Widecombe History Group Talk on Ancient Farmsteads of Dartmoor

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Ancient Farmsteads in the Central Basin of Dartmoor by Jenny Sanders.

The central basin for the purpose of this illustrated talk is the area surrounded by the East Dart from its source down to Dartmeet then up the West Dart to its source. Deviating a few hundred yards outside that line to bring in interesting farmsteads nearby.

Starting at Hartland, Postbridge, Hartyland, to the locals, an Ancient Tenement where the early records show the Potter family and later the Sleeps, this is Duchy owned as are many of the properties in this area. Immediately Jenny captured our imagination and attention as she showed photographs of the farmsteads she was discussing, today and a hundred years ago or more. Thanks to people like Robert Burnard, grandfather of the late Lady Sylvia Sayer, there are photographs as far back as the late 1800’s, showing what these places were like then. Some now have ‘new’ houses, built in the late Queen Victoria era and well into the twentieth century. Some of the houses are no longer used as homes but converted into farm buildings, some are in ruins and some have just disappeared not even a foundation left to be seen. This applied to Hartland and to the next farm visited, Higher Merrpit, a lovely photograph of how it was c1900 only to be burnt down in 1907 the view altered for ever. Headland was shown, Headland Warren to give it its correct title. Farmed as a rabbit farm in the early 1900’s by the Hannaford family and previously an Inn, this no doubt to satisfy the needs of the nearby tin miners. There are so many artefacts on the moors associated with these farmsteads, vermin traps, pillow mounds and at Headland a lovely old stone dog kennel. At Lower Merripit, an old Dartmoor Longhouse, there was found a ‘Hearth Pit’ in the floor when renovation took place a few years back and in the pit was found ashes that were ‘carbon dated’ as from 1235. The pit is still there, although covered over, as archaeologist tend to do these days, to preserve by covering rather than leaving open which could make it liable to be destroyed or removed. Pizwell was then discussed, at one time three ancient tenements, and pre 1260, due to its position in Lydford parish the dead had to carried across Dartmoor to Lydford Church to be buried. In 1260 Bishop Branscombe decreed that the dead from Pizwell and Babeny could be taken to Widecombe to be buried, which was so much easier. Interesting items of the architecture still can be found in some of these old houses, and the old houses now used as barns also contain interesting artefacts. At Pizwell there is the old cobbled floor, a 16th century door and fireplace, and heading for the Wallabrooke the old Church Path can still be traced heading for Widecombe and stepping stone to cross the river. In what was Dury Farm House the old fireplace with a flight of granite stairs beside it curling up and around the chimney stack. The Old Dartmoor Longhouse at Bellever has completely disappeared, totally destroyed when the present house was built in the 20th century, thanks to those old photographs we can appreciate what it was like. In fact Worth produced a plan of it when the new house was built in the 1920’s. On a positive note 82% of the old sites are still occupied, some by the old houses and some by newer properties. The strip fields of Babeny were explained, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries when the Ancient Tenements began. People were encouraged to exploit the waste lands of the King, they were also made to share the good land and the bad, the meadows and the pastures, and that is why in so many of these quite isolated hamlets the fields associated with each farmstead are intermixed. Freda Wilkinson, a member of our group, wrote in detail about Babeny in "Dartmoor - A New Study". There was a mill at Babeny c1500’s and the King’s Tenants were permitted to take wood from the King’s Woods for their use. Again there were three tenements at Babeny and in one of the buildings now used as cattle shed is an old hearth and a lovely doorway with a shouldered timber frame. The sheepwash, a place where sheep were washed by being ducked three times in the river, to clean the wool, this was done about two weeks before shearing, during that following two weeks the grease, yoke(Yock), would rise again making shearing easier, this area was designed so that the sheep could be held in a form of pen before being driven through a narrow path into the river, then allowed to climb the bank and drain off before being returned to new clean pasture. Sherril is still a hamlet with three farmsteads, a plan of Sherril was shown. This demonstrated the early pre-historic reeves and field system, the intermixed fields, each having their fair share of good and poor pastures. Another early porch still intact here, as the talk took us on to Dartmeet and then began the trek up the West Dart. First however Brimpts was discussed, an Ancient Farmstead, beautiful buildings now converted into a conference and experience centre, farm diversification in a sensitive manner. In 2002 winner of a special award. Some photographs were shown of the hay meadows with their profusion of wild flowers, some quite rare and being conserved due to careful management. Dolly’s Cott, there is a lot of folklore here, did she have men friends in high places? Did she even entertain royalty? She certainly moved around the immediate area but was she all she is said to have been? People are still researching her pedigree! From Dartmeet down stream towards Newbridge and ultimately the sea, the Dart is sometimes referred to as being ‘The Double Dart’, but Jenny was taking us upstream to Huckaby and Hexworthy. At Huckaby there were 5 tenements, two of the houses occupied by the Mudge family. At this time perhaps well worth noting that near Laughter Tor is a memorial to William (Bill) Mudge who farmed in this area, he died on 7th August 1969. St Raphael’s Church, reputed to be on the site of one of the old tenements, built in 1876 to act as a school as well as a church, in fact some of the pews are in the form of school desks complete with inkwell holes. Jolly Lane Cott, the last house on Dartmoor to be built in a day, reputed to have been built while all the local farmers and landowners were celebrating a local fair day, ‘if you get the walls up, the roof on and a fire lit within a day you could stay there’. Sally Satterley was the lady photographed in front of the cottage in the 1800’s, now extended with an second floor but the old original low wall still evident in the present construction. The nearby Forest Inn was passed as we headed for Sherberton, another three tenements were here. The shippen there, was once an old longhouse, that traditional style of Dartmoor farmhouse, generally built into the side of the hill, the dwelling part being on the higher side, a dividing through passage, and on the lower side the shippen for the cattle. This distinctive style has been studied for years by Jenny Sanders and the late Elizabeth Gawne, a book on the subject is on the bookshelves today. Stepping stones and bridges of all types were used to cross the rivers, some are still to be seen. However only the remains of the old fisherman’s bridge below Sherberton can be seen. Swincombe Farmhouse, now ruins, John Bishop’s Cottage also ruins but the ruins have been stabilised, John was a well respected wall builder. Sherberton ‘privy’ with a fantastic view situated over a stream which ‘carried everything out into the fields’. Sherberton stepping stones are still there near where the Cherrybrook meets the West Dart. Broom Park(Brim Park) was mentioned in 1598, taking its name from the profusion of broom plants growing in the area. Broom was grown as a crop and with many uses including thatching as well as food. Next stop Dunnabridge, where there used to be 5 tenements, each according to records having nineteen and a fifth acres each. 96 acres in all, but as it was considered that a family unit needed 30 acres on which to survive the tenants must have had access to some further acreage. In passing a sad story, young Christopher Richards and his family were camping by the river, he was left to play near the river while his family went to fetch something, on their return he was found floating drowned in a pool of the river, he was buried at Princetown. Newman Caunter and his family who lived at the farm, had a cross placed nearby as a memorial. The judges table reputed to have come from Crockern Tor, the site of the old Stannary Parliament, (Tinners Court), is to be found at Dunnabridge Farm, and in several old barns the old chimneys of the old tenements can be seen. On the main Ashburton to Two Bridges road is Dunnabridge Pound and the nearby associated farmhouse, the name of Dina Tuckett was mentioned associated with this place, she would have been responsible for making sure that the owners of strayed animals paid their dues before taking their animals away. Built in 16th century the house and the two and a half acre pound complete with the poundkeepers seat is on the right-hand side of the road and on the left-hand side the site of Brownberry Farm. Old Brownberry was built in 1530 was mentioned, the more recent one shown in the background of Burnard’s c1900 photograph of the pound and the seat, is now ruins. The practice of bringing stock up onto Dartmoor for summer grazing was mentioned, this was discontinued during World War II, the last photograph shown was of the old drift lane at Postbridge, one of many to be found on all sides of the moor. Farmers from all over Devon practised this but no-one from Barnstaple or Totnes were permitted to partake in this ancient practice. Thousands of animals were pastured on the moors at these times.

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