Widecombe History Group Talk on Dartmoor Longhouses

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Mrs. Jenny Sanders of Tavistock gave the Group a most interesting address on Dartmoor Longhouses illustrated with slides. This is part one of a series of two talks that she gives concerning this unique form of buildings. She first became interested in longhouses in the 1970s when her cousin, Mary Hamlyn of Dunstone Court, now Dunstone Manor, decided to re-roof part of her house. Historians both local and national homed in on the property to examine amongst other things, the interesting roof structure,-this was when she first met Elizabeth Gawne. She started her talk by showing a map of Dartmoor depicting the known sites of these Longhouses and this revealed a high density of these structures in the Chagford and Widecombe areas. Much information has been obtained by excavations of abandoned sites. One of the earliest of such sites is at Houndtor Medieval Village in. Manaton where there are eleven structures not all longhouses and considered to be possibly thirteenth century, another is at Hutholes on Dockwell Farm another at Dinna Clerks on West Shallowford both in the parish of Widecombe. Several old longhouses have now been modernised/restored and there are still several that are now used as barns and are as such difficult for the uninitiated to recognise. Longhouses are basically an "Upland type" of building where the animals and the humans shared the same roof, there are however some that are off the moors. Generally built on the side of a hill with the dwelling section on the higher side and the shippon housing the animals being on the lower side of the central passage-way or cross passage. The most recent thinking is that turf houses did not precede the stone built structures on these deserted sites. Both humans and animals used the same entrance and this central passage was also used as a winnowing place where the through draught helped to separate the corn from the chaff. A Longhouse was usually a single-storied building, some had an upper room later on, at the higher end of the house the main room having a central hearth, the smoke simply percolated up through the thatch roof, very few had a smoke louvre, when they started to build chimney stacks they were usually positioned by the cross passage, most had very few and small windows to keep the cold at bay and the heat in. The lower end where the animals were housed not only cattle but possibly sheep and calves as well had a central drain which emptied out at the lower end of the building.

From the outside the ridge of the roof of some of the earliest of these buildings can be seen to slope considerably however there is a period when they began to straighten out. Of the earliest of these buildings, in one or two rare examples the square set ridge poles can be seen held in position and supported by yoke-like structures pegged to the trusses. In a few cues the exterior corners of the walls were rounded, like the Hound Tor ones.

There was a group of three longhouses at Pizwell dating from early 16th century, (originally four, the earliest mention of the site being in the 13th century). We were shown a massive fire place, early shoulder headed doorway and a raised cruck, There is a similar group of four in this parish Higher and Lower Torr and Higher and Lower Uppacott. Freda Wilkinson will be leading a guided tour for members at Higher Uppacott on Saturday 10th April at 12.00 noon. Jenny stated that the longhouse at Lettaford, in the parish of North Bovey which now belongs to the Landmark Trust, can also be visited by appointment and on occasions guided walks.

There were 35 ancient tenements on Dartmoor all of similar construction and the practicality of having the farmer and his stock under one roof could not be over estimated during the long hard winters experienced at those times. These houses evolved in some cases by having a lean-to usually added to the rear as a dairy etc., a porch over the door in the early examples made of large rough stones but in later buildings some were elaborately carved and dated, this was the signs of progress during a period of 400 years.

We were shown an inventory of the animals on a farm 1628 - 1778 of the Hamlyn family and how the stocking rate gradually increased. The inventory of household items clothes and pans bedstead etc. In old wills the best was generally left to the eldest child, the second best to the next and so on.

One example of a corner stone had an unusual hieroglyphic or Chi-Rho on it, it is the letter X and the letter P joined together, these are from the Greek alphabet they are the first two letters from 'Christ' in Greek this could date from 3rd to 6th century and it was mentioned that a Church at Phillack in Cornwall has one very similar. Some of the later houses had open hearths some with ovens, all part of evolution, the fireplaces made in some cases of great granite monoliths and huge granite lintels.

The interior of some of the restored/modernised houses was also shown and the extent of control over these activities by D.N.P. was mentioned and how this can vary between properties. Considerable expense is involved with this kind of work. Finally we saw photographs of Bowden Farm in Buckland in the Moor, recently sold for about £300,000 and now being restored. Last sold in 1953 for about £2,500 when the Buckland Estate was sold.

Photographs of some hay meadows, farming activities and the medieval field systems at Dunstone and other machines at work in the early part of this century including a wagon load of bracken being taken home for livestock bedding and turning peat for drying before being carried home.

A sincere vote of thanks was expressed to Jenny Sanders and she then presented the Group with a copy of her recently published book "Early Dartmoor Farmhouses - Longhouses in Widecombe", which she had written based on the detailed notes and drawing of the late Elizabeth Gawne who had spent many yews studying the subject.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 17 2013 14:02:34.

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