Widecombe History Group Talk on Dartmoor Antiquities


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An illustrated talk by Ted Birkett-Dixon entitled - Dartmoor Antiquities

He commenced by saying that he had been asked by the DNP Archaeologist to get people's views on the few remaining Scotch Pine Poles that are still on Hameldown, they were erected at the cost of six pence each during the second world war, with the intention of making it difficult for enemy planes or gliders to land. Where will it be kept if this idea is adopted ? Possibly in the DNP High Moorland Visitor Centre? There are also a couple of them still on Pudsham Down in Buckland Parish. A decision on this should be taken at the next meeting.

His collection of photographs had originally been taken for his own pleasure but now put together for the benefit of others to enjoy.

Starting with the stone age. He mentioned Hansforth Worth and Grimspound, he then showed photo’s of Grimspound depicting the door posts on one hut circle. About 4000 hut circles are still on Dartmoor. Menhirs on Dartmoor some quite high some 15 feet or more. Some have fallen over during time and some have now been re-erected. One photo had the military ‘star sign’ on a hut circle, this was to tell military personnel to keep vehicles off the site. Stone rows the one on Hingstone Hill was a particular delightful picture. Shaugh Moor stone row with over 1000 stones still visable, in most cases there are burials normally at the end of these. There are single, double and even triple stone rows to be found. Kistveans are another great interest of Ted’s. This is a burial mound with a retaining stone ring around it, Ted posed the question - are there always an uneven number of stones in the circle? Corringdon Ball and Cuckoo Ball, have wonderful barrows and Ted has been involved in some excavations of these in the 1940’s. One photo was of a part of a funeral urn, this would have been from a cremation. He mentioned a Mr Parker who also was involved in finding several burial mounds on Dartmoor . A stone circle with a Kistvean in the centre at Lower Piles was shown. Dowsing has been used to try to confirm the existence of prehistoric sites that are not now too clear to recognise, this system seems to work and various finds have been recorded by this means. Another Kistvean on the edge of Fox Tor Mire was shown to the meeting and he said that he seems to find it increasingly difficult to find time to follow up all the lines of enquiry that still come to his notice. Ted feels that there were no burials as such on Dartmoor his theory is that they were all cremations, his theory is based on the fact that whenever there is a fragment of bone found it is always chared.

Crosses mostly date from the 12th to the 14th centuries. Many were damaged during the periods of religious upheavals when anything of a religious nature was deliberately damaged or defaced. Many of these crosses were used as waymarkers by early travellers who crossed Dartmoor for instance from Buckfast Abbey to Tavistock Abbey and Plympton Priory and Buckand Abbey. The site of Plympton Priory has houses built on much of it now. Childe’s Tomb - Childe the hunter a good folklore story - and this like many others has had a chequered history - used for gate posts and several other uses as well. A bullseye stone in the side of a leat demonstrated the method by which a supply to a neighbouring farm could be controlled and maintained, the water ran through the hole, about an inch in diameter, and on to the farm as a water supply. He believes that originally there were seven farms fed from this leat by this method and there are still five who get their water this way.

Tin mines always come up when talking of Dartmoor. Tinners spoil heaps, blowing houses, mortar stones some with dates on them. Many of these blowing houses are by rivers and on the Yealm there is one that has a mould stone and once there was an ingot of tin that fitted exactly into it. During the blitz of Plymouth the ingot got lost or destroyed so this one unique example has been lost for ever. A tin miners reservoir on Hameldown, the position of the slucegate, the water perhaps as little as 500 gallons would be stored and then released as and when required.

The first and smallest bridges were simply a single stone put across a stream, perhaps near a dwelling, then came the clapper bridges much larger, and capable of getting livestock across the bigger rivers particularly when in flood. There are even aquaducts and small bridges crossing some leats, all part of early engineering.

Particular interest to our members was Ponsworthy Bridge with the dates of construction on it and a further date when it was repaired.

Gate posts, the early ones had no iron work on them, they were made as a pair with slots cut into them, individual planks of wood inserted into the socket on one side and dropped into the slot on the other post That was a simple but effective gate. Some had "L" shaped inserts so that the wood could easily be slid into place.

There are stones engraved with letters for various purposes, marking boundaries of farms, warrens etc. there is also the wonderful line of stones from Merrivale to Holne marked "T" on one side and "A" on the other. These are the Tavistock -Ashburton way markers. It is believed that in 1701 the people of Plymouth erected some more, they were nowhere near Plymouth but they must have been very important to have contributed to this expense. One wonders why they did this, perhaps it was widely used and of some importance to the economy of Plymouth!

He mentioned "The Duke of Somerset Stones", the D S 1854 Stones, on Hameldown, Blue Jug being one of them.

He then showed some pictures taken in the 1950’s. They showed the old cider mill on the projection into Burrator Reservoir. Nearby he told the meeting there was a ‘windstrew’, a flat area about 10ft by 8ft where the farmer thrashed his corn from the sheaves, the wind passing though the area would blow away the husks and leave the grain on the ground. Nearby was a collection of ‘cheese-presses’ made out of granite, domestic mortars and quorns, sadly they have all vanished. Contact was once made with the Waterboard who now own the area. They are reputed to have a book listing all the items that were originally there, but they would not let anyone have sight of it. They are now gone, to where one may ask, perhaps in someone's garden as an ornament, who knows!

At Merryvale, amongst the clitter of stones, hut circles and other remains, can be found a cider mill stone made on site. Granite was also used to make domestic water troughs, dog kennels, ducks houses etc. There are many leats , the most famous perhaps Devonport Leat. A dolls head was once in situe at one point but after some publicity, vandals went and destroyed it. The pieces were collected and DNP made a replica of it and that has now been replaced.

There are distance stones marking the distance from butts where soldiers did target practice. An early railway tunnel from Forder Valley to Plym Bridge was the subject of one photo, it takes about ten minutes to walk through it, the entrances faced with granite, another piece of engineering. Well constructed and about every 50 yards or so an iron ladder going up to the roof to an opening above ground, where are they now? Under a house or in a garden? Who knows? Some of Plymouth’s treasures were stored in that tunnel during the war!

On Roborough Down there are the old stables belonging to the old Dartmoor Railway, where they used to change horses. Some of his early photo’s showed the old radar mast on Peak Hill just out of Yelverton, and the Old Dartmoor Railway track can still be found. The Great Western Railway, when they came along, followed the same route for most of the way but did put in a couple of cuttings, so there are some slight variations. Haytor Granite Railway was also featured and a milestone, the pointwork and passing places, some small bridges where streams passed under the track. A lock on the canal near the river Teign, still showed the windlass that was used to control the water. Redlake tramway between Ivybridge and Bittaford and a branch to serve the china clay pits, a winding house with machinery to wind up the trucks from the main line and much much more was shown to us from his extensive collection of photographs.

The artifacts connected with Rabbit Warrens were shown, vermin traps complete with the funnel of stones to guide the stoats etc into the trap. The trap had a cover and slates front and rear, which were tripped by the animal and thus captured. A wheelwright stone is another item made from granite. The boundstones on Pew Tor, sett makers bankers, where men made granite setts and paving stones for roads. Potato caves, where farmers stored their crop, on the south of Leather Tor is an interesting example with a beautiful reflective surface.

Much of what Ted has on photographs can no longer to be seen so the value of his and other similar collections can not be over estimated. Princetown and its Church, the grave where a ‘borstal boy’ was buried, the headstones in the churchyard with their connected history to the Napoleonic War 1809, and American War of Independence 1812. Powdermills and the mortar used to test the gunpowder and so his collection goes on!

A considerable collection of interesting photographs that covered a wide variety of subject matter, from prehistoric times right up to the present. The talk and illustrations were greatly appreciated by the gathering and a hearty vote of thanks was recorded to Ted for a most interesting evening.

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