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Discovering Britain: The twin peaks of the Berkshire Downs

Discovering Britain: The twin peaks of the Berkshire Downs Hedley Thorne
11 Dec
For this month's Discovering Britain trail, Rory Walsh encounters a view of twin peaks on the Berkshire Downs

Most winter sports fans seeking a challenge probably wouldn’t think of an Oxfordshire village. Yet Little Wittenham, near Didcot, has not one but two seasonal slopes. Round Hill and Castle Hill are a pair of peaks that literally stand out from surrounding flat fields. Circular and almost symmetrical, their nicknames include the ‘Berkshire Bubs’ and ‘Mother Dunch’s Buttocks’ (the former after old county boundaries, the latter a previous Lady of the Manor). The hills are commonly known though as Wittenham Clumps. When snow settles, their banks make an enjoyable course for sledging: ‘There’s a side of Round Hill that offers a good long run. It’s quite steep, not for the faint-hearted.’ 

So says Dr Helen Rawling, a cultural geographer and curator who devised this trail. Rawling grew up in nearby Abingdon. ‘I couldn’t quite see them from home but the Clumps were near enough for frequent trips. Somewhere us kids and the dog could run around and explore.’ These days she visits with her children. Besides providing family-friendly fresh air, Rawling suggests that these much-loved local landmarks also satisfy a psychological pleasure. ‘There’s that sense of challenge and reward – seeing a hill in the distance, getting to the top and enjoying the views.’ 

The trail begins with a gentle ascent towards Round Hill. In spring and summer, the surrounding meadow is dappled with wildflowers such as buttercups and cowslips. On a late autumn morning, grasses swoosh underfoot and birds swoop overhead. The muddy vein of a chalk path leads the way. Looking at it closely, white speckled with black, reveals the lifeblood of the hills. Wittenham Clumps are made of chalk and greensand clay. Their unique shape was created around 40 to 60 million years ago when two tectonic plates collided to form the Berkshire Downs. 

buttercupButtercups wait atop the twin peaks of the Berkshire Downs

Erosion over the millennia broke up this chain of hills, leaving the Clumps as distinctive outliers. 

Only select flora and fauna thrive on permeable chalk soils. The most obvious examples stand proud on the horizon. At the summit of both Clumps are clusters of beech trees. Dating from the 1740s, they are the oldest beeches planted in England. The group on Round Hill is sometimes names the Cuckoo Pen. Legends claim that trapping a cuckoo among the branches will ensure an endless summer. Smooth and grey, the trees resemble giant knights in armour. 

From the top of Round Hill, a quilt of fields and villages unfurls below. The Thames Valley’s seasonal patchwork includes greens, golds, yellows and browns. The red roof of Dorchester Abbey and the blue-grey River Thames remain visible all year round. This is no longer true of a more controversial landmark, Didcot Power Station. Its six huge cooling towers and 200-metre chimney once dominated the views from Wittenham Clumps. Demolition began in 2014 with the chimney finally felled in February 2020. ‘The power station was impossible to miss,’ says Rawling, ‘but I do kind of miss it. A frame of reference from my childhood has gone.’

A thread of lost landscapes runs throughout the trail. After descending between the Clumps into Little Wittenham Wood, the stitches become more apparent with the ascent onto the other Clump, Castle Hill. Reaching the top means crossing a large trough-like ditch. In places the earth is piled with distinctive mounds and hummocks. These are the remaining ramparts of an Iron Age hillfort dated to around 600 BC. Wittenham Clumps are also called the Sinodun Hills, from the Gaelic Seno- Dunum (‘Old Fort’). In an otherwise flat part of Oxfordshire, they offered the local Catuvellauni and Atrebati tribes an obvious defensive stronghold.

Before my visit, Rawling suggested that the Clumps make an ideal Boxing Day walk. Castle Hill looks especially evocative in winter. ‘A morning with a bit of frost is magical,’ Rawling says. ‘You get a real sense of all the different people who lived here.’ Though Round Hill is taller, 390 feet high compared to 350 feet, Castle Hill has the longer human history. Archaeologists have found traces of a Bronze Age settlement, occupied around 1,000 BC, and a later Roman villa. Artefacts discovered on the hillsides include pottery, weapons, and even animal bones from Iron Age rubbish pits.

The views from Castle Hill offer tantalising glimpses of this ancient past. Another tree-topped mound can clearly be seen to the right. This is Brightwell Barrow, a Bronze Age burial chamber sometimes described as the ‘third Clump’. It’s also possible to spot the Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road. Spanning 87 miles, from Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, the Ridgeway is now designated as a National Trail. Before then, countless travellers, farmers and soldiers – including Saxons, Vikings and Romans – had trod the track’s course for around 5,000 years.

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Unsurprisingly, the Clumps’ historic and visual allure has inspired many artists and writers. Landscape painter Paul Nash first saw them as a teenager while visiting his uncle. He returned to portray the Clumps many times. Aged 13, Nash described them in a letter: ‘Grey hollowed hills crowned by old, old trees, Pan-ish places down by the river, wonderful to think on, full of strange enchantment.’ For Nash, this corner of Oxfordshire was ‘a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten’. Looking around Castle Hill, it’s tempting to imagine the marks in the earth as the signatures of previous generations written on the land.

Among them was a local Victorian maltster, Joseph Tubb. Pressured into the job by his family, Tubb longed instead to be a wood carver. In summer 1844 or 1845, he took a ladder and tent up Castle Hill. Tubb spent two weeks cutting a poem into a tree. The poem, carved from memory, refers to several historic sites visible from Wittenham Clumps to ‘Point out each object and instructive tell / The various changes that the land befell’. The ‘Poem Tree’ became itself a much-loved landmark. In 1994, a sarsen stone was placed beside it to mark the 150th anniversary of Tubb’s visit. By then the carving was almost unreadable, so the stone included a plaque transcribing the words.

Today the stone still stands but the tree lies in the ground, crumbling into mulch. The beech was over 300 hundred years when Tubb inscribed it. The same erosive weather that shaped the Clumps rotted the tree’s insides, until in 2012 it collapsed. The Earth Trust, the environmental charity that looks after the Clumps, has deliberately left the tree to return to nature. This copse corpse now provides insects and other wildlife with food and shelter. The tree will eventually disappear into the hill itself, becoming part of the landscape it once described. Meanwhile Tubb’s poem, the abstract now set in stone, survives to haunt the hills like one of Nash’s ‘old gods’.

Rawling is right that Wittenham Clumps are an ideal place to visit in winter. Winter is a season to look back at events just gone and ahead at events to come. Similarly, the Clumps offer insights into our past and a place to think about our future.

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