Dartmoor

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Eastern Edge, Chagford, A narrow lane climbs onto the open moor from farmlands below. [Ask for #157.080.]


A narrow lane climbs onto the open moor from farmlands below. [Ask for #157.080.]

When my wife saw Dartmoor for the first time, she said, “It looks like the American West.” Indeed, Dartmoor is remarkably like an oversized mesa, a grassy oval 20 miles by 30 miles whose steep sides rise nearly a thousand feet above the farms and forests underneath. It’s a long, rugged drive up those sides, along narrow lanes tightly confined by stone walls and hedgerows, and when you suddenly crest out onto its top the views are startling. “Look at the way grassy prairies roll as far as you can see, completely empty,” my wife continued. “And look at the way the rock spires stick up, like the hoodoos back in the Rocky Mountains.” A Dartmoor innkeeper had once made the same comment to me. “I like to go pony trekking through the center of Dartmoor and pretend I’m in the Old West,” he said.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Western Edge, Sheepstor, Horses grazing beneath Sheepstor [Ask for #106.042.]


Moor ponies graze on rough pasture beneath Sheepstor. [Ask for #106.042.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Dartmeet, An isolated thatched farmhouse on the open moor; Smith Hill Farm on Cherry Brook [Ask for #157.007.]


An isolated thatched farmhouse on the open moor. [Ask for #157.007.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Postbridge, An isolated farmstead surrounded by high moors. [Ask for #157.019.]


An isolated farmstead surrounded by high moors. [Ask for #157.019.]

Alike, yet not alike; as soon as you start looking for differences, you find them. Unlike the dry grassy basins of the Rockies, Dartmoor is soaking wet, and its verdant grasslands are painted in every shade of green that can be generated by environments ranging from damp to swampy to sink-and-disappear. Unlike the bowl-lands of the Western basins, Dartmoor’s swales and hills roll in odd and unpredictable directions, weirdly random. And those spires — while Western hoodoos and mesas are sharp-edged layer-cakes of warm colors, Dartmoor’s tors are gray and grainy, strange lumps of granite with odd, bulbous shapes.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Hound Tor, View from Hound Tor [Ask for #268.528.]


View from Hound Tor [Ask for #268.528.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Foxtor Mires, Vw north from mire (showing water) to Whiteworks [Ask for #157.035.]


Foxtor Mires. This was the inspiration for "Grimpen Mire" in Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. The buildings in the background are the remains of a 19th Century tin mine. [Ask for #157.035.]

Dartmoor is a granite-topped tableland; the granite protects the rocks underneath from erosion, creating a soggy mesa. Water sits on the granite bedrock, pooling and puddling into swamps called mires, low points marked only by a sudden proliferation of sphagnum moss and the white, fluffy tops of marsh-loving cotton grass. Although granite resists erosion it contains minerals that dissolve in water, particularly the acidic water found in sphagnum bogs. The oddly disorienting curves of Dartmoor’s surface, as well as the tors crowning its hills, reflect the amount that the granite bedrock has dissolved. In places the marshes give way to islands of prosperity lined by stone walls and hedges, their hominess contrasting wonderfully with the wilderness surrounding them.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Postbridge, View over Improved lands at the River Dart headwaters [Ask for #157.027.]


An isolated manor at the center of Dartmoor. [Ask for #157.027.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Western Edge, Sheepstor, Horse grazing on tor [Ask for #106.036.]


A moor pony grazes beneath a tor. [Ask for #106.036.]

Of course, the granite lands of Dartmoor are no more “wilderness” than any other part of England (which lost its last native forests under the Romans, if not before), and their emptiness is only apparent. Dartmoor has been the scene of human activity for six thousand years, and 150 generations of humanity have filled it with things to see and places to explore. Post-Ice Age climate fluctuation has been the main controlling factor. In most centuries Dartmoor’s climate was too damp and cold for farming, and during these cold centuries Dartmoor would be used as it is now, as managed common grazing, which keeps the land in grass and prevents the growth of trees. Then the warming would begin again, growing seasons would stretch, and pioneers would once more enter the granitic uplands, creating the farms, fields, and monuments typical of whatever culture was current. After a few centuries the cold and wet would return, the settlements would be abandoned, and the mosses would smooth their remains to forgotten lumps — cycles of humanity in deep time, preserved for our viewing.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Western Edge, Sheepstor, Sheep grazing on fields in front of Sheeps Tor. [Ask for #157.087.]


view towards a tor, from a field in which sheep are grazing. [Ask for #157.087.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Hound Tor, View of Hound Tor [Ask for #268.522.]


Hound Tor. [Ask for #268.522.]

The previous Ice Age rendered human life in Britain extinct for ten thousand years. As the ice receded, around perhaps 10,000 BC, low sea levels exposed a land bridge where the English Channel is now and the ancestors of the British simply walked across, following game herds into the newly formed grasslands. When these Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers reached Dartmoor they found it already covered with an open, glade-lake forest, a fine hunting ground. Then, as agriculture became common in the Neolithic Period (c. 3000 BC), farmers removed all of the Dartmoor forest, creating the unobstructed views we see today. These folk were but the country cousins of the great Neolithic Builders of Stonehenge and Avebury 100 miles to the east, and erected no great monuments — except, of course, for the landscape itself, that “Western” style openness, a cultural feature maintained, generation after generation, for five thousand years.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Dartmeet, View over open moor towards Improved lands in the River Dart headwaters, from Combestone Tor [Ask for #157.050.]


View over open moor from Combestone Tor [Ask for #157.050.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Wistman's Woods, View from woods over moor to River Dart [Ask for #104.083.]


View over open moor from Wistman's Wood, a remnant of the pre-Bronze Age forest. [Ask for #104.083.]

Monuments came to Dartmoor as metallurgy entered northern Europe. The Bronze Age gets its name from its most common and useful alloy, common copper hardened with rare tin so it could keep an edge. Dartmoor had tin, and lots of it, formed in veins at the places where newer volcanic rocks extruded through the older rocks. When the rock around a tin vein weathered, tin dust would wash down the streams to form placer deposits, much like the gold deposits of the American West. This Dartmoor tin was commercially mined on a large scale and shipped overseas, starting at least as long ago as 1750 BC, when a Phoenician ship full of ingots sank in the River Dart. Flush with wealth, Dartmoor’s Bronze Age tin mining residents built a series of megalithic monuments roughly contemporaneous with Stonehenge’s last phase (when bluestones allegedly imported from Wales were erected). The two stone rows at Merrivale are stunningly evocative. Located just off the B3357, each is a double line of standing stones almost 900 feet long, plus a 12 foot standing stone and a stone circle in ruinous shape.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Merrivale, Prehistoric stone row at sunset. [Ask for #158.002.]


Merrivale stone row, a megalithic monument contemporaneous with Stonehenge, at sunset. [Ask for #158.002.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Merrivale, Merrivale Standing Stone; Kings Tor in bkgd. [Ask for #157.100.]


Merrivale Standing Stone, a megalithic monument contemporaneous with Stonehenge. Kings Tor is in the background. [Ask for #157.100.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Hay Tor, Old tramway with granite rails , c. 19th c., runs beneath the tor [Ask for #268.509.]


A 19th Century tin mine beneath Hay Tor used granite rails for a tramway. [Ask for #268.509.]

A second period of Bronze Age settlement, around a short warm spell (c. 1300 BC), left behind entire settlements, including extensive sets of field walls called reaves. Built of stone in the deforested plateau and abandoned around 1100 BC, the reaves preserve an entire culture. Mostly they are low mounds of moss and grass, impossibly straight and going on for miles; these formed the boundaries between tribal areas rationalized into straight lines. Other linear mounds, running off at right angles to the reaves, are the stone walls of fields, and circular mounds in their corners mark off the remains of houses and barns. One of the largest sets of field boundaries appears near Combestone Tor, and can be viewed (if the shadows are just right) by looking westward across the valley from the Dartmeet B3387 road. Villages of circular houses also exist, Grimspound (near Postbridge) being the most famous and impressive after its 1894 restoration — a set of 24 hut circles within the low remains of an impressive wall.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Grimspound, Prehistoric huts. Hookney Tor in bkgd. [Ask for #157.015.]


Grimspound, a prehistoric village of round huts. [Ask for #157.015.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Dartmeet, Sunset view from the Dartsmeet Road, showing the system of reeves [Ask for #157.053.]


The reaves system near Combestone Tor. These linear markings, easily spotted at sunset, are Bronze Age field boundaries. [Ask for #157.053.]

The medieval period was (until the modern age) Dartmoor’s busiest time. Not only did the era’s booming international trade bring wealth to the Dartmoor tin miners, its climate (up to about 1300 AD) was as warm as our own. Agriculture once again crept high atop the plateau, only to retreat under an onslaught of cold weather. The best preserved of the lost medieval settlements sits below Hound Tor, itself one of the largest, most easily reached, and most interesting of the moor’s tors. The village, excavated in the 1960s, now consists of exposed foundations that clearly delineate its form, with impressive views beyond. Villages further down from the moor top did better than Houndtor (as it was known), as wool and tin exports expanded. Medieval wealth built a series of churches, none more stunning than St. Pancras at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, a tiny village set in a pocket of quiet beauty in the midst of the moorlands; known as “the Cathedral of the Moors”, St. Pancras’s 120 foot tower can be seen for miles around.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Hound Tor, Foundations of longhouses make up the ruins of an abandoned medieval village at the foot of the tor [Ask for #268.531.]


Foundations of longhouses make up the ruins of an abandoned medieval village at the foot of Hound Tor. [Ask for #268.531.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, The tall tower of St. Pancras Church, known as "The Cathedral of the Moor", marks the village center [Ask for #268.488.]


The tall tower of St. Pancras Church, known as "The Cathedral of the Moor", sits at the center of Widecombe-in-the-Moor. [Ask for #268.488.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, St. Pancras Church, known as "The Cathedral of the Moor", interior, with carved stone font [Ask for #268.494.]


The interior of St. Pancras Church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor. [Ask for #268.494.]

The most ubiquitous of the medieval monuments, however, are the great stone bridges, built by the tinners so that the floods, increasingly frequent after the end of the warming, wouldn’t stop their trade. These are long and graceful multi-arched structures, built wide enough for wagons. The width is remarkable, as medieval trade normally went overland by pack animals; roads were too bad for wheels. The wagon-width bridges imply a heavy trade down well-maintained roads, and are both good enough and wide enough to be used for modern automobile traffic. You’ll cross two of them on the road between Ashburton and Two Bridges, with three more in the Drewsteignton area.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Eastern Edge, Chagford, Chagford Bridge (15th C) over R. Teign [Ask for #157.084.]


Chagford Bridge (15th C) over the River Teign [Ask for #157.084.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Holne (village), Holne Bridge,  a 14th C. stone bridge built by tin miners over the River Dart, near Ashburton. [Ask for #157.045.]


A fisherman tries his luck in the River Dart underneath Holne Bridge, a 14th C. stone bridge built by tin miners. [Ask for #157.045.]

Other stream crossings, known as clapper bridges, were made of giant slabs of granite propped just over the water, good enough for pack animals even if impassible by wagons. These were also flood-resistant; when a flood washed one away, the locals would simply haul the stones back. As an age of a clapper bridges is impossible to determine some people speculate that they could date to the earliest days of tin mining, deep in the Bronze Age. Several clapper bridges survive, mostly as ruins, but the Postbridge clapper is kept in repair and is open to foot traffic.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Postbridge, Clapper bridge, made of granite slabs, of unkown age but first recorded in the 13th c. [Ask for #268.544.]


Postbridge clapper bridge, made of granite slabs, of unkown age but first recorded in the 13th Century. [Ask for #268.544.]

Between the bridges stretch miles of moor and marsh. Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles has a character describe the dangers. “That is the great Grimpen Mire ... A false step yonder means death to man or beast. Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it. He never came out. I saw his head for quite a long time craning out of the bog-hole, but it sucked him down at last.” At Whiteworks, an abandoned tin mine down a dead end lane from Princetown, an obscure foot path leads directly into one of the worst of the mires – and out again on the other side, for those brave enough. But medieval travelers did not need to rely on such paths. Local monks protected travelers from a similar death by marking safe routes with stone crosses, creating tracks from one side of Dartmoor to the other. Many of these crosses survive, although there’s no longer enough of them to follow.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Foxtor Mires, Center of mire, flooded, with mound. This is the prototype for Conan Doy'e's "Great Grimpen Mire" [Ask for #157.041.]


The center of Foxtor Mires, reachable from an obscure path. This is the prototype for Conan Doyle's "Great Grimpen Mire" in The Hound of the Baskervilles. [Ask for #157.041.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Foxtor Mires, Medieval stone cross marks the edge of mire -- a warning for travelers; the mire is shown in the bkgd. [Ask for #157.040.]


A medieval stone cross marks the edge of Foxtor Mires — a warning for travelers. [Ask for #157.040.]

The post-medieval period brought one of Dartmoor’s most characteristic features: the thatched farmhouse below the moor’s edge. Thatch remains particularly common along the farmlands of the eastern edge, and your chance of coming across a quaint old cottage is good as soon as you drop off the plateau into the rich lands below. Such survivals are mainly a matter of luck. These are the buildings that still had thatched roofs when the region came under historic preservation laws in the early 1950s; their large numbers show that the Dartmoor freeholders had been too poor to modernize their roofs before government planners entered the picture. Of course thatch today is a highly desirable symbol of both cultural identity and wealth, but back then it was an expensive, short-lived, mouse-infested nuisance.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Eastern Edge, Drewsteignton, A thatched pub, the Drewe Arms [Ask for #268.282.]


A thatched pub, the Drewe Arms, in Drewsteignton, [Ask for #268.282.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Eastern Edge, Drewsteignton, Thatched cottages viewed from the churchyard [Ask for #268.292.]


Thatched cottages in Drewsteignton. [Ask for #268.292.]

Hedgerows started to appear about this time, separating pastureland from rough grazing on the top of the moors. A hedgerow consists of a double row of stone wall with earth rammed between them. On this a hedge is planted and formed into a thick barrier by cutting the branches almost through, laying them on on their sides, and entangling them. You didn’t need a typical hedge plant to make this work, and Dartmoor farmers preferred beech trees. Many of these hedgerows were abandoned in the 19th Century, leaving plenty of time for the beeches to grow back into large trees. This leaves the strange sight of a row of trees marching through the moor for no apparent reason.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Postbridge, Overgrown beech hedgerow on Chittaford Down [Ask for #157.077.]


Overgrown beech hedgerow on Chittaford Down. [Ask for #157.077.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Eastern Edge, North Bovey, A line of trees along a gravel farm lane grow from an old hedgerow [Ask for #268.512.]


A line of trees along a gravel farm lane near North Bovey grow from an old hedgerow, [Ask for #268.512.]

Tourism began in earnest during the 19th Century. Before that it was just a long, dreary stretch of the coach road, running high on the moor instead of along narrow farm lanes in the muddy valleys below. As the Romantic Age progressed tourists sought ever more atmospheric destinations, and Dartmoor’s coaching inns made it easy to visit. Today tourism has grown into Dartmoor’s leading form of commerce, but without spoiling its picturesque nature. Visitors are tucked away down narrow lanes into villages, inns, bed and breakfasts, and vacation rentals (called self-catering). This is by intent. In 1951 Dartmoor became one of Britain’s first national parks — not a government owned reserve as in America, but rather a planning designation more akin to zoning, and aimed at protecting its scenic beauty. It is due to this that Dartmoor greets its visitors with patchwork fields, thatched cottages, quaint villages, and open vistas. The final act of the modern era (so far) has been to prevent the erasure of previous eras, to preserve deep time in Dartmoor.

ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Holne (village), Old farmhouse, cast iron sign, and stone bridge in the hamlet of Michelscombe [Ask for #105.094.]


Old farmhouse, cast iron sign, and stone bridge in the hamlet of Michelscombe at the edge of Dartmoor. [Ask for #105.094.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor's Southern Edge, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Venton, a rural community; old stone barn converted to a self-catering holiday rental; interior [Ask for #268.466.]


Venton Cottage, a self-catering cottage half a mile from Widecombe-in-the-Moor and a quarter-mile from Rugglestone Pub (below). [Ask for #268.466.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Princetown, A road crosses the high moor known as Walkhampton Common, west of town; Leeden Tor in bkgd; no traffic [Ask for #268.569.]


The main highway across Dartmoor crosses the high moors, with Leeden Tor in in the background. [Ask for #268.569.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Dartmeet, The Tavistock Inn on the Old Tin Road, in operation since 1413 [Ask for #268.503.]


Rugglestone Inn, near Widecombe-in-the-Moor. [Ask for #268.503.]
ENG: South West Region, Devon, Dartmoor National Park, Central Dartmoor, Dartmeet, View over open moor towards Improved lands in the River Dart headwaters, from Combestone Tor [Ask for #157.051.]


A hiker views the open moor at the center of Dartmoor, from Combestone Tor. [Ask for #157.051.]
Article by Jim Hargan
Originally published in British Heritage, May 2010
Jim's Brit
Travel + History
Contact Jim at:   jim@JimsBrit.com
Copyright ©2016, James A Hargan. All rights reserved.
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