History group Talk March 2011

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                                                 The Speaker this month was Philippe Planel and the subject was

                                                “Investigating Landscape History with a Parishscapes Approach”.  

This was a very interesting talk given with limited use of illustrations but explained to us in such an interesting manner, which gave us all something to think about. Philippe lives in East Devon, around the Sidmouth area, and that is where he has put into practice much of what he talked to us about. The main point was that his East Devon experience can and should be put into practice anywhere.  The Sidmouth area is “An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” an A. O. N. B.  He has been involved in a grand Community Project for three years and one of the first things he said was that it does not really matter how big or small an area of land you are looking at, the same methods apply. An example was to take a field any size and try to work out as much as possible about it, the size, previous uses, the ‘humps and bumps’, what are or were they. You need to study the hedges, streams, stones, points as to where up to four fields may meet. Be as comprehensive as you can. The ‘odd’ stone in a hedge, what is it doing there? Try to calculate what the historic landscape looked like. By historic he was referring to the past 100 or 150 years, not Prehistoric as we may find on Dartmoor. He knew his subject and we went away thinking this is just as relevant when walking down a lane or road, look at the hedges, and record what you may see!!  One of the first illustrations was a map of Widecombe showing the various types of land usage. Arable, pasture, orchards, woodland etc. We need to get a copy of this to peruse. He remarked how Widecombe had it’s Tithe Map digitised early and we have done all the apportionment book details. A map like this can be overlaid by a more modern one to see how field boundaries have altered, buildings that may have disappeared and so on. (English Heritage Viewfinder).  On a map you can look at dividing lines, hedges, streams, buildings, have they been moved or disappeared? Then if you can visit the site, (With the owner’s permission). When on site, observe these discrepancies, they look so much more interesting and you can appreciate the landscape much better. Look at the lie of the land, slopes, undulations, small hollows, all this can help to tell the story of where you are. It is a good idea to encourage your local school children to be involved and that should help them appreciate their heritage. In our case where the present school is now, 80 years ago it was all fields! If you can get children, teachers and long standing locals to cooperate so much the better. The young people often see things, ask questions and the elders can often be encouraged to think back as to how it was in their younger days. He showed a variety of sites in his home locality that showed Hill Forts, Burial Mounds and this prompted us to think of North Hall. He mentioned John Draisey, Outreach Officer of DRO and the ‘Finds Officer' of Exeter Museum and a Portable Antiquities Scheme (by which all finds large or small should be recorded.) He stated that this sometimes brings into conflict the actions of metal detectors and archaeologists. The County Archaeology Department run an Historical Environmental Record and an Historical Environmental Service both allied to finds.  A thorough survey of a field often brings to ones notice things that the casual observer can miss. Philippe then showed a couple of ruined sites that have over the years been overgrown by trees and vegetation. By comparing the maps it has been realised that these are in fact old long forsaken farmsteads and cottages. Obliterated by nature and showing how a once arable field has become a wood or copse.  He gave a couple of clues that when reading an old map may well come in useful. Buildings marked RED were generally houses, where those marked BLACK or GREY were generally farm buildings for stock etc. Many farms 150 years ago or more were often only 6, 8 or 10 acres. He showed an example of a farm completely overgrown in a wood, that one may well think had been woodland for generations but in fact was worked up to about 100 years ago. Arable fields and a house in 1840 and by 1960 dense woodland. He and a group of enthusiasts have excavated the site and even found an old stone engraved with the farm's name on it, they also found a hearth and an ashen floor all proving the existence of the once lost house.  These small farms depended so much on grazing on local commons. When the commons became enclosed they lost their grazing rights and they ceased to be economic to farm. Many of these small farmers did secondary jobs, near the sea perhaps fishing. On Dartmoor perhaps mining or quarrying, tin streaming and so on. Finally he impressed on us that the 19th Century is well worth looking at before looking at pre-history. He mentioned Peter Orlando Hutchinson a mid 19th Century artist. He drew on site and recorded the colouring precisely. He often wrote 'Coloured on Site' on his paintings.  It is possible to go to those sites today and witness the changes, Compere his paintings with how it is today or with recent sketches and photographs.  He did say how much information can be obtained by very small scale excavations, like a small trench cut across a ditch, the organic material dug up can now be Radio Carbon Dated with great accuracy.                                      All good food for thought as we continue to record the history of Widecombe-in-the-Moor.


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