The story of the Wittenham Clumps
Wittenham Clumps is one of the most iconic landmarks in Oxfordshire, and one of its most highly visited green spaces. It’s also steeped in ancient history…
These two impressive hills, which stand proudly at the heart of Earth Trust’s farm beside the Thames in South Oxfordshire, are individually known as Castle Hill and Round Hill. Historically, they have also been known as Sinodun Hills, the Berkshire Bubs and even Mother Dunch’s Buttocks…! But today, they are best known as the ‘Clumps’, after the clump of beech trees that crown the hills which, dating back at least 300 years, are the oldest known planted hilltop beeches in England.
The Clumps were well known for being home to the Victorian ‘Poem Tree’, a beech tree carved by Joseph Tubb with a poem about the landscape and its history between 1844 and 1845. Sadly, the tree died in the 1990s eventually collapsing in 2012, but the poem can still be read on a commemorative stone marking the 150th anniversary of the carving.
The Clumps are one of the most visited outdoor space in Oxfordshire. But these hills aren’t just an environmental marvel, or a natural landmark. They are also ancient sites of human occupation.
The name ‘Sinodun’ is derived from the Celtic for ‘old fort’, and sure enough, the banks of an ancient hillfort are still visible atop Castle Hill.
Starting off as a Bronze Age settlement, people dug a U-shaped ditch around the site, and built up a bank for added protection against marauding enemies. Archaeologists believe that the bank may even have had a palisade on top.
In 2003, an investigation by Time Team focused on the previously unexplored Round Hill. On its slopes, geophysics revealed the remains of a Romano-British house with a mosaic floor, as well as an Iron Age cobbled floor with post holes that may once have been part of another structure or building.
Further investigations found Iron Age rubbish pits distributed all over the valley, suggesting widespread settlement throughout the period, as well as evidence of a Roman road.
Excavations so far indicate that together, the area has been occupied since the Bronze Age around 1000 BC, the hillfort and surrounding farms dating from around 600 BC, followed by a move down towards the southern part of the site around 300 BC.
By the Iron Age, the inhabitants of the Clumps were well settled; they were fishing in the Thames, hunting wild boar from the nearby woods and they also farmed a little. They kept some cattle but mainly sheep, and had started growing wheat and barley. They stored their grain in huge pits to keep it fresh, which enabled them to survive over the winter.
The area was then abandoned, until the construction of the Roman villa. Eventually, Romans settled in the area, and excavations found evidence of at least one Roman building and water storage tanks close to a spring. After the Roman occupation, King Offa of Mercia is said to have built a look-out post at The Clumps after defeating the West Saxons in AD 772.
Many discoveries have also been made incidentally in the area, including an oval bronze shield retrieved from the nearby river Isis in 1836, and the Wittenham Sword and scabbard, found in 1982 and dating from the Late Iron Age (120 BC – AD 43).
This iconic landmark at the heart of Earth Trust is steeped in history. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg… there’s plenty more waiting to be found.
Image credit: Hedley Thorne
As up the hill with labr’ing steps we tread
Where the twin Clumps their sheltering branches spread
The summit gain’d at ease reclining lay
And all around the wide spread scene survey
Point out each object and instructive tell
The various changes that the land befell
Where the low bank the country wide surrounds
That ancient earthwork form’d old Mercia’s bounds
In misty distance see the barrow heave
There lies forgotten lonely Cwichelm’s grave.
Around this hill the ruthless Danes intrenched
And these fair plains with gory slaughter drench’d
While at our feet where stands that stately tower
In days gone by up rose the Roman power
And yonder, there where Thames smooth waters glide
In later days appeared monastic pride.
Within that field where lies the grazing herd
Huge walls were found, some coffins disinter’d
Such is the course of time, the wreck which fate
And awful doom award the earthly great.