DURING the past 60 years Winchester has been at the forefront of urban and church archaeology. It now boasts a vivid picture of its Roman and medieval past but country doctor cum field archaeologist J P Williams-Freeman, writing in 1915, just couldn’t wait to get to ‘St Catharine’s Hill (sic), the glory of Winchester…one of the largest and most perfect of the simple early forts’, and to his mind the city’s prehistoric ancestor.

Williams-Freeman approached the hill along the Morestead road, to look at the ‘remarkable examples of sunk roads or cuttings’, probably medieval in date, that headed to and from the city. The ‘dongas’, as they are called (borrowing a word from the Matabele tongue) provided the name for the protestors when that other ‘remarkable cutting’, through Twyford Down, was carved out in 1992. This remodelling of the landscape, as the M3 replaced the A33, at least gave the hill back to the city. Today there are car parks on Garnier Road enabling access to a former railway underpass (on the Didcot, Newbury & Southampton line) which is effectively a gateway to St Catherine’s Hill and the South Downs National Park.

What Williams-Freeman saw on the ground was an oval univallate camp of 7.6 ha (18.8 acres) encircling ‘like a crown’ the top of a rounded hill. The only entrance, with ‘pear-shaped’ guardhouses, was on the northeast side. He also described the beech clump at the centre, a mound resembling a round barrow, a turf-cut ‘maze’ and the site of St Catherine’s Chapel, although ‘there is nothing now visible to indicate any particular spot’.

The special relationship between the site and Winchester College (they call it ‘Hills’) resulted in a programme of excavations in the 1920s, supported by the Hampshire Field Club and steered by an excavation committee that included OGS Crawford and Williams-Freeman. The dig directors, C F C Hawkes, J N L Myers and C G Stevens were all Old Wykehamists. The first two seasons (1925-26) re-discovered the site of the chapel (under the mound) while subsequent work (1927-28) looked at the fort. The findings from all four years, as well as considerable documentary research, were published in 1930 as Volume XI of the Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club.

Excavation of the fort included careful examination of the gateway and two sections through the rampart. Evidence of clay walling, a timber palisade and partial blocking were present at the entrance, with final developments taking place during the Middle Iron Age, around 400-300 BC. The site appears to have been abandoned soon after this.

In the 1920s large scale digging was unknown and excavation was limited to small areas investigating surface depressions. In total 13 Iron Age pits were excavated. In those days some were interpreted as ‘dwellings’, and the limited excavations found no evidence for alternative forms of habitation. Finds included pottery of Early to Middle Iron Age date, a saddle quern for grinding corn, worked bone, bronze and iron objects, whetstones, spindle whorls, and the bones of cattle, sheep or goat, pig, horse, red deer and dog. The report considers the possible link between the abandonment of the fort and the origins of Winchester but is forced to conclude that there is ‘no evidence to assume any direct migration’ between the two.

The next identifiable period of activity concerns St Catherine’s Chapel - poorly represented in the literature but surviving surprisingly well in the ground. The first certain reference is in 1284, with others in the 14th century mentioning the Saint’s feast day (November 25). Leland, writing between 1536 and 1542, described it as ‘a very fair chapel’ which Cardinal Wolsey caused to be suppressed and by 1538 Sir Thomas Wriothesley was the first lay tenant of the site. Wriothesley did very well from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when he pulled down buildings ‘with amazing expedition and sold the rich materials.’ He was persuaded to be a little less ruthless by Bishop Gardiner in 1540, and this change of heart may be reflected in the archaeology, as the demolition of the chapel appears to have been halted in its tracks.

The excavations revealed a large cruciform building of characteristic Norman plan, dating from around 1110. On the east side were the remains of a lodge, possibly for a hermit or priest. At the heart of the building several courses of masonry remained intact despite Wriothesley’s handiwork and at the west end there were stacks of roof slates, apparently awaiting collection. The excavators also found the ‘cemetery ditch’ described in the 16th century, but no graves.

The College links with the hill have early origins but appear to be solely secular, for recreational, rather than religious purposes. By 1565 the use of ‘Hills’ was well established and a description from the 17th century tells of scholars being marched out there twice a week to play games within the encircling ‘Trench’ or rampart. Quoits, handball, bat-ball and ‘football’ are among the games mentioned. Lying on the ground was forbidden, for fear of ‘fevers’, but the excavators suggest that the ‘more daring spirits of the College men’ may have been responsible for some of the clay tobacco pipes found during the chapel excavations.

The earliest known plan of the ‘Mizmaze’ (actually a labyrinth) belongs to the College and dates from 1710 but provides no clue to its origin. The Domum legend, concerning a boy kept behind during the Whitsuntide holidays who cut the labyrinth and the ‘Domum Cross’ is only linked with the monument much later and Hawkes, on weighing up the evidence, concludes that it was cut by somebody quite unconnected with the School. Its re-cutting, by College Warden Barter in 1832, is better documented, and in the process the square grew by about 16’ (5m). In the late 19th century ‘tolling Labyrinth’ became part of the custom for new boys ‘doing Hills’, with tradition having Wykhamists starting from the centre and townspeople from the outside.

Finally, there is the clump of trees. In 1762, detachments of the English County Militia were camped around the city. Colonel Norbone Berkley, later Lord Botetourt, was in charge of the Gloucestershire Militia and is credited with having had his men plant the trees, a mixture of firs and beeches, ‘in one day’, presumably for a wager. The College renewed some of the trees in 1897. Hawkes looked forward to the day when their removal might allow the plan of St Catharine’s Chapel to be uncovered, laid out and appreciated as a historical feature, but this now seems a forlorn hope.

Crawford, Hawkes and Williams-Freeman will be among those featured in the Hampshire Historians initiative.

For more on this and other aspects of Hampshire history visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk and www.hantsfieldclub.org.uk.