Visiting an Iron Age hill fort like Cissbury Ring is an excellent way to explore Iron Age Britain and what life would have been like for the ancient Celtic speaking peoples in the centuries before the arrival of Roman armies in 43 A.D. Walking its extensive ramparts, you are transported back to a time chieftains and a warrior class who spent much of their time feasting, drinking and stealing their neighbours cattle. The scale of the defensive works and the sheer amount of labour that went into their construction highlights just how important defence was in the later Iron Age. Yet, the importance of sites like Cissbury Ring go beyond the Iron Age, and often have a use and significance that spans much of British history – making them that much more interesting to visit.
Cissbury Ring sits just north of the town of Worthing in West Sussex, overlooking the English channel and South Downs National Park. It is best known as an Iron Age hill fort, but its history goes back much further. It is likely that people were using the hill as early as the Mesolithic, but it is in the Neolithic period when farming was taking hold in Britain and the population was expanding that we see the first good evidence of activity at Cissbury. It was during the Neolithic that extensive flint mining took place at Cissbury, and as you walk around the hill today you can still see evidence of this in the large number of depressions dotting the landscape. The Neolithic inhabitants of the region recognised the importance of good flint for making their tools and weapons, and dug an extensive system of tunnels and shafts over the hill.
In the Bronze Age burials mounds were constructed on the hill, but it was in the Iron Age, sometime around 400 BC, that the Hill Fort was constructed. The earthworks that surround the hill are impressive, and would have required thousands of hours of labour to construct.
They are still very visible in the landscape, and it is possible to walk around the fort on top of what remains of the inner-most wall. You can still make out where the eastern and southern entrances to the fort were situated.
At 26 hectares Cissbury is one of the largest Iron Age hill forts in all of Britain. It was used in the later Roman period, archaeological excavation showing that there were 11 buildings and two rectangular enclosures on the site. There is some evidence that it might have been used during Saxon times, and in the Tudor period it was used as part of a network of beacons that ran up and own the length of the South Coast. During WWII anti-aircraft guns were placed on top of the hill, and later still the hill was used to train troops in preparation for D-Day.
So, like many such sites in Britain, you can head out to explore the Iron Age and end up connecting with thousands of years of history. It’s a great place to hike or picnic, and it offers one of the best views in all of Sussex.
On a clear day you can see as much as 30 miles or more in all directions, far as the Seven Sisters (Chalk cliffs) in East Sussex and well out into the Channel – overlooking row upon row of wind turbines that have recently been built. This great view that draws people to the site today is likely what drew the ancient Celtic peoples to the site in the Iron Age. Being able to see for miles in all directions meant you were less likely to be surprised by an adversary, but also meant you could see ships arriving with goods to trade, something that was happening with greater regularity in the years leading up to Roman interest in Britain in the 1st century B.C.