Just when I think I am becoming familiar with our prehistory I discover somewhere new! Warbstow Bury is Cornwall’s second largest and best preserved Iron Age fort. Built around 2500 years ago the impressive concentric rings crown a spur of high ground in North Cornwall close to the River Ottery. On a clear day standing on its grassy banks there are panoramic views in every direction.
“Tourists in search of the magnificent and the beautiful should pay a visit to these wonderous heights, where will burst upon their delighted vision an expanse of country extending from the quiet little haven of Bude to the hills of Dartmoor stretching grandly across the distant horizon. Glorious!”Launceston Weekly News, 6th July 1861
Once known as Warbstow Barrow early historians referred to it as a ‘tribal stronghold’. The two rings of banks and deep ditches are remarkably well preserved. Their sheer size lends weight to the theory that this was once a major bastion for the Cornish aristocracy before the Roman conquest. So, was this once the stately home of one or more of our Cornish Kings?
The fact that an earthen mound in the centre of the enclosure has in recent years been referred to as King Arthur’s Tomb is perhaps quite telling. Not that anyone actually believes that the mythical king was buried here, but the idea may speak to some distant communal memory that this was once a place of kings. Folklorist Alex Langstone proposes that many connections in Cornwall to ‘Arthur’ are result from ancient folk memories associating sites with the true history of Dumnonia and its real forgotten Cornish kings. Echoes of a time when Cornish rulers such as Cunomorus, Cado, Doniert or Gerennius lived, ruled and traded around 450 to 700 AD. Not remembering their king’s true names, Arthur becomes a surrogate ruler for the community.
Standing within its confines it isn’t hard to imagine Warbstow Bury as a place of real importance. The defences, even after thousands of years of wear and erosion, are still imposing and the size of the site itself is truly impressive, even if these days it is just cosy quarters to a flock of sheep!
“It stands upon a lofty hill that soars and swells upward into a vast circular mound, enthroned, as it were, amid a wild and boundless stretch of heathy and gorsy moorland.”Rev. Robert Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow (1803-1875)
The Iron Age fort is oval in shape, around 340m long by 270m wide. The ditches are really substantial, in the first ring they are nearly 6m deep and in the second around 3m. There are two entrances at the north-west and south-east sides. Excavations here have uncovered quantities of iron age pottery, as well as evidence of various structures within the confines of the castle, including houses and raised granaries. In December 1926 the Cornishman newspaper reported the discovery of a bronze bowl dating from the first century AD. It was uncovered during drainage work and found at Youlstone around one mile from Warbstow Bury. Fine artefacts such as this and the huge scale of the structure indicate that there was a large and thriving community based here around two thousand years ago. It would have taken many men a considerable amount of time, perhaps years, to build this fortress. And all the while they would also have been occupied with their daily task of providing for their families.
The first written mention of the name Warbstow comes in 1309 as Warberstowe, this Old English translates as ‘St Waerburh’s holy place’. According to the antiquarian Thomas Tonkin the parish was named after Saint Werburga, who was the daughter of Wolfhere, King of Merica and the son of ‘the famous Penda’. The parish church in the village is dedicated to her also. In 1731 Tonkin also writes:
“In this parish is a noble fortification, which, perhaps might give occasion of dedicated to such a saint as carried with it such a warlike sound.”
Saint Warbury (or Werburga) is thought to have been a Saxon Abbess who has another church dedicated to her in Chester. Charles Henderson, in trying to explain her unusual connection to our village in Cornwall, makes a strange suggestion. Warstow, he says, is famous for geese (?) and these birds are also a part of the saint’s legend (one of Saint Werburga’s miracles was supposedly the resurrection of a goose) and that this is the reason for the association . . .
The Giant’s Grave
The original name for the raised mound inside the fort, sometimes called King Arthur’s Tomb, is the Giant’s Grave. The earliest written reference I have found for it comes from John Wallis in 1847.
The grass mound is roughly 22m long and 10m wide with indistinct ditches on either side “in the manner of a Neolithic long barrow”. But the purpose and origin of this oblong tumulus are very much up for debate, and as always I am delighted when there is a legend involved! This particular story suggests that the fort was in ancient times the home of the Warbstow Giant.
Apparently the Warbstow Giant had a battle with either the giant of Launceston Castle or of Dunheved or Condolden Beacon, depending on the source of the myth. Whichever is the case the two titans of Cornwall duked it out by throwing things at each other from their high hills. As you do.
“And as each giant form stood upon the ramparts their eyes glared like balls of fire whilst their implements of destruction (said to be iron bars) were thrown from one extremity to the other until the giant at Dunheved or the swelling hill aided by the occupant of the Witches Tower measured the length of his antagonist upon the ground to fight no more , , ,”Cornish & Devon Post, 3rd November 1883
After meeting his end the giant of Warbstow was buried at the fort, or so the legend goes. However, there is one other legend worth mentioning which proposes an alternative explanation for the mound. Given the author of this particular story though it would probably be wise to take it with a very large pinch of salt. Rev. Robert Hawker suggests that the area of disturbed ground inside Warstow Bury is in fact a Viking grave.
“On the flat level of this round crater, and in the exact midst, still swells up uninjured the outline of a Viking’s grave. The shape of the hillock at Warbstow is neither oval or round but survives the exact image of the dragon ship if northern piracy and war. Moreover, not the shape only, but the size of the vessel of the dead is perpetuated here. Measured and graduated by scale, this oblong, curved and narrow grave would yield the dimensions of a boat of fifty tons, which would be about the weight of a Scandinavian serpent of the sea.”
Sadly however Historic England spoils all our fun by concluding that the mound is neither a long barrow, nor the resting place of a Viking or indeed a giant’s grave. They argue that it is more likely to be a medieval ‘pillow mound’. These pillow mounds were man-made warrens constructed for keeping rabbits which were a popular source of food. Anyway, perhaps a visit will help you to draw your own conclusions as to what you think it is.
More Recent History
During Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 the hillfort was used as a site for one of the beacons that were lit along the length of Cornwall from Chapel Carn Brea near Lands End. In addition, just a few years later in 1894, a letter was featured the Cornish & Devon Post mentioning Warbstow Bury. Strangely the letter said that several elderly people in the area remembered a monument of some kind standing on the top of the fort. It is suggested in the article that this may have been the ancient Celtic cross now at Youlstone, although the writer admits no one can confirm that, or when the so-called monument was removed.
And finally during the Second World War the Home Guard had a lookout and a Tommy gun at the castle for shooting down enemy aircraft. The men manning the hut reported that they could see search lights as far away as the coast of Wales again proving the importance of this place as a vantage point, undoubtedly why it was chosen as the site for the hillfort all those thousands of years ago.
Visiting Warbstow Bury
There are two ways to visit this site. You can drive to the car park from where it is a short walk to explore the castle, or alternatively for a longer stroll through the surrounding countryside I have included a link to a circular walk below.