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Widecombe History Group Talk January 2000

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Widecombe History Group Talk on Man’s influence on the Dartmoor Landscape


Peter Wakeham’s talk - "Man’s influence on the Dartmoor landscape"

He began by saying that perhaps we may be going over some of what we are very familiar with, but with every visit we can always find on Dartmoor something that perhaps we have over looked on previous visits. Sometimes the second, third and so on visits are better than the first one as the first look at a place we look at the overall scene but on the further visits we tend to look for more detail. His interest has always been in the landscape and in Britain we have a very diverse one, varying from the Highlands of Scotland to the Somerset Levels. Here on Dartmoor we have a unique landscape. Dartmoor has no glaciated valleys, formed basically by mechanical and chemical erosion. As we look more carefully into this landscape we notice that there are effects that have been caused by human activity. We are fortunate here on Dartmoor because the results of the activity of man is still here for us to see today. The prehistoric remains that are all around us, like the double stone row at Merrivale for example, hut circles (round houses), standing stones etc etc, still here to be seen and wondered at. The climate was a few degrees warmer 5000 years ago, than it is today, with far more forestation than there is now, Our Prehistoric Forefathers started the whole process of cultivation, felling and clearing the trees, unlike their predecessors who only visited the area to hunt at odd times. They lived on Dartmoor hence their more permanent buildings and monuments. As they lived so they died and their dead were also buried here, cistveans and burial mounds are evidence of this.

The effect of years of various occupational activities has produced the landscape that we see today.

Andrew Flemming did a lot of work on Holne Moor, ploting the reeves or boundaries of prehistoric field systems, possibly showing group ownership and cooperation, and this style continued into celtic times. It is thought that due to climatic deterioration in the Iron Age people left the moors and settled on the edge of Dartmoor, most Iron Age Forts are on the edge of Dartmoor, there seems to be a lack of human activity evidence from then till Medieval Times AD1066-1485.

Medieval villages like the one at Houndtor and the one at Hutholes in this parish are the next type of permanent structures to be found on Dartmoor and the surrounding area. For many years there has been a theory that for that whole period through the Roman and Saxon occupation nothing happened on Dartmoor, Peter finds this totally unacceptable, he puts forward the idea that during that period of the Romans AD43-410 and later the Saxons cAD410-1066 surely they did not totally ignore this vast area on their doorstep. His thoery is that due to climatic changes Dartmoor was used for seasonal and sporadic periods according to the weather, so it was visited and ‘managed’ on a tempory basis. The climate may have produced wet or cold winters, hot, dry or wet summers, and so Dartmoor was used as the weather permitted. If as he suggested the moors were used only occasionally and at irregular times there ceased to be a need for permanent buildings, temporary shelters were all that was needed and these would not last or survive a long period of time, therefore there no evidence of these left to see today. Timber, wattle or turf houses and buildings built of this type of material would of course only last a comparatively short time. We can only speculate why some Medieval settlements survived longer that others, perhaps disease like the ‘black death’ c1350 caused some places to be abandoned earlier than others, some places perhaps managed to prosper while others did not. The black death decimated the population of the country by a tremendous percentage.

All over Dartmoor can be seen the cultivation activities of man, ridge and furrow (lazy-beds), the Challacombe lynchets etc. The traditional Dartmoor Longhouses, cattle one end and people the other, corn driers, barns etc can be seen.

The tinners activities, tin streaming as well as opencast and mining, have all left their marks. The tinstreamers whose evidence is beside virtually every little stream and river on the moor left their mounds of discarded rubble. Evidence of this is readily visable in this parish and the spoil heaps of Ruddicleave Bridge area in Buckland Parish are currently being mapped. With tin mining came more building, leats, stamping stones, blowing houses and in some instances power houses, the remains of shafts, huts, sediment beds and the like are still visable and in some cases you may find some relics of the iron work used. Peter mentioned ‘Crazywell Pool’ and some of the legends attached to it. This is an old flooded mine shaft with a surface area of about an acre. Folklore has it that it is bottomless, "tie all the ropes of Walkhampton Church together and you will not reach the bottom" - " once said that the level of the water rose and fell acording to the tide in Plymouth Sound", a very atmospheric place never-the-less said Peter.

Then there is the effect of quarrying on Dartmoor, several of these can be found, King Tor, Swell Tor south of Princetown, Foggingtor, Haytor, and of course the last to close quite recently at Merrivale. Stone workers benches also abound, where stonemasons spent many an hour cutting granite setts for buildings and streets, known as the ‘sett makers bankers’ hundreds of little granite chips can be found around about them. In old Plymouth all the back lanes were surfaced with these garnite setts or cobbles. Concern was expressed many years ago about the impact this taking of granite was causing to the moors and certain areas were marked off as ‘no go areas’ for the extraction of granite and stones marked with circles and crosses around certain tors are still there today, put in place to safeguard the beauty, preservation of the moors is not a new phenomena! This had the effect of preserving the Tors!

Also on the moors can be found part completed, in some cases complete millstones, crosses, troughs and other granite artifacts. He mentioned the granite corbels beside the old Princetown Railway Line, cut ready for the old London Bridge, he thought that there were thirteen when he was a lad but now there are only twelve and Peter Hirst said he was correct, when London Bridge was being taken down to be shiped to Arazona, U.S.A. one was dropped and broken and they took the other one to make good, it must be a one off case of being able to get a spare part for a bridge! The quarries there employed about 200 people and so they built a school, Foggingtor School, the site now known as ‘Four Winds’, from whence some Dartmoor National Park Guided Walks commence, built in 1913 closed in 1936. This too an example of mans intrusion into the landscape. Industry and people needed communication and what better way than the use of the famous Dartmoor Granite Crosses, some are boundary markers and some are waymarkers as well. Nun’s Cross, one of the biggest crosses on Dartmoor, mentioned in 1240 preambulation of The Forest of Dartmoor, marking the boundary of the Royal Hunting Forest, also known as Seaward’s Cross. Seaward, Earl of Northumberland had land in that area, marked Bockland, ‘land held by book or charter’. There are also Clapper Bridges, a necessity of communication. Haytor Granite Railway, instigated by the Templer Family. A truly wonderful piece of engineering, the tracks, points and the gentle downhill slope. Now the use of the motor vehicle is having its impact on Dartmoor, not only the groups of cars parked and effecting the visual impact, the people that they bring have caused the erosion particularly in places like Haytor and other popular places. People, cars, and animals have to coexist, and the possibility of fencing has to be considered and this too would have an effect. Princetown itself with The High Moorland Centre, Newbridge and the Military were discussed. The Military are much more concious than they were about their effect on Dartmoor and the importance of not damaging the existing relics on the parts of the moor that they use and make a big effort to keep the ranges tidy and safe for other recreational users. The red and white posts marking the ranges are an intrusion but it is all part of man’s effect on the moors.

He concluded by saying this was only a brief excursion on man’s impact on Dartmoor, but as we walk or ride across Dartmoor we should always keep looking and we shall be able to notice many other examples of the product of change due to man’s influence and it is still continuing. The delicate job of choosing what shall stay and what shall change is a very difficult balancing act and those whose job it is to decide must permit some of this to happen. What ever decisions are taken it must be remembered that Dartmoor is a living place, a place where people work and earn their living and it should not become an outdoor museum.

A question, discussion and answer session then took place including his ideas of what will happen in the future. More people are retiring and do not consider themselves old so they are looking for recreation. Dartmoor is a wonderful place for healthy exercise. Memories of old when machinery associated with industry was still on Dartmoor and old photographs are invaluable, photographs of today will always be of use to people in the future to see, as change is always taking place. The moors were used for military exercises during the war years. The posts that were erected at various places on the open moor to stop enemy gliders landing can still be remembered and a few are still in situe. The reeves led to the field systems of today utilising them and building upon them over generations.

Hydro electricity was produced at some tin mines, could it have been developed more? Rodney Cruze told of an engineer he once knew who stated that a twelve foot water wheel could only produce about two kilowatts of electricity.

A good exchange of opinions and ideas took place.

A hearty vote of thanks was to Mr Wakeham was proposed by the chairman.

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