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Sacred Sites | Compton Dundon

Sacred Sites

Compton Dundon, Dundon Beacon and Lollover Hill
Pictures by Lesley Delamont and Palden Jenkins


Compton Dundon church

Compton Dundon church is a sweet little parish church sitting on the site of a prehistoric grove. It is noteworthy for its ancient yew trees dating back at least 1,700 years. The churchyard has a special stillness and atmosphere to it. To the east of the church lies Dundon Beacon, and to the west lies Lollover Hill - the church lies in the fold between the two. The church lies snugly in the saddle between them.

Dundon Beacon
by Mandy Carter, a Dundon resident

If you drive from Street to Somerton, you will see a large tree-covered mound on your right, which changes colour beautifully with the seasons. Perhaps surprisingly, the Beacon, which is within the Dundon part of Compton Dundon, stands only 337 feet above sea-level, but in a relatively low lying area, it looks far more imposing.

Dundon Beacon is a special and species-rich nature reserve, which is managed by Somerset Wildlife Trust and is now being returned to a careful balance of ancient oak woodland combined with managed coppice and restored grass downland.

The site has been an asset to the community for over 2000 years – the hilltop is an Ancient Monument, which was once occupied by an iron age (Celtic) fort and hilltop settlement, and a tumulus where a kneeling skeleton was excavated in the early 19th century. The peak of Dundon Beacon allows a breathtaking view of Sedgemoor, and would have been in the communication chain with beacon hills at Ilminster and Shepton Mallet, providing reciprocal warning over the area stretching from West Sedgemoor to the Mendips.

The centre of the hilltop was quarried as early as the thirteenth century, with the lias being used for St Andrews Church in the village, many older buildings in Compton Dundon, and most recently the magnificent hillside property built for the Morlands in 1925 and appropriately called ~ The Beacon.

Dundon Beacon is still privately owned by a descendant of the Morlands family, who allows open access to local nature lovers. Its conservation value was first recognised back in the 1960s and Somerset Wildlife Trust took over its management in 1978 under a lease which was renewed in 1999 for 99 years.

The restoration, which is now being led by Assistant Reserves Officer Emma Daniels, is no easy task. Emma has a hands-on approach, evidently thoroughly enjoying her role which combines both woodland management work and office duties.

She explains that the flat hilltop had been planted with conifers many years ago as a tax-avoidance scheme. These required clear felling, leaving bare ground, while the hazel coppice growing on most of the slopes had become derelict and is now being revived on an eight year rotation. The coppice becomes increasingly derelict as you follow the circular path upwards because one of eight coupes is coppiced each year, with unwanted tree species being thinned. Emma sees that the brash is piled onto the stools to prevent deer damage – the vigour of regrowth depends on neighbouring trees and the level of overhead light. Logs are left as an additional natural habitat – and because there is no sensible way of taking them down!

In the spring bluebells are abundant on the slopes while at the north-east summit, a small freshwater spring trickles from under a rock, providing welcome relief for dogs. A giant carved face in a tree is evidence of the site's more recent leisure use.

Emma is hoping that the plateau, which was originally downland, will soon be grazed by 20-100 sheep once a suitably willing grazier is recruited. The sheep will join the conservation grazing ponies – these may include unbroken colts, which can be frisky and should be admired from a safe distance! No additional feed is brought in because of the risk of introducing non-native seeds – and because the animals need to maintain a good working appetite to do their job effectively.

Emma says: "We need to strike a careful balance with the grazing – visitors may decry the loss of pretty flower heads, but if the grassland was not grazed hard it would become overgrown again and the flowers would not survive at all."

Back in the mid 1990s, she says, the area was covered in 6ft high scrub, requiring topping and reed wiping. It is evident which swards are tractor accessible and which have been done by hand and bush-cutters, as the latter tend to grown back more vigorously.

Although the presence of large ant-hills has prevented tractor access everywhere, these demonstrate that the land has long rested undisturbed. The success of the project can be seen by the presence of several species of grasses including oatgrass and quaking grass, and to flora including cowslips, rock roses, scabious, autumn lady's tresses, gentian, thistle, thyme – and most spectacularly to three varieties of wild orchid (bee orchid, pyramidal orchid and greater butterfly orchid) which grow in a 'carpet' in the early summer.

The limestone typical flora attract numerous butterflies – 27 species have already been recorded including Brown Argus, Brown Hairstreak and White Admiral and it is hoped that a decade of maintenance may herald the return of the Large Blue.

Although no official volunteer group exists, a butterfly transit has been set up by warden Jane Salisbury and her team of ad hoc helpers. A route around the hill is marked out with numbered posts and each species therein is recorded on a weekly basis between April and October. The transit passes through a small glade, currently reached by a muddy slope, and the trust aims to improve access by installing steps, although this work is funding dependant. Volunteers are needed to join the rota for approximately an hour every few weeks in the summer.

The reserve is also home to badgers, shrews, hedgehogs, weasels, and brown hare, as well as the inevitable grey squirrel and roe deer. Nightingale and Whitethroat have been recorded from the thickets while woodcock can be seen as a winter visitor and barn owl and turtle dove may also be spotted.

The breeding pairs of ravens, who are resident on Dundon Beacon, appear to share the feeling of exhilaration that humans can experience when they stand on the hilltop looking out at the levels. They can be seen flying at a level lower than the peak of the hill, turning over 180 degrees as part of their 'display' and then cawing seemingly with delight! Their characteristic diamond shaped tails are uncommonly seen in Somerset, and it is a privilege to witness them from such close range.

Dundon Beacon archaeology

A slight univallate hillfort occupying the top of a hill. Defences vary from a scarp to a 2m high bank with outer terrace, but on average consist of a bank 0.4 - 1.0m high, atop a scarp in places. Earthworks have been affected in places by C19 hedge banks and by quarrying. Entrance uncertain - probably on east but obscured by quarrying. Outer scarps in places mainly under dense vegetation and not reachable. The slightness of the earthworks suggest the possibility of a date earlier than the Iron Age. Dundon Beacon on the south-east corner of the fort is a mound atop the scarp, ditched through the rampart on its north suggesting it is of later date. It is possible that this is a Norman motte. The stretch of the hillfort immediately north of this is heightened to a 2m high bank apparently raised from a 6m wide terrace below, and this may represent a Norman reworking of defences with the intention of creating a motte and bailey castle.

Several flint flakes, a core and scrapers, also a few pieces of BA pottery were found on the surface within the camp in 1916.

The excavation for a water pipeline in 1997 through the rampart where it had been severely eroded on the north-west side by a track showed that the first defences had consisted of a timber laced stone rampart that was subsequently burnt. A later phase of clay rampart overlay this and there was a possible pre rampart phase of worn cobbles. Small sherds of iron age pottery were recovered from the stone phase.

Parking at Dundon Beacon is very limited, and school opening/closing times should be avoided if possible. Please do not light fires on the site as they damage the downland. If you are unable to make the climb up Dundon Beacon, you can enjoy the amazing view from the top courtesy of the website www.comptondundon.com which includes a 360 degree panorama taken from the tumulus.

Lollover Hill
by David Taylor of the EarthSpirit Centre at Dundon

The guidebooks rather prudishly claim the name 'Lollover' comes from 'Look Over', referring to the fact that locals came up here to watch the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685(?). This was the last battle fought on English soil and an early Churchill/Duke of Marlborough and the Catholic soldiers of King James II gave the Duke of Monmouth (the pretender king James) and his local band of protestant (and therefore democratic) protesters a good beating. Even to this day weapons are still occasionally found buried on the moors hereabouts and people refer to the Judge Jefferies and the Bloody Assizes.

A local witch had warned Monmouth that 'he would fall at the rhyne'; but failing to understand the local dialect he presumed she meant a river in Germany! In fact 'rhyne' is a local word for a drainage ditch and his men did indeed lose the battle, in part because their powder had got wet when they crossed the rhynes of Sedgemoor.

For me the name 'Lollover' can be interpreted literally as 'Lol Lover' – the reclining lover. From above this is much how the hill appears. These days it's run by English Heritage as a nature reserve to preserve the traditional hillside farming techniques (lynchets) and the wild orchids which grow there.

The hill is surmounted by an ordnance survey point and has a fantastic 360 degree view of the surrounding area, including Glastonbury Tor and, less attractively, the dark satanic mill of Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

Lollover is just behind the EarthSpirit Centre so our guests often stroll up there to see the views.

To reach Compton Dundon, drive to Street and take the B3151, signposted Somerton. On arrival in the village, take a right to get to the church and the starting-point for visiting the hills. The church is on the right, where you can park. Or take a sharp left to a small parking area for Dundon Beacon.

NEXT: Butleigh

 
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