Hills, Rocks and Forts

John Bromley

My association with the Malvern Hills began in the 1960s when studying for school exams in the historic Worcester City Library. Later, whilst browsing around the library, I saw an advertisement for an archaeological excavation due to take place in the summer holidays at Midsummer Hill. 

Somehow I felt compelled to follow this up.

I did research, made some enquiries and thereafter for some 4 weeks over at least three summer holiday periods (possibly four), I joined other enthusiastic young people scraping away at the soil on one of the southern Malvern Hills on ‘digs’ managed by the University of Birmingham.

Looking towards Midsummer Hill Iron Age Hill Fort with Hollybush
Quarry in the foreground. [Bob Embleton, Geograph UK, CC BY-SA 2.0]

We were looking for any remnants of an Iron Age hill fort that had encompassed the summits of Midsummer Hill and neighbouring Hollybush Hill. In my weeks of toil over the years I don’t recall finding much physical evidence of human occupation of the site apart from the remains of post-holes. Were these dark marks in the soil from rotted wooden posts of structures or evidence that the fort had been burnt down at some point in its history? I learnt how to draw on graph paper signs of any residue, stones or rock within the different soil levels before its removal for the revelation of the next level of soil. I can also recall holding a rod on occasions while another person – who had a clearer grasp of the technicalities of surveying – looked through a device that would give a reading to be recorded for posterity. 

We camped out on iron bedsteads in an old stable block at Bronsil Castle Farm – as the crow flies, just down the road from the hills. Each day after breakfast we would clamber into Army-style land rovers and make the journey up to Hollybush Quarry from where, – laden with picnic food, drinks and equipment – we would make our way up the steep path to the tented camp close to the Southern gate of the hill fort. I remember it as a very pleasant communal experience. 

On damp days, I must have thought: ‘What on earth am I doing here?’

There was a warm camaraderie amongst the diggers that once experienced was hard to let go. In each successive digging season it was almost like reconnecting with distant family members. Those of us who had been involved previously knew the ropes and so smoothly slotted into tasks. In between each ‘dig’ and in future years we kept loosely in touch. After the 1970 excavation season, I joined with 3 others on a cycling trip to Croatia and back. It was a significant life experience for me and an extension of the comradeship as we made our way into the wider world.


My personal ‘Stone’ association to the Malvern Hills was hearing from one of the earnest band of Malvern Hills Conservators*, – a voluntary group campaigning to protect the hills – that the rock of which the hills are made is ‘Pre-Cambrian’, one of the oldest formations in the world. A few years later on a visit to the Outer Hebrides, I was intrigued with the name of much of the local geology, – ‘Lewisian Gneiss’ – which I learned was a similar age to Pre-Cambrian rock. Somehow, in what seem like more transitory times this strikes me as very reassuring!

The ‘Forts’ reference, in the title is to the well-known British Camp midway down the Malvern Hills chain that apparently had Early British and Roman periods of occupation. 

The central mound of the hillfort at British camp, viewed from the south.
[Photo taken in March 2005; Spoonfrog at Wikipedia England]

During each excavation season we young diggers would make several night-time walks going North past British Camp on our way to have the reward of liquid refreshment and the opportunity, at one pub, to play skittles. I can almost still feel the heavy thud of the wooden balls as they crashed past the skittles to hit the end of the shed! 

Next door to our excavation group accommodation at Bronsil Castle Farm were the derelict remains of Bronsil Castle. One of the castle’s special features, for those with an interest in such things, is its double moat….   

….The  author and film maker Roger Deakin was an advocate of wild swimming, including in the moat at his Suffolk home, and wrote about it in his book Waterlog: a swimmer’s journey through Britain (2000), Vintage. He records a visit to Malvern and the hills (Pgs 98 – 100) ‘in search of springs and open-air pools’. He finds a number of the ‘over sixty springs and wells around the steep green hills’ (Pg 99) but, sadly, only an indoor leisure swimming pool. I imagine if he had found the moat at Bronsil Castle he might have felt quite at home swimming in it, with the added dimension of Midsummer Hill and all its long history close by.

[*Now the Malvern Hills Trust]

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