History Group Talks June 2009 - Protecting Dartmoor’s Past

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Jane Marchand, archaeologist for Dartmoor National Park Authority gave an interesting illustrated talk on “Protecting Dartmoor’s Past”.

She began by emphasising the fact that Dartmoor, as it has so many archaeological sites, and so much evidence of bygone occupation and activity, really deserves protecting. Not only for the benefit of archaeologists and historians, but for the great educational value for present and future generations.

Information abounds in many books and papers written by numerous people during the past two hundred years or more, and with the visual evidence still available, this all makes Dartmoor a particularly interesting place for scholars to visit and observe for themselves the works of hundreds and thousands of years that have been obliterated in many other parts of the country.

In the late 18C, Mrs Bray, the wife on a Tavistock vicar, was concerned about the ever increasing trend of building Newtake Walls. She could see many prehistoric sites being striped of stones. To build these walls, hut circles and stone remains, were being vandalised. At one site there is what appears to be an old cross built into the wall.

Old hill forts were also destroyed, this referred to in ‘Rowe’s Perambulations‘.

Baring Gould in 1860 mentioned a Cist that had its cover stone cut to provide a gate post.

The Dartmoor Exploration Committee, an a early conservation group, re-erected standing stones, that had been taken for that purpose too. Robert Burnard, grandfather of Lady Sylvia Sayers, formed The Dartmoor Preservation Society for that purpose also.

Forestation during the 20C had a great effect on prehistoric sites. Some places were preserved in clearings in the middle of plantations. However they became isolated, with no bearing on the associated stones that are hidden in the trees. This made it very difficult for archaeologists to ascertain the full meaning of these important sites.

Lady Fox and Lady Sayers were concerned about the affect of reservoirs. In drought years it is well worth visiting Fernworthy Reservoir to see the remains of the old farm, bridge and duck house etc that gets to see the light of day again as the water level falls.

The activity of the clay works has meant that much of archaeological value has been covered over.

Dartmoor National Park was created in 1951 to conserve the cultural heritage of Dartmoor. 1500 sites have been scheduled and a further 17,500 historic sites have been recorded.

Items of importance can vary from hut circles (round houses), pillow mounds and vermin traps (warrening), cairns, cists, standing stones, stone rows and much more, all important to our heritage.

Dartmoor is a very popular place for visitors and tourists alike, they too can do damage by unthoughtful activities. One that has become prevalent in recent years is the habit of holding a barbeque in hut circles, even using some of the stones for ‘camp fires’. The damage done by these fires and associated activities is immense.

The habit of interfering with large stone tumuli, building up piles from the stones by disturbing hundreds of years of history. This too has to be discouraged.

The interference with the remains of buildings, digging out the mortar, dislodging the stones, has meant that repair work to maintain these structures is a costly obligation but one that has to be done to maintain our heritage. There was a case in 19C of grave stones being removed from Ilsington Church Central Aisle, and taken many miles away. One grave cover stone is now returned to the Lady Chapel.

As mentioned, Dartmoor is visited by thousands of people each year, the damage caused by so many feet can create serious erosion. This too has to be dealt with and many schemes of restoration have been put into practice. Jane mentioned the effect of the increase of bracken on Dartmoor and the damage that that can do to sensitive prehistoric sites. The rhizomes damage the remains by physically shifting the stones and interfering with the structures and the subsoil. When in full growth the ferns obliterate the sight of the adjoining sites and make studying the vista quite difficult.

She posed the question of ‘was this due to the change in the management of Dartmoor as so few people cut ferns (bracken) these days’?

Various ways to control bracken was discussed. Regular cutting, bracken bashing( several people stamping around one specific area in an attempt to damage the plants), spraying with chemicals, or the use of machinery to crimp the stems. All these need to be continued year after year to have much effect. The fact that bracken is no longer burnt at ‘swalling time’ as was done for generations, was mentioned. The build up of bracken litter year after year was questioned, the fact that this litter is a breeding ground for the ‘ticks’ that can cause Lyme’s Disease in humans, and health problems for livestock, was also brought into the discussion.

The fact that less animals now graze the commons was also considered a contribution to the problem. The fact that in some areas vegetation, in the form of brambles, thorn bushes, mountain ash and other shrubs are taking over, action is needed to halt their progress was discussed.

The vexing problem of the theft of many physical artefacts from the moors was considered. Stones, crosses and the most recent loss of a turnpike milestone from its site near Dunnabridge all gives cause for concern. Attempts have been taken to halt these thefts by using microchips placed in some particular important stone artefacts, this has proved successful in some cases, and some stones have been traced and returned.

This success has prompted Cornwall to try the same system for some of their historic items.

5000 years of the build up of peat on Dartmoor is so important to the environment. The data that can be retrieved from peat samples is quite amazing. Pollen, seeds, as well as buried remains and missing stones in the form of rows and circles can be hidden from sight in these peaty areas. These peat areas are so important particularly in these days of 'global warming

The Dartmoor National Park Authority produce leaflets that help with the interpretation of history and wildlife.

They explain the features, plants and creatures, that can be seen on the moors and they are obtainable from the information centres.

Yet again a very interesting and informative talk for which Jane was duly thanked.


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