Stepping into Powys Country: Maiden Castle

In late March of this year a friend and I were down in the southlands and we diverted our course to see if the ‘ghost-wind’ really blew on Maiden (Mai-Dun) Castle. First constructed in 600BC the Iron Age hill-fort is the largest of its kind in Britain and rises out of the earth like some beached sea titan. The path from the north is long and almost a stream of running mud in the light rain; we passed local Dorset dogs and their owners, all of them intent on getting back to their cars.

In Powys’s novel (1936) Maiden Castle presides over Dorchester as a symbol of the old gods and of Dud No-man’s true parentage. As Dud approaches the fort, as we did, his descriptions of it fluctuate between various animals of world folklore and religion, at first a dragon ‘compared with whom Leviathan himself were but a field-mouse’, then the shell of the Kraken, and the ‘vast planetary Tortoise’ of Buddhist cosmogony. Finally, it takes the form of a Jurassic bird, swollen with its ‘portentous egg’.

Once past the four eastern ramparts we stepped out onto the castle’s flat top. A ridge of earth borders its edge, but this does nothing to stop the wind, which rushed over the plain, flattening the grass. It’s difficult to capture in photographs just how strong it felt; looking back at the pictures seven months later it seems like quite a mild day – although a line of damp mist lingers just on the horizon. In the novel Dud is with his father Enoch Quirm (or his mythical name Uryen) when he gives a shout and it echoes in the wind ‘with faint elfin screams through the curves of snail-shells … from mole-hill to mole-hill’.

The earthworks of Maiden Castle hold some kind of power, and the space of vaulted sky that runs to the fort’s invisible far end is alive with a bright energy; it’s impossible to look for long without being blinded. It was a long time before we reached the remains of the Romano-Celtic temple in the centre (pictured). It was cold and there were sheep in the distance, and I thought of Uryen with bowed head to the ground, Dud standing to the side, watching his father’s ritual with incredulity. He didn’t believe in any of the old gods, not a single Celtic deity from the ‘Golden Age’ – but actually being up there, it’s hard to see why not.

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