Tag Archives: National Nature Reserve

A glimpse of ancient history in East Devon – Woodbury Castle

The Pebblebed Heaths in East Devon constitute the largest block of lowland heath in the county.  Named for the underlying pebble-rich geology, this extensive area of heathland lies along a ridge between the Otter and Exe rivers.   Many rare creatures flourish here and numerous remnants of past lives are also dotted about. These include prehistoric burial mounds and earthworks but the archaeological jewel in the crown of this special East Devon place is the Iron Age hillfort of Woodbury Castle.  Its extensive ramparts are at least 2500 years old but remarkably well preserved and holding a history well worth uncovering, as I found when I visited on a sunny day towards the end of August.

Woodbury Castle is situated on Woodbury Common, one of the tracts of heathland making up the Pebblebed Heaths and I parked in the visitors car park, set in a clearing surrounded by trees and scrub.  Rose bay willowherb also grew there, its bright pink flowers partly replaced by white cotton wool seeds, a rather unsubtle reminder of the impending approach of autumn.  The earthworks of Woodbury Castle were a short walk from the car park, partly concealed in a grove of broad leaf trees.

It was only when I got closer to the Castle that the size and extent of the earthen ramparts became clear.   The main fortification consists of two impressive soil ridges, separated by a deep ditch, that snake their way around the perimeter of the site (see plan below). Further soil barriers and ditches provide additional protection in some parts.  In the past, visitors were able to scramble across the earthworks leading to considerable erosion.  Recent repairs have added wooden stairways to protect the ramparts and provide easier access. 

The ditch between the outer (right) and inner (left) ramparts at Woodbury Castle

I climbed the stairway over the lower ridge and paused at the bottom of the ditch to get a better view of the ramparts and to appreciate their size.   After scaling the second, higher ridge, I descended about 3 metres into a large, roughly oval, open area approximately the size of two football pitches.  This is the main enclosure protected by the fortifications. Dappled light filtered through the mature beech trees growing there creating a peaceful scene. 

The edge of the main enclosure (left) and the inner rampart (right) at Woodbury Castle

Helpful information boards with pictorial reconstructions were provided, giving some idea about contemporary life.  Large earthworks such as these were probably centres for tribal groups.  They would have required a huge effort to build and perhaps reflected the status of the community, being as much about display as defence.  Excavations have provided evidence that the enclosure contained several thatched roundhouses where people lived and a granary raised above the ground to protect the contents.  The site is interrupted by the road splitting it into two sections, making it difficult to envisage the full extent of the enclosure.  This apparent desecration of an ancient site is not, however, recent and a track is thought to have existed here for many hundreds of years.

A plan of how the Woodbury Castle hill fort is thought to have looked showing the two main ramparts and the track (now the road) that cuts through. (taken from the information board at the site).

I paused to stand in the enclosed area and tried to imagine life at the time.  I smelt woodsmoke from fires in the roundhouses and heard the chatter of people and the noises they created as they went about their work including fashioning wooden items and spinning wool.  A few were standing on the ramparts, perhaps watching for new arrivals or even invaders.  Woodbury Castle is set on the highest point on the Heaths, 185 metres above sea level, and there would have been little tree cover at that time.  Our lookouts would have enjoyed panoramic views across Woodbury Common – to the East over the Otter Valley, towards the sea at what are now Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton and to the west over the Exe Valley with views as far as Dartmoor and Exmoor on a clear day.

We know very little about what has happened at Woodbury Castle since prehistoric times but there are a few clues. In 1549 during the bloody Prayerbook Rebellion, armed forces may have camped in the earthworks before the inconclusive Battle of Woodbury Common.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the Castle was used as an army training camp and since then Woodbury Common has been exploited periodically for military preparation.  A large Royal Marines camp was built on the Common in the run up to the D-Day landings during WW2 and remains of the buildings can still be found among the heather.  To this day, parts of the Common are used regularly for training by Royal Marines from Lympstone Barracks.

Most of the time, though, Woodbury Common is quiet and a popular place for walking.  In the main, the landscape is undulating dry heathland with a low covering of gorse, bracken, heathers and a few trees but there are some small areas of wetland where the vegetation is richer.  The Common is criss-crossed by clear paths and walking is exhilarating with occasional views across Lyme Bay to the south.  Some paths are quite pebbly reflecting the underlying geology.  Many rare species including the Dartford warbler, the nightjar and the heath potter wasp can be seen on the Common and the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 2020, the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths were designated as a National Nature Reserve in recognition of their unique habitat and wildlife.

When I visited, the heathers were in flower lending the heath a subtle purple tinge.  Bell heather was beginning to turn but the ling (heather) was in full purplish-pink flower.  Cross leaved heath with its pink bells also showed well in places.   Whenever I stopped to look at the heather flowers, there was a background low buzz from the many honeybees foraging; local beekeepers were clearly doing well.  On one occasion, though, I had left the main path and walked a little way on to the heath to examine the heathers when a voice boomed out behind me: “There are quite a few adders about!  Just warning you!” I hadn’t seen any adders but I thanked the owner of the voice and retreated quickly back on to the path to continue my walk.  A good number of butterflies were on the wing in the sunshine including small tortoiseshell and gatekeeper but the highlight was several brimstone butterflies dancing about above the heath like fragments of bright greenish sunshine. 

Brimstone butterfly on bell heather showing how the butterfly might be mistaken for a leaf.
View across the heathland on Woodbury Common
Ling (purplish-pink) and bell heather (reddish-purple) flowering on Woodbury Common
Cross-leaved heath on Woodbury Common

This article also appeared in the October 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

West Dorset surprises

The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35.  Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west.  Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air.  To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image.  [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.

Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area.  Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland.  Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.

We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve.  The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle.  In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub.  This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.

The old railway cutting

This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line.   The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads.   People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway.  I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars.  The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport.  As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975.  Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track.   The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood.  This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.

On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage.  The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas.  We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass.  Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours.  Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder.  This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production.  We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.

The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings.   Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air.  I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path. 

Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz.  There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight.   It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens.  Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).

The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate.  Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster.  Others tried to join in, some left the melee.  This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber.  Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful.  Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees. 

The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males.  Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas.  As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast.  The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day. 

Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit.  Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history. 

At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain. 

Three short videos of the long-horned bees showing their behaviour that day can be seen on my YouTube channel  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvXWn_9QYdx0AU6guJ3iYLA

common vetch
milkwort (pink version) showing white petal
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) in flight showing his long antennae
Female Eucera longcornis showing her pollen-collecting hairs on her back legs. The female also has antennae of a more conventional length.
mating cluster
mating cluster with male looking on
common spotted orchid

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.