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An A-Level Student’s Thoughts on Holwell Castle - Mary Houldsworth (Newsletter No 9 2005)

The presence of a well preserved Norman motte and bailey castle in Parracombe is an archaeological and historical mystery. What is it doing there? As part of her A-Level in Archaeology, Mary Houldsworth has been prompted to give it some thought.

When I signed on for the A-Level Archaeology course at North Devon College last September, I had no idea how absorbing the work would become. Module 6 requires a 4,500-5,000 word project which needs to include a desktop study and research.

I wanted to find a subject close to home, so Trevor Dunkerley suggested Holwell Castle, the motte-and-bailey castle at Parracombe (SS9385 4460) where there are questions about its function and reasons for its situation on a hillslope. The question to be addressed was: ‘To what extent does an assessment of the land use in the surrounding environs complement a study of the motte-and-bailey at Holwell?’

So why did the Normans decide to construct Holwell, one of the 500 castles built between 1066-1086, on a hill-slope overlooked by the then village which was organised around St. Petrock’s Church? Maybe the invaders wanted to stamp their presence and ownership on the hamlet, and so made a symbolic statement in the form of a castle. In some cases, castles became social, legal or trading centres, or in the case of Parracombe on the western edge of Exmoor, maybe it was a Hunting Lodge protecting the Royal Forest.

It is known that Bury Castle near Dulverton was built on a former Iron Age Hill Fort, as were numerous castles in Wales. Thinking along the lines, therefore, that the Normans might have built on the site of an earlier earthwork, the project considered the known archaeological sites in the surrounding landscape from the Iron Age 10 back to Mesolithic times. With the Roman fortlet at Martinhoe, Voley and Beacon Iron Age Castles nearby, Holworthy Farm Bronze Age settlement and the Bronze Age Chapman Barrows, the likelihood was raised that the fertile, sheltered valley of Parracombe became a favoured settlement site following the climate deterioration of the first millennium BC. A late Neolithic discoidal flint knife found among large numbers of flints on Kentisbury Down, and, further afield, Mesolithic finds at Westward Ho! to the west and Hawkcombe Head to the east, indicates plentiful early human activity in the surrounding environs over a long period of time. It seems credible that Parracombe was a pivotal meeting place for seasonal hunter/gatherers. The 20 kilometer distances between Parracombe and these two Mesolithic sites, would have been an average day’s walk, such as is still undertaken by the present-day cattle herders of South Sudan.

As to function, it is thought that Holwell castle may have been constructed to obtain taxes at the River Heddon bridging place, yet the present bridge only measures a few metres, and there are numerous easy alternative crossing places. Another theory considers silver mining may have been operating in the vicinity, requiring Norman protection or supervision. Silver mining history in Combe Martin is now dated back to at least 1128, so could well have been functioning a century earlier.

Holwell is a very well preserved castle, comprising a circular motte, surrounded by a deep ditch, and kidney-shaped bailey, with 2 wingwalls surviving as a broad bank running up the side of the motte. So the earthwork evidence is quite clear. Might we learn more through geophysical survey? English Heritage was applied to and permission was given for Jim Knights to undertake a Resistivity Survey. So far this has identified a square keep, and postholes for an as yet unknown structure. The survey of the bailey is still underway.

So who built this castle? 800 workmen were employed to construct Dover Castle, yet the Domesday Book records only 16 families living in Parracombe, among which there were possibly 60 available builders. The debate comes full circle. Did the site chosen already have the foundations or remains of an earlier fortification? Does its presence reflect the earlier history of this location?
(You are invited to visit Holwell Castle on 18th June for a Parracombe event. See the information elsewhere in this newsletter. Ed.)

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