The Hillfort and Modern Memory

Despite our Ordnance Survey map, and though a wooden signpost pointed the way, we could discern no clear path to Caer Caradoc. The day glowered and threatened rain; the path we found, muddy and steep, had likely been forged by sheep. As we trekked slowly upward, one of our number commented (more than once), “it makes you realize how fit they must have been.” She was referring to the Iron Age denizens of Caer Caradoc. I made a mental note, in our defense, that the average age of those denizens was likely less than half our own.

Caer Caradoc, an Iron Age hillfort, is at the center of the greatest concentration of hillforts in southern Shropshire, England. The fort (caer in Welsh) is named for Caractacus, a British tribal leader who made his last stand against the invading Romans in 50 AD. Tacitus tells the tale, albeit from the Roman point of view:

The [Roman] army then marched against the Silures, a naturally fierce people and now full of confidence in the might of Caractacus, who . . . had raised himself far above all the other generals of the Britons. Inferior in military strength, but deriving an advantage from the deceptiveness of the country . . . he resolved on a final struggle.

The fighting was fierce, but the Romans, under their general, Ostorius, prevailed: “It was a glorious victory; the wife and daughter of Caractacus were captured, and his brothers too were admitted to surrender.” Though Caractacus fled, the Romans found and captured him, too. “[P]ut in chains and delivered up to the conquerors,” Caractacus remained unrepentant:

“Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive . . . . I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly? If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? . . . . if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency.”

Though the emperor granted clemency, all did not fare well for the Romans:

. . . soon afterwards [Ostorius] met with reverses; either because, when Caractacus was out of the way, our discipline was relaxed . . . or because the enemy, out of compassion for so great a king, was more ardent in his thirst for vengeance.

We arrived at the summit not the least ardent, but definitely thirsty and ready for lunch. As we ate, we took in the vast view, in which, so it seemed to me, past and present were entwined.

In his book, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell wanted “to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life.” My musing on the hillfort and modern memory is decidedly smaller in scope, but Fussell’s book informed my curiosity about the ancient earthworks on which we sat and looked out.

While certainly guided by what archeologists and historians discover and transmit, isn’t translating the past into the present necessarily an act of the imagination? That those who survived infancy typically died before they were thirty-five or forty is the fact. Our friend’s act of imagination, though, is what connected the Iron Age experience of climbing Caer Caradoc to our own.

As is true for everyone, poets and writers write from their own times and places, and connections to the past change over time. In A. E. Housman’s On Wenlock Edge, published in 1896, the poem’s speaker muses on present and ancient storms on the Wrekin, site of an Iron Age hillfort:

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The speaker, conjuring a Roman in the ancient city “Uricon,” collapses time to make a timeless point.

Siegfried Sassoon fought in the Great War and lived through World War Two. During the second war, he wrote On Scratchbury Camp. Reminiscent of Wisława Szymborska’s great poem, Reality Demands, Sassoon, rather than finding a grand continuum in the human condition, locates ironic disconnects.

The poem’s speaker hears “a fighter squadron’s drone” cut through lark song and muses that the hillfort’s “turfed and cowslip’d rampart seems/more hill than history, ageless and oblivion-blurred.”

I walk the fosse, once manned by bronze and flint head spear . . .

Cloud shadows, drifting slow like heedless daylight dreams,
dwell and dissolve; uncircumstanced they pause and pass.
I watch them go. My horse, contented, crops the grass.

More recently, Owen Sheers, in Y Gaer (The Hillfort), summons the past, “[i]ts only defences now, a ring of gorse,” solely in service of present sorrow.

The land is three-sixty about you here,
an answer to any question, stitched with river silver,
so I think I understand why the man who lost his son

comes here only in bad weather . . .

The narrator in Alice Munro’s story, Wenlock Edge, knows the Housman poem by heart. Her present concerns have little to do with the poem (though her relationship with it will change). As she reads it aloud, under disturbing circumstances, she tosses history aside with a verbal shrug: “Where was Uricon? Who knows?”

Time changes what we understand about the past and how we use it. Though archeologists and historians can save us (if we let them) from continuing to believe the world is flat, perhaps nothing can be certain beyond that our imagination lets us understand.

The place of Caractacus’s last stand against the Romans isn’t known: there is more than one hilltop fort named Caer Caradoc. As with the contention over which river can claim to be the source of the Danube, contenders for each eponymous fort lay claim to the site of that ancient fight.

As Alice Munro’s narrator in Wenlock Edge might say, “Where was Caer Caradoc? Who knows?”


Caer Caradoc and environs, July, 2012:

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A Spotify listening list can be found at The Hillfort and Modern Memory.

Edward Elgar wrote a cantata based on the story of Caractacus.  While not considered among his greatest works, it is a precursor to one that was: The Dream of Gerontius.

Watchmen, alert! from Elgar’s Caractacus:

Prelude from The Dream of Gerontius:

Vaughan Williams set six poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad to music. The setting of On Wenlock Edge, as sung by Peter Pears, can be found here.


Credits: The image of Caractacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome can be found here, and that of the ironwork firedog here. The quotations from Tacitus can be found here. The quotation from Fussell can be found on page 1 of the preface to The Great War and Modern Memory. On Wenlock Edge can be found here. On Scratchbury Camp can be found here (though the date of the poem given there appears to be incorrect). Y Gaer (The Hillfort) can be found here, and its companion poem, The Hillfort (Y Gaer) can be found here. The quotation from Alice Munro’s short story, Wenlock Edge, can be found here.

14 thoughts on “The Hillfort and Modern Memory

  1. David

    How wonderfully you have interwoven those many greats! This ties in nicely with the Snettisham torc attributed to Boudicca I mused about on the Norfolk post – and Elgar’s idea of ‘Caractacus’s camp’ was the one at the opposite end of the Malvern hills to his Gerontius retreat of Birchwood (it’s a wonderful view). You’re right that his oratorio isn’t the greatest – the tubthumping ending lets it down – but it has his only passionate love duet, quite operatic, and the exquisite ‘Woodland Interlude’ was one of the last things he heard – the recording conducted by Lawrance Collingwood fed through to him on his deathbed.

    But how glorious that part of the world is – Herefordshire AND Shropshire – and how lucky Friko is to live there. One day…

  2. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    Oh how your post has transported us back to our Herefordshire days when this glorious landscape was all so familiar to us. The great sweeps of land, the bosky woods and the gently undulating hills. This is, we feel amongst the most wonderful of English countryside scenes. Ever changing and yet standing still with time, once it finds its way into one’s heart, it will not let go.

    How finely you have drawn all these influences together in this post. We have so enjoyed reading it.

  3. Rubye Jack

    The transferring of anything, even within the present, naturally involves some misrepresentation of what was originally said or done. There seems to be no universal truths to be passed on as we each interpret the world through our own imaginations, and so who it to say if history has been correctly passed on to us. When we play the game of telling a story in a circle of friends the original story seldom if ever comes through although it has only been mere minutes.

    I love the way you can pull ideas and events and music together to make sense out of a point you are making.

  4. friko

    As you probably know this area has many hill forts, the nearest to us being Bury Ditches which, I seem to recall, you also explored. Just down the Shropshire Way from us (about 10 minutes’ walk away) is another Caractacus campsite in the midst of cow pasture. Early history is all around us, in the hills and along the river valleys. I am so glad you came back to your visit and showed the splendour of this mostly unknown area.

    Connecting poetry and music and history is so very much you, no one else would think of combining them – and doing it so successfully – in a blog post. To get Auden and then Wislawa Szymborska under the same hat is nothing short of remarkable.

  5. Scott

    I really liked the slideshow. Beautiful landscape. The way you portrayed the union of sky,clouds and earth is amazing. Just some random thoughts…. George C. Scott as Patton. Patton visits Gettysburg. His reaction…”I think I died here…”. Caractacus seemed like he would of been willing to negotiate with the Romans. Passionate people will go to lengths to protect what they care about. Although no poet, I have tried to use words as way for myself to understand things and as a way to improve my communication. History can be pretty mind boggling. Maybe poets and musicians are just thinking stuff through.

  6. The Solitary Walker

    A really worthwhile post, Susan, in which you weave together so many things with a single thread and with great skill.

    Interesting, though, isn’t it, that only 100 years ago life expectancy in the West was still only 45 – 50 years!

  7. Mark Kerstetter

    Another gorgeous meditation, with bits of poetry and history to please the palette – really enjoyed listening to Elgar while looking at the slideshow, and now while I type. I kept thinking about Emerson’s essay on history, perhaps because I read it recently. He says:

    “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same…. This human mind wrote history, and this must read it. The Sphinx must solve her own riddle.”

    But as you read on you realize just how immense and difficult the task really is. Foucault, by the way, is my favorite historian in modern times. Thanks for another beautiful post. I have yet to check out all the Adams music you’ve culled. Your Spotify profile is a treasure.

  8. Suze

    Dear Sue,

    This post is very timely for me. I will be looking up ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ the moment I veer away from your excellent page.

    I have been conducting research (a fancy way of saying I have been reading books, taking day trips and planning to be in attendance of lectures by an historical society) for an upcoming writing project. It is set in time thirty years before I was born. Paging through clothing catalogues, memoirs and biographies of the ‘major players’ alive during the era and, more particularly, involved in the event that has sparked my imagination, I have been thinking a great deal about how difficult it is to get to truth through a lie. Fiction is, by nature, a falsehood. It’s a fiction! I have always been more drawn to non-fiction, though I consider myself a novelist. And now, in choosing to explore historical fiction, I feel it possible I have found a true proving ground.

    These musings of yours make me wish we could get together for a leisurely lunch to talk things over.


  9. Susan Scheid Post author

    David: Your comment is packed with enough material for several posts (though this comes as no surprise to me). How interesting that the Caractacus camp, at least in Elgar’s imagination, was at the opposite end of the Malvern Hills to Birchwood. I had no idea of the poignant story behind the Woodland Interlude, either. Such a rich area of the world, so much to explore. I hope very much to return soon—one day, yes, one day soon. Yes, Friko does live in a storied place, and she and her Beloved add a great deal to the story. It was wonderful to meet them both on their home ground.

    Jane and Lance: We feel enormously lucky to have visited there, and hope to do so again, for all the reasons you describe.

    Rubye Jack: Your insights into “the transferring of anything” are marvelous, and I so agree. I’ve enjoyed our recent “offline” exchanges, too, and look forward to more.

    Friko: You certainly do seem to live in the epicenter of an ancient universe! Yes, you remember rightly, we did also go to Bury Ditches—the long way, as you may recall. Indeed, it may amuse you to know that we went back again, determined, this time, to find the parking lot you described (which we did). So there we were, in what we thought such a wild, wild place, and there were folks coming in their cars to walk their dogs! As for connecting the threads, do you really think no one else would think of it? Whatever the case, this is what seems to happen when I start on the trail of something, even when I don’t intend it. As for Szymborska, of course I must thank you for the introduction to that magnificent poem. It came to mind immediately when I read Sassoon’s.

    Scott: Patton’s “I think I died here”—what a great story, which I didn’t know. Interesting thought, about Caractacus being willing to negotiate. From the story per Tacitus, it does seem he was a wily fellow. As for your “although no poet,” may I disagree on that? I was just thinking the other day on a visit to your blog how much your beautiful posts should be collected into a book. You seem to me to continue a long line of wonderful poets of the natural and closely observed human world. I think, for example, of Gary Snyder. In that line. Last not least, yes, I think all creative people are doing just that, “thinking stuff through.”

    Solitary Walker: Oh, that’s a great fast fact—I hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that only 100 years ago, life expectancy wasn’t much better than in Caractacus’s time!

    Mark: That is such a beautiful quote from Emerson (whom, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never read more than a page or two—he keeps cropping up lately, hmmm, could it be that Whitmanian thread?—so this becomes yet another bit of reading to add to the list). And of course you make me curious about Foucault, whom I’ve always considered far beyond my ability to comprehend. I hope you’ll write something on him and why he is your favorite historian (or perhaps you have already). You can be assured I’d read it. So much to learn, so little time!

    Suze: I hope you do have a chance to take a look at Fussell’s book. Though I do wonder at some of his generalizations, he has keen observations about a critical juncture in modern history that I’ve read nowhere else. As for your own project, I would say it easily passes muster as “conducting research,” and I look forward to reading your reports on your discoveries. Historical fiction is an interesting area to explore, if fraught. The trick, I think, is to absorb the history so that it doesn’t hang on the story like a monstrous dead weight. I think a true master at this is Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are two that I’ve read), also Pat Barker in her Regeneration trilogy. Another fascinating one is William Vollman’s Europe Central. It would indeed be great fun to have a long lunch with you and talk. Perhaps one day we will, who knows?

  10. Gary

    Hi Susan,
    Your informative words reflect a joy, a passion for this green and pleasant land. You have enticed with this and rather strangely, I go through Shropshire en route to the enchantment that is Wales. Having read your fascinating article, perhaps I should stop and look around a bit more.
    Cheers, Gary

  11. Steve Schwartzman

    The ancient Indo-European root for ‘hill-fort’ has been reconstructed as *bhergh-. One offshoot of that root is the -bury that appears in British place names like Avebury, Canterbury, and Salisbury. It also gave rise to the -burg(h) in place names like Edinburgh, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, etc. Spelled with different vowels, it’s likewise in Hamburg, Königsberg, Bergman, and many other Germanic and Nordic names.

    Like Scott, I was reminded of the character of Patton as portrayed in the movie. According to one website, here’s what Patton says in a scene in northern Africa: “It was here. The battlefield was here. The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and swords and lances. The soldiers lay naked in the sun. 2000 years ago. I was here.” You’ve written about Britain, but it was much the same thing everywhere the Romans went, at least during the centuries that their power lasted.

  12. wanderer

    Is it just me? The blood; every footstep one takes is soaked. So green and lovely now, but so stained. I think it’s because I’m reading about war (WW2) and destruction (Germany) at the moment that I can’t get past the horror buried there. And so little learnt.

    I must listen to the Cantata in full. David has peeked my interest even more.

  13. Susan Scheid Post author

    Not just you. I do think Szymborska’s poem Reality Demands evokes better than any other piece of writing that profound sense of dislocation. I’m curious about the full cantata too, from what David said, and have put it on my ever-growing wish list.

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