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Volunteers storm the ramparts to unearth Co Down Norman fort

By Cate McCurry

More than 100 green-fingered volunteers have unearthed a piece of history that lay hidden in Co Down for years.

The Norman-era motte is in Mount Stewart Demesne on the shore of Strangford Lough.

The 26ft tall structure, which was built more than 800 years ago, has been uncovered by a team of volunteers and National Trust rangers.

The late 12th century defensive structure was hidden beneath dense, scrubby woodland.

After the National Trust acquired the site three years ago the conservation charity was able to embark on a project to discover the true scale of the motte.

A year ago it was barely visible due to the dense vegetation and it's taken a team of volunteer rangers and local corporate volunteers, including business in the community groups, over 850 hours to clear the area of shrub and trees.

National Trust regional archaeologist Malachy Conway said: "There are several records of visits being made to the motte to inspect it going back to the 1950s and the observation was made that the overgrown shrubbery and invasive trees were a developing threat to the condition of the monument.

"To get a clearer picture of the motte we commissioned Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), a surveying method that uses light in the form of pulsed laser to measure distance from the air and create high resolution digital 3-D maps of the ground.

"The images revealed an imposing structure that stands nearly eight metres (26ft) tall, with a surrounding ditch nearly five metres wide."

He added: "An Anglo-Norman period motte is a defensive structure, being a large, tall mound. In this case 23 metres in diameter, surrounded by a very deep defensive ditch.

"Mottes and motte and bailey castles were constructed in Ulster following the arrival of John de Courcey and his band of knights in 1177 as they set about capturing land from the native Irish tribes and petty kings and began consolidating their position in eastern Ulster through the building of these imposing defensive structures.

"A motte like this would have been seen for miles in the landscape, being a symbol of power and control and this is a remarkably well preserved example."

A measured survey was carried out with the Ulster Archaeological Society in advance of the clearance work on the trees and scrub, giving tantalising glimpses of its impressive size.

"The survey group also undertook historical research into the site and were able to link it to a Robert de Sengelton, who if not actively using the motte, held the land or estate which included the Mount Stewart Motte at its centre in 1333," he added.

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