Castercliff, Nelson, Lancashire

Enclosure:  OS Grid Reference – SD 8850 3840

Also Known as:

  1. Caster Cliff

Getting Here

Castercliff hillfort plan (after D.G. Coombs)

From Colne train station, cross the road and go along Bridge Street and where it meets Knotts Street follow it all the way up into the countryside and, bending to the right, uphill again until it levels out.  The farmhouse a few hundred yards ahead of you (just off Southfield Lane) at the bend in the road is where you’re heading.  There’s a track on your right, just before the farm.  Go on this and look into the field immediately right.  The undulations and earthworks are the remains of this old hillfort!

Archaeology & History

This old site was constructed some 850 feet above sea level, overlooking the valley of Colne immediately west and giving commanding views of the outstretched landscape towards the sacred Pendle Hill and beyond for many miles.  The place was described as early as Castell Clif in 1515, and then again as Castyclyff in 1533, meaning simply the “castle on a cliff” or high verge as it is here.  Yet despite its early appearances in literary studies, the first real work to explore this monument doesn’t appear to have been done until one J.A. Plummer carried out work on the site between 1958-60.  However, Plummer died before being able to publish his findings in full.   Ascribed variously as a settlement, an enclosure, and generally in the archaeological fraternity as a hillfort, the first detailed published description of the site was done by Forde-Johnston (1965), where he told:

Forde-Johnston’s early plan

“The hillfort is a very regular oval in shape and encloses an area about 350ft long and 250ft wide.  The overall dimensions are 550ft by 450ft.  The site has been affected by quarrying on the south and east and there are a number of gaps in the defences on the northern and western sides.  The character of the remains differs in various parts of the site, but the general pattern appears to be as follows.  The innermost line of defence is represented by a very slight bank or, in many places, only a very shallow scarp which can be traced round the whole circuit of the site… The second or middle bank is the most prominent or substantial of the three.  It has considerable gaps in its length, but the various portions are all of much the same character — it rises between 3 and 5ft above the interior and falls about 9ft to the ditch bottom.  On the south side the middle rampart takes the form of a scarp about 10ft high, immediately below the scarp of the inner rampart.  The third, outermost bank is, in fact, a counterscarp bank to the second ditch.  It does not exist as a continuous bank around the whole of the site, but there are sections of it on the northern and eastern sides.  On the eastern and northeastern sides, from which approach was easiest, there appear to have been additional outer defences, situated about 70ft forward of the counterscarp bank.  These outer defences now take the form of a scarp about 4ft high curving round the eastern and northeastern sides for about 250ft.  At the southern end there is an inner scarp, forming a bank, and a little to the south, is a detached portion of bank.  There are other short detached sections of bank on the northern side which are presumably to be connected with these outer defences.”

When Mr Plummer did his excavation here a few years before, one section of the site was examined and, thanks to the survival of an interim report he did — described by D.G. Coombs (1971) — we know the following of what he did:

“His work was concentrated in the northwest corner of the site where he cut a trench through the defences.  Outside the counterscarp bank, which was not continuous, there was a bedding trench, packed with stones and containing charcoal.  The ditch, which was rock-cut and flat-bottomed, had a homogenous fill.  The rampart itself showed timber supports at the front and back with traces of stone revetting at the front and some distance from the timber uprights.  The rear of the rampart was marked by a line of stones.  Behind this rampart the site had been extensively disturbed and here he claimed to have found traces of primitive iron-smelting furnaces constructed from stones packed and sealed with loose black earth.  A single post-hole beneath the rampart was suggested to belong to an earlier phase.”

Though we have to note here that Mr Plummer believed that the iron furnace remains were actually medieval in date, but that the embanked settlement itself was Iron Age and “that the collapse of the fort could be dated between 60-90 AD.”  When Mr Coombs and his team came back here in 1970 to re-examine the works of both Plummer and Forde-Johnston, they confirmed some of their earlier finds, but uncovered additional finds at what they called this “once great fortress.”


In Robert Lord’s (1976) superb imaginary piece on what he calls the Pendle Zodiac (a zodiac allegedly forged into the landscape in ancient times, in the manner of the famous and equally imaginary Glastonbury zodiac), a section of the deity Diana is made up of this prehistoric earthwork:

“The lower edge of the cap (on her head) coincides with a minor road between Colne, skirting the Iron Age Castercliffe hill-fort, above Nelson, as far as Catlow.”

…to be continued…


  1. Coombs, D.G., Interim Report: Excavation at Castercliff, Nelson, Lancs., Unpublished Report 1971.
  2. Ekwall, Eilert, The Place-Names of Lancashire, Manchester University Press 1922.
  3. Forde-Johnston, The Hill-Forts of Lancashire and Cheshire, Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society 1962.
  4. Pennick, Nigel & Lord, Robert, Terrestrial Zodiacs in Britain, Institute for Geomantic Research: Bar Hill 1986.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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6 thoughts on “Castercliff, Nelson, Lancashire”

  1. ‘this once great fortress.’ – This structure(vitrified stone & timber)- earthwork given its position, location, size and construction could never be considered a ‘hill fort’ – though I did once hold this view myself (HISTORIC WALKS AROUND THE PENDLE WAY, 1990, AUSSTEIGER pp. 38-41). See my article on Portfield in the FORUM section. See also PENDLE – A MYTHIC LANDSCAPE, 2012 AUSSTEIGER (review copies out October 2011).

  2. Hi John – I know what y’ mean about this site. It seemed like some large settlement to me, but all the archaeo-texts define it as a ‘hillfort’ – from Forde-Johnston to Haselgrove’s essay in the more recent Archaeology of Lancashire (1996). The language they all use to define the earthworks (‘defenses’, ‘ramparts’) deliberately guide to the reader into the notion of the site as a military or offensive structure – a notion which has been slowly losing ground for such ‘hillforts’ in recent years. Perhaps I should give the site an additional status as ‘enclosure’? Wot d’ y’ reckon?

  3. I would recomend giving it the status of a palisaded enclosure/ a nodal point where a number of prehistoric trade routes meet.

    Best regards


  4. I wonder if the Romans ever used Castercliffe as a military base ? THe near by town of Colne was known to the Romans as Colnia, Colna or Colinia.

  5. Has there ever been any Viking or Saxon finds at this site. I ask in connection with possible location of Brunburgh battle site. Also what are thoughts on the two long barrow type mounds to the north aspect

    1. I think there’s been Saxon-period finds in that neck o’ the woods – but don’t quote me on that! (it’s not my period) I’d check out Forde-Johnston’s works, and mebbe one of Bennett’s “History of Burnley” volumes – both of which might be helpful.

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