One of the best known hill forts in England and the site of the most famous beacon in Hampshire, though in fact the Beacon at Burghclere was called the Berkshire Beacon. The firing of beacons kept on prominent hill tops was for many years an integral part of the defence system of this country and the last chain of beacons were lit on 2 June 1977 to commemorate the Queen's Silver Jubilee.
The hill fort which forms the entrance on the top of the hill has never been systematically excavated, but the land and ditch are sharply defined and well preserved. The entrance, at the south-east, is carefully defended by in-curving banks and guard houses outside. Inside the bank there are a number of hut sites and storage pits, scattered about the enclosure. Within the fortifications, is the grave of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon who played a prominent part in the expedition to the Nile Valley of the Kings which led to the discovery of Tutankhamen's Tomb in 1922.
An historic event of a different era is recalled by a memorial stone situated in the Seven Barrows field to the south of Beacon Hill. The inscription on the stone recalls that it was here that Sir Geoffrey de Haviland (1882-1965), pioneer aviator, aeroplane designer, and founder of the aircraft company which bore his name, made his first successful flight on 10 September 1910.
The site is valued as a chalk grassland habitat. Such habitats have declined in modern times, being turned over to arable farming due to the fertile nature of the soils. Chalk grassland such as at Beacon Hill would have covered the large areas of chalk Downland in Southern England, making good grazing for sheep. The mark of centuries of sheep grazing are the slopes the stepped appearance formed by a mixture of soil creep and the lateral movement of sheep over the centuries. Such erosion is clearly visible on the slopes of Beacon Hill.
Grazing is an important part of managing chalk grassland, scrub being inhibited from invasion by the constant feeding of the animals. The number of animals allowed to graze an area is however an important consideration as having to many animals will cause the floral community to suffer, equally too few animals will allow scrub to encroach due to lack of grazing.
Now only remnants of these ancient unimproved grasslands remain, most having been improved for more intense grazing or more often have been ploughed and used for arable crops. Pockets of original chalk grassland remain where such changes have been unsuitable such as on steep hill slopes.
Chalk grassland is important for the many wild flowers which are to be found in such habitats, in-turn this array of flora supports a mixture of associated invertebrates. Many birds are also found on chalk grassland.
Beacon Hill boasts a range of such flora including Rock Rose, Wild Thyme, Kidney Vetch and Clustered Bellflower, these flowers in turn provide for rare invertebrates such as Osmia bicolor a scarce solitary bee that resembles a small red tailed bumble bee, it feeds on Bird-foot-trefoil and nests in disused snail shells.
Taken at Beacon Hill (right). Although not identified to species level, the lack of pollen sacks on its rear legs give it away as a cuckoo bee. Like their avian namesakes that lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, so cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the nests of other bee species.
Such behaviour negates the need to produce honey to feed larva, hence the lack of pollen sacks with which to carry pollen back to its nest. The bee is not the only invertebrate to appear in the two photographs, behind the head of the bee are a group of mites, in the left hand picture an individual can be seen climbing up the leg of the bee towards the location of the other mites
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The site can be reached by car along the main Winchester-Newbury road (A34).
Access to the top of the hill is on foot by a steep climb from the car park. A step way runs up the middle of a hawthorn/blackthorn corridor providing some protection from the elements in the winter and a break from the sun in the summer.
It is recommended after or during wet weather that good walking boots are worn to cope with the conditions.