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Banburyshire’s Ancient Sites:

Madmarston Hill

A Celtic settlement possibly involved in iron production, later usurped by a large Romano-British settlement in the vale below. Today Madmarston Hill is a prime example of how the slow destruction of our ancient monuments by agriculture, portends a greater fate for us all.

Insert image for background no.65: ‘A frosty Salt Way at Swalcliffe’, 7th December 2010
‘A frosty Salt Way at Swalcliffe’, 7th December 2010

Diminished by erosion and agriculture, this large Iron Age settlement sits commandingly above the Roman Salt Way. Below it the large Roman site at Swalcliffe Lea has likewise been erased from history. Though the site is badly damaged, the hill itself is a conspicuous sight in the local landscape, visible from the many tracks and paths across this area.

Summary for ‘Madmarston Hill’:

Location: Swalcliffe, Oxfordshire

Type: ‘Camps & Settlements’.

Condition: Destroyed.

Access: None, but rights of way surround the hill, giving good views from all sides.

OS Grid Ref.: SP386388

Further information: Oxonesia.

Landscape image, ‘Madmarston Hill (left) and the Swalcliffe Lea valley, from Jesters Hill’
A misty Madmarston Hill (left) & Jesters Hill (right) at sunset, with the escarpment along which the The Jurassic Way runs on the horizon (viewed from Sandfine Hill), 19th November 2014.

Madmarston Hill Camp has a bland statutory designation listing on the Historic England website:

“This record has been generated from an ‘old county number’ (OCN) scheduling record. These are monuments that were not reviewed under the Monuments Protection Programme and are some of our oldest designation records. As such they do not yet have the full descriptions of their modernised counterparts available.”

Arguably that situation will remain unchanged because today there’s next to nothing for the the ‘monuments protection programme’ to look at any more.

The last major excavation of the site, in 1957/8, noted the effect that new post-War land management practices were having then, before large-scale arable farming commenced in the 1960s.

Over my almost 40 years of walking past along Salt Way from Banbury, I have witnessed the slow-motion destruction of the three to four metre-high ramparts of the Iron Age camp.

Ploughing has slowly rounded the top of the hill. So notable, it is pictured as a case study in a government-funded report on the ‘archaeological damage from arable activities’. As you can see, the ramparts have been stripped away.

Madmarston Hill Camp was built in the late Iron Age. The excavations of 1957 found some evidence for iron-working on the site using the local iron ore.

The whole area around Swalcliffe Lea was in the past a hive of activity. The area between Madmaston Hill, Upper Lea Farm, Swalcliffe Lea, and Swalcliffe Mill – which Salt Way runs through the middle of – was once one of the largest Romano-British settlements in the county.

This continued until the settlement moved to the current site of Swalcliffe some time in the Saxon period, a few centuries later.

If you go to nearby Rainsborough Camp you can see roughly the size and scale of construction of what Madmarston Hill once was.

It would be easy to ‘blame’ farmers for this damage; or the fact that thousands of such sites have been damaged all across the country with little response from the government.

The reality is that the works that caused this damage were encouraged by the state, funded by government grants, and paid for with taxes raised from the public. Everyone has (willingly?) paid for the destruction of their own heritage – or more precisely, has made little political effort to stop it.

Madmarston Hill is a testament to the power of ‘progress’, and ‘development’, and the application of scientific principles to create our ‘modern’ way of life. It is emblematic of an ideology which reduces the value of everything to units of production, and cannot value anything which is not consistent with those underlying economic objectives.

Landscape image, ‘Madmarston Hill (left) and the Swalcliffe Lea valley, from Jesters Hill’
Madmarston Hill (left) & Swalcliffe Lea valley, from Jesters Hill, 19th April 2014

Today, Madmarston Hill is an example of why our modern lifestyle is truly unsustainable, and must shortly collapse – just like the large Roman settlement below that has disappeared. This way of life destroys the few inches of biological matter – the soil – upon which human civilisation depends. And, just as one of the largest Roman settlements in Oxfordshire once stood in the mostly empty fields which Salt Way now runs through, so our ‘modern’ way of life is demonstrably heading towards that same fate if it does not fundamentally change its values.

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