29 April 2011

A sunny day on Dartmoor

Coins hammered into log bench, Lydford Gorge

Over Easter I spent a few days staying with a friend near Exeter. It was a great chance to get out of London and to enjoy the English countryside, and the highlight of the visit was the day-trip we took up to western Dartmoor for a bit of exploration on foot.

The last time I visited Dartmoor it was August, but despite it being high summer the moor was wreathed in impenetrable mist. This time around the weather was much nicer, with the hot sunshine and blue skies that the south of England relished over Easter gracing the rolling moorland and making an active stroll a fine way to pass the time.

Our first task was to navigate to our chosen destination on the western side of the moor. Jack's sat-nav got us there in the end, but not before displaying its fondness for sending us up tiny goat-tracks in its eagerness to find us the very shortest route as the crow flies. Once we disregarded the narrowest routes we made swift progress, whizzing down hedgerow lanes while keeping a watchful eye out for approaching traffic.

Once the lanes had been negotiated we made our way to our first stop, which was the Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale, where we stopped for lunch. After admiring the pint glasses and crockery all hanging from hooks embedded in the ceiling, we ate a pub lunch out in the sunshine, where we were able to survey the whole valley from our bench.

Then it was time to consult Jack's copy of Really Short Walks in South Dartmoor, a ramblers' guide. Just up the road from the inn a 2.25km circuit mapped out a quick sample of the moor's ancient history. Back in the Bronze Age the local climate was warmer, and the slopes were covered in woodlands, out of which tribes burned off clearings for habitation and farming:

There had been a human presence on the moor on and off since the last hunter-gatherers and the earliest farmers. The thin tree cover was partially cleared by 4000 BC. There were further clearances around 2500 BC and the moor was almost entirely deforested by 1500 BC. Tiny pockets may have survived, such as the gnarled and stunted trees of Wistman's Wood that can be seen today [...] 
When the trees had all been cut down, houses and field boundaries had to be constructed out of stone. The houses probably had turf roofs while the reaves formed small hedges. The farming communities living on the moor were able to cultivate cereal crops [...] The moor was also ideal for raising stock, both cattle and sheep, though we do not know whether this was on a seasonal basis with people bringing their animals on to the moor in the summer months to exploit the higher pasture and perhaps to search for tin ore. No doubt the reality was far more complicated than we realise. People farmed this landscape for over 300 years. They cleared the fields of granite stones and boulders, which were incorporated into the reaves and house walls. These stones were also heaped up into small cairns, many of which were used to contain the ashes of their dead. There were also ritual monuments such as barrows and stone rows [...] 
By 1200 BC most settlements and fields on the moor had been deserted. Why had people left? Did they destroy what little fertility there was in the soil? Did the climate become cooler and cause the harvests to fail? Was there some catastrophe in the more fertile lowlands which enabled people to move down from these marginal uplands? Were the upland communities physically moved out and resettled, like the Scottish crofters out of the nineteenth century? 
- Michael Parker Pearson, Bronze Age Britain, London, 2005, p.89-91. 

After emerging from a stone-fenced carpark, we followed a babbling leat (artificial watercourse) across a gentle hill face to explore a Bronze Age village site, replete with the remains of stone roundhouse foundations. A nearby double row of stones (182 metres long) stretched into the distance, probably an ancient ceremonial thoroughfare around which locals buried their dead. One prominent kistvaen grave just south of the stone rows once contained a flint scraper, flint flakes and a whetstone for polishing metal, showing the importance of industry and crafts to the Bronze Age tribes. Closer to the slopes of the nearby King's Tor, a 3.8 metre standing stone stood at a gentle lean, paired by a much later medieval waypost a few hundred metres away, which was marked with a 'T' on one side and an 'A' on the other, to direct medieval travellers venturing across the moor to Tavistock or Ashburton.

Bronze Age roundhouse

Ceremonial stone row

Kistvaen tomb

Standing stone near King's Tor

Medieval waypost

A short drive north led us to our second stop, the National Trust reserve at Lydford Gorge. This was a welcome slice of proper wilderness, with thick English woodlands clinging to the steep slopes of the gorge. The pathway struck out along the top of the gorge before doubling back in a steep stair to the pool at the base of the cascading White Lady falls. While the flow was considerably diminished from its usual high point due to the dry weather, it was still a pretty spectacle. Then walking back alongside the stream we came to the highlight of the gorge: the Devil's Cauldron, the point at which the rushing pressure of the waters has carved out a deep gnarled defile from the terrain, into which the stream is sent gushing and roiling. A metal gangway allows visitors to walk up to the noisy centre of the cauldron, to admire the powerful jets of water and the echoing boom of falling water. Click on the video link below to get an idea of the noise it generates.

White Lady falls

Inside the Devil's Cauldron

Our last brief stop before entrusting ourselves to the satnav and returning home was in the nearby village of Lydford, a tiny place that boasts both the remains of a medieval stone keep and a slightly younger medieval church. Lydford was once far more substantial. It was one of Alfred the Great's four fortified Devon burhs, but it declined after it was raided by Vikings in 997 and following the Norman Conquest. The castle, perched atop a man-made hillock, was first constructed in about 1195 during the reign of Richard I, to act as a prison. It was remodelled in the 13th century, but now only a shell remains. Next to it, the stone church of St Petrock is of an uncertain age, but it is believed to have been remodelled in the 13th century and had its tower added in the 15th century.  

Remains of Lydford Castle

St Petrock's, Lydford
It was a splendid day out exploring Dartmoor, made even more enjoyable by the fact that the Devonian weather was apparently superior to that experienced in the Mediterranean, where so many British residents have fled to avoid the upcoming royal wedding!
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