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Cadbury Castle as Camelot?

A hill fort gives wide views of Somerset and a glimpse of pre-history.

Distance 6.8 miles (10.9km)

Minimum time 3hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 1,000ft (300m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Well-used paths, 6 stiles

Landscape Steep-sided, green hills

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 129 Yeovil & Sherborne

Start/finish ST 632253

Dog friendliness Mixed farming: some fields under crops, reasonable freedom

Parking Cadbury Castle car park (free), south of South Cadbury

Public toilets None on route

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1 Turn right out of the car park to the first house in South Cadbury. A stony track leads up on to Cadbury Castle. The ramparts and top of the fort are access land, so you can stroll around at will.

2 Return past the car park. After ¼ mile (400m) you pass a side road on the left, to reach a stile marked 'Sigwells'. Go straight down to a stile and footbridge. Follow the left edge of a field and then an uncultivated strip. A track starts ahead, but take a stile on the right to follow the field edge next to it, to a gate with two waymarkers. A faint track leads along the top of the following field. At its end turn down into a hedged earth track. This leads out past Whitcombe Farm to rejoin the road.

3 Turn left to a junction below Corton Denham Beacon. Turn left to slant uphill for ¼ mile (400m). A short green track on the right leads on to the open hilltop and the summit trig point.

4 Head along the steep hill rim to a stile with a dog slot. Continue along the top of the slope, with Corton Denham below. You pass a modern 'tumulus', a small, covered reservoir. Above five large beeches slant gently down to a waymarked gate. A green path slants down again, until a gate lets you on to a tarred lane; follow this until you reach the road below.

5 Turn left on the road, which is narrow between high banks, for 110yds (100m) to a stile marked 'Middle Ridge Lane'. Keep to the left of the trees to a field gate, with a stile beyond leading into a lane. Go straight across into a stony track that climbs gently to the ridgeline.

6 Turn right, and walk along Corton Ridge with a hedge on the right and a wide view on the left. After 650yds (594m) Ridge Lane starts on the right, but go through a small gate on the left to continue along the ridge. After a small gate a green path bends around the flank of Parrock Hill. With Cadbury Castle now on the left, ignore a first green track down to the left. Soon afterwards the main track itself turns down left into a hedge end and waymarked gate. A hedged path leads down to a road.

7 Cross into a road signed 'South Cadbury'. After 700yds (640m) turn right, again for South Cadbury, and follow the road round the base of Cadbury Castle to the car park.

Cadbury Castle was a military stronghold for over 4,000 years. The ditches and earth walls first rose in the Stone Age, and were extended in the Bronze Age. In the Iron Age it became the capital of the Durotinges tribe, who gave their name to Dorset. Here they built a town of wood, willow-wattle and thatch and held out against the Romans. The Romans won in the end: they burnt down the hilltop town in around ad 70.

The Saxon, Ethelred the Unready, repaired the fort against the Vikings. Again it became a wartime capital, replacing Ilchester between 1009 and 1019. Coins were minted here, and labelled 'CADANBYRIC'.

The local belief that Cadbury is indeed King Arthur's Camelot was first recorded in 1542 - more than 1,000 years after King Arthur. However, it was supported by excavations in the 1960s, which showed that, at the very time of the legendary King Arthur, the walls were rebuilt in timber and stone. Some of this stonework is visible on the left as you return to the track down off the hill. A large and kingly timber hall rose on the hilltop. Finds of pottery imported from the eastern Mediterranean indicate a place of wealth and good taste.

In this wooden hall the various strands of legend converge. We can imagine rich tapestries hanging from the panelled walls, and below them the court intrigues and amours, described by the 15th-century Sir Thomas Malory. It's even easier to see Queen Guenevere and her ladies riding out along Corton Ridge to gather may-blossom. But at the end of a short mid-winter's day, in the darkness under the trees, the pre-Christian, holly-bearing Green Knight of the anonymous Gawain Poet comes striding up the long earthen ramp. And if he did exist, it was very possibly from here that Arthur and his knights went forth to the battle of Mons Badonis, which may have been at Bath, to conquer the Saxon; and later to defeat at the bloody battle of Camlann.

Like most of the limestone hillocks of Somerset that made such fine forts, Cadbury has a wide view over the Levels. The viewpoint cairn was raised at the Millennium; in accordance with the Arthurian environment, the places indicated are mostly mystic and invisible. The eye of faith and legend sees behind the horizon to Stonehenge, Avebury and Tintagel. But in winter, the actual eye can trace the possible route of Arthur's final journey, through the flooded fields of the Somerset Levels. Legend would have it that three queens in a black barge carried him through the high water to Glastonbury, on Avalon Isle, knowing his wound was a deadly one. And there he supposedly rests, hidden in the hill, waiting for Britain's hour of need.

Where to eat and drink

The Queen's Arms at Corton Denham is on the walk route and has a walkers' bar. My own favourite, however, is the Mitre at Sampford Orcas, which has good food and guest ales, and welcomes dogs and well-behaved children. The Sun at South Cadbury is also near by.

What to look for

From the Somerset hills with their wide views, signal fires carried news of the Spanish Armada. In Blackmore's Lorna Doone the fire on Dunkery Beacon warned of the Doones out raiding (at least until the night when the Doones threw the signalman into his own fire). Above Ilminster the fire-basket still stands on the hill. Corton Hill has a view across the Levels to Brent Knoll and even to Wales. However, the red glare from Corton Beacon now is a warning for aircraft at Yeovilton. The summit also has a trig point and a stone shelter bench.

While you're there

The modern equivalent of King Arthur's knights are the jets and helicopters at Yeovilton. This naval air station is one the busiest airfields in Britain. Within the Royal Navy, such stations are referred to as if they were ships: Yeovilton is HMS Heron. After watching from Corton Ridge, you may be interested to visit Yeovilton's noisy Fleet Air Arm Museum.

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