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Beacon Hill is a chalk hill in the northern part of Hampshire, about ten miles north-west of Basingstoke and five miles south of Newbury. Adjacent to the A34, one of England's main north south routes for centuries, it is near to White Hill and Watership Down.
Beacon Hill Fort
If you look at a map of the ancient monuments on the Hampshire Downs it becomes apparent that there is a string of hill forts along the northern side of the ridge which seems to point to the north, towards the Kennet Valley. It is impossible to say if these forts were part of an extended settlement or a defensive line, but when they were originally built they would have been a highly visible barrier. One of these is the Beacon Hill hill fort1.
Once called the Berkshire Beacon, the hill stands 856 ft (261m) high. The oldest known human occupation on the hill that has so far been discovered is a Bronze Age site known as Beacon Hill Camp, dating from around 1,000 BC2. The population of the camp has been estimated to have been between 2,000 and 3,000.
The fort itself was built in the Iron Age around 600 BC, which makes it one of the more ancient hill forts in Hampshire3. This is one of several local forts that could be attributed to the Atrebates, the principal Celtic tribe in this area. At the time of the Roman invasion the Atrebates had a capital at the present-day village of Silchester, about nine miles to the east of Beacon Hill.
Construction of the fort
The ramparts are more complex than those at either Old Winchester Hill or Olivers Battery since they were constructed as a deep ditch with a bank on both the inner and the outer edge, and they are unusual in that they follow the flat summit of the hill which, when viewed from above, resembles the shape of an hourglass.
There is an interesting entrance on the south-eastern corner where a causeway was constructed4 over the ditch and a bank raised either side of this causeway to provide a defended gateway. A further rampart has been raised on either side of the gate to allow even more protection of the entrance.
Some questions about the hill fort are difficult to answer. Like many in this area, Beacon Hill has not been fully excavated so it is only possible to speculate about how the timber fortifications were constructed to defend the gateway. There could have been as many as three gates and two defended ramparts topped by palisades to protect the approach to this entrance.
This is a more complicated layout than other forts and may indicate either a more strategically important settlement, or a more developed building style5. There is some evidence of a gateway on the western side but this was blocked by the original builders.
A beacon was eventually built on the hill, which may have been used during the time of the Spanish Armada6 in 1588. Remains of a hearth of brick and flint have been found on the hill along with shards of 16th Century pottery and clay pipes. These have been interpreted as the remains of a shelter for the men appointed to tend the beacon. The beacon is lit now only only on special occasions. The last time was in June 2012, as part of the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee. The next beacon in line north of this hill is the Cuckhamsiey Beacon in Berkshire.
Beacon Hill was chosen as the last resting place of George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, whose grave is to be found within the earthworks of the fort. Herbert was a famous Egyptologist, and it was he who funded the expedition that led to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The hill fort is a fitting place of rest for him as it overlooks the Carnarvon family home, Highclere Castle7.
Just to the south of Beacon Hill, Seven Barrows Field is where British aviation pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland made his first successful test flight, in September 1910. A stone memorial marks the event.
Butterflies and Bees
The site, which is managed by Hampshire County Council, is open to the public and is both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve. The abundant range of flora attracts a wide variety of butterflies and other insects such as the Cuckoo Bee. Butterflies that may be seen on the downs include the Chalk Hill Blue, the Adonis Blue, the Common Blue, the Painted Lady, the Silver-spotted Skipper, the Small Heath, the Orange Comma, the Meadow Brown and the Red Admiral.
Also look out for hares, which are becoming quite rare in this area.
Beacon Hill is set amid the North Hampshire Downs, which is itself part of the North Wessex Downs8, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and as such it is an excellent area for walking, being rich in idyllic landscapes and ancient history.
How To Get To Beacon Hill
Beacon Hill is about half a mile from the A34 and is easy to get to by car. The exits are very well signposted.
- Travelling from the south: Turn off at the junction signposted to Kingsclere, Burghclere, Beacon Hill and Highclere Castle. At the end of the slip road turn left, then follow the road as it turns to the left and the car park is on the left hand side.
- Travelling from the north: Turn off at the junction signposted to Highclere Stud, Beacon Hill and Highclere Castle. At the end of the slip road take the second exit off the roundabout and follow the signs for Beacon Hill. After about two miles follow the right turn sign for Beacon Hill and Highclere Stud, cross over the A34, then follow the road as it turns to the left and the car park is on the left hand side.
The car park itself is little more than a lay-by, and the footpath up to the hill fort is on the opposite side of the road. The parking areas are isolated and there is the possibility of theft in quieter times so take care to leave no valuable possessions in your car - take them with you or lock them in the boot. From the car park to the hill fort and back is approximately 1½ miles, although you'll walk much further if you explore the fort and surrounding monuments. Sturdy footwear is recommended, especially if the ground is wet.
Other Sites of Interest on Beacon Hill
Beacon Hill provides the visitor with a series of interesting monuments explore in addition to the Iron Age hill fort. It is difficult to find some of the sites or points of interest mentioned below, so map references are provided for easy location. Copy and paste the numbers into the search field of an online map service such as Google Maps and it will take you straight to the site indicated. It also works on some satnav systems.
- Main car park: (51.315925, -1.336378)
- A defensive bank and ditch9 on the northern spur of Beacon Hill and a nearby bowl barrow: (51.315975, -1.347059 )
- Another bowl barrow on Beacon Hill's southern spur: (51.310516, -1.342868).
- Beacon Hill fort south-eastern gate: (51.311294, -1.343213)
- To the north of Beacon Hill, in a plantation of fir trees, there is a Bronze Age bowl barrow: (51.314641, -1.347322).
- On the southern spur of Beacon Hill there is a Bronze Age round barrow: (51.310095, -1.343447).
- The Geoffrey de Havilland memorial at Seven Barrows Field (51.29323, -1.338352)
All the ancient monuments on and around the hill have been scheduled by English Heritage, which means they cannot be excavated or disturbed in any way, including metal-detecting, without permission from the organisation.