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The mad cows of Cadbury Castle

Cadbury Castle is an Iron-Age hillfort spreading over 18 acres in Somerset, England. Local lore connects King Arthur with the site, and diggings have revealed that a huge fortification was built here and in use during the 5th to 6th centuries, Arthur’s time. It has been considered a contender for Camelot since at least the 16th century. A bronze A was even found on the hill, but was dated to the 8th century (maybe a later commemoration of the king?).

Cadbury Castle – from the north

The “castle” is a grassy plateau with wooded, contoured earthwork ramparts (the defences of the original hill fort) overlooking and sloping down to the Somerset Levels. It is encompassed by fields and tiny villages, with Glastonbury Tor (another spot associated with Arthur) visible 12 miles to the northwest.

It is a peaceful place, deeply haunting in the dark, saturated with history and folklore.

I parked my bike on Castle Lane (“Leading to Camelot Fort”, the sign read), and began to climb the slippery, muddy path (well beyond the abilities of me on my ATB, which was loaded with 70-80 lbs of cargo) up the hill. A car pulled into the lane and a family got out and started to make their way up behind me. The mother and small daughter, both of whom had Wellingtons on, clambered up a ways then
paused and looked back for the father. He was wearing slick dress shoes and a fine tweed jacket. He wasn’t doing too well, and as he started on the steep section of mushy track he slipped and went somersaulting expertly backwards down the bank. When he reached bottom he got up and started raging off in the other direction.

“Dear?” his wife called.

“No!” he screamed in a strangled shriek as he wiped his muddy hands on some leaves and marched away.

I went the rest of the distance to the top and walked the perimeter of the hill. It was a misty day, and the limited view faded into haze in every direction. I took off my coat and sat down in the middle of the plateau, and here in the grassy placidity imagined 5th century armoured cavalry pounding by, and hand-to-hand battles in the becalmed pastures encircling the fort.

That’s when I was surrounded.

A herd of black and white cows appeared over the western ridge, eyed me relaxing on the grass, and ambled quickly toward me. Acting more like a pack of hounds than a herd of dairy cows, they crowded in, nosed me, pushed me over, and snorted in my face. I felt like the new boy at school again being bullied on the playground.

Mad cows…

I got up and started to walk away — a new game for the Holsteins. They kept pace, jostling and cornering me so I had to continually change direction. I walked faster; the cows walked faster. With each increase in speed their heads bobbed playfully ever quicker. At last I broke into a run. They did too. I scampered along the hilltop with the bovine bloodhounds prancing and nipping after. Then I realized, I was being shepherded. These cows, fed up with being driven by the farmer and his dogs, had adopted the behaviour, and were herding me.

Finally, seeing no escape, I dropped my coat as a decoy. The cows moved in, snorting, nuzzling and chewing at it as I watched from a distance.

After thoroughly ravishing the coat with drool, they at last lost interest and wandered back toward the ridge where they had appeared.

There is a legend that each Christmas Eve at midnight, the wraiths of Arthur and his knights gallop off the hill, stop to water their ghostly mounts at the little spring on the hillside or next to a village church, and thunder away into the night.

There are the remains of a track, known as Arthur’s Lane or Hunting Causeway, leading away toward Glastonbury, and the galloping of spectral horsemen is said to be heard along it on winter nights.

On St. John’s Eve (June 23rd), a figure in golden armour is supposed to ride around the hill and sometimes casts a silver horseshoe.

And there is a tradition that has Arthur and his men lying asleep in a cave concealed in the hill. When Victorian archaeologists and antiquaries visited the site they were approached by an old man, native to the area, who asked, “Have you come to take the king out?”

All of the above are plausible. But is anyone going to believe the one about The Mad Cows of Cadbury Castle?

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