Melbury Beacon and circular enclosure on Melbury Hill


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1016893

Date first listed: 04-Oct-1961

Date of most recent amendment: 10-Aug-1999


Ordnance survey map of Melbury Beacon and circular enclosure on Melbury Hill
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This copy shows the entry on 21-Jan-2019 at 17:49:58.


The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Dorset

District: North Dorset (District Authority)

Parish: Compton Abbas

County: Dorset

District: North Dorset (District Authority)

Parish: Melbury Abbas

National Grid Reference: ST 87309 19731


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

Beacons were fires deliberately lit to give a warning, by means of smoke by day and flame by night, of the approach of hostile forces. They were always sited in prominent positions, usually as part of a group, chain or line which together made up a comprehensive early warning system covering most of the country. Beacons were extensively used during the medieval period. Their use was formalised by 1325 and although some were used later, for example at the time of Monmouth's Rebellion in 1685 or during the Napoleonic wars, the system was in decay by the mid-17th century. Beacons were initially bonfires of wood or furze, but later barrels of pitch or iron fire baskets mounted on poles were used. The poles were occasionally set on earthen mounds. Access to the fire basket was by way of rungs set in the pole, or by a stone ladder set against the beacon. More unusual beacon types include stone enclosures and towers, mainly found in the north and south west of England. Some beacon sites utilised existing buildings such as church towers. Beacons were built throughout England, with the greatest density along the south coast and the border with Scotland. Although approximately 500 are recorded nationally, few survive in the form of visible remains. Many sites are only known from place-name evidence. Given the rarity of recorded examples, all positively identified beacons with significant surviving archaeological remains are considered to be of national importance.

Melbury Beacon is a well preserved example of its class and is unusual in that some evidence of the structure appears to survive. It will contain archaeological deposits providing information relating to date and structure of beacons and aspects of medieval defence. Although of unknown date and function the circular enclosure is well preserved, crowning the top of a prominent hill, and its close association with the beacon is important to the understanding of the site.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument includes the remains of Melbury Beacon and a circular enclosure surrounding it, on the summit of Melbury Hill, a prominent hill on the edge of the escarpment. The beacon site has the remains of a hearth, a hollow, 8m in diameter and 0.5m deep, surrounded by a protective bank, possibly a buried stone wall, with what appears to be two flues, on the southern and eastern sides, extending outwards 3.4m. Both flues have kinks at the end presumably to facilitate through draught. The beacon is mentioned in a letter concerning the county defences in 1588, Armada year, which stated that Melbury was to be fired to warn Wiltshire's inhabitants of impending attack. Hutchins in his History of Dorset, 1774, lists the beacon and it is shown on Greenwood's map of about 1825, suggesting continued use. Surrounding the beacon and the summit of the hill is a circular enclosure, 120m in diameter, with a bank, 2.5m wide and 0.3m high, and an internal ditch 1m wide and 0.2m deep. There is no visible entrance but the bank has been disturbed on the south east side of the enclosure. The date and function of this enclosure is not known, and its relationship to the beacon is uncertain. However, the association is integral developing a full understanding of the monument. All fence posts and the triangulation pillar are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 31070

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Sumner, H, The Ancient Earthworks of Cranborne Chase, (1988), 68

End of official listing