By Robert Bamforth
Images by Robert Bamforth and Andrew Wood
Castle Hill stands like a proud sentinel, towering almost 800 feet above Huddersfield town centre. It is an open, windy, wild, yet amazingly quiet place that is much valued by local people. It is topped with a simple stone tower, built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Tower and hill complement each other perfectly, as a key feature in the wider Pennine landscape. To the surprise of no one it has become an iconic symbol of the whole area and the identity of Kirklees.
However, Castle Hill’s real secret is that it is not just a mightily impressive landscape and recreational feature, where the Pennine countryside can be admired and cobwebs blown away. Excavated artefacts show that the history of human activity on Castle Hill goes back 4,000 years to the late Neolithic era. More obvious features on the ground surface today show that it is also a very well-preserved example of a bronze-age hillfort, then an iron-age hillfort and then a Norman era motte and bailey castle. Contrary to local legend the site was not a Romano-British hillfort or the centre of Brigantes opposition to Roman occupation. Nevertheless, many of the historic features of Castle Hill are of outstanding national importance. They are unique on one site.
Not only is it outside the main distribution of iron and bronze-age hill forts in the country, it belongs to an extremely small group of northern hillforts with an internal area of more than 1ha. It is also one of the very few hillforts, with multiple, concentric, defensive banks, datable to the period before 400BC. It is unique in that, during its multi-banked phase, the two outer earthworks were, in places, more than 30m apart. With only around 100 examples known nationally, it is one of the rarer classes of monument belonging to the period. All examples with surviving archaeological deposits (including Castle Hill) are considered to be of national importance.
Equally important are the well-preserved remains of the Norman era motte and bailey castle. Remains of the garrison and ancillary buildings survive in the bailey and the well-preserved earthworks of an associated medieval settlement are immediately adjacent. A substantial part of the entire scheduled monument remains unexcavated, making it of even greater historical importance. The extremely steep slopes on the North West, South West and South East sides of the hill made it an ideal defensive location and the original access to the ancient hillforts and the norman era castle was from the less steep North East (Almondbury) direction.
We are not aware of any physical battles on Castle Hill but the modern day “battle of Castle Hill” has been raging for over ten years now and is still unresolved. Developers want to build a “restaurant with rooms and a visitor centre” on the summit of the hill, within the defensive earthworks of the hill forts and norman-era castle. The developers argue that visitor facilities are sorely needed and the new building would sit on the site of the old Castle Hill hotel which was demolished circa 2005. Planners argue that the site of the old hotel has now reverted to green belt and the need to protect the ancient monument and green belt landscape outweighs the need for intrusive visitor facilities on the summit of the hill. Public and politicians are split between the two opposing arguments. We don’t intend, in this article, to repeat all the arguments for and against development. That may come later as the battle of Castle Hill progresses.
However we have to say that CPRE, along with many other local groups, including Huddersfield Civic Society and English Heritage, is totally opposed to any development on the summit of the hill, as it would do irreparable damage to the wider landscape and the open, immediately recognisable layout of the ancient hill forts and castle. The existing access road to the top of the hill, driven through the ancient hill fort bankings in Victorian times, is totally unsuitable or safe for the traffic that would be generated by a new hotel or visitor centre. Yet, any proposals to improve that access road, in its current position on the South East side of the hill, would cause even more significant damage to the defensive bankings of the ancient hill forts. In our view it is a complete non-starter.
CPRE’s view is that much more can and should be done to make the site accessible to visitors and articulate the history of the site, the geology, the environment and the surrounding landscape. Castle Hill is an outstanding place with an outstanding story to tell. Given the historical, landscape and access constraints, our view is that the only way to do this is to reinstate the original historic access to the hill, from the North East side and create a visitor centre and car parks at a much lower level, just outside the boundaries of the historical sites. Whether this would incorporate commercial bar, restaurant and hotel facilities is a matter for a separate commercial decision.
“Castle Hill Country Park” has a really nice ring to it but it must be done in the right way; one which protects the outstanding historical site and the precious landscape.
Further information about bronze and iron-age hillforts can be found on the Historic England website.