A large field in the south of Pirton, known as The Bury, was once the site of a medieval castle. Its earthworks enclose the parish church as well as some private houses and the mound of Toot Hill. The mound stands some 6.7 m high and is about 100 m in diameter; a ditch about 2.5 m deep surrounds it. The first record of its name is from the Enclosure Award of 1818, but it is a commonly found name (sometimes spelt Tuthill, as at Therfield) in which toot has the meaning ‘look-out, peep, be prominent, stand out’.
A teacher carried out an excavation with boys from the local school in 1935 on top of Toot Hill. The medieval ceramics expert Paul Blinkhorn examined the pottery, which is now in North Hertfordshire Museum’s store, in the 2000s. He found that most of it dates from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, with some earlier material. Only one sherd of the fifteenth-century Late Medieval Transitional Ware that is found across the rest of the village is present, showing that use of Toot Hill continued at a low level after 1400.
What was Toot Hill built for? It is a typical Norman castle earthwork known as a motte. The Bayeux Tapestry shows the Norman invaders hastily throwing one up at Hastings in October 1066, and such earth-and-timber castles were important to the military occupation of England and a means of suppressing any possible revolts. They remained popular until about 1200: the stone keeps that we tend to think of as typical castles were mostly a later development. The motte formed a base for a wooden tower, surrounded by a palisade at the top and a ditch (or moat) at the bottom. They were cheap but effective defences. Part of the moat had been infilled before Clutterbuck wrote his history in the 1810s. Hitchin Rural District Council began dumping rubbish there in 1957, until the curator of Hitchin Museum pointed out that it is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Most mottes had a bailey attached to them. Toot Hill has two, both obscured by later activity in the village. Letchworth Museum’s Field Archaeology team carried out a survey on the earthworks in January and February 1988, covering about 4½ hectares. Before the survey, it was believed that the deep hollow that runs across the middle of The Bury was the outer line of the main bailey. It soon emerged that this was one of the main streets of the village, Lads Orchard Lane, closed some time between 1822 and 1867.
Instead, coprolite digging has obscured the bailey ditch, and the bank inside it thoroughly levelled. Its line is still traceable, though. At the northeastern end of The Bury, Blacksmiths Pond, at the east end of Little Green, follows the line of the ditch, with the reduced bank behind it. It turns to the west and the bank is visible in gardens up to the edge of the churchyard. Another bank begins north of this one just before the churchyard, suggesting that the entrance to the bailey lay here. The edge of the ditch is then visible inside the churchyard as a change in level.
Traces of a second bailey survive east of the motte. A short stretch of ditch runs west from the south side of Toot Hill toward Bury End and it probably joined a pond that once stood in Great Green. Another hollow running northwest from the north end of the moat was still a watercourse in the early nineteenth century.
When was the castle built in Pirton? There are no documents referring to it, so archaeology must be our main source of information. George Evans, then curator of Hitchin Museum, carried out an excavation at The Bury in 1955. He was misled into believing that the former Lads Orchard Lane was part of the defences and confused by the paucity of medieval material and the discovery of a Roman yard surface instead. The pottery from the unrecorded excavation on Toot Hill suggests that it was not built as part of the Norman Conquest in 1066, but dates from the next century. The so-called Anarchy (the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda between 1138 and 1153) saw the construction of large numbers of castles, which would be an appropriate context for its construction.
Why was the castle built here? This is a more difficult question to answer. We might have expected a castle somewhere like Hitchin, the largest centre of population in this area, but (so far as we know), there never was one there. Pirton is not on a major highway and was not in the Middle Ages. Other castles locally are in predominantly rural locations: Meppershall, Cainhoe, Great Wymondley and Anstey. Perhaps they were designed to control the northern scarp of the Chilterns and routes through it.
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews
The largest hillfort in the Chilterns, Ravensburgh Castle, lies on private land, hidden beneath a plantation of trees. It is southwest of Hexton, in the northwestern part of North Hertfordshire district and the county boundary with Bedfordshire follows the outer edge of its western ramparts. Before the trees were planted about 1908, it was a prominent and impressive site, surrounded on three sides by steep-sided valleys.
Francis Taverner wrote the first surviving description about 1640 in an unpublished history of Hexton, now in the British Library. He said that it had a treble rampart, although it is not clear what he meant: there are two banks and two ditches, except on the east, where there a single bank and ditch. Eighty-four years later, William Stukeley visited the site and drew it from the west, confirming that there are only two ramparts on that side. He thought that the earthwork was Roman in date.
Ravensburgh appears on the early nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey sketches made about 1802 and has always appeared on their published maps, and Robert Clutterbuck published a plan in 1817. Quarrying inside the earthworks at an unknown date made the interior uneven before the trees were planted. Three rides in the woodland existed by 1940 but they are now overgrown.
In November 1940, Percival Westell, curator of Letchworth Museum, began digging a series of trial pits at the site. He started with two by the northwest entrance, by a higher part of the rampart known as The Keep. A week later, he dug three alongside the northernmost of the rides. Finally, he dug a trench down to bedrock in March 1941 just inside the southeastern entrance; the chalk was found 1.4 m below the surface. Unfortunately, whatever records Westell may have kept have not survived, apart from his plan of the site. No finds from his excavations made their way to Letchworth Museum, either.
John Moss-Eccardt of Letchworth Museum began more excavations in 1964, assisted by James Dyer, a lecturer at Putteridgebury College of Education, and his students. They dug a trench across the western ramparts, establishing that the site had seen three separate periods of construction, between the Early Iron Age (about 850-400 BC) and the Late Iron Age (about 100 BC-AD43). James Dyer returned to the site in 1970 and again every year between 1972 and 1975. Since 2013, Ian Brown of the University of Oxford has been working on the site. He has all the finds, Moss-Eccardt’s and James Dyer’s records, and is organising surveys.
The first phase consisted of chalk rubble packed between parallel timber palisades, with a flat-bottomed ditch on the outside. Long after the ditch had silted up, a new V-shaped ditch was dug and the chalk piled on top of the degraded first rampart as well as outside the ditch to create a counterscarp bank. At the same time, a second entrance was added to the settlement, near the southeastern corner. The outer ditch on the west side was added later, although its date is not known.
Geophysical survey inside the southeastern entrance in 2015 showed traces of at least two roundhouses and a small enclosure with an inturned entrance. Another, outside the northwest entrance in 2018, revealed a hitherto unknown Bronze Age round barrow, long since levelled but recognisable from the ring ditch that formed a quarry for the mound material. Recent surveys by Lidar (a technique for recording often subtle changes in the land surface) show that as well as the enclosed area, there are outer earthworks to the east running away from the northeastern and southeastern corners of the hillfort. It is unknown if they are contemporary with it and, if so, with what phase.
Analysis of the finds is ongoing and only interim reports are so far available. Nevertheless, Ravensburgh is one of very few sites in Hertfordshire with pottery from the Middle Iron Age (about 400-100 BC) as well as both earlier and later material. Although James Dyer thought that most of the pottery dated from his first construction phase, there is a lot of material from the first century BC through to the Roman Conquest in AD 43. There are also Neolithic and Bronze Age finds, pointing to the long use of the hilltop.
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews