British Camp (Herefordshire Beacon)

British Camp is an Iron Age hill fort located at the top of Herefordshire Beacon in the Malvern Hills, it is composed of extensive earthworks that have been compared to a giant wedding cake. Midsummer Hillfort, only a mile south of the British Camp, was occupied permanently by up to 4,000 people for four to five hundred years. There are a number of generally round hut platforms on the British Camp, which may well suggest a permanent occupation. However it is unusual to have two major hillforts within such a short distance, when most are around ten miles apart. The ditch and counterscarp bank around the entire site covers three hills, although those to north and south are little more than spurs. The first earthworks were around the base of the central hill otherwise known as the citadel. At least four pre-historic phases of building have so far been identified. Original gates appear to have existed to east, west and north-east.


There is no evidence about whether the coming of the Romans ended the prehistoric use of the British Camp, but folklore states that the ancient British chieftain Caractacus made his last stand here. This is unlikely, according to the description of the Roman historian Tacitus who implies a site closer to the river Severn. Excavation at Midsummer Hillfort, Bredon Hill and Croft Ambrey all show evidence of violent destruction around 48CE. This may suggest that the British Camp was abandoned or destroyed around the same time.

A motte and bailey fortress was built on top of the Iron Age camp, probably in the ten years immediately before 1066. Quite possibly the builder was Earl Harold Godwinson, the future King Harold II of England. Earl Harold is recorded as building another fortress in the county at Longtown Castle. The castle would appear to have been refortified during the anarchy of the reign of King Stephen. Before 1148 the fortress was held by Waleran de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Worcester. The castle appears to have changed hands again in 1151 and 1153 when attacked by royalists. At this time it was defended by the men of Earl Waleran's brother, Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester. The castle was finally destroyed by King Henry II in 1155 and mentioned in passing by William Langland before 1386.


The Shire Ditch, traditionally dated to the 13th century, runs north and south of the British Camp along the ridge of the hills. Recent research has shown that the Shire Ditch might actually be much older. Indeed there is some evidence that it may have started life as a prehistoric trackway running from Midsummer Hillfort to the Worcestershire Beacon, the highest hill in the range over three miles to the north of the Camp.

There is a spring on the north of British Camp called Pewtress Spring, (Primeswell Spring), and this is where William Langland fell asleep and received his inspiration for 'Piers Plowman'. This is a long alliterative poem second only to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in medieval literature. In the first of eleven visions the narrator, called The Dreamer, similarly resting by a stream, looks down at the people below the Malvern hills and instructs them to follow a pilgrimage towards salvation and truth.


From the beginning of ‘Piers Plowman: The Prologue’


In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne,
I schop me into a shroud, as I a scheep were;
In habite as an hermite unholy of werkes
Wente I wyde in this world wondres to here;
Bote in a Mayes morwnynge on Malverne hulles
Me bifel a ferly, of fairie, me-thoughte.


-William Langland (c.1330-c.1386)



Similar inspiration was afforded to the English romantic composer Edward Elgar who walked upon the green flanks of the Malverns. It is hard not to see that Elgars Cantata ‘Caractacus’ was directly influenced from the tales of the hills and the legend of Caractacus’s final valiant last stand on British Camp. Also tramping along those slopes throughout the 1950s and early 1960s was CS Lewis who was a frequent visitor to "Hamewith", George Sayer's house at Malvern. The two men would ramble through the hills around Malvern discussing literature and theology. Another author who would accompany Sayer on his perambulations from time to time was JRR Tolkein deep in Elvish thoughts:


“He and I tramped the Malvern Hills which he had often seen during his boyhood in Birmingham or from his brother's house on the other side of the Severn River Valley. He lived the book as we walked, for instance, sometimes comparing parts of the hills with the White Mountains of Gondor'. (George Sayer - schoolmaster at Malvern College and an acclaimed biographer of CS Lewis)