Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Ghosts at Maiden Castle, Dorset

Even on the finest days the wind can be surprisingly strong on the hills south of Dorchester in Dorset. On days when a breeze blows in the valleys, a positive gale can be felt on the course of this walk. The open countryside is host to some of the older ghosts of Dorset and to some of the most modern of bizarre phenomenon. It is possible to link this walk to the Dorchester town centre walk, which might be welcome as it is here that the walker will find pubs, cafes and restaurants to offer refreshment after this breezy jaunt. 

1) Park in the English Heritage car park at the southern end of Maiden Castle Road. Walk out of the southern end of the car park and follow the path up to Maiden Castle. Enter Maiden Castle, using the informative display boards to find your way to the scanty ruins of a late Roman temple.

The ghosts here are closely linked to the varied history of this mighty fortress. The site was first inhabited in the Neolithic, around 4,500 years ago, when a small fortified farmstead stood here. This was later enlarged in around 600bc to form a fort surrounded by a single deep ditch at the eastern end of the hill. By 200bc the current massive fortress was in place. Covering 47 acres and surrounded by a triple ring of mighty ditches and ramparts, this fortress was made even stronger than it appears today by timber and turf palisades crowning the ramparts. In 100bc the gates were remodelled to form the complex maze of paths and ditches that now protect the site.

None of these mighty works was enough to protect Maiden Castle when the Romans arrived in the shape of the General, and soon to be Emperor, Vespasian and the II Legion. In ad43 the local Celtic tribe, the Durotiges, defied the might of Rome from this fortress. The Romans attacked with powerful catapults able to hurl iron-tipped bolts as thick as a man’s arm. The wooden palisades crumbled and the bravery of the Celts was not enough to hold back the disciplined legions.

Thereafter the Romans put a small garrison on the hilltop to dissuade any attempt at reoccupation and moved the Durotiges into a new town down in the valley of the River Frome. The new site was named Durnovaria and came to be the economic and governmental centre for much of what is now southwestern England. It is now known as Dorchester.

The ghosts of Maiden Castle appear to date from this period of its history. Clearly the locals had neither entirely forgotten nor abandoned their ancestral home on the windswept hill top. A small temple was erected here. Although built in Roman style and fashion it seems to have been dedicated to a local god. And it is here that the ghosts congregate. Dressed in the togas and tunics of civilian Romans, the phantoms stand and walk as if deep in conversation and oblivious to what goes on around them. It is likely that some sightings have not been reported as the phantoms might be mistaken for real people in fancy dress, or preparing for a film shoot. The glory of this pagan temple was not to last. When Christianity came to Dorset in the failing days of the Roman Empire the little temple was abandoned to the elements and Maiden Castle was finally deserted after almost 3,000 years.
From "Ghost Hunter Walks in Dorset" by Rupert Matthews.

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