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William J Varley: Excavations on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge

16/05/22
Maiden Castle Interpretation Panel

'A relatively recent footprint on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge, relates of William Jones Varley, originally a geographer and later archaeologist. Born in 1904 in West Yorkshire, Varley studied geography at University College Wales and then lectured in geography at the University of Liverpool, where he turned his attentions to archaeology.

Varley carried out various excavations in the early 1930's and in 1932 began to excavate Maiden Castle on Bickerton Hill. This was the first archaeological excavation of a hillfort in Cheshire and initially students from the University of Liverpool assisted with the excavation. To supplement the number of volunteers, Varley launched the Bickerton Camp Scheme which utilised the services of unemployed Liverpool dockworkers who worked on the digs in exchange for food, clothing and somewhere to live. The Bickerton Camp Scheme was a great success and Varley used this work force to later excavate Eddisbury Hillfort at Delamere.

In 1934/35 Varley wrote a summary of the results of his excavations at Maiden Castle and refers to his 'good fortune' to be allowed this opportunity. Varley also describes the other hillforts on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge and refers to how they were constructed, the artefacts he found, including ' a piece of pottery, a whetstone, broken animal bones, a small piece of iron and much charcoal'. A walk up Bickerton Hill today still reveals the ditches and ramparts of the hillfort and the stunning views of the surrounding landscape are visible for miles in any direction.

Varley continued his excavations on the Sandstone Ridge at Eddisbury hillfort during the summers of 1936, 1937 and 1938 where he dug several large trenches, concentrating on two possible entrances and the area known as Merrick's Hill, the site where the supposed medieval hunting lodge once stood. Nowadays only the outlines of buildings just about survive on Merrick's Hill, concealed by dense vegetation.

Varley's excavation methods were leaving those of the 19th century far behind and were more similar to those methods in use today. As a result of Varley's excavations, Eddisbury hillfort became a scheduled ancient monument.

In 2010 as part of the Habitats and Hillforts project, Varley's original 1930's trenches on Eddisbury hill fort were re- excavated and finds included a saddle quern, a hearth and a small amount of Iron Age pottery. Varley later moved to Ghana in Africa and his archive of the Eddisbury excavations was believed lost during World War 2, However, parts of the archive, his report and finds were rediscovered and it is hoped the archive will be available for public access at some point in the future.

As part of the Habitats and Hillforts project the main entrance was partly rebuilt to show the lay out of the original and an interpretation panel was installed to describe the hillfort.

Varley wrote a book entitled 'Cheshire before the Romans' describing his excavations at Eddisbury and including photographs and plans of the hillfort and was one of the first archaeologists to reveal our ancient past upon the Ridge.

Go take a look for yourself, sit on the ramparts and watch the weather coming along the valley and if you listen hard enough you may just hear the footsteps of Varley and his Liverpool dockers chasing the Iron Age ghosts'.

Our thanks to Catharine Harris for writing this article.

To be directed to our 'Footprint' on the Ridge — CLICK HERE.