2020 - 2021 Ancient Volume 17

Carl Wark: Legends in the Mist

By Robert Curtis

It’s a cold day in February. The sun that shone for much of the morning has faded, and up in the hills a thick fog descends. A harsh wind lashes your cheeks, and you can barely see a dozen paces ahead on the gravelly path that takes you onward over the Hathersage Moors. You are chasing the past out here, in a place that feels utterly remote and yet is a scant few miles out of the city. No, not chasing; the past surrounds you, but the mist keeps its secrets jealously. It’s taunting you, testing your resolve as you climb over the ridge, a small boat adrift in the endless seas of heather that roll with the tide of the wind.

Out of the gloom, boulders ten feet high clamber out of the landscape like the giants of myth, gatekeepers of the Burbage Valley stood in one rank miles long, but that valley hides modestly behind its veil still. Then in the work of a moment, the sun lances out in greeting and the mist withdraws, its resolve softened by your own, and the air turns to silver glass. In the distance, Carl Wark spreads its arms wide and beckons you on, down into the valley and up to its high peak. It has been a place of refuge for millennia, and it will be yours now. There is something ethereal about this place, and about the flat rampart that crowns the hill alongside its bulkier sibling, Higgar Tor. When you stand before it, the most fanciful tales of Celtic resistance and Arthurian legend feel like they might very well come striding out of the heather, more real to you than the city to your back that seems a thousand miles, or a thousand years, away.

Looking west from Burbage Rocks, Carl Wark is barely visible above and to the left of the treeline in the centre of the picture.

Carl Wark is, we think, an Iron Age hill fort. It is a natural promontory bolstered by stone and turf ramparts, and if you approached from the south you would find a clear entrance cut into the rock. It is thought that the first activity at the site dates to the early part of the first millennium BCE, but what you see today was likely built in the fifth or sixth centuries CE. Antiquarian Thomas Bateman believed that the fort was a bulwark built by the Celts to defend their lands from Emperor Constantine, and standing atop it you can very well imagine why. The site commands a spectacular view of the moors, and on a clear day you might be able to see as far as Mam Tor at the opposite end of Hope Valley. Anyone attempting to assault the fort would have to do so through its main entrance, which is only two metres wide and would leave any attacker gasping for breath once they had made it up the hill, all the while under missile fire. More than that, though, there is something deeply spiritual about this place, or rather something eminently romantic about the landscape, that makes it hard not to think of Celtic warriors daubed in blue seeing off the invasion of the Roman legions. Aside from the ongoing historical debate on the very existence of the Celts, and their blue paint, the unfortunate reality is that the Romans had probably already gone home by the time the present ramparts were constructed. Another antiquarian, Norman Prince, placed Carl Wark instead within Arthurian legend and suggested that one of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Lamorak, had defended the fort against the onslaught of innumerable foes in the kind of chivalric display that knights can’t help themselves from making. Both Bateman and Prince’s theories are thin on evidence and thick on romance, and the truth is likely more prosaic. What evidence we have suggests that Iron Age activity at Carl Wark was limited to the storage of goods, or refuge from the weather or other people. It remains in use for the latter to this day. 

A much clearer picture across the Burbage Valley, with the flat rampart of Carl Wark on the left and the lumpy Higgar Tor on the right.

When you stand atop those stones where the Britons of the Iron Age once stood, the prosaic truth doesn’t matter. You don’t need tales of the Celts or a knight of the Round Table to fill the fort with magic; magic seems to seep out of the rocks at your feet, and that unyielding wind bears some of it as well. In fact, the wind is so strong that it seems to be spiriting you away, as if you have stumbled across something modern humans are not supposed to see. Up here, the past surrounds you but it is truly forgotten. We do not know what this fort was used for, or who used it, or for how long. All we can say with certainty is that one of our Iron Age ancestors would have crouched here to hide from the same wind that continues to bludgeon the hillside, swathed in furs and huddled against the wall. Standing here now, you cannot fail to wonder what they were feeling, what they thought, and what brought them here. You feel a profound connection to the past, a connection so palpable that if you reach out your arm, your fingers might brush against it. But it can only ever be the lightest of touches, so much time has passed since anyone could have told you anything concrete about this place, and that fact only adds to the magic of it. Carl Wark offers a tantalising glimpse of a different world, forever lost. There are no answers nestled in these stones, but there is peace.

The rocky shelf of Carl Wark, seen from Higgar Tor.

Images:
Credit – Robert Curtis