Castle Neroche Hillfort, Curland, Somerset
Castle Neroche hillfort, known locally as Castle Rache (and the summit is known as The Beacon), has been described as a prehistoric earthwork later formed into a medieval castle. It occupies a promontory and there are four concentric lines of earthwork defences with a small motte (possibly with a stone shell keep) and bailey set into a corner of an earlier enclosure. A C19 farmhouse and garden occupy part of the area.
Iron arrowheads, an iron sword blade and inhumation burials (one said to have been in a wooden coffin) were found before 1854. Warre’s plan shows the burials at ST27131580 under the northern farmbuildings (which are not on Warre’s plan). The sword findspot is shown at the crest of the hill to the E close to some pits which are described as having an inverted cone shape 8-10 feet in diameter and 7-8 feet deep and filled with lighter coloured soil. Warre also states that “round the summit of the beacon traces remain of a massive wall of strongly cemented masonry”.
In 1903 excavations by H St G Gray produced Norman and medieval potsherds and finds, now in Taunton museum, but nothing Iron age or Roman. He excavated a medieval pit which may be one of the features described by Warre as conical pits, 8-10ft in diameter and 7-8ft deep, discounted as hut circles but possibly storage pits.
The motte, at ST27111586, is a natural hill steepened by scarping and with vestiges of two defences on the N, now shallow ditches and berms. The small bailey is at ST27121581. To the N of the motte there is a low lying complex of banks and ditches in a dense forestry plantation. These were first noticed by Warre in 1854, but were ignored by Gray in his report of 1903 and have not been investigated since. They appear to be merely a combination of natural scarps, terraced tracks, old field banks and sand diggings.
The main ramparts to the SE of the motte and bailey are of uncertain origin although of Iron age appearance. The utilisation of the innermost rampart in the C12 indicates a second bailey, centred at ST27161577 There is also an apparently original entrance in the second rampart at ST27241569 No certain evidence has been found for the existence of the beacon, but a low mound on the SE edge of the motte’s level summit may be significant. The site does command a very extensive view. There is a pillow mound in the area between the outer ramparts.
Excavation in 1961-4 distinguished four main phases of construction. In Period I (undated) a rampart was thrown up, enclosing an area c7.5 acres Period II, soon after the Norman Conquest, is defined by the construction of a smaller enclosure within the earlier defences forming a ringwork. This may have served as a base for troops engaged in suppressing the 1067-69 disturbances, and is marked by the local production of pottery of distinctively Northern French type.
Later, in Period III, the site was converted into a motte and bailey castle by building a motte astride the Period II enclosure, one corner of which was subdivided to serve as a barbican, and by adding an outer line of defence. The motte was 20-25ft high and was for residential use. The likely builder was Robert of Mortain The new castle appears to have passed out of permanent use by the early C12, but was refurbished for a brief period during the Anarchy.
Scheduled area reduced in 1982.
Site contained within Castle Neroche forest trail.
Clearance of the trees in the area to the N of the motte during 1993 showed clearly that the earthworks are in fact a bailey associated with the castle.
A motte and bailey castle associated with multi-phase defensive enclosures, on a spur of land. As above, but additional bailey below motte to N encloses 0.18ha. It is lobe-shaped or sub-rectangular, with an internal dividing bank. Defences are a steeply scarped face up to 2m high with a bank 0.5m high on top, and a ditch 0.5m deep at the foot with a counterscarp 0.5m high.
Scheduled area revised with new national number 20.04.94 (was Somerset 19).
Topography was certainly crucial in the choice of location, though the reasons behind this choice may have changed from one of security and defence of a community to one of a visible symbol of control over the community. A strong argument can now be put forward for several elements of the site having prehistoric origins, though a refined sequence for these earthworks is not yet possible. The banks and ditches of the three lines of defence would be freely accepted as of a type known in the 1st millennium BC, had excavated evidence produced some finds of that date, rather than the overwhelming quantity of medieval pottery.
In this case however, the dearth of excavated items does not provide sufficient grounds to be dismissive of the idea. Firstly because no modern excavation has explored the bottom of the heavily silted ditches where much diagnostic material is likely to be found. Secondly, there has been no serious attempt to explore the interiors of the inner or outer enclosures. It is also the case that some earthwork elements previously assumed to be medieval, were only thought so because of the presence of medieval finds excavated elsewhere on the site; no direct association between the finds and the earthworks was identified.
Complicated and massive ramparts of the type witnessed here seem excessive for an 11th/12th century castle which was apparently occupied only for short periods of time and was not important enough to have any surviving documentation. It may be that the medieval castle took the form that it did because the defences already existed and could be adapted; the end result being dictated by an existing layout. Had it been built from scratch then a more modest castle may have resulted.
The positions of the entrances for all periods remain the biggest enigma. It has and is suggested that the location of the Castle Neroche may be linked to its location on the natural route between Chard and Taunton. Although other routes have since been adopted, the gentle gradient of the easy ascent up the north escarpment makes an obvious route for a primary route for foot traffic with origins probably in prehistory.
The eastern escarpment of the Blackdowns is approached by hare lane, another probable early track which takes advantage of a similar graded spur in the escarpment. Hare Lane and the Castle Neroche track converge only 160m from the outer ramparts , so the site is ideally positioned to give access to these routes. Its significance for travellers approaching from at least three points of the compass cannot be underestimated, with all the implications of trade, politics, social and economic factors coming into play.
150m east of the outer earthworks is a steep deeply cut holloway also giving access up the escarpment, though not with such ease as with the Castle track. The origins of this track are obscure but the existence of a more arduous alternative route so close to the other suggest that the earlier route was not available or access was restricted for a period of time. It is suggested that a likely episode is was when the medieval castle was under construction after the conquest and access was halted by the motte being built across the route.
See PRN 16497 for details of the earthwork survey from which these conclusion are drawn.
OS map reference: ST 272 158. Nearest town/village: Buckland St. Mary.
Data kindly supplied by the Somerset Historic Environment Record.
Record created in June 1988
© Copyright Somerset County Council 2007