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Bishops Wood Hillfort

Introduction to site

Within this new woodland is a small island of ancient coppiced oak, carpeted by bluebells in springtime - this is the site of an imposing earthwork comprising a roughly circular bank with an external ditch known as Bishops Wood hillfort.

 

Access to Bishops Wood Hillfort can be obtained by following forestry tracks through Idless Woods from the access point north of Idless. Follow the main track leading east and then north-east. After a distance of approximately 1.5km, three tracks branch off to the right; the central path takes you to the hillfort.

There is a Forestry Commission car park for Idless Woods about a mile from the village of Idless.

The site is free to visit, and is open any reasonable time in daylight hours.

The closest public toilets and refreshment facilities are within the nearby city of Truro.

There are regular bus services to Shortlanesend from which Idless Woods is about a 1.6km walk along minor roads. Visit the Traveline website for customised sustainable transport options.

The National Cycle Network Route 32 passes the car park for Idless Woods. Visit the Sustrans website for more information.

View our interactive Access to Monuments map to find this and other nearby sites.

Although Bishop’s Wood, which lies 3km to the north of Truro, is today an extensive conifer plantation, it is descended from the 40 acres of woodland recorded in the Manor of Idless at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. At that date it would have been an ancient mixed broadleaved forest composed of species such as oak, beech, birch, hazel and rowan. During the 13th century the Bishop of Exeter, who had a manor at nearby Lanner, created a deer park here which may account for the survival of the ancient forest into modern times. It certainly accounts for the old name – Bishops Wood – sadly now known as Idless Wood, after the name of the nearest settlement. After the reformation, the woodland became a source of timber for building and fencing, and was exploited in the production charcoal for tin smelting and oak bark for tanning.

The majority of the broadleaved trees were clear felled and replaced by fast growing conifers after WW2. Silver star signs on the ramparts beside the entrances to the fort were placed there when the Forestry Commission took over the wood, to indicate that this significant site should not be disturbed or planted with conifers.

Hillforts began to be constructed in Cornwall in the middle of the Iron Age (from around 500 BC) and went out of fashion with the advent of the Romans in the 1st century AD. Unfortunately, few hillforts have been excavated in Cornwall and reliable dating evidence is still largely lacking; there is some evidence for earlier foundation dates elsewhere in Britain, and many Cornish sites appear to have seen a phase of re-occupation after the departure of the legions.

The building of such a massive earthwork would have taken a great deal of manpower and the impressive result was probably intended as much as a statement of power and status as for any need for defence, although its siting and design seem to have taken account of strategic considerations. The Iron Age was a time of growing hierarchies and changing social organisation, and increasing agricultural and industrial activity and developing trading networks would have meant a need for communal areas to provide for commercial as well as social purposes. Hillforts may have served an array of functions, providing an arena for a variety of community activities both practical and spiritual.  

The site occupies a level area on a spur of high ground and although surrounded by forest now, during the Iron Age it would have commanded far-reaching views in most directions, except to the west. The single rampart is well preserved and would have presented an imposing façade, particularly if topped by a wooden palisade. Deep rock-cut ditches surround the site. Two entranceways lie to the east and west, with causeways crossing the ditch and it is likely there would have been strong wooden gatehouses. The interior has never been excavated so the internal organisation is unknown; the site has been heavily wooded for many years and it is possible that although evidence for the occupation of the site may survive beneath the ground, tree roots are likely to have caused considerable disturbance. There has been action in recent years to reduce the potential for damage from encroaching trees; spreading conifers have been cleared from the hillfort’s margins and ditch, allowing a more natural balance of deciduous trees and lower scrub to develop, but because the woodland itself is ancient, of historic interest, and an intrinsic part of the site, management by the Forestry Commission is aimed at achieving a balance between the interests of the historic and natural environments.

English Heritage/ Forest Enterprise. 1999-2004. Management Plan for Scheduled Ancient Monuments: Idless Woods. 

Kirkham G. 2006. Lescudjack Hillfort, Penzance, Cornwall. Truro: Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council