‘Mynydh Kaer Estyn Lle by Ffort etc. ond mae’r kerrig gwedi i Malyno i lawr’ *
Edward Lhuyd, Parochialia (1699)
Lhuyd’s description of Caer Estyn Hillfort, evocatively sited between the villages of Caergwrle and Hope, has required little revision in the subsequent 300 years from its writing. Indeed, Caer Estyn remains one of the least investigated and thus least understood hillforts in North East Wales, an area replete with these stirring examples of ancient earthworks.
The reason for this lack of knowledge has much to do, in all probability, with the damage inflicted upon the site by several centuries of sandstone quarrying that has in places and in Ellis Davies’ words, virtually ‘obliterated’ the ramparts. Yet, before quarrying began at the industrial scale that has so affected the site, even Thomas Pennant seems to barely to have glanced at the fort, his writing mentioning Caer Estyn almost as an afterthought, describing it merely as, ‘one rampart and a ditch’, choosing instead to concentrate on the looming weight of Caergwrle Castle.
From what has been discovered, by both Ellis Davies in the 1930s and very early 1940s, and a hastily organised small scale excavation of 1957 by the Flintshire Historical Society, quickly marshalled in the face of relentless quarrying, it would seem that the Caer Estyn defences were, in truth, rather limited - a single stone faced rampart of no great height. Lhuyd’s description that, ‘stones have been broken down’ at the site would suggest that the wall remains were visible during the 17th century, and possibly until quarrying began in earnest some years later.
No one is clear as to when the hillfort was constructed. No one has been minded to find out. The small excavations of 1957 found virtually nothing which could be dated - a little flint, perhaps, but not enough to base a range of dates upon. And in the absence of reliable evidence, the hillfort has been not unreasonably thrown into the general date range of the Iron Age (c.800 BC - 100AD), a not inconsiderable length of time. It remains a possibility that it was constructed in the late Bronze Age, of course, a period of time in which the Bronze Age and Iron Age were culturally merging, and more of this will be said a little later. But whenever it was built, it would seem little or no further work was undertaken after its initial construction - no multi-phased splendour here. All in all, then, a rather unassuming little fort overlooking the Cheshire Plains.
And yet, there are curiosities here. And all rest on its environment, within what seems to be increasingly seen as an important area of Bronze and Iron Age communities. The Caergwrle Bowl was found by the River Alyn, which flows at the base of the hill, separating the hillfort from the remains of the medieval Caergwrle Castle. The Bowl, or more accurately an extremely rare depiction of a boat, dated to c.1000 BC is astonishing. Thought to be a votive offering and displaying a stunning brilliance of craft, it suggests a community was active in the near vicinity, perhaps a later relative to the peoples that fashioned the famous Mold Gold Cape a little further north. It is entirely possible that Caer Estyn was contemporary to those peoples and played a significant role in their society. Is it significant that Caer Estyn (along with other nearby hillforts, such as Caer Alyn, The Rofft at Marford, Pen-Y-Gardden in Ruabon and even Dinas Bran at Llangollen) seem also to be near the border between the British tribes of the Deceangli and Cornovii?
Another curiosity is its near vicinity to Wat’s Dyke, the Saxon built earthwork currently thought to date to the 8th century and which runs north beneath the hillfort. Caergwrle has Saxon foundations, and it is interesting to consider how Caer Estyn fitted into this dynamic. Was the hillfort brought back into service by the Saxon peoples of Caergwrle - they did that, you know. Given that the defences of Caer Estyn as far as we know were not considered to be particularly intimidating, did the hillfort then, have an alternative purpose - a station of sorts overlooking the routes west from the Cheshire Plains, an access point through the Dyke to the British territories to the west. And consider also the hill upon which the medieval Caergwrle Castle now stands, almost literally no more than a stone’s throw from the hillfort. The castle has a more ancient past, in truth, likely contemporary to the Dyke, but significantly younger than the hillfort of Caer Estyn. What part in this did the hillfort play? Speculation and hypothesis - all of it.
And so, though seemingly inauspicious, the hillfort of Caer Estyn is in fact something of a mystery. With many of its secrets quarried away or hidden beneath woodland and overgrowth, will we ever know just how important a role Caer Estyn played in the history of North East Wales?
*‘Caer Estyn mountain where there was a fort etc. but the stones have been broken down’