Dave Hamilton, The Telegraph, February 26, 2019
If you’re a little unsure of what exactly qualifies as prehistory, you are not alone. In Britain, this period of time spans from when the first inhabitants of our fair isles arrived here to the coming of the Romans in AD 43. So you would be forgiven for not being up to scratch on what is essentially just shy of one million years of history.
What is perhaps most fascinating is that, remarkably, after just 100 years or so of research, we now know more about life in Bronze Age Britain (around 4,000 years ago) than we do about the Dark Ages and the centuries leading up to the Norman invasion of 1066.
A lot can happen over a million years, but until very recently, this period of British history wasn’t taught in classrooms. So while primary students may be able to wax lyrical about Stonehenge and its brotherhood of equally important, if somewhat less famous, prehistoric sites, those of us over the age of 12 have had to muddle through on our own.
Those with a penchant for history will know that it’s much more fun to learn on a field trip than while stuck indoors reading a monotonous tome or listening to a dry lecture. But the lives of our ancient ancestors isn’t a topic that you can just stumble into blind without a helping hand.
The new guide Wild Ruins BC by Dave Hamilton aims to shed some light on prehistoric Britain while offering some great tips on how you can explore it properly (and most probably in your wellies with your raincoat on).
Delving into a number of smaller sites as well as the more impressive and well-known, here are some of the book’s most compelling entries.
Dun Carloway Broch, Isle of Lewis
With parts of the wall towering a massive 30ft, Dun Carloway broch is one of the tallest and most complete Iron Age structures in the British Isles, thought to date to around 200BC. An inner staircase links a series of galleries within the broch, and for children the dark interior is a fun site to explore.
It stands in a field grazed by wild-looking (and acting) horned Hebridean sheep on a hillside overlooking a crofting village. From this vantage point, you can see the coastal gusts rippling the waters of the inland Loch an Duin, and on a clear day there are views out over the surrounding sea lochs and hills. The purpose of these brochs has been debated for some time, and many now believe they were defensive structures to enclose a family and their animals during troubled times.
How to do it: From Breasclete, head north on the A858 and take the third left, signed Dun Carloway, after 41 miles (65km). Park at the visitor centre shortly on the right (free) and follow the path. Alternatively, take bus W2 from Stornoway to Carloway Bridge stop and walk 11/4 miles (2km) south to the turning (no Sunday service).
Thor’s Cave, Peak District
The cathedral-like yawn of Thor’s Cave 260ft above the River Manifold has towered over the Dovedale landscape for many millennia. Carved out of the soft limestone rock by fast-flowing waters of a distant time, there have been signs of Thor’s Cave and the adjacent Fissure Cavern being visited since the Late Palaeolithic. It is likely these earliest wanderers were hunting parties stopping for the night, out of reach of predatory animals. A Neolithic polished basalt axe has also been found here with a crouched burial, suggesting this may have been a site of ritual worship. The presence of a Bronze Age hearth, along with beads and flints, may also suggest semi-permanent settlers in the caves.
An alternative name for the cavern is Hob Hurst’s House, after a benign supernatural being said to live there. Tourists have been coming here since the Victorian era, when the caves had their own station, served by the Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway (now the Manifold Way walking and cycling path). Adventurous children will love getting dirty on the steep, sometimes muddy, climb up to the cave.
How to do it: Follow minor lanes to Wetton and park in the car park at the south-west corner of the village. Take the path over the stile north and turn left on to Leek Road north-west out of Wetton. Just after a gated track, you will see a footpath sign and stile in the wall. Follow this path west towards the Manifold Way and valley, but after 550 yards (500m), in the trees, branch off left for the caves.
St Lythans burial chamber, Vale of Glamorgan
Like its close neighbour at Tinkinswood, this chambered long barrow would once have been covered in earth. It may have also had a forecourt and features similar to Tinkinswood, but these have long-since vanished. Very little is known about the tomb other than that it was certainly in use 5,000-6,000 years ago, during the Neolithic.
The high placing of the stone makes it possible to take a picture of the setting sun within the dolmen itself. Locally, it is also called Gwal-y-Filiast (the kennel of the greyhound bitch) and folklore has it that the capstone spins three times on Midsummer’s Eve before going down to bathe in the River Waycock. Set in accessible pasture (known as the Accursed Field, as it is said no crop will grow there) it makes a pleasant stop on a circular route taking in Tinkinswood, St Lythans village, the Horse & Jockey pub in Twyn-yr-Odyn, and St Nicholas village.
How to do it: From St Nicholas on the A48, carry on past Tinkinswood and Dyffryn Gardens to the T-junction. Turn left and park by the side of the road when you see the Cadw brown sign. Alternatively, take bus X2 from Cardiff to St Nicholas stop.
Castlerigg stone circle, Lake District
With a backdrop of Cumbrian peaks, including Helvellyn and High Seat, Castlerigg is arguably the most recognisable prehistoric construction in northern England. Dating from the Neolithic era some time around 3,000–3,200BC, it may also be the earliest stone circle in Europe. Three stone axes were found here, and its position marks a clear route along the Borrowdale valley from the Langdale axe factories in the south (see entry), which you can still walk on the modern Cumbria Way footpath.
It is likely this was an important meeting point for Neolithic axe traders on their way to the coast. The circle has a strange quirk: if you stand in its centre looking out at the stones, you can match each with a corresponding peak or outcrop behind. It is impossible to say if this is a coincidence or an attempt to line up the hills with the stones of the circle. Perhaps it was an early form or mapping, or a ceremonial representation of the landscape? To avoid the crowds, visit early in the morning, when, the air is fresh and the site can be enjoyed at its best.
How to do it: Take the Penrith Road/A591 east from Keswick. Bear left at Woodside B&B, following signs to Castlerigg along the A591. Take the first right and follow the road for ¾ mile (1km) until you see a lay-by on the left. The circle is on the right.
Carl wark, Peak District
This rocky outcrop on Hathersage Moor has the advantage of rocky grit stone cliffs on three of its sides, with a rampart topped with stones, built to protect the vulnerable fourth side. This defensive wall on the western rampart is remarkably intact and rare in this part of the country.
The wall is considered to date from the Iron Age, making this a possible late Iron Age hill fort, but it may be of Roman construction. Regardless, it has baffled those studying it as to why it is here at all. There is, after all, Higger Tor just to the north, looming 210ft higher than Carl Wark. Several footpaths criss-cross the moors here, in an area suited to travelling by foot.
How to do it: Follow the A6187 south-east from Hathersage for just over two miles (3.2km). The road zigzags for a while before coming to a sharp right on a bridge; about 220 yards (200m) after this, pull into a car park on left. Take the footpath along the contour for another 220 yards, and as it bends right, take the less-defined footpath to Carl Wark.
Wild Ruins BC: The explorer’s guide to Britain’s ancient sites by Dave Hamilton will be published on March 3 by Wild Things Publishing Ltd (RRP £16.99). To pre-order your copy for £13.99 plus P&P, visit books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.