On a sunny, breezy June day, we drive down to Dorset to do two things I have been meaning to do for a very long time: visit Maiden Castle, and find the graves of my uncle, aunt and cousin in the cemetery at nearby Dorchester.
I have no idea why I’ve never been to Maiden Castle – it has been on my ‘to visit’ list for ever, and I lived in North Dorset for some years, and in neighbouring Wiltshire for many more years; I even worked in Dorchester occasionally, and drove past it on the A35 many times, always thinking “I must go there,” but never actually getting round to it.
Maiden Castle is one of those places where you go and can feel the old. When I lived in Dorset, I lived at the foot of Hambledon Hill, a large Iron Age hill fort on a site which had previously been a Neolithic settlement with a long barrow, and been occupied by the Beaker People of the Bronze Age. Long after its Iron Age heyday was ended by the arrival of the Romans, it was appropriated by the Saxons to bury their dead too. I couldn’t walk on Hambledon Hill without feeling the centuries of people around me, close enough to touch, going about their business and looking out over that same chessboard landscape below, with the River Stour snaking through it. It’s not so much the ghosts of the dead who are buried there – it’s the echoes of the lives lived there, the movement of people coming, going, getting on with their lives, eddies in the still summer air, the swish of their clothing as they pass me. The imprint of 5,000 years of human presence is in the atmosphere as well as in the land.
If Hambledon Hill is a large hill fort, then Maiden Castle is gargantuan. If the name conjured up pictures of Disney or Scottish castles with towers and crenulations, think again. Originally (6,000 years ago) this was a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, but the main ramparts date from the Iron Age (roughly 800BCE to 43CE – i.e. the period immediately before the Romans arrived). The series of massive concentric embankments with ditches between would have been all the more impressive because they were cut from the chalk subsoil, and would have gleamed white, clearly visible over great distances. The remains we see today may be imposing, but the turf now growing over the chalk camouflages the ramparts and lessens the effect, and we are probably not as overawed as we would have been two millennia ago.
As we ascend the main path up to the staggered gaps in the ramparts where the gated entrance would have been, we hear a siren behind us. A police patrol car is parking up, two officers emerging. They climb up to the ramparts and look around, shading their eyes with their hands as the sun is late-morning bright now. After a few minutes, they shake their heads, and one of them speaks briefly into his radio. They head back down to the car.
The sheer scale of Maiden Castle is overwhelming. Entering through the main gateway, weaving through the interlocking ends of the ramparts and heading up onto the enclosure, it’s astonishing to think this was achieved with flint tools and antler picks. The size of the enclosure is a shock, too, and despite having seen lots of aerial photographs I am unprepared for it – English Heritage describes it as the size of 50 football pitches, but that doesn’t mean a lot to me. 16 acres is something I can more easily get my head around – the biggest garden I’ve ever had was a third of an acre, and that felt vast. This space, forty-eight times bigger than that huge garden, contained a town of roundhouses, and there is archaeological evidence for textile manufacturing and metalworking too. We walk and we walk and the views change, but it’s a very long time before we reach the ‘back door’ and turn north to walk round the ramparts.
Ah yes, the views – that is when you realise what an inspired location this was for a defensive site. It has to be said, the views are not as picturesque as from the top of Hambledon Hill, where the whole of Blackmore Vale is spread before you, ringed with hills, while immediately beneath your feet, vertiginously foreshortened, is the village with its church and thatched cottages. Here at Maiden Castle the countryside is more open, the views wider, the perspectives less dizzying. But what this site has is scale – from up on the ramparts, you can see for miles, and it would be impossible for any aggressor to get anywhere near the fort without the lookouts being aware of it with lots of time to prepare for attack. It commands the landscape, owns it, manipulates it. This place was built by people who were in charge, and intended to stay that way. In the end, only the inexorable advance of the Romans, with technology and military strategies that carried all before them, was able to bring them down.
The people of the past are quieter here than at Hambledon – less movement and fewer of them. There is a pervading melancholy, a sadness which is perhaps not surprising given the archaeological evidence for sudden and violent death up here. But the legacy they have left in the landscape is loud – the sheer scale of the defences they built, the way they altered the very shape of the land in ways that have survived for millennia after the deaths of the people who did the earth-moving. For someone who makes or creates – words, art – this is sobering. Is there anything I am making, creating, which will survive to have this much impact in centuries to come? Will the fact of my living change anything in the way that their living changed this landscape?
After a circuit of the ramparts, we descend the paths to the car park. We eat our picnic lunch, quiet in the presence of antiquity.
The second part of the plan for today is to find my uncle’s grave, and if possible that of my aunt and cousin too. My aunt died first, followed a year or so later by my cousin, who was in his first year at university. They both died from the same thing – a congenital heart defect – and he should have been screened for it once her cause of death was known. He wasn’t. Within two years my uncle lost his wife and his only child.
I only met them once, and I have no memory of it – I was a babe in arms. My cousin would have been three or four. Until we moved to the UK permanently when I was 16, I had only visited this country twice, and the first time was when I was brought to Dorchester to meet them. I have no idea why we never met up afterwards – we were on good terms, corresponded all through my childhood, and my uncle wrote to me often when I was at university, sending presents and food parcels. All the things he couldn’t do for his own son. When he died, I was living in the next county, but ironically I knew nothing about it as my father was next of kin and my parents were abroad for the summer. The first they – or I – knew about it was when they got back that autumn. Some years later, my father arranged for a headstone, but I only heard about that afterwards. As with Maiden Castle, I don’t really know why I haven’t been to see his grave before. But I do know this is something I have to do.
A short drive back into Dorchester brings us to the cemetery. The council has an excellent interactive map on its website, so we have been able to plot the graves we are looking for, and are confident of finding them without too much problem. We park up at the supermarket just down the road, and start searching.
As we stand in the middle of the cemetery, attempting to orientate the map on my phone with the graves we can see, we are approached by two police officers. One of them asks if we have seen “this person” and shows us his phone. The mugshot is of a middle aged woman with long hair and a sad, tired face that looks as if life has been hard. She is missing, and the police are “concerned for her safety.” Was that why his colleagues were up on Maiden Castle, we ask? It was. She is no danger to the public, but – that phrase again – they are “concerned for her safety.” If we see her, will we phone it in? We promise we will. The police move on to search elsewhere.
As they search for the (hopefully still) living, we continue to search for the dead. My aunt and cousin are relatively easy to find – their tablet is slightly tilted and this has lifted it clear of the encroaching turf. The memorial has just their names. No dates, even. I wonder why? Most of the memorials in the cemetery have more detail – one section has elaborate statues of angels in gleaming marble. I know my aunt and cousin were loved and missed every bit as much, but in death, you’d never know.
My uncle’s grave is harder to find, even with the map, but on the third pass we find it. It’s no wonder we missed it – again, it’s a flat tablet and the turf has grown over the edges and the wildflowers have crept across the surface until it is almost completely hidden. Realising too late that we should have brought gardening gloves and a trowel, we do the best we can with bare hands, and bit by bit the letters emerge into the sunlight. Again, no dates, but a bit more detail of occupation and background, supplied by my late father who ordered the stone. Next time, we’ll bring kit to tidy it up properly. No point in putting flowers on the graves, as there’s no one to take them away when they have gone over, and there’s nothing sadder than bunches of dead flowers on graves. We stand for a while by the grave, as I finally get to meet my uncle. I realise – much too late – that I should have taken the initiative and come to meet him while he was still alive and I was living in the next county. And that I should have come to see his grave long ago. And that the reasons that I didn’t, the other stuff that was going on in my life at the time, will never justify those omissions to myself.
On the drive home through the early summer green of the West Country, I muse on the contrasting legacies we’ve seen today. When we pass a barrow or a hillfort we always greet ‘the ancestors’, even though genetically that’s vanishingly unlikely. At Maiden Castle, ‘the ancestors’ have left a mighty memorial, carved and raised out of the very earth, visible to all who pass by, for hundreds and hundreds of years in the past, as well as for the future – a memorial to their lives and achievements as well as their deaths. By contrast, my uncle – dead only a couple of decades, not centuries or millennia – has vanished. Even his headstone is being reclaimed by the land, almost eluding even his kin who know where to look. When I am no longer here to keep the turf at bay, his memorial – and with it his memory – will disappear completely.
And what about the missing woman? Back in my own home, safe and loved, I wonder about her. I will probably never know what became of her, or anything of her story beyond the snapshot of that day of her life when the police were “concerned for her safety.” But I hope her life has more of a memorial than the mugshot on the police officer’s phone.
Lisa Tulfer is a freelance writer and translator. She writes articles (history and place writing) and poetry, and blogs at TheThreeHaresBlog.com. She is currently writing her first book, alongside translating a collection of Dutch language short stories into English.