Major boost to Heritage walk, replica Iron Age roundhouse is finished

the finished roundhouse
Finished at last
hill fort information sign
New information sign

The West Parley heritage walk has received a major boost with the completion of a replica Iron Age roundhouse at the villages’ ancient hill fort, known as Dudsbury Camp. Its construction is part of a heritage project by the Girl Guides, who own part of the hill fort.

After planning permission was obtained from East Dorset District Council, surely one of their most unusual applications, the roundhouse was built over a period of 3 months by Girl Guides, family volunteers, Guide staff and large groups of West Parley volunteers under instruction from experts from the Butser Iron Age Village project in Petersfield.

After installing sturdy vertical posts, thin longer lengths of wood were woven between the uprights to make a firm circular wattle wall around a fixed strong frame for the entrance. Grass was then used to infill gaps.

Over twenty 4.2 metre long branches were used to make the circular roof structure that was tightly bound at the centre and bound to the wall timbers. 12 circles of thin saplings were then tied between the roof timbers locking them tightly together. When finished, the roof structure, through just resting on the timber walls, was strong enough for someone to lie across it to tie on the 3 tonnes of straw used as roofing.

All the walling has been covered inside and outside with a ‘daub’ mixture of cow manure, soil and dog hair that was spread by hand in a smelly, back breaking yet satisfying operation. Three layers were required to build up the thickness and strength; the first one applied thickly to bind into the wattle walling with the next two being thinner to achieve a smooth finish. The overhang of the roof keeps the external wall protected from the rain for some time but if damaged, repairs are simple.

There is no chimney and smoke from the central fire within the roundhouse rises to the top of the house and gradually permeates past a straw ‘cap’. This smoky interior was used to store food and deterred insects and birds.

Though tough twine was used to bind the timbers together and to fix the straw for the roof to the roof timbers in this replica, the techniques of most of its construction were exactly as they would have been in the Iron Age. At that time bracken and brambles would have been used as binding materials. Even using sharp saws and knives, the work to cut and trim the many timbers and saplings was not easy so using the bone and basic iron tools available over 2000 years ago must have required a considerable community effort to gather and prepare all the materials used.

The only real concessions to modernity were the 2 strong wooden doors that were needed to keep the roundhouse secure as it is in an area open to the public and the use of dog hair in the daub rather than the normal horse hair as it was available from a local dog grooming parlour.

The aim of the project was to use as much local material as possible. The wood for the project was cut from the property adjoining the hill fort with the permission of the owner. Fortunately there were plenty of hazel, silver birch, sycamore and holly saplings growing within a dense wood on the site that had grown tall yet were thin due to the lack of light in the wood.

The roundhouse will be used by the Guides groups visiting the Camp for crafting and educational sessions, providing a totally unique experience for them.

Also part of the overall project was the clearance of a number of mature trees from the cliff edge of the hill fort overlooking the River Stour to the south to restore the extensive views across the north of Bournemouth and a new large sign shows an impression of what the hill fort as it would have looked like in the Iron Age.

The project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and was entered into the Peoples Project category of this years Dorset Best Kept Village competition in view of the collaboration between the Guides and West Parley Residents Association ,Bournemouth University and Bournemouth Natural Science Society and Museum. The entry gained second place.

Local volunteers helped the Guides clear part of the site to allow University students to survey the site. The only finds turned up were old metal tent pegs, modern coins and ring pulls but the site of an original roundhouse was located and the replica has been put in the same position.