Of all the magical, mystical locations in the entire North-East of England, many would argue that the twin-peaked hill of Yeavering Bell on the edge of the Cheviots is the most evocative of them all. It is the much heralded site of the region’s largest Iron Age hillfort – with a grand history stretching back further still.
It is not a huge hill at a modest 361m (1,182ft), but such is its situate on the very northern edge of the Cheviot range overlooking the rivers Glen and Till and the Milfield Basin that it has always loomed large over the lives of those who have lived there. From at least the late Neolithic period (around 4-5,000 years ago) man has looked up in awe and wonder at the Bell, using it to align stones and monuments – and to build a temple there, too. Among a patchwork of ancient remains a Neolithic burial cairn adorns the eastern summit.
During the Bronze Age (2000BC – 800BC), again, man made use of the hill – there is certainly plenty of evidence of burials in the immediate vicinity. But it is in the Iron Age (800BC – 50AD) that the site came into its own, and it is from this era that the encircling wall on Yeavering summit dates. It would have been a tribal stronghold of the mighty Votadini, with walls 10ft thick and 8ft high in places enclosing a spacious 12 acres.
The remains of around 130 stone and timber roundhouses, as well as the wall itself, can still be made out – the latter being still remarkably substantial. This equates to a sizeable settlement for its day, though no one has quite been able to work out why it was situated where it was (on top of an exposed hilltop). Perhaps it was a safe, defendable position, a high status location, a combination of both, or perhaps something else entirely. There are four entrances to the ‘fort’, one of which incorporates a guard-house; additionally, there is an inner, much smaller fort.
There is still much to learn about Northumberland’s premier archaeological site. No one seems to know exactly when, or why, it was abandoned (though finds there extend into the Romano-British period). However, the hill’s magnetic appeal never did fade completely, as a little after the Romans left a royal palace would spring up in the shadow of Yeavering Bell about a mile to the north.
Copyright issues prevent me from reproducing images from elsewhere, but some great pictures can be found here. The fort is open to the public – see the leaflet available here.