Belle Tout Hillfort, East Sussex
Belle Tout hillfort is a probable Iron Age enclosure of around 20 hectares. A secure date for this site has yet to be settled upon, and there is a possibility that the enclosure is actually Neolithic. The original size and shape of Belle Tout hillfort is also unknown, due the rapid erosion rate of the chalk cliffs on which it was built. The good news is that this destruction is also revealing – one cliff fall exposed a Bronze Age or Iron Age well/ritual shaft in excess of 40 metres in depth (1). A recent dig has relocated the bottom of this shaft – see ‘Lost and found!: rediscovering the Bronze Age shaft at Belle Tout‘.
Richard Bradley, who excavated here, describes it as an Iron Age stock enclosure, but as has been mentioned, a solid date has yet to be established. There is evidence that the site has been used and used again throughout prehistory, and although there are signs of Neolithic use, the style of enclosure has much more in common with the building conventions of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages.
Ian Brown has estimated that the cliffs here have, in theory, receded around 232 metres since the Roman invasion (2). Keeping this in mind it’s worth considering that if we place Belle Tout hillfort in the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age, then it may have started life as a contour or hilltop fort, rather than a promontory fort.
Belle Tout is Intervisible with Castle Hill hillfort (Newhaven), and Seaford Head hillfort.
Parking is available at the Horseshoe Plantation (TV 56182 95908), and at Birling Gap (TV 55447 96045)
Other Items of Interest
The rather splendid Belle Tout lighthouse is visible from this hilltop, as is a vast stretch of the English Channel, and a glorious stretch of the South Downs, which are too packed with archaeology to go into here. Also, though of a non-archaeological nature, the Cuckmere Valley is well worth a visit for an unrivalled view of the Seven Sisters (chalk cliffs) and a (literal) textbook example of an oxbow river.
(1) Bradley, R. 1974. A chalk-cut shaft at Belle Tout, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 112, 156.
(2) Brown, Ian. 2009. Beacons in the Landscape – The Hillforts of England and Wales. Windgather Press.