Louise Barker and Toby Driver are joined by Ken Murphy to investigate the enigma of the Pembrokeshire coastal promontory forts which date from the Iron Age. New survey techniques are telling us more about how they were built and lived in, and how the sea has eroded them over the past two thousand years.
Flimston Bay promontory fort, and the promontory forts of Pembrokeshire.
The density of Iron Age promontory forts along the Pembrokeshire coast is scarcely matched elsewhere in Wales. Of the fifty-six promontory forts known, some occupy fairly level ground using sheer cliffs on one side to enhance their defences, while others employed massive banks and ditches to cut off entire promontories and enclose a settled area. Flimston Bay fort is one of the finest promontory forts of Pembrokeshire, with three lines of landward defence cutting off an eroding and collapsing limestone headland. Different phases of enlargement or reduction are suggested by the pair of close-set ramparts, with a third set some distance away. The interspace created could have functioned as a corralling place for stock, or as an annex for trading, secure from the innermost enclosure. Within the fort are shallow scoops of house platforms, and it is likely that the interior was once larger today. However, particular characteristics of its interior, including the precipitous cliff edges and the great blow hole known as ‘The Cauldron’, probably formed long before the Iron Age and may have been part of the reason this headland was selected for enclosure. The Royal Commission completed a new detailed survey of the promontory fort in 2009.
The Flimston promontory fort lies on the south coast of the Castlemartin Range, one of twelve Army Training Estates (ATEs) in the British Isles. The principal feature of this landscape is the sheer cliff line of Carboniferous Limestone which forms some of the most famous limestone coastal scenery in Britain. Wave action and weathering have exploited faults in the rock and carved out caves, fissures and blow-holes, which time and subsequent collapses have turned into glorious arches, like the Green Bridge of Wales, and free-standing stacks. While some visitors will survey the cliff lines looking at the dipping limestone strata or teeming colonies of guillemots and razorbills at Stack Rocks, archaeologists are more likely to be looking for the eroded remains of coastal promontory forts, like Flimston Bay fort, Linney Head and Buckspool, or traces of early settlement inland. Over the years archaeologists have debated the role of these coastal forts. Were they always sited on the edges of cliffs or have 2,000 years of coastal erosion made them that way? If originally sited to enclose treacherous cliffs, how did the inhabitants go about their daily lives without losing their foothold, or their livestock, over the edge? These are practical considerations if we are to visualise the residents of entire defended villages living with sea cliffs on three sides. The archaeologist Barry Cunliffe questioned the role of prehistoric coastal forts, preferring to see them not as defended homes but rather as ‘special places’ in liminal positions between land and sea, perhaps where prehistoric communities would go to practise rituals and worship the gods of the sea.
Link to the Flimston Bay Camp Coflein record
Link to the Coflein record for Greenala promontory fort:
Link to Iron Age Wales on the RCAHMW website
External link to the Castlemartin Range website
The Royal Commission has been investigated a number of historic buildings in Denbigh as part of the Townscape Heritage Initiative that has been taking place in the town. Two of the most iconic buildings date from the 1570’s and were built by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Baron of Denbigh and, through his association with Elizabeth I, one of the most important men in Britain. As the new Baron of Denbigh, he had grand plans for its improvement, attempting to rival major cities in England.
The Shire Hall was built on his instructions, on a plot of land donated by him, in 1572, and was a multi-purpose structure providing a market hall and probable lock up on the ground floor and meeting rooms for the Quarter Sessions and borough meetings above. Altered and extended over the years, the Commission has carried out an extensive survey and investigation to unravel the changes that have been made and create a reconstruction of how it may originally have looked (see bottom of page).
St David’s, or Leicester’s church as it is commonly known, was begun in 1578-9 by Dudley with the intention of being the largest Protestant preaching Hall in Britain, and possibly to replace St Asaph as the head of the Diocese. Nearing completion in 1584, Dudley appears to have abandoned his improvement scheme in Denbigh, partly through his growing unpopularity with the townspeople, partly through lack of funds and the church was never finished. While the building works were in progress however, large numbers of men would have been accommodated within the town. One theory is that a substantial house, Bryn-y-Parc, with extension work dating to the 1670’s, may have been used to provide lodging for workmen. Bryn-y-Parc was badly damaged by fire in 2002 and the Commission has since carried out investigations in order to understand the complex structural and historical development of the building.
Link to Denbigh Shire Hall record on Coflein
Link to Bryn-y-Parc, 3-5 Park Street, Denbigh on Coflein.
Link to St David’s or Leicester’s Church, Denbigh record on Coflein
Royal Commission Investigator Louise Barker and Landscape Archaeologist Andrew Fleming reveal the results of their work on a remarkably well preserved monastic landscape in mid Wales, undertaken as part of the Strata Florida Project. They discuss the lasting legacy of the Cistercians monks in Wales and evidence for what medieval life was like outside the Abbey cloister.
On the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, below the Teifi Pools and 2 kilometres east of Strata Florida Abbey, lies an area of enclosed upland pasture belonging to the farm of Troed y Rhiw. This was once the property of the Abbey and lay within the home grange of Pennardd. From this period there survives the well preserved remains of a large barn or sheepcote, capable of accommodating around 300 of the abbey’s prime commodity, its sheep. There are also four abandoned medieval farms, one of which looks to have originated as a monastic sheep-handling station.
This small parcel of land provides a valuable insight into how the monasteries, the first large-scale estate holders in Wales, managed their land and their tenants. Their activities played a significant part in establishing Wales on the international trade map. In 1212, Strata Florida was one of the earliest monasteries granted permission by the King to export its wool abroad.
Look up the sheepcote on Coflein
Visit Strata Florida Abbey
Find out more about the Strata Florida Project
Look up the medieval farmsteads on Coflein