Widecombe History Group Talk on Northern Dartmoor

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Dartmoor-the North Moor by Len Copley

What or where is The North Moor? It is generally accepted as being all that area north of the road that runs from Tavistock-Two Bridges-Moretonhampstead.

Photographs of various locations, buildings, natural and industrial sites were shown to the meeting. Starting at Sticklepath the old woollen mills where red serge was produced for uniforms. The Finche’s Foundry where iron edge tools were made and is now maintained by The National Trust as a working industrial archaeological site. The wooden launders that still carrys the water to the waterwheel that drive all the mechanism were shown, the water being taken from the River Taw. This site once a corn mill now showing all the original belts and pulleys that work the trip-hammers, sharpening stones and other machinery associated with the foundry. As the water moves on it can drive more than one wheel and then return to the river - another good example of reusable energy! The notable ‘Irishman’s Wall’, constructed by a local landowner with Irish labour when he hoped to enclose part of the commons. The local commoners allowed the wall to get nearly completed and then en-mass knocked it all down. They were not going to lose their common rights. They are reputed to have erected a sign that read ‘we can knock it down quicker than you can build it up’! They did and the remains are there to be seen today.

When ever we have a dry summer and the need for more water is the result various ideas get put forward as to how to ease the problem. In c1960 it was decided that there could be a vast amount of water under the Taw Marshes, calculations suggested that 100 million gallons a day could be drawn from that source, in fact only a third of that can be achieved. The associated structures holding the pumping gear can be seen, not very large, but the possibility of Radio Activity in the water was raised but this can be satisfactorily removed by an aeriation plant and it is still working today. Granite quarries, Meldon Quarry where the perfect type of stone can be quarried for the base for railtracks was mentioned and also the fact that there was a glass factory where a distinctive type of pale green glass was produced. The quarries near Meldon Dam are different as they produced granulite, a mineral that can be used to produce glass. Pieces of this glass can still be found but all the complete bottles have been removed many years ago by bottle collectors. Crebers of Tavistock had many bottles and jars made there, also some were made for holding creoline, a creosote type of product, it was in fact a patent medicine of the Victorian era. The two old lime kilns can still be seen, where limestone was burnt and then taken and spread on the land to improve the herbage. Also in the area the Meldon Viaduct carried the railway across the West Okement River. Meldon Dam, constructed in c1970’s, is well worth a visit and the central column houses the mechanism for pumping the water from the dam to the treatment works. There is also a small hydro-electric system that produces electricity from the compulsory flow of water which has to be allowed to flow from, or bypass, the dam to maintain the head of the river for the flora and fauna of the river. The electricity produced runs the machinery in the dam and any surplus is sold to The Local Electricity Company. There is an interesting device that looks like a plumb-line which measures the movement of the dam, this ‘honeycombed construction’ can be walked through!

Not far away is the remains of the Sourton Ice Factory. Over the years many people have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to make big pickings from Dartmoor. It has been said of Dartmoor "You try to scratch my back and I will scratch your pocket"! An entrepreneur c1850 had the idea that because there was a beautiful clear spring rising near Sourton Tor and every winter there was ice and snow near the tor, had the idea that by digging shallow pans in the surrounding moor about fifteen inches deep, filling them with water in the winter and allowing them to freeze solid. Then by cutting out the ice and storing it in underground pits about 10 feet deep, he could sell the ice to the big houses to use for refrigeration and even to Plymouth Barbican Fish Market, he would make a fortune - alas another failed enterprise.

Dartmoor thrives on its superstitions and legends and one such story concerns Branscombe’s Loaf. Bishop Branscombe of Exeter was responsible for all the churches under his jurisdiction and was supposed to visit them all once a year. The story is that he and his manservant were travelling across the moors when he said out loud how he could do with something to eat and drink.

Suddenly as from nowhere a man appeared and offered him some bread and cheese. The man said you must get off your horse and acknowledge me as master before you can have it. The Bishop agreed, but his manservant noticed the man had cloven feet - ‘the devil’- the manservant cried, he knocked the food out of the man’s hands who then galloped away and the bread and cheese turned to stone - its there today! Archaeologically there is a circle of stones around that granite mound, undoubtedly a place of importance to early man, but local folk have been known to refer to it as ‘Branscombe’s plate’! That’s the story, it is up to you whether you believe it or not!

There are many military remains on the moors and it has to be impressed on all those that walk the moors to leave well alone as anything you see may be unexploded militia. The odd shell whivh does not explode on impact, the army try desperately to recover, but inevitably some are missed, if any are spotted a note of the position should be made and reported to the authorities. Some places there are remains of W.W.II aeroplanes, practice targets and rails that had targets attached to them so that practice shooting at a moving target could take place. The craters caused by shells, some old, some quite modern, they too should be avoided. The army have been using this area for about 120 years. They need to practice somewhere and in the Falkland War the experience of training on Dartmoor stood them in good stead - this use of Dartmoor always causes heated discussion. Some remnants of observation posts dating from a hundred years ago and some more modern structures can be found.

Wistman’s Wood, one of three remaining portions of the old Oak Forests has increased in size over the last twenty years by about twenty-five per cent, and is North of Two Bridges and is on the North Moor, farther north is Black Beer Copse, with Piles Copse near the river Erme to the south. Their survival can be due to the fact that they are growing amongst a clitter of rocks which makes it virtually impossible for livestock to gain access, so the young trees as they grow from little acorns get a chance to mature and hence the continuation of the woods. These trees knarled and stunted rarely grow to more than fifteen feet high.

Years ago when farmers and stone masons and the like were requiring troughs, apple crushers, posts etc, they went up onto the moors and after finding a suitable stone, worked on it in situ. Sometimes there was a flaw in the stone and after partial completion a piece broke off, the discarded partly finished object was left where it was being worked, these articles can be found scattered on the moors today. The reason they worked in this way, was so that the finished article would only be a fraction of the weight of the original stone, and so would be much easier to transport over the rough terrain to home.

Two Hydro Electric plants came in for mention. The one at Chagford, comparatively small, if not the smallest of its type, but of an early vintage, c1890, drawing water from the North and South Teigns. The more modern one at Mary Tavy has developed the water system originally set up to work the copper and arsenic mines. The reservoirs holding the water until there is a need for electricity quickly to boost the National Grid. Almost immediately the water can be let through, producing extra current within minutes.

The many and varied uses for which granite can be utilised was shown, houses, walls, posts, troughs, and other structures. This has been so for generations, and the ruins of many such enterprises are out on the moors to be seen by the observer. Shelters for shepherds and stockmen over the years, used as summer homes for those sent on to the moors with stock. A few rough stones added to by a few pieces of wood and turf for the roof, was sufficient, and easily restored the next year. There are places where the Moormen have fixed metal rings into rocks so that they could tether their horses when tending their stock. Crossing in his ‘Guide’ mentions Ringrock, there are in fact three rings in Ringrock. It is thought that this spot is as near to Cranmere Pool that a farmer could get on horseback. Talking about livestock the old Peat Passes, where horses and cattle could pass through the peaty masses were invaluable. Some of these are natural places where the peat had eroded away to the base rock making safe pathways, others were cut by man. There are about twelve of these passes. At each end of most of them are granite posts. The name of Frank Phillpotts M.F.H. was mentioned, he had passes cut and maintained through the centre of the moor so that when hunting the riders and hounds could keep up with the crafty fox who knew his way about without difficulty. A granite stone with an iron plaque is fixed at the end of the pass noting this, these passes are near Cut Hill and Cranmere Pool and other spots where the bogs can be very treacherous. Phillpotts who was a wealthy man sent his men annually to clean and maintain these passes.

The remains of old railways like the Bridestowe Line are visible, the station is now a dwelling house and the line a lawn, but further up on the moor leading to the old peat works, another of these old business ideas, the route can be clearly seen of the Rattlebrook track about six and a half miles long. Old photographs copied onto slides make Len’s talk even more interesting, tracks, houses, lorries etc. particularly those that are no longer in place to be seen, are brought to life with lectures like this. These included old scenes of Princetown and the naphthalene and paperworks, ruins of Bleak House, Powdermills, before too much dereliction had taken place. Powdermills was driven by water. A leat was brought for two and a half miles from the East Dart to the mills and then used to work three waterwheels, one after the other with the same flow of water, one to grind charcoal produced on site, the next to grind saltpetre and the third to grind the sulphur, ultimately to be mixed to produce the gunpowder for blasting. The strength of the powder was tested by means of firing a sixty pound cannon ball and calculations were done as to distance travelled according to the various percentages of the mixture.

Sticklepath Mines for copper and arsenic, Wheal Betsy for lead and silver, they all had their place in the Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor and when it comes to agriculture that too has left its mark, particularly with the ridge and furrow or lazybeds that can found all over Dartmoor, showing how the moors have evolved.

Len then agreed to give the group a guided walk around the Meldon area, meeting at the Meldon Reservoir Carpark on Saturday 13th July at 12.00 noon -bring a picnic!

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:54:51.

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