The Mystery of
Stonnall Hill Fort
by Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons
In view of the fact that there does not seem to have been any substantial archaeological investigation of the site and that the earliest historical reference to it dates from as recently as the late 17th century, it would appear at first sight that these questions are intractable.
However, as we will see, it is possible to shed light on this mystery through an examination of all the historical, topographical, linguistic and circumstantial evidence that we have at our disposal. This paper will describe all that evidence and, in accordance with scientific principles, form a theory that accommodates all the facts and thereby come to quite specific conclusions.
Physical Description of the Hill Fort
The earthworks are quite well-preserved for the most part, the bank varying in height between 1 and 2 metres and up to 8 metres in width. The ditch is between 1 and 2 metres in width and up to 4 metres deep.
Its Original Appearance
All in all, the hill fort would have presented an impressive and formidable spectacle when viewed from outside and especially from the southern approach at Chester Road.
The Cost of its Construction
The probability that the size of the local adult population was insufficient to provide the required personnel to make up the workforce need not detain us long. People from outside the area were almost certainly brought in to make up numbers.
Although it is difficult to assess the expense of it in present-day terms, the hill fort would have cost the equivalent in resources of very many hundreds of thousands by any standard.
We may now turn to the economics of the project. Although the use of modern terminology may seem to be somewhat anachronistic in consideration of an ancient piece of work, nevertheless there can be no doubt that the hill fort represented an investment on the part of whoever built it and who, in turn, anticipated a return or benefit for that investment.
The Hill Fort Mysteries
As we will see, it is possible to answer these questions with a fair degree of precision, detail and certainty.
Historical References to the Hill Fort
He goes on:-
Dr Plott goes on to note that iron spear-heads and other "warlike instruments", as he put it, had been ploughed up within the hill fort's grounds.
It should be noted here that Castle Hean would be rendered as Castell Hen in Modern Welsh and that this translates as Old Castle or Old Fort, an exact match to the hill fort's name in English. Also it should be noted that Welsh is the immediate successor of the Old British language. But why would there be a Welsh connection in the context of the hill fort? As we will see, this fact is of great significance.
Our next historical reference comes nearly 100 years later from The History and Antiquities of The Parish of Shenstone, 1769, by the Reverend Henry Sanders, a one-time curate of that parish.
Reverend Sanders noted that hill forts are commonplace in Britain:-
By 'old Britons', Rev Sanders is referring to the Iron Age tribes of pre-Roman Britain. He goes on:-
Rev Sanders says of the hill fort at Castle Hill:-
Here we note a consensus of opinion between Dr Plott and Reverend Sanders. Both considered the hill fort to have been the work of the Old British who flourished on this island in the period known as the Iron Age. But who, exactly, were these people? And can we find any other examples of their work on the landscape in this locality? This brings us to our next point of interest.
Dr Plott expresses this opinion of Knaves Castle:-
Reverend Sanders says this of it:-
Here we see further signs of consensus. Dr Plott relates a tradition that Knaves Castle had once been a guard post on Watling Street and that travellers had paid the guards for their protection. As we will see, this folklore is of great significance.
Reverend Sanders agrees with Dr Plott's assessment, but goes as far as to say that Knaves Castle had once been a fully fledged fort. With the element castle in its place-name, this does seem to be entirely plausible.
Iron Age Britain
Dr Plott considered that the dominant tribe in this part of the West Midlands was a group of people known as the Iceni. Reverend Sanders agreed that this was a possibility, but considered that the tribe known as the Cornavii, sometimes written as Cornovii, was a greater likelihood. In any event, modern scholarship informs us that, indeed, the Cornavii was the dominant tribe in this area.
Returning to Knaves Castle
Thus we can deduce that Knaves Castle means the fortress belonging to the Cornavii and thus we can place chronologically this ancient feature squarely in the Iron Age, along with the hill fort at Stonnall. Here we have two forts, both placed in a seemingly strategic manner on two ancient major roads. In all probability, they were constructed by the same tribe. Also, we can now explain the Welsh language connection with the Old Fort. It was anciently called Castell Hen because it had been built by the Welsh-speaking Cornavii. Is it possible that the Cornavii constructed these forts to serve a common purpose?
They do not appear to have been great horticulturalists, having relied on cattle-raising and hunting. The first element, 'corn', of their tribal name means 'horn' in Welsh. Were these people noted for their affinity to cows, goats, deer and the like? We have only to travel a few miles to Abbots Bromley to view the Horn Dance that may be a pagan ritual left-over of their reverence for horned animals.
And yet there may be another explanation for their name. 'Corn' could also be interpreted as 'grain', but as the Cornavii were not great horticulturalists, as already noted, it is possible that this element may well have been a reference to an entirely different commodity. It is known that the Cornavii controlled large deposits of salt in Cheshire. Could their name be a reference to granular salt? Certainly, in the days before refrigeration and other types of food preservation, they dominated the supply of a very important resource: the salting of food to keep it over the winter months was an essential process for the maintenance of health.
Trade in the Iron Age
Archaeology informs us that trade was conducted across tribal borders in Iron Age Britain. Moreover, international trade also took place on a grand scale. In pre-Roman times, Britain was noted for its exports of grain, wool, livestock, hunting dogs, metals and slaves.
The Road Network around Stonnall
Watling Street and Chester Road
The Tax Gatherers
In the Iron Age and indeed in times before mechanised transport became a reality, the southern approach towards Watling Street from Chester Road and the northern approach towards Stonnall presented a considerable obstacle to anyone carrying a heavy load - and that is the gradient on both sides of Shire Oak Hill. Carters using a single animal to drive their vehicles would have been affected in particular.
As far as the southern approach in the Stonnall area is concerned, the gradients of Church Hill and Lazy Hill would have presented similar impediments. Thus, some travellers had no choice but to turn right into the valley so as to take the route that we now refer to as Main Street, then enter Cartersfield Lane, then Barracks Lane and thus join Watling Street by a means that avoided the difficulty of Shire Oak Hill altogether. Persons travelling in the opposite direction would have taken this route in reverse if necessary.
Further, we should remember that people engaged in legitimate trade were not the only people using the highways. Occasional forays from the bad guys would also have been a feature of Iron Age life. Thus we can see why the tribal authorities invested the time, effort and expense in fortifying the Stonnall toll-point as well as its counterpart at Knaves Castle. They needed to protect themselves and their assets from brigands. Such fortifications would also have been a last-resort place of safety for local people in times of trouble, a place where beacons could be lit as a warning of danger to their neighbours and they may also have functioned as social centres additionally.
We can now also see why the hill fort was not built at the top of Shire Oak. Placing it there would have caused the tax gatherers to miss some of the traffic as it passed down Main Street when some travellers wanted to avoid the Shire Oak Hill gradient.
We can also now account for the item of folklore that was reported by Dr Plott. This was a folk-memory of the days when, by means of taxation, traders directly supported a military effort that was intended to ensure peace and security on the highways.
Postscript - The Hill Fort's Legacy
Let us consider for a moment the management of the hill fort and its business. We can say without much doubt that a single petty chieftain was in control of matters, being beholden only to his or her seniors in the tribal hierarchy. Would he or she have wanted to live within the confines of the hill fort on a permanent basis? We might conclude that the answer would be 'no': all that trekking up and down the hill every day would have been irksome and laborious. And after all, this person, as a chieftain, would have had the choice of living anywhere he or she wanted.
So where did they live? In keeping with this person's status as the local bigwig, the ideal location had to satisfy three criteria:-
In the early 21st century, the location that represents the highest status in the Village of Stonnall is that part of Main Street that runs down from Chester Road to the junction with Lazy Hill Road, that some people - myself included - still refer to as Old Chester Road. It is precisely this piece of road that presents the most rapid escape route to the hill fort.
Moreover, the highest status location of all is represented by the Manor House at the corner of Old Chester Road and Lazy Hill Road. In the Old Days, this was situated only a matter of a few yards away from the fresh running water of Pen Brook. The piece of land on which it was built satisfied the three criteria mentioned above and thus we can expect that the hill fort's manager lived precisely at this spot. That is how it acquired its high status originally and that quality has remained with it ever since - for all the intervening 2000 and more years.
One further matter that could be considered in this context is this: as an important point on a busy route, this part of Stonnall must surely have had a long tradition of innkeeping. Could it be that the Welsh Harp/Wordsley House and the Swan Inn/Manor House represented the Latter Days of hundreds of years of hostelry on Old Chester Road that had its origins way back in the mysterious days of the Iron Age?
© Julian Ward-Davies 2010
This article is a work in progress. Please revisit to review additions and amendments.
If you have any information, suggestions and/or photographs relating to the subject matter, no matter how trivial, please contact the author by one of the methods shown below.