History and Myths of Dartmoor

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History and Myths of Dartmoor and the surrounding area - Dartmoor Heritage

Dartmoors History and Myths


Dartmoor is not just a wild place of heather covered moorland, deep wooded gorges and tumbling rocky rivers for amidst this wealth of natural beauty are hints of the industries of the past and an abundance of archaeological sites including burial chambers, stone circles and menhirs, more than anywhere else in Western Europe.

There are remains of mines and quarries, ruined castles, medieval abbeys, ancient churches and bridges. Nowhere else will you find such a unique blend of features that show mans occupation spanning a period of some 5000 years coupled with such mystical enchantment and breathtaking beauty.


Mines, Quarries and Industries of the past
Moorland tin-streaming dates back to the 12th century and earlier, and the ruins of tin, copper, lead, zinc and silver mines abound. You'll discover mineral spoil heaps in river valleys and derelict blowing houses, wheel pits and tinners' huts at sites such as Wheal Betsy, Vitifer, Birch Tor and Golden Dagger. You'll also find the mounds of medieval warrens, where rabbits were bred to feed the miners. Look for evidence of other industries too - tramways for china clay pits and granite quarries, the buildings of a gunpowder factory at Powdermills, and the leats which supplied moorland water to Devonport and Plymouth .

Wheal Betsy
Near Mary Tavy is the site of Wheal Betsy (SX 510812) a predominantly lead and copper mine, though arsenic and silver were also retrieved, that finally closed in 1877. The remains of the engine house are the most complete on Dartmoor There are old workings, spoil tips, dry channels and old shafts all around.

Golden Dagger and Vitifer
These were two of the most productive Dartmoor mines. At first miners would have streamed the tin rich stream of the Redwater, but as this began to yield less tin then they resorted to digging and then creating mine pits. Vitifer and Golden Dagger were the last mines and were worked on or off until the 20th century. A couple of deep shafts (400 ft) provided access to the underground workings in which up to 100 miners worked in hard conditions. The exotic name of Golden Dagger may derive from a bronze dagger that was found many years before in a nearby cairn.

Sourton Iceworks
Another curious enterprise was an iceworks established in 1875 near Sourton Tor, where its impressive pond like earthworks still survive. Long rectangular hollows were cut in the hillside to receive water from a nearby spring, when frozen the ice was taken to an insulated underground building and transported to Plymouth to supply the fishing industry during the spring and early summer.

Finch Foundry
Fascinating 19th-century water-powered forge in working order. It produced mining and agricultural tools for the surrounding community. Today there are three water wheels driving large tilt hammers and grindstones. They are in working order and the National Trust have regular, often humorous, demonstrations. Set amidst Dartmoor 's dramatic countryside. There is a lovely circular walk starting at the foundry.

The Templer Way & Haytor Quarries
The Templer family ran Haytor Quarries during the nineteenth century. The Templer Way links Haytor to the port of Teignmouth eighteen miles away. It is a modern day walking route based on the Templer's transportation of granite from Haytor Quarries to Teignmouth via a stone railroad built about 1820. More information about the Templer Way walking route is available from Tourist Information Centres on Dartmoor .

The Lych Way and Bellever
More of an old tradition than an old industry, The Lych Way, also known as the Corpse Road , is the route the dead were bourne for burial at Lydford. For Dartmoor residents, up until 1260 all burials had to take place at Lydford and for those on the eastern side of the moor, the 12 mile (19km) route started at Bellever and was named the Lych Way . After 1260, permission was given by Bishop Bronescombe to allow burials at Widecombe.

Ditsworthy Warren
Ditsworthy Warren was once the largest commercial rabbit warren on Dartmoor , at one time taking up nearly 1,100 acres. Rabbit farming was banned in the 1950's, but the remains of Ditsworthy Warren House, built in the sixteenth century, can still be seen.

Discovering the Past


Set close to the road at Merrivale are double rows of stones, jagged granite teeth stretching away like stitching on the fabric of the moor. If you stand beside them just before dawn in May, you'll see that the stones point towards the star cluster of the Pleiades rising from the eastern horizon. Four thousand years ago, prehistoric man may have stood here too, using these stones as a primitive calendar for planting and harvesting his crops.

You'll find prehistoric remains throughout the moor - the cromlech tomb of Spinster's Rock, the stone circles of Grey Wethers and Scorhill, the 4m high Drizzlecombe menhir, enigmatic monuments erected by Bronze Age people around 2,000BC. As you walk the moor, you'll pass hut circles where early farmers lived, the banked reaves which marked their fields - even the box-like tombs where they buried their dead. This ancient society farmed here for a thousand years, until the worsening weather drove them from the high moor.

In 600BC Iron Age folk built their fortified villages on the fringes of the moor; you can scale the ramparts of their hillforts at Cranbrook and Prestonbury, to the southeast of Drewsteignton, and at Hembury Castle north of Buckfastleigh.

Visit Lydford and you'll be treading streets that follow a pattern laid down when the Saxon settlement was established around 900AD. Explore the slopes of Hound Tor, and you can trace village longhouses and corn-drying barns dating back to the 13th century. At some farms you can still see such longhouses - single-story granite buildings where families once lived cheek-by-jowl with farm animals.

Medieval settlements were linked by lich ways and the paths of monks travelling from the abbeys of Buckfast, Tavistock and Buckland. For centuries these trails, marked with crosses and passing over clapper bridges, were busy with traders and pack-horses, laden with farm produce and tin ingots bound for the stannary towns of Ashburton, Chagford and Tavistock

Merrivale
Located on the road between Princetown and Tavistock this site is one of the largest and most accessible prehistoric sites on Dartmoor . The site comprises three stone rows - two double and one single; a stone circle; a standing stone; a large damaged cist and hut circles to the north. Merrivale was used for ceremonial purposes. Also near here is an area known as the 'Plague Market' where farmers left food for payment during the Tavistock plague outbreak in 1625

Spinsters Rock
Spinsters Rock is a burial cairn dating to the early Bronze Age. The structure was re-erected in the 1862 after collapsing earlier in the year.
According to folklore the rocks where erected by a group of three spinsters who where on a journey to deliver some wool. Obviously these three women where seen as giants having the strength to carry such a heavy burden.

Grey Wethers Stone Circles
These two granite stone circles almost touch and were excavated in 1898 and restored in 1909. The northern circle has about 20 stones and the southern circle about 29 and the mean diameter is 32.9m (108ft). They are both of a similar size and all of the stones are roughly the same height at around 1.5m (4.5ft).

Scorhill Stone Circle
This Bronze Age stone circle is 27m (nearly 90ft) in diameter and it has been estimated that only half of its original 70 standing stones remain. There is also a local legend that horse riders can't get their horses to go through the circle.

Drizzlecombe
The Drizzlecombe complex holds Dartmoor 's tallest standing stone, at 4.5m (15ft) and the impressive Giant's Basin cairn. This area has many megalithic remains including a group of small stone circles around cairns , stone rows, standing stones, cists, cairns , hut circles and pounds

Cranbrook Castle
Located on the edge of Dartmoor, overlooking Fingle Bridge and the River Teign from the south, this fort dominates the Teign valley together with its smaller neighbouring hillfort at Prestonbury Castle , which lies on the opposite side of the river only one mile to the north-west. This hillfort is defended by a single rampart and ditch which encloses an area of 13 acres (5.3ha). There are entrances on the south-east and south-west. Hill Forts were built to protect families and livestock against raids from neighbours.

Clapper Bridges
Clapper bridges are unique to the Dartmoor area. There are 30 or so bridges on Dartmoor constructed in the 13 th and 14 th centuries by medieval tin workers and farmers as crossings over the many small rivers that traverse the moorland. The best example is at Postbridge, four enormous 8 ton slabs, each 15 feet long, span the East Dart River

Inspirational Dartmoor
For centuries the Moor has entranced poets and writers. On the slopes of Fox Tor you can seek out the tomb of Childe the Hunter, whose exploits first appeared in an ancient ballad; at a crossroads near Manaton you can kneel at the grave of Kitty Jay, a farmer's daughter whose suicide inspired John Galsworthy's The Apple Tree . You may hear of Vixana the witch who conjured up mists to confuse travellers, or visit Bowerman's Nose, a hunter petrified in granite as punishment for disturbing a witches' coven. When the moon is full on Hunter's Tor, you might sense the ghosts of ancient warriors and, at Blackaton Brook near Gidleigh, listen for Royalist and Roundhead locked in combat. In the porch of the Three Crowns in Chagford, cavalier and poet Sidney Godolphin died of a musket wound, and his spectre still hunts the corridors. Much of Dartmoor 's folklore and songs were chronicled by the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould. One such is the popular tale of Uncle Tom Cobbley, his drunken companions and the unfortunate grey mare; almost certainly based on a real event, you can meet the man himself, riding through Widecombe-in-the-Moor during the annual September village fair.

Cutty Dyer
Cutty Dyer is an evil sprite who lives at King's Bridge in Ashburton. He was rumoured to accost drunks and throw them into the river, or at worst slit their throats, drink their blood and then throw them into the river. This tale was also told to children as a warning not to stay out after dark

Fitz's Well
Dartmoor has a couple of holy wells and Fitz's Well can be found near both Okehampton and Princetown and a similar tale is told about both.

John Fitzford and his lady were lost on Dartmoor when the mist came down. The tale tells that they were 'pixie-led' and turning their coats inside out broke this mischievous spell. When the fog cleared they found themselves at a spring, which they gratefully drank from. In gratitude they built a simple well house around it which is engraved 'I.F. 1568' and can be found near Princetown.
The Okehampton well is known for its eye cures and was visited on Easter morning by youths and maidens.

Dartmoor 's Mires
Dartmoor has a few bogs and mires, which walkers should give due care and attention to. There is a local tale of a young man walking past a mire and seeing a hat on the ground. Picking up the hat he was surprised to find a man's head underneath it. He readily offered to assist the gentleman out of his difficulties, only to hear the reply that the gentleman also needed the horse that he was sitting on rescued as well.

Branscombe's Loaf and Cheese
Branscombe's Loaf is a lonely tor on Corn Ridge, which has its origins in a devilish tale. In the thirteenth century the Bishop of Exeter, a Walter Branscombe, had been visiting some outlying parishes and was returning to Exeter along the north eastern edge of Dartmoor. It had been a long day and the Bishop and his servant were feeling very hungry, when out of the blue a man appeared and offered him some bread and cheese. The bishop was about to eat these, when his servant, spotting a cloven hoof beneath the strangers' coat, knocked them out of his hands. The bread and cheese became the outcrops of rocks that can be seen today and the bishop and his servant went on their way, none the worse for their ordeal, although still hungry.

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was said to have been inspired to write the Sherlock Holmes novel Hound of the Baskervilles from tales he heard about Dartmoor while staying at the Duchy Hotel in Princetown, which is now the High Moorland Visitor Centre.
Squire Cabell had an evil reputation and legend says that when he died in the late seventeenth century, a pack of black hounds ran howling across Dartmoor . Cabell is buried in Buckfastleigh and his coffin was entombed in a small building to stop him from riding out with his hounds.

Childe's Tomb
The site of Childe's Tomb is a stone cross on the moor, which marks the site of this tragedy. Childe was the Lord of the Manor of Plymstock and got caught in a blizzard on Dartmoor . Lost and exhausted he killed his horse and climbed inside it to keep warm. Unfortunately this did not protect him and Childe froze to death, but managed to write his will on a nearby granite stone in blood before he died. It said that whoever found his body and buried him would inherit his estate. The monks of Tavistock Abbey recovered his body and claimed the land.

Vixiana the Witch
Vixiana lived near a huge granite tor beside the Tavistock road near a treacherous mire, her favourite pastime was to conjure up a thick rolling mist that would disorientate passing travellers. Then with she would call then into the mire to a slow and gruesome end, all the while she would watch and enjoy her handy work from the top of the tor. She was finally disposed of by a young lad who had been bestowed with special powers after helping some pixies. He was able to become invisible and was thus able to creep up on the old crone and push her into the deep mud of the mire where like her previous victims she was sucked into eternity. Her passing was much celebrated as a reminder of how good conquers evil.

Bowerman's Nose
The Bowerman was out hunting one day and whilst chasing a hare his hounds ran head long into a coven of witches concocting spells, upsetting their cauldron. The witches were incensed and wanting revenge one of the witches turned herself into a hare and soon had the hounds after her. She led the hunt into a mire and poor Bowerman fell of his horse into the bog. Not satisfied with this the vengeful old hag turned him and his dogs to stone. The huge outcrop that bears his name has a marked resemblance to a human head.

The Dewerstone
The Dewerstone is a large granite outcrop over 100 metres high and its name derives from 'Old Dewer', the local term for the Devil. The legends say that he used to terrorise the moor at night with his pack of Wisht Hounds (from Wistmans Wood) luring travellers to the highest crag where they fell to their deaths straight into the jaws of his spectral hounds below.

Ghostly Legions
During a full moon Roman legionnaires have been spotted at the old Roman hill fort on Hunters Tor above Lustleigh Cleave. There have also been tales of a Tudor hunting party being seen in this area too.

The Tolmen Stone
The Tolmen Stone is a huge boulder lying on the bed of the River Teign. It has a naturally water-eroded hole in it formed by the rivers fast flowing currents. Legend has it that those suffering from rheumatism should pass through the hole to effect a miraculous cure. This is all well and good but a visit to the stone will reveal that anyone crawling through the hole is likely to end up in need of a good chiropractor!

Brentor Church
Built in the 12 th Century this church stands high on a volcanic outcrop. Legend suggests that a wealthy merchant was saved having been shipwrecked and to show his gratitude and give comfort to other seafarers he built the church on the tor. However the devil did not like what he saw so every night would knock down the building work that had been accomplished that day. The merchant appealed to his patron saint St Michael de la Rupe to intervene. The next night St Michael was awaiting the Devil, he heaved a mighty stone at him which hit him on the heel and sent him limping off into the darkness. The next day work started again and slowly the little church was built on the top of the tor. The church stands on the St Michaels line which is a ley line of churches stretching from Cornwall to East Anglia . Starting with St Michaels Mount the line bisects the sites of many churches dedicated to St Michael and St George including Brentor and Glastonbury .

 

 

 

 

 

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