part of the world fortifications are few and far between. However, it has to be said that most of the evidence we find above ground today is medieval.

"What's different from places like Maiden Castle is that today we've got a post-industrial landscape. We can see lots of mills, we can see the Galpharm Stadium and Emley Moor in the other direction. You've got to imagine this would have been much more wooded at an earlier period and the same axes found here might have been used to clear and control the woodland. The earliest settlers enclosed the inner bailey but it doesn't mean to say they didn't occupy the site down there to practise farming and various crafts. All that is to be found in the future."

medieval well

The medieval well.

It is likely that some sort of stone hall or keep once stood on the site of the present tower. Looking down, an 85-foot-deep well can be clearly seen and this is where much of the evidence of medieval occupation has been found. After the Norman Conquest the area around Huddersfield was held by the De Lacey family as part of the Pontefract estate. Brian comments: "In a period in which there was a lot of trouble, in which the Crown was disputed, this was a place from which the whole area could be controlled. When things became more secure it probably fell out of use as a fortification and sometimes towards the end of the 13th Century it became a hunting lodge used sporadically by people from the estate." Artefacts found in the well are now on display at Huddersfield's Tolson Museum.

After the execution of a particularly troublesome Earl of Lancaster the land around here, including Castle Hill, passed first to the Crown and then to the Ramsden family whose ancestral home, Longley Hall, can still be seen from the Hill.  In 1920 the Ramsdens sold their estate to the Council making Huddersfield effectively "the town that bought itself."

Even after the De Lacey family fell out of favour people continued to make use of Castle Hill. Brian says: "This was a place where people came for bear-baiting, gambling of various kinds and political rallies. In 1883, during a big weavers strike, there was a big meeting up here with tens of thousands of people."  Then there was the public house, originally built in 1810 and later rebuilt in the style of a shooting lodge. The Victoria Jubilee Tower that now gives Castle Hill such a distinctive shape was built later to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  But some things have certainly changed. Brian says: "The Tower cost £3398 originally but in 1960 when they took off the top it cost three times as much to do. When I organised new pointing in 2000 the scaffolding cost even more."

direction pointer on top of Tower

Show me the way to San Jose, or just Slaithwaite?

Now Castle Hill receives visitors from every country and in every season. When we visited, despite the coldest of winds, there were people walking their dogs and flying model 'planes. As with other such sites around the country the challenge now is to recognise the archaeological importance of the site and preserve this for future generations while allowing people to get as much pleasure as they can there today. Brian says: "We need to do a lot of work with the erosion that takes place. You get a lot of cold temperatures, lots of wind and rain and the Tower's very exposed. All this needs addressing in a very sensitive way so you don't damage the site. We need to improve the car parking facility and we need to help people understand the site better."

Ranger Julian agrees: "There's quite a lot of work to make people aware of what is probably one of the most important sites in Northern England but at the same time conserve the Hill and make it into a working environment. We've got a few volunteers who come up and do a lot of work including dry stone-walling. We made our first brick compost pen yesterday. Everything we do up here, it's hitting that balance between sensitive management and not being draconian. We try to educate people rather than telling them off...It's also important to build up a relationship with the people who live around the Hill. We've got to strike a balance and we are working to putting the Hill first before everybody else."

Dreamcatcher in tower window

Looking out of the Tower - a place to dreamcatch?

We asked Julian what he liked best about his job: "It's the opportunity each morning to come up here with a cup of tea and look out over the site and just see what's happening. Every day is different." Brian agrees: "It's nice to see it at different times of the year and in different conditions. It can be wonderful when you are up here by yourself, when you've got driving wind and rain and it just takes you away from it all."

And, as Julian points out, there is still plenty of life at Castle Hill even if the last human residents moved out from the now-demolished pub alongside Victoria Tower in 2005. Julian explains: "We've got green woodpeckers, there's sparrowhawks and there's stoats, there's all sorts of things up here. On a day like this when spring is on its way and the birds are beginning to sing, it's just perfect for bird-watching. We've got incoming birds up here - we've got yellow-hammers, we've got linnets, we've got all sorts of things. I've counted about 40 species of birds up here in 18 months."

Huddersfield from the Tower

Huddersfield, the town below the Hill

History's the key to Castle Hill, though. Many people in Huddersfield still like to associate Castle Hill with the Brigantes, a warlike people led by a warrior queen Cartimandua, who lived around these parts at the time Boudicca was taking on the Romans. However, Brian says no evidence has been found to suggest the Brigantes ever made a home on Castle Hill. So if your image of the folk who lived on the Hill is more Fred and Wilma Flintstone than woad-covered warriors then that's your choice. We just don't know. But, as Brian says: "There are lots of myths and legends around this place and all sorts of things are conjured when you hear the wind whistling around the Tower!"

The Victoria Tower's 110th anniversary is being celebrated at The Tolson Museum in Huddersfield on Sunday, June 21st 2009, from 2pm to 4pm. There will be a Victorian magic show (first come, first served), crafts, games and even a birthday cake!

last updated: 15/06/2009 at 12:00
created: 23/02/2006

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