South Cadbury Castle – was that Camelot?
I first visited South Cadbury Castle as a child. I must have only been ten or eleven years old, with a head full of images of Camelot as seen in The Sword in the Stone and the musical Camelot, not to mention old Hollywood films, so I expected to see more than just an old earthwork and some muddy trenches. But I didn’t let that put me off. I adapted my view of all things Arthurian and began to realise that it wasn’t about stone built castles and knights in shining armour and page boys pulling swords out of an anvil – yes, an anvil. Why anyone would choose to make the stone the sword was stuck in look like an anvil, which is made of iron, I have no idea.
Since then I’ve been back there many times. You drive into South Cadbury village, past a farm on your left, until you come to a small carpark beside the road. It’s very peaceful. A short walk back in the direction of the village brings you to the lane on the left that will lead you up the hill and in through the lesser northern entrance to the hillfort. Easy to drive past and miss it completely.
The track is stony and uneven, and can also be very muddy. Cows clearly pass along the lane which serves the fields of the local farm. Wellies are a good idea, or at the least, good walking boots. After a bit, you come to a five bar gate with one of those kissing gates beside it – very difficult to get through. It actually can be lifted off its hinges to allow passage, and then popped back onto them afterwards. Far easier than squeezing through the very narrow gap, especially if like me you’re not so slender as you once were.
Nowadays the hillside and the four rows of banks and ditches are shrouded in mature trees. You’d expect to hear birds calling, but it’s very quiet – almost too quiet. The climb up the hill is steep and straight, with high banks to left and right. You can almost feel yourself walking back in time as you climb.
On one particular visit I only got as far as the gate. I was by myself and it was evening, and the trees were even quieter than normal. The atmosphere pressed in on me, and with my hand on the gate I made the decision to turn for home. The restless ghosts of the hillfort didn’t want me there that night.
There’s hardly ever anyone up there. I’ve been many times with my husband, and we’ve often been the only ones on the hilltop. Eighteen acres of grassland rising gently away from the topmost bank, where once a revetted palisade wall stood, with stone foundations and a solid wall-walk around the inside. If you look carefully bits of that stone wall still remain, half-hidden under the turf. Small hawthorn trees dot the perimeter, sculpted by the wind.
The view is magnificent. To the south more hills rise, but it’s the view to the north that fascinates me. The flat plain of the Somerset levels, where once marshland and open stretches of water lay – proven by the fact that it still floods in times of heavy winter rain. And in the far distance, ten miles or so away, the hump of Glastonbury Tor itself, the ruined tower on the summit just visible.
Since I was a child I’ve been convinced this was the orginal of Camelot. Of course, the name’s all wrong. That’s most likely taken from Camulodunum (Colchester on the East Coast) which would have been far too far to the east to have been the centre of any Romano-British warlord’s territory. Most likely it would have been in Saxon hands. Here at Cadbury we’re in the lands of the Dumnonians, a pre-Roman tribe that still existed after the departure of the legions.
Amongst their number was a king named Cadwy, or it might have been Cador, sometimes described as ‘of Cornwall’. Three closely situated hillforts seem to bear his name – this one, Cadbury-Congresbury, and Cadbury Camp near Tickenham. And there’s yet another Cadbury Castle in Devon. Whoever Cadwy/Cador was, he got about a bit.
The magic of this place lends credence to that theory of a sleeping king. When you stand up there, alone, with a wind soughing in the branches of the trees that crowd the slopes, and close your eyes, you could be forgiven for imagining a thriving fortress all around you. Warriors manning the walls, the great hall rising behind you on the summit, a blacksmith working in his forge, smoke rising from thatched roofs, and middens quietly steaming. The ghosts crowd in on you as the wind ruffles your hair and ripples the long grass.
No wonder John Leland, visiting here in 1542, decided the locals were right when they told him it was ‘Camalatte’ and King Arthur had resided there. A myriad of legends are associated with the hill, including one that says Arthur still lies sleeping beneath the surface in a hidden cave. Reminiscent of the Alderley Edge legends. Another says that between Cadbury and Glastonbury Tor runs an old road, the Hunters’ Causeway, and on every Christmas Eve Arthur and his warriors ride the old road. I couldn’t resist using that in my YA stories.
But the story that I like the best is not a legend, but rather a theory. The story behind it goes that after being mortally wounded in his final battle at Camlann, against his upstart nephew, Mordred, Arthur was borne away by three queens to Avalon, where he lies sleeping still, only to return in Britain’s hour of need. Other heroes have similar legends, but what’s most fascinating is the fact that nearly all of them are about real people. Ridiculous as the legends are, those concerned really existed. So, perhaps because Arthur, too, has such a legend, then he, too, was real. And South Cadbury Castle was indeed his ‘Camalatte’.