Wittenham Clumps

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Round Hill, on Wittenham Clumps
Wittenham Camp in 1939 (aerial photograph)

Wittenham Clumps is the common name for a pair of wooded, chalk hills on the south bank of the River Thames in Berkshire, close to Little Wittenham.

The two hills are

  • Round Hill; 390 feet above sea-level
  • Castle Hill 350 feet above sea-level.

Castle Hill is about 380 yards south-east of Round Hill, and bears on its summit the earthworks of an Iron Age hill fort.[1]

A third hill, not normally considered one of The Clumps, is

The grassed slopes of The Clumps lead up to summits wooded by the oldest beech tree plantings in Britain,[2] dating to the 1740s.[3] Standing over 230 feet above their surroundings,[4] the Clumps have a prominent appearance and panoramic views, with the north slopes overlooking villages and towns whose sites mark some of the first settlements of the English peoples in the Thames Valley.[5] The view from The Clumps was described by the artist Paul Nash, who first saw them in 1911, as "a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten".[6]

The Clumps attract over 200,000 visitors a year.[7] A car park was added in 1971, and the extensive network of paths are accessible by foot all year round. A path through the wooded area at the top of Round Hill has enabled access since 2005, after being closed for twenty years. The site and its surroundings are maintained as a Nature Reserve by the Earth Trust.[8]


View from Round Hill to Day's Lock and the Thames
Didcot Power Station from Wittenham Clumps

Strictly speaking, the name 'Wittenham Clumps' refers to the woodland of the summits of these hills, while the hills themselves are themselves more properly referred to as the Sinodun Hills: the name Sinodun is thought by some to derive from Celtic Seno-Dunum, meaning 'Old Fort'.[9] Alternatively, it has been suggested that the name is a scholarly creation, punning on the Latin 'sinus' (bosom).[10]

Other lesser-used and more colloquial names for the Clumps include the Berkshire Bubs and Mother Dunch's Buttocks (after a local Lady of the Manor named Dunch).

On Sinodun Hill is a hollow named the Money-Pit and a clump of trees named the Cuckoo Pen. The Money-Pit is supposedly the location of a treasure hoard guarded by a raven, and the Cuckoo Pen gets its name from the local belief that a trapped cuckoo would ensure eternal Summer.[11]


Wittenham Clumps are stand close to the River Thames, and good views can be had from the Thames Path along the river. The panoramic views of the Berkshire and Oxfordshire countryside from the Clumps themselves are also spectacular; a viewpoint guide on the north side of Round Hill gives directions to many sights, the furthest being Faringdon Folly, a tower built on another Iron Age hillfort 17 miles to the west. Day's Lock and Dorchester Abbey are clearly visible in the valley to the north, with the 15-storey Plowman Tower in Northway, Oxford visible on the horizon, 8½ miles away. The white-walled reactor buildings of the Joint European Torus, site of the world's first successful controlled nuclear fusion experiments, can be seen around four miles to the north-west.

To the north-east is Little Wittenham Wood, which borders the Thames, and to the south-east is Brightwell Barrow.

The wooded area at the top of Castle Hill, which contains a public footpath, is now closed indefinitely due to the danger of falling trees. The entrance to the wooded area atop Round Hill also carries a warning of falling branches due to fungal decay of many of its trees.


There is a hillfort on Castle Hill. The earliest earthworks date to the late Bronze Age. More banks and ditches were added during the early Iron Age. Excavation has revealed that the Iron Age inhabitants caught fish and wild boar as well as herding cattle and sheep. There is also evidence of cultivation of barley and wheat. The fort appears to have been abandoned by the late Iron Age, the next occupants being Romans.

A 2004 episode of the Channel 4 archaeological television programme Time Team focused on the Clumps.[12] In 2004 Castle Hill was under excavation by Oxford Archaeology, and Time Team was charged with investigating the surrounding landscape to find any trace of activity that could be associated with the Clumps. Over a period of three days, Time Team surveyed a total of 17 acres using ground-penetrating radar. The original focus was the previously unexplored Round Hill, but difficulties in carrying out geophysical studies on its tree-covered crest forced the team to abandon their original goal. Moving down the southern slopes, however, many hidden features emerged, including enclosure ditches, pits, possible buildings and other clusters of anomalies. The geophysics highlighted a large rectilinear enclosure, which was subsequently singled out for excavation. This revealed the remains of a Romano-British house with tesserae of mosaic floors and painted wall plaster on the southern slope of Round Hill. The area also contained an Iron-Age cobbled floor, together with post holes that could have related to a structure.

Further investigations found Iron Age rubbish pits distributed all over the valley, suggesting widespread settlement throughout the period. Pottery finds indicated that most activity took place in the earlier and later phases of the period, with a quieter occupation phase in the middle. The geophysics surveys also uncovered more suspected Iron Age enclosures along with what appeared to be a Roman road, which would have been associated with the site.

The Poem Tree, Castle Hill

The overall chronology suggested by the excavations is of the site being occupied since the Bronze Age around 1000 BC, the hillfort and surrounding farms dating from around 600 BC, followed by a move down towards the southern part of the site around 300 BC. The area was then abandoned, until the construction of the Roman villa.

Among the many artefacts found in the area are an oval bronze shield around 35 cm in diameter, retrieved from the nearby river Isis in 1836[13] and the 70 cm long Wittenham Sword and scabbard, found in 1982 and dating from the Late Iron Age (120 BC - AD 43)[14][15]


On the eastern side of Castle Hill grew an ancient tree, known as the 'Poem Tree',[16] It was a beech tree which had a poem carved into it by Joseph Tubb of Warborough Green in 1844–45, but the tree died in the 1990s and collapsed in 2012. There is now a stone commemorating the 150th anniversary of the carving.

Wittenham Clumps is said to be where Matthew Prior wrote Henry and Emma,[17] and this is commemorated by a plaque.

Art and the media

Wittenham Clumps were repeatedly painted by the 20th-century British artist Paul Nash.[18][19][20][21][22]

The Clumps was the filming location for the Radiohead webcast video of the band's song "Faust Arp".[23][24]

The climax of the third episode of the third season of the Netflix series Black Mirror takes place in the woods.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Wittenham Clumps)


  1. Round Hill, Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire: Archaeological Evaluation and Assessment of Results, Wessex Archaeology report 52568.09 (March 2004)
  2. "Paul Nash and The Wittenham Clumps". nashclumps.org. http://www.nashclumps.org/clumps.html. 
  3. Paul Brears. "Oxford Conservation Volunteers : Nature Reserves". ocv.org.uk. http://www.ocv.org.uk/sites.php?id=56. 
  4. "Walk - Dorchester-on-Thames - Wittenham Clumps - 4.5 Miles". Meetup. http://www.meetup.com/Oxford-Social-Walkers/events/102650722/. 
  5. Clark, O A, Clark A Seeing Beneath the Soil: Prospecting Methods in Archaeology 1997 (Routledge) p11
  6. "The Early Works of Paul Nash". nashclumps.org. http://www.nashclumps.org/early.html. 
  7. "Plans outlined for Wittenham Clumps reserve". Oxford Mail. http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/yourtown/didcot/8730175.Plans_outlined_for_Wittenham_Clumps_reserve/. 
  8. Wittenham Clumps trust re-named Witney Gazette 7 March 2011
  9. "Royal County of Berkshire History Home Page". berkshirehistory.com. http://www.berkshirehistory.com. 
  10. Coates, R. (2000), The Sinodun Hills, Little Wittenham, Berkshire, Journal of the English Place Name Society, vol. 32, pgs 23–25
  11. @"RBH: History of Little Wittenham, Berkshire url=http://www.berkshirehistory.com/villages/littlewittenham.html". Nash Ford Publishing. 2004. 
  12. "Time Team Wittenham Clumps". http://www.channel4.com/programmes/time-team/4od#2933997. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  13. Gage John (January 1838). "Archaeologia - XX. A Letter from John Gage, Esq. F.R.S., Director, to Sir Henry Ellis, K.H., F.R.S., Secretary, with an Account of a British Buckler, found in the bed of the River Isis, between Little Wittenham and Dorchester, in Oxfordshire". Archaeologia (The Society of Antiquaries of London 1838) 27: 298–300. doi:10.1017/S0261340900012145. 
  14. "Ashmolean Museum: British Archaeology Collections - Wittenham Sword". ox.ac.uk. http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/wittenham-sword.html. 
  15. Sherratt A.G. (1983). "A newly discovered La Tène sword and scabbard". Oxford Journal of Archaeology 2: 115–118. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.1983.tb00099.x. 
  16. The Poem Tree: Royal Berkshire History
  17. Prior, Matthew, Henry and Emma.
  18. "Wittenham Clumps circa 1943–4". Tate Online. Tate Britain, UK. http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=10564. Retrieved 7 June 2011. 
  19. "Landscape of the Wittenham Clumps, 1936". Paul Nash. British Council, UK. http://collection.britishcouncil.org/collection/artist/5/18421/object/44883. Retrieved 7 June 2011. 
  20. "Artists and the Landscape: Paul Nash". Arts & Literature. Northmoor Trust, UK. http://www.northmoortrust.co.uk/timescape/research/arts/paul-nash. Retrieved 7 June 2011. 
  21. Baines, Christopher; Dillon, Anna. "Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps". The North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. http://www.nashclumps.org/. Retrieved 7 June 2011. 
  22. Landscape of the Moon's Last Phase by Paul Nash, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Lancashire.
  23. Listen Against, Ladies & Gentlemen & Radiohead Webcast News, UK.
  24. Radiohead video, YouTube.