Castlesteads is an Iron Age promontory hill fort on the east bank of the River Irwell. Although there is no immediate access currently to the top of the site, there are good views of its steep slopes from Burrs Country Park. The hillside is now covered in trees, but you can get a sense of just how well defended this site was by walking around the bottom of it.
The fort dates from the late Iron Age. It was occupied from the 5th Century BC and continued in use into the first and second century after the Roman invasion. Such places were constructed as defensive sites, but also were status pieces, radiating power out to the surrounding countryside. In the early days following the Roman invasion, Cartimandua, queen of the local tribe, the Brigantes, was a client ruler of the Romans, so it may well be that this was the reason it was not slighted (attacked) by them. Presumably the occupants continued to live some kind of harmony with their Roman rulers thereafter.
Archaeological work, in which pollen and seed samples were collected, has shown what the area on top and around the fort would have looked like. In the late Bronze Age, the river valley was covered by dense ‘carr’ woodland of alder trees, which thrive in wet conditions. Amongst them would have grown hazel trees, and there were areas of open water too. The slopes and hill tops consisted of mixed woodland of birch, elm, beech and ash. However, by the time the fort was constructed this landscape was being modified. There had been a large reduction in tree cover, so that then only half the area was covered by woodland. It is likely that crops were being planted, and livestock was grazing more grassy, open areas.
The fort was constructed on a natural promontory, which has steep slopes on the north, west and south sides. Anyone attacking it from these sides would have to clamber up some 15 – 20 metres from the Irwell below. The river would have given protection to the north side (as it still does now), and the south side too. The Irwell has since shifted, but the ancient southern course of the river has been found at the base of the southern slope. The eastern approach is only a gentle slope, and so the Iron Age people dug a substantial ditch to protect this approach. The ditch was 6 metres wide and ran for 120 metres.
From Saxon Times to Georgian Times
The fort was clearly known to the Saxons, who gave it its name. The name ‘Burrs’ is most likely a corruption of the word ‘burh’, which is Old English for a fortified place. Interestingly, the nearby town of Bury is from the same ‘burh’ root. Bury probably had a fortified Saxon settlement constructed there, long before the Medieval fortified house known as Bury Castle was built.
The site enters into recorded history in Stuart times. In 1653, a document of sale refers to ‘Casteds’ and ‘Burres’. In 1751, Thomas Percival reported to the Royal Society that “Bury is a town lying on the Irwell… there is a Roman camp on the same river above it, which I call the ‘campus aestivus’, the fortification not near so large as Bury. The people have a tradition, that the two camps were relative to one another and that a battle was fought near Bury, and that the army, or one of them, came over Ashworth Moor.”
Percival then goes on to give a plan of a square Roman camp, but this is most likely a fanciful deduction on his part. No Roman remains have been found on the site, neither walls or portable objects. His writings about the the local beliefs of an army are most likely folklore.
Dr Aiken, in his 1795 book titled Description of Country Round Manchester, writes “…Castlesteads in Walmsley, placed in a bend of the Irwell, is said to have been only an entrenchment of the Parliament’s army, when Bury was besieged, and its castle battered by cannon planted at the head of a wood in Walmsley. Nothing remains of these works but the name of the close, the tenant occupying it having levelled the trenches”. This Civil War reference also seems fanciful. We know from documentation at that time Castlesteads was not used in any fighting, and Bury Castle was a ruin in 1540. It had not been repaired at the time of the Civil War some hundred years later.
In more recent history, the top of the fort has been used for farming, with ridge and furrow ploughing in evidence. In the Second World War two dug outs were constructed on the summit, but for what purpose is not clear.
In the early 1960s, Bury Archaeology Group dug some trial trenches on the site. With the construction of Burrs Country Park, the 1980s saw a more concerted effort by the group. In the early 1990s, North West Archaeological Surveys excavated and surveyed the site.
This work over the decades has allowed a clearer picture to be built up of the activity that was carried out in the Iron Age and into the Romano-British era. In the central area of the summit, the remains of postholes were found. The arrangement of the postholes revealed that they would have held up large stakes for the Iron Age houses. The holes were packed with slabs and pebbles, to keep the posts straight. Around the houses were drip gullies that collected water from the thatch roofs.
The trenches also revealed pottery and charcoal. The charcoal was radiocarbon dated and although the dates varied they all coalesced around the two thousand year old mark. This confirms the fort was in use before and after the Roman Invasion.
The pottery was classed as type A or type B. Seven sherds of Type A were found. These were dark reddish-brown pieces, poorly fired, and typical of that found in the Iron Age in Northern England. Eight sherds of Type B were discovered, three of which formed part of a shallow bowl. The bowl was quite crudely made, and similar to ones found at the Manchester’s Roman Fort, This has been identified as Brigantian pottery from the first century AD.
Excavation showed that the large defensive ditch, which gave protection to the eastern side, was just over a metre deep originally. It probably would have had a bank placed next to it, to further strengthen its deterrent effect. A rampart was examined on the north-east corner to defend the top of the slope. This continues to run past the defensive ditch into the field to the east for another 20 metres.
A hollow way was inspected to see if it was the prehistoric access route onto the site. This runs from the south side of the site in the river valley, northwards onto the plateau. However no dating material was found in it, so its use in Iron Age times is possible, but speculative.
Other local finds indicate a Roman presence in the area. A Roman urn was found on Woodhill Road, just under a mile away from the site (it is now in Bury museum). A coin hoard from the late third century was discovered in 1864, just two and a half miles north east of Castlesteads.
Two separate surveys of the flora of the prehistoric landscape revealed evidence for the change to the vegetation caused by human activity. While the damp alder woodland in the river valley continued to grow, the slopes and plateau were partially cleared of trees. Evidence of this came from pollen and seed samples of grasses, and especially ribwort plantain, willowherb and daisies. These are indicators of ground that has been disturbed by tree felling and converted to grassland habitats. Bracken was also found, perhaps coming in as an invasive species as areas were overgrazed or arable lands exhausted.
There are excellent views of Castlesteads from Burrs Country Park. Head past Burrs Mill, either following the River Irwell upstream or go through the large open grassland area close to the caravan park. The hill fort is the steep sloped hill, covered with trees. Visitors are not permitted on top of the site, as it is private land with no public footpaths. However, you can walk around the base of the site and marvel at the sheer sides of its slopes.
For more see the access details below.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Park in the Burrs Country Park car park. Castlesteads is at the northern end of the site. Follow the river Irwell upstream until you reach the weir. At this point you are at the base of the steep slope of the hill fort. Although there is no access to the top, if you continue to follow the path upstream past the weir, it climbs up level with the top of the hill fort and you can look back into a grassy field level with the summit. Now retrace your steps back to the weir. The path branches – take the left branch and this will lead you out to the a large grass flat open area, at the base of the hill fort. Look back towards northwards to get good views. It is best seen in winter when the leaves are off the trees.
To see the area of the plateau itself, you could take a trip on the East Lancashire Railway, as the line passes right by it. If you are northbound towards Rawtenstall, the site should come into view just after you pass Burrs Caravan Park. There is little to see on the summit now as it is just grassland, but until the Right to Roam legislation comes to the whole of Britain, that’s as close as you can get. If this site was in Scotland, you would be able to walk on it, as all grazed grassland comes under their Responsible Right to Roam legislation. There is some political interest in extended this right to England, and one of the two major political parties has published a consultation paper on making the Scottish Right to Roam legislation apply to the whole of Britain. You can read the report entitled Land for the Many here.
Nearby, just a short walk away
Castlesteads, Bury, Evaluation Report. North West Archaeological Surveys, Mark Fletcher (2005). Available as a pdf here
historicengland.org Historic England website. Promontory Fort called Castlesteads one east bank of the Irwell 550m SE of Banks Farm
pastscape.org Pastscape website: Castlesteads page
A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty miles around Manchester, John Aiken (1795). See Google Books website here
Environmental reconstruction of a later prehistoric palaeochannel record from Burrs Country Park, Bury, Greater Manchester, David Smith, M Fletcher, K. Head, W. Smith, Andrew Howard Environmental Archaeology volume 15 No.1, University of Birmingham. Available online as pdf
Land for the Many: Changing the way our fundamental asset is used, owned and governed, George Monbiot (editor) (2019), Labour