Widecombe History Group Talk on Ancient Trackways

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Paul Rendell, of Okehampton, gave an illustrated talk on ancient trackways, church paths, etc. He commenced by mentioning the many wet and boggy areas of Dartmoor, and how only in comparatively recent years, have there been the roads across Dartmoor which are now taken for granted. Looking at the many prehistoric remains on the moors, he suggested that some of these might well have been early waymarkers. He even suggested that some of the stone rows may have been used for that purpose. There were two particular religious establishments around Dartmoor, Buckfast Abbey and Tavistock Abbey and the track now known as the Abbots Way, some 20 miles in distance, was the route taken from one to the other. Mostly marked with granite crosses or upright stones some with the simple engravings of "A" on one side for Ashburton and "T" on the other for Tavistock and placed so that on a clear day from one cross the next could be seen. This would not be very effective on a foggy Dartmoor day! Over the years some crosses on the moors have been removed and used for various purposes such as farm gate posts. Such an example is Oldsbrim Cross now replaced in this parish.

Then he mentioned the Lichway (the path of the dead), the route used to take the dead in the parish of Lydford across Dartmoor to be buried at Lydford Church until about 1200’s. It wasn’t until Bishop Branscombe, the Bishop of Exeter, gave permission for the dead of Postbridge, Bellever, Huccaby and the like, to be buried at Widecombe, that the Lichway fell gradually into disuse, but during this century it has become used a lot more by recreational hikers. The coffin stone, half way up Dartmeet hill, was illustrated complete with engravings of initials and crosses, the resting place for weary bearers to lay their load when carrying coffins to Widecombe Church, it is now in two pieces, this believed to be the result of it being struck by lightening. He recalled the story of the traveller who stayed at Warren House Inn, who having been allowed to sleep in the attic, opened a box by the bed to fined a corpse inside it. On mentioning this to the Landlord in the morning only to be told "thats alright, tis only Father, us salted him in during the winter as the weather was too bad to take him to Lydford to bury".

Tracks across Dartmoor at various places were also used to convey people accused of breaking the law to Lydford for Court appearance and ultimately imprisonment in Lydford Castle.

Other tracks were developed by miners going to and from their homes to the tin and copper mines on the moors, and there was also the Mariners Way, a route of some 80 miles, from Bideford and Barnstaple to Dartmouth used by sailors in search of a ship on which to work, now used by ramblers, and at places there are stones marked "MW" that have recently been placed on the route for their guidance. The mariners are reputed to have stayed overnight in churches and other establishments where they could get food and lodging. In Gidleigh in the 1600s there are records of money being paid to sailors for food and clothes.

Many of the paths now used as footpaths and rights of way originated from farm workers tracks going to and fro to work and also church paths from homes to church. He also mentioned how Church houses were used to brew ale.


Todays two main roads that cross Dartmoor, Ashburton to Tavistock and Moretonhampstead to Yelverton, are carried over rivers and streams by bridges but before the nineteeth century other means of crossing rivers were used, many of these still visible today, some however in partial ruin. Where the river was shallow, fords were used as crossing places but for pedestrians some of these had the additional asset of stepping stones. Where the river was deeper, clapper bridges were built (clapper = celtic for large stone) these were of use for pack horses as well as people on foot. Some footpaths and bridle ways in the form of sunken paths can still be found and on some footpaths a variety of types of stiles can also be seen.

One of the earliest maps of Dartmoor was produced in the late seventeen hundreds by Benjamin Donn, it shows very few tracks across Dartmoor, a picture of this map was shown. These tracks or roads were constructed with cracked stone and gravel only at that time.

He showed some interesting photographs, mainly taken from postcards, of milestones, Tavistock Goosey Fair, and other sites of interest on Dartmoor. He mentioned the first tarmac being layed at Two Bridges in about 1910, tar and chippings were used to a great extent simply covering the exsisting rough tracks. In the early part of this century coach tours and car trips began, this was the beginning of the tourist trade. The Two Moors Way from Lynton to Ivybridge 102 miles instigated in 1976, which links up with and uses many footpaths and rights of way that have been in existence for many years. The activities of the Dartmoor National Park Authority in maintaining paths and access to interesting sites on Dartmoor such as Grimspound was mentioned and the fact that Dartmoor has been increasingly used for recreation and healthy pursuits during the twentieth century and no doubt will continue to be so used as we enter the new Millennium.

Margaret noted that on one of the old maps "Teignbridge" was mentioned. Recently this has been used again to signify our Rural District.

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