Refer to the archaeology pages for information on the prehistory of Beacon Hill. We also have a separate study of the Fosse Way on Beacon Hill. This page covers the general history of Beacon Hill from mediaeval times.
Enclosure Acts and Turnpike Roads
In the 16th century Beacon Hill was known as Rybury, a name which probably had Anglo-Saxon origins. Its earliest depiction on Mendip mining maps of that time also show the symbol for a Beacon, and the ‘Rye Beacon’ is referred to in contemporary documents. This was almost certainly one of the chains of warning beacons across the country established by Elizabeth I. The beacon was probably sited on or beside the round barrows on the summit of the hill, but no trace of it is visible today. Its siting here indicates an open environment, while 17th century sale documents refer to plots of uncultivated land around it (Doles), supporting mainly heather, gorse and bracken.
By the 17th and 18th centuries it was called ‘Beacon Hill’ and Stratchey’s map of 1736 shows the beacon site as a barrow, apparently topped with a stone. Today this monolith of dressed Doulting stone is a prominent marker on the highest point – a large round barrow – though unlikely to be of prehistoric date. It lies at the centre of a slight circular earthwork bank and outer ditch, probably defining an 18th century tree-planting ring.
The later 18th century was time of great changes for Beacon Hill, not least its transformation to woodland and the creation of Beacon Hill Wood. Following the creation of the Wells-Frome Turnpike roads, the ‘common lands and wastes’ in the parishes of Doulting and Stoke Lane were enclosed in 1776. Maps depict a large triangular enclosure bounded by the turnpike road, Boulters Lane and the Fosse Way, with The Beacon at its northwest corner. This land was owned by the Horner family (of the nursery rhyme!), and Thomas Horner of Doulting Manor was probably responsible for the first tree plantings and perhaps the layout of the tree ring and other boundaries to the wood. The Rev. Skinner’s 1823 record of a conversation with an old man who assisted with the tree planting when young, seems to confirm this.
A smaller rectangular piece of woodland west of the Fosse Way lies within the parish of Ashwick (formerly part of Shepton Mallet), which was enclosed in 1785. This was also owned by Thomas Horner and may have been planted by him soon after that date. The junction of the three parishes lies within the wood and is marked by a handsome inscribed parish boundary marker of Doulting stone. Subsequently, that part of the wood lying within Doulting parish came into the ownership of William Melliar Foster Melliar (from 1838), and several of his boundary stones marked ‘WMFM’ are still preserved within the wood on the line of the Fosse Way.
In the 19th century maps become more detailed and accurate, giving a clearer picture of its development. Sketches for the first Ordnance Survey maps in 1808 clearly show the planted tree ring, and a visit by another antiquary – Richard Coalte Hoare in the same year – mention it and the presence of fir trees, although only some of the mature beech trees survive today. Skinner’s sketches of the 1820s do not suggest much woodland outside the ring, although by the time of the Tithe Apportionment maps of the 1840s for the local parishes the wood appears to have been dominated by coniferous plantations. One area not apparently planted until around that time lay to the north of a well defined bank and ditch boundary preserved in the eastern half of the wood. This feature follows the top of the steep scarp slope of the hill, separating woodland on the lower slopes from a rough pasture field – ‘North Close’ This was planted sometime between the 1840s and 1884, when the wood is shown on the 1st Edition 6″ Ordnance Survey map as mixed coniferous and deciduous woodland, and had reached its full extent.
Whilst Maesbury Castle, 2 miles to the west, was fortified in the Iron Age, Beacon Hill has remained relatively unaffected by national conflict. Certainly the Fosse Way was a Roman military road but this, and the setting up of an Elizabethan warning beacon, had minimal impact.
In the late 19th century a shooting range was set up in the fields alongside the Fosse Way south of the wood, using the steep escarpment as the backdrop for targets placed in the field below. The Ordnance Survey map of 1884 depicts a range over 600yds long starting at Yellingmill Lane, with the location of warning flagstaffs also shown; a stone slab with square hole can still be found in the wood. The small corrugated iron shed seen on the edge of the wood may have been a later store for the targets as the range was active during both world wars.
Also to found in the wood from WWII are several rectangular pits which are believed to be the remains of facilities for a covert British Resistance Organisation, set up separate from the Home Guard by the Secret Intelligence Services. In the event of invasion men of this unit planned to go underground and remain behind enemy lines, to carry out missions of sabotage.