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The name Helsbury was first recorded in 1284 when it was written Hellesbury. This is a curious combination of Cornish and English elements; hen-lys is a Cornish phrase which translates as ‘ancient court’ or “ruin” and bury the English word for a fortification.
The place name is a reference to Helsbury Castle, an Iron Age hillfort comprising a single bank and external ditch enclosing an area about 140 metres in diameter. In places the inner face of the bank is visible and this shows that the rampart was built of dry stone walling. An annexe provides an additional enclosed area on the north-east – this may have been to provide defensive outworks to the entrance to the hillfort, or to provide an extra enclosed area for domestic or agricultural activity.
Stretches of bank plotted on the Ordnance Survey map of 1880 hint that the annexe was possibly part of a continuous outer rampart, though these may have been the remnants of an extensive radial field system associated with the site, the imprint of which can still be inferred from the modern pattern of field boundaries.
An undecorated sherd of Iron Age pottery was collected from a disturbance caused by a badger’s sett but otherwise no finds have come from this site. There is an on-going debate among archaeologists about the function or functions of hillforts. The large, strategically sited ones could have served as impregnable fortresses, but they could equally have functioned as the very visible indications of the wealth and power of their builders. Other sites are less impressive but it seems likely that they served as social and commercial foci, rather than simple agricultural settlements. Occupation may have been seasonal and related to fairs and festivals, cycles of religious observation, or civil administration. Some smaller hillforts may have had a straightforward domestic or agricultural role; others may have served for a variety of functions.
Helsbury Castle is neither very large nor, with its present-day single rampart, very imposing, though the site does command extensive views. It is not really possible to decide between the range of possible functions offered above and it could potentially have supported any or all these purposes.
In the centre of the hillfort, the foundations of a rectangular building lie within a sub-rectangular bank. This is said to be the remains of St Syth’s chapel and, although excavations here by the Reverend E.T. Gibbons were inconclusive, a parochial history of 1876 reported a substantial amount of worked and moulded granite arches and granite quoins, a few of which can still be seen. At the west end of the foundations are the footings for a tower. No rights of burial are recorded for this site so the surrounding bank probably served simply to keep stock out. A small mound within the hillfort may be the site of a beacon, recorded as Michaelstow Beacon on the Ordnance Survey map of 1880.
Post mediæval quarrying has caused some damage to the external ramparts and eastern entrance of the hillfort but otherwise the monument is generally in a good state of preservation.
The hillfort lies beside a ‘C’ class road off the B3266 Camelford-Bodmin road. Parking by the road on the north-west side of the fort, a stone stile leads over the hedge-bank onto the site, over which there is permissive access.