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Old Winchester Hill* is situated on the chalk ridge that dominates the Meon Valley in Hampshire, England. The hill is part of an extension at the western end of the South Downs. The location is not actually close to Winchester, it is to be found 17 miles south-east of the city, near the village of Meonstoke. The hill is around 648ft (197.5m) high and has been described as 'remote'. The top of the Downs is today mainly used for grazing sheep, with cattle and arable crops on the lower slopes. This section of the Downs has been described as the site of one of Hampshire's great hill forts, the fort of Old Winchester Hill, an exceptional Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The Hill Fort
The first sign of human activity on the site was the construction of a Bronze Age cemetery. These older burials were evidently still prominent prior to the construction of the fort, as the fort's builders appear to have avoided disturbing them. They may have even been the ancestors of the Iron Age builders.
The fort was constructed in the Iron Age around 600-300 BC, as a single bank with a ditch in front1. It was built at this most westerly point to control the movement of invaders moving south down the valley. The fort had entrances at both the eastern and western ends. Although we do not know for sure, it is probable that the builders of the fort would have been the local tribe. At this time the principal tribe of the region were the Atrebates, however the local people were recorded by the Romans as the Meonwara, and the Meon Valley still bears their name.
Within the boundary of the fort there have been found the sites of several round houses and storage pits. There was also a dew pond to provide a basic supply of fresh water. The fort appears to have been abandoned at around the middle of the Iron Age 150-100 BC. Therefore it was never besieged during the Roman invasion, it just appears that occupants simply moved down into the valley and became affluent farmers, as there is abundant evidence of field systems in this area spanning many periods.
We are very fortunate to have as much as we do, as during WWII the whole area was used as a firing range by the British army for training in the firing of mortars. The army has avoided any serious damage to the site. There is still the occasional unexploded mortar shell found on the downland, however there is no danger in the public areas as the army has made an excellent job of clearing the area. Just don't go digging any holes; it's a poor idea to go metal detecting here (and it's not allowed).
A National Nature Reserve
There is however even more reason to visit Winchester Hill, as it is a National Nature Reserve, classed as chalk downland and woodland reserve. And you can see a variety of birds such as the corn bunting, European green woodpecker, linnet and yellowhammer. Also it is possible to see birds of prey like the buzzard and the red kite, and the kestrel is almost common.
Site Of Special Scientific Interest
Old Winchester Down is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest or SSSI within the boundary of the South Downs National Park. The downland on Old Winchester Hill is also home to a variety of butterflies, which include the Chalk Hill Blue, Adonis Blue, Common Blue, Dark Green Fritillary, Speckled Wood, Small Skipper, Silver-spotted Skipper, Small Heath, Essex Skipper, Meadow Brown and the Marbled White. Also included in the butterfly population is the Lycaenidae family (eg the blues), which relies upon the many ant colonies on the hill. The ants are vitally important in the life cycle of these butterflies. The adult female butterfly lays her eggs in the ants' nests. The ants are tricked into caring for the butterfly's eggs in a symbiotic relationship known as myrmecophily. The ants treat the butterfly eggs as their own and undertake the hatching. When the lava (caterpillar) hatches it is fed by the ants, who in turn receive a nectar-like substance secreted by the caterpillar. The caterpillar remains safe until it pupates, and when the adult butterfly emerges it leaves its underground home to begin the cycle anew.
Old Winchester Hill is a fantastic area for walking as the long-distance footpaths The South Downs Way2 and the Monarch's Way cross the top of the hill. There are car parking areas near the hill, however they are isolated and there is the possibility of theft in quieter times so do take care.
How to get to Old Winchester Hill
It is often difficult to find sites or points of interest mentioned, so map reference points are provided here relating to the text.
- Old Winchester Hill fort, western gate -- -- (50.981077,-1.0906163)
- Main car park -- -- (50.988672,-1.0813392)
- Dew pond -- -- (50.980446,-1.0858024)
- Bronze Age Tumulii -- -- (50.981466,-1.0909737)
Just copy and paste the numbers into a computer search or map search bar and it will take you straight to the site indicated. It also works on some sat nav systems.