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Widecombe History Group Talk April 2007

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Widecombe History Group Talk on Dartmoor from Mesolithic to Medieval Times


Mesolithic to Medieval Times by Len Copley

Len began his talk much further back than Mesolithic times by mentioning the geological activity that resulted in the Britain of today. 400million years ago when the plates of rock below the surface were moving (much as the action that caused the earthquake that resulted in the tsunami on Boxing day 2005 in the Indonesia area). Then considering the volcanic actions of 250 million years ago the pressure forced areas of land to rise well above sea level, forcing the granite upwards resulting in a land mass still covered with the sedimentary rock previously submerged under what is now the English Channel. The gradual erosion of the sedimentary rock laying bare the granite that we see today, some protruding on the top of our Dartmoor hills known as tors. These tors themselves gradually erode due to the action of wind, rain, frost all due to the power of nature, known as weathering. The water getting into the natural fissures in the rock, the action of the frost expanding the crevasses, the rocks of all sizes breaking away from the tor and tumbling down the hillside creating ‘clitters’ and shaping the tors as we see then today. On the top of some tors can be found ‘rock basins’, resembling large ‘bowls’ that are often full of water, created by the action of stones rolling around and gradually forming these indentations that years ago added to the folklore of ‘devil’s handbasins’ and the like.

As the hot gasses worked their way up through the molten granite dissolving the stone and reacting with it they deposited various minerals, copper, iron, tin, lead and small amounts of gold and silver.

The granite is made up of three main crystals, the glassy quartz, the white feldspar and the black mica. The feldspar has over a very long period gradually decayed into what we now call china clay and is mined on the edge of Dartmoor. China Clay is used in so much of our everyday commodities, paper, toothpaste, cosmetics and many utensils.

The ice age affected this area, many say that the glacier activity did not reach South Devon, but this can be an interesting discussion as opinions alter as scientists investigate more with new technology. The caves at Buckfastleigh were mentioned and as they formed due to the limestone dissolving, then getting blocked, then the top falling in and animals falling into it and being unable to climb out resulting in the fantastic finds of recent years of bones of long lost species.

Meseolithic man, hunters and gatherers made use of these natural places to live while hunting their food and gradually forming the prehistoric sites that abound on the Dartmoor to this day.

The landscape of Dartmoor has had a great deal of influence on mankind and man to has done a lot to create the Dartmoor of today. Field systems of prehistoric times still evident, the remains of their early homes (round houses) stone circles, standing stone, burial mounds to name just a few and as different eras came and went so we can find the evidence here, Bronze Age artefacts, Iron Age Forts, a small amount of Roman activity and the Vikings, Saxons, all played their part in the history of this grand area.

The Medieval times has left much for us to explore and the remains of many ‘Dartmoor Longhouses’ can be found in this area ‘Hutholes and Hountor’ being two of the best examples. These buildings were part cattle shed and part living accommodation all under the same roof. They also had a cross passage through the middle of the building, the people lived on the higher side of the doorway and the cattle on the lower side. The passage was used as a threshing floor for the farmer to thresh his corn and the draft passing through blew away the ‘chaff’ or ‘douse’. There are still many ‘Longhouses’ still occupied some still as farmhouses and several now private residences. This whole subject is very interesting and we shall follow this talk with a guided walk with Len around the deserted village of Houndtor on Saturday 14th April at 1.00 p.m.

Dartmoor is so interesting and wherever you go there is something of interest to see.

The actions of those early men of the moors to cultivate the land can still be seen by looking out for the remains of the ‘ridge & furrow’ cultivation and the ‘lynchetes’. The Challacombe area is a very good example of this.

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