Maiden Castle, Dorset, England

Maiden Castle visitor information, Dorset, England

Maiden Castle

What is Maiden Castle?

Maiden Castle is not a castle in the pointy-tower Disney sense. It contains no battlements, stone walls, dungeons, dragons or keep. It looks like a large, curiously flat hill at a distance and – at 45 acres – is the largest hill-fort in Britain.

These hill-forts were an Iron Age development around 500 BC and there are hundreds in Britain, especially in the south of the country. Some – like Maiden Castle – were established over previous Neolithic settlements that had occupied the area for several thousand years.

Excavations at the eastern end of Maiden have revealed 20 acres of Neolithic defensive works dated from about 3, 000BC.

The aerial graphic on English Heritage’s signboard (see above) shows how the concentric rings protected a powerful Celtic tribal settlement of the Durotriges who controlled the territory now partly known as Dorset.

Maiden Castle would have been the home of the Durotriges elite and their dependants, while commoners lived in farms around the hill.

When was Maiden Castle in use?

Archaeological evidence of Iron Age man indicates usage of this hill from 3, 000BC, but Maiden Castle only became a serious fortification in 500BC, expanding until the hilltop was fully occupied around 250BC.

Although a potent defence against warring Iron Age tribes, Maiden Castle did not survive long against the sophisticated weaponry (catapults, leather armour, helmets etc. ), training and tactics of a Roman Army under Vespasian. The Romans took control of the hill in 43AD in spite of defenders slinging a storm of 40, 000 stones (brought up by the Durotriges from Chesil Beach) at them.

The Romans appear to have treated the vanquished Celts with honour. A mass grave of defenders was found in 1937, all laid to rest with wine and meat to take on their last and greatest journey.
The remaining Durotrige tribespeople were moved to a new town, Durnovaria (now Dorchester, picture below).

Maiden Castle covers about 45 acres, surrounded by a couple of miles of 6m (20ft) earth/chalk walls. The origin of the name was from the Celtic language, ‘Mai Dun’ meaning ‘Great Hill’ or possibly ‘Principal Fort. ‘

Visiting Maiden Castle

Dorset's Maiden Castle interior, England

Maiden Castle ramparts and interior

The site is maintained by the English Heritage organisation and is open all day, every day and totally free to enter. The only on-site impediment is barbed wire fencing to prevent muppets from tumbling down slopes and damaging a few thousand years of hard labour.

Dorchester’s Dorset County Museum displays artefacts found on Maiden Hill such as flint tools and bronze age pottery, as well as the bodies of Durotrige warriors killed by the Romans.

Maiden Castle is in Dorset (on the south coast), England. It is one mile from Dorchester (photo below), off the A354 and there is a car park adjacent; it never closes and entry is free.

Maiden Hill is a favourite exercise point for locals and is about 20 minutes walk or 5 minutes drive from Dorchester, which is just north of Weymouth on the bugmap and easy to get to from Bournemouth via Poole

Dorchester

Dorchester town, Dorset, England

Dorchester was founded by the Romans in 43AD, partly to corral the Celts defeated in the conquest of nearby Maiden Castle. Originally Dorchester was called Durnovaria.

A quiet rural town and seat of local government, Dorchester features in local Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ and was also the home of Britain’s most notorious ‘hanging’ judge, bloody Judge Jefferey.

Apart from a few pleasant Georgian buildings, Hardy’s home ‘Max Gate’ and the County Museum (Maiden Castle relics and Thomas Hardy’s study) there’s not much in Dorchester to keep a tourist interested, but it’s a good way station en route from the Stonehenge/Avebury area to Maiden Castle, one mile south and the Cerne Giant, eight miles north, or to Dorset’s ‘Jurassic’ Coast.

The Cerne Giant is a famously rampant, naked 60 metre man carved into the chalk hills about 8 miles (13kms) from Dorchester.