Set in an old landscape of small fields and cyclopean stone-faced banks infilled with earth, Widecombe lies in the fertile East Webburn valley. There has been farming here for many centuries and some of the holdings round about are mentioned in Domesday. It has been a popular place for as long as I can remember, heavily visited for its timeless setting and picturesque village centre. There is a two-storey colonnaded church house set round a small square with the church lychgate to one side. Opposite are shops for souvenirs and nearby always the chance to enjoy a good fattening cream tea.
A steep track from Langworthy Hill down to the village is called Church Lane. It has granite field walls at first set too close in for any car ; but once a farmhouse is reached it is then macadamised down to the valley floor. Descending it there are Beeches, the highest with their upper branches corkscrew twisted by cold winds. To the north-east are glimpses of Bell, Chinkwell and Honeybag tors, their moorland slopes standing proud above the small green cultivated fields beneath them. The lane ends near a row of new houses north of the church. Tucked behind the village inn, these were reserved for local people and first opened in 2002. With whitewashed walls, small windows and steep-pitched roofs they are well in keeping with the older, granite-and-thatch parts of the village. Somewhat less in keeping with all such sleepy charm is a playing field that has prominent floodlighting for its tennis court.
The parish church, St Pancras, is sometimes jokingly referred to as the "Cathedral of the Moors". Its tower, at 120 feet high, is unusually fine and dominates the surrounding cottages. Said to have been built by some successful sixteenth century tinners grateful for their new-made wealth, they built more than their descendants bargained for, when a violent storm killed 4 and injured 62 more. It happened on a Sunday in 1638 whilst the vicar, George Lyde, was preaching in his pulpit. Fork lightening struck the tower, some of the roof fell upon the congregation below and ball lightening traversed the nave. Reverend Lyde's flock must have sorely needed such fierce spiritual chastisement; his sermon was certainly a very effective hellfire-and-brimstone routine.
Widecombe, it seems, has had more than its share of storms involving the clergy. Another vicar reputedly rifled a local barrow and removed its treasures. He met with summary justice for his offence: when at home that night a hard wind destroyed his roof and killed him. Today the village is famous for its fair held every second Tuesday in September and celebrated in a song. The principal character, Tom Cobley, was an historical figure who lived near Spreyton, a small village outside the National Park's north eastern edge. He borrowed a mare to ride on, but this did not survive the journey: no wonder, for it had all his travelling companions on its back at once! Legend tells it may still be seen:
- When the wind whistles cold o'er the moor of a night
- Tom Pierce's old mare doth appear ghostly white
- Wi' Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
- Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
- Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
- Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
On the road between Widecombe and Bovey Tracey the twin humps of Hey Tor (OS Haytor Rocks) make an instantly recognisable outline. An icon of Dartmoor, they are seen as easily from the coast and estuary at Teignmouth as from the slopes of Cosdon, which is at the north-eastern end of Dartmoor and some eleven miles away. A large car park lies beside the road about a quarter mile to the south of the tor, from which a broad, grassy path leads through the bracken directly to the eastern boss. Steps to the top were cut sometime during the nineteenth century but they are now worn with use, so using them can be a little hazardous when the rock is greasy after rain. There was also once an iron railing, its course only traceable now as a line of socket holes drilled beside the steps. The view from on top is magnificent, but some of the sides are nearly sheer and on a windy day it is best to approach them with caution.
Hey Tor's granite is fine-grained and reputedly very durable; there are several disused quarries on the north and eastern slopes. Each has its own special character and three are worth a visit. The most easterly is flooded and grows waterlilies, though perhaps not the native kind, for these are tinged with pink. In early March one shallow pool next to the rusting crane winch was full of toad spawn. Next in line westerly is the rubble quarry, a deep hillside scar with many rabbit burrows in its spoil heaps. Last and most northerly is Holwell: it has high cliff faces that in 1994 were home to nesting kestrels.
All the quarries were worked after 1820, when George Templer of Stover built a tramway to carry off the stone. Its "rails" were cut from the local granite; shaped like elongated kerbstones with an L-shaped profile, they were spaced far enough apart to exactly fit the wagon wheels. The gauge width is about a foot longer than a standard walking stick (it is a curious 4ft 3in, which is a little less than 1.3m). The tracks still in place on Hey Tor Down - they are incidentally Dartmoor's first railway - make a good walkway from one quarry to the next. In places some show obvious signs of wear, their flanges worn to a shallow groove by the passing trucks. When in full production all the quarries put together employed about a hundred people; but by 1905 they were closed, unable to compete with cheaper Cornish stone.
Under two miles north-west of Hey Tor, across the valley of Becky Brook, lie rock formations large enough to rival any on the Moors. They belong to Great Hound Tor (which is its proper name, for close to Cosdon there is a northern, or Little Hound Tor, but OS call this one just "Hound Tor"). The hilltop is crowned by two imposing stone ramparts of granite with an avenue between, a feature duplicated at Hey and elsewhere. In December 1995 one rock pinnacle was deliberately thrown down. The small picture, above, shows it afterwards - which to me is much less photogenic.
Granite is solidified lava that, in its molten state, never reached the surface. Cracks formed between each block are what geologists call "joints" and a number of significant directional trends have been recorded. Each one is thought of as a consequence of some significant tectonic event, like the later tear fault at Sticklepath. They are all believed to be related to stresses within the Earth's crust.
Whatever their origins may be, joints control the shape of all of Dartmoor's tors, with the large and near rectangular blocks of Hound more widespread than the massive rounded shapes of Hey. There are other, more lamellar shapes, like those of Watern Tor, but they are comparatively rare; some say that they reflect the type of overlying bedrock into which the granite was intruded. Nearby are the foundations of a Mediaeval hamlet, built on a ledge overlooking Becky Brook. People stayed and farmed there until wetter, colder times in the late 13th century forced them out. The site is best reached from Great Hound Tor: walk up from the car park, go through the summit avenue and on down the other side, making straight for Greator's rocks, below and right, about half a mile away.
Excavations carried out in the early 1960s by Mrs E M Minter have revealed longhouses, small one-roomed cots, barns and paddocks. The first houses might have been made of turf in Saxon times and then much later these were rebuilt in stone. Beside them on Houndtor Down, when the light is low on sunny summer evenings and in winter, contemporary strip lynchets can be clearly seen. Since this picture was taken brambles have invaded the site and are growing over most of the walls.
Becky (at least that is the spelling used in most C20 texts, though to OS it is Becka) Brook begins at springs by the Lands of Seven Lords and in a little less than six miles passes below Lustleigh Cleave, there to join with River Bovey. On its way lies Becky Falls, where suddenly the valley floor drops away and all the water cascades quickly down through a succession of rounded boulders. Despite its name, this is no continuous waterfall except in very wet weather.
One feature of Dartmoor's rivers is that their flow can alter with great rapidity. On open moorland peat can soak up enormous amounts of water and acts as a giant sponge, holding a lot of rain; but once saturated, any more will run straight off and spates and flooding can be sudden. Thus when the wet has been prolonged, Becky flows not between but over everything. Seen from below its falls look like some giant white-streaked staircase, their noise reverberating round the narrow, tree-lined valley. Sometimes such events can be disastrous, as happened on the Redaven in 1917, but usually all that happens is some large boulders rock a little and a few small pebbles move on to the next pool downstream.
Further on below the falls Becky winds round the foot of Trendlebeare Down. This is a magic place where mists can linger on still autumn days, a sea of white below dark hilltops. It is a scene more like a Chinese painting than a Devon river valley. It is also a place where Birch does well: their light, wispy structure adds to the effect; a good autumn turns their leaves light gold and yellow, all held by a delicate supporting tracery of darker twigs. Sadly it was illegally swaled in 1997, though the heath is now recovering well.
Dartmoor has about 250 Bronze Age walled enclosures, or "pounds" as they are locally known. Almost all have the remains of houses - "hut circles" - within their perimeter walls. Arguably the best known is Grimspound, set above a by-road running between Widecombe and Challacombe Cross. Built on a col beneath Hameldon and Hookney Tor, it was first surveyed in 1829 by Mr. A. C. Shillabeer. The Dartmoor Exploration Committee started their excavatory career here in 1894; they returned the following year and ended up examining 15 of the 24 interior huts, restoring fallen walls as well as clearing the impressive, paved southern entrance.
The huts here show features found throughout the moors. They were made by setting upright flat-sided boulders in a ring, forming walls about four feet high. Sometimes double-skinned and infilled with earth or rubble like a proper Devon bank, these supported timbers for a conical roof of thatch. Large huts had internal post-holes for timber uprights; some also had internal paved areas like a dais and cooking pits and hearths. Not all were lived in, for some were too small for habitation and might have been used for storage or as byres. There is also suggestions from excavation on nearby Shapley Common that they may have been ash-houses. Most modern writers say the pound builders practised cattle ranching: generally pounds are not associated with prehistoric field systems, though they do have access to both areas of the better moorland pastures and to water - here it is Grim Lake, a tiny stream running through the northern segment. The two smaller pictures were taken in October 2005. The change in vegetation cover on Hookney Tor, on the right-hand skyline, is enormous compared to the gate picture above, where a dark patch below the line of a disused watercourse marks heather moorland. Spring swaling on Birch tor in 2005, left on the skyline, shows as light patches where burnt heather had not recovered by the autumn.
Little modern archaeology using radiocarbon dating has been carried out on Dartmoor, so the chronology of Bronze Age settlement is a little conjectural. Colonization of what is now open moorland could have been extensive by about 1700BC, when perhaps the pounds were built. There followed a period of apparent stability and also presumably some prosperity, but around 1000BC pollen analysis indicates the climate had seriously deteriorated. It is suggested that permanent occupation ceased about then, though there is some slight evidence that sporadic use occurred until the Bronze Age ended about 700BC.
Just downhill from the summit of Challacombe and on its northern shoulder there is a Bronze Age triple row, first mentioned by John Prideaux in 1828. The stones are typical in size for this type of monument and many of them barely make it past two feet high, only one or two being taller. They are arranged in three parallel lines, except some near the present northern end that have been moved subsequently and misaligned, perhaps by miners who once went digging for metal close beside them. Though it is not known why such stones were set in rows, as most lead directly to a burial, connections with some funerary rite seems not unlikely.
The stones shown here are nearest to Birch Tor; across the valley in the middle distance are, left, deep gullies made by tin mining at Vitifer, behind which rises Water Hill with the Warren House Inn on its southern flank, where the miners could go to slake their thirst. This present building replaces an earlier one - called Newhouse - on the opposite side of the road, which was the setting for Salting Down Father.
One miserably cold and stormy winter's night, so the story goes, a traveller stopped over. As it was late he insisted on a bed for the night, which was given with reluctance. In his room there was a large chest. Curiosity finally getting the better of him, he opened it, finding to his horror that a corpse was laid inside. A sleepless night was spent listening for the door latch and fearing murder, but nothing happened. In the morning, when asked how he found the room, he stammered out his discovery, only to be told "why 'tis Fayther, bless him; us couldn't get 'im to church for the weather, so us had to salt him down."
Apocryphal as it is, this story is a mirror to one that really happened in the Napoleonic Wars, at the prisoner of war camp in Princetown - now the modern Prison. Early at night after lockup, just when it had gone dark, a Dutchman suddenly died. On being roused the turnkey in charge of the barrack called for volunteers to carry the corpse out of the cell block and across the yard, where there was a mortuary. The procession was headed by an American POW who insisted on being the lantern-bearer. When they arrived in the mortuary there were four bodies laid out on trestles. The American had, with great trepidation, successfully reached the last when it sat bolt upright and looked him straight in the eye. It was too much: with a fearful howl he fled, shrieking he had met the Devil himself. It was only the mortuary keeper, customarily asleep beside his charges for the night; in Thomson B, 1907; The Story of Dartmoor Prison, page 79.
Today Newhouse has all gone and only the Warren House is left, with a friendly peat fire always burning, even in the middle of summer. The Moretonhampstead to Tavistock road passes its front door. Many of the hills just around it are covered in heather that makes a carpet of fragrant purple in late August, well harvested by honeybees. Sadly, bracken round about is conspicuously on the move and a recent visit to Challacombe's row found some of its stones now covered in its unwelcome, rank green fronds. At the end of summer, 2005, the ground had not fully recovered from swaling that spring.
A short distance from the Challacombe row a miners' path goes west and downhill, to Vitifer Mine1 beside the Redwater Brook. It descends beside deep, opencast gerts that have sides made steep by blasting with black powder. Like many other Dartmoor enterprises, different companies have sunk shafts here since at least the eighteenth century. The imprint of their toil is everywhere about: there are hummocks and hollows, spoil tips and gullies, water leats and wheelpits, all now covered in a fresh dressing of bracken, heather, rush and whortleberry. The remains of mine buildings punctuate the valley floor, but most of them have been smashed back to their foundations; some, like the miners' barracks and the mine captain's residence, were once substantial two storey houses.
Only one piece of wall more than a few courses high is now left: it was part of the carpenter's shop and is pictured here late one February afternoon. It stands on firm ground, above a mire that is ankle deep; a sodden place of brilliant, emerald green mosses that grow between tall rushes. The dog was more sensible, for in refusing to come behind the camera's lens he at least managed to keep his feet dry. Nearby are the playing card fields-called "Ace Fields" by Hemery - which are small newtakes whose outlines resemble the four card suits. They are attributed in folklore to a reprobate, Jan Reynolds, who was an inveterate gambler. Having lost all his money he bartered his soul for another stake. Some years later Old Nick came to collect his due; Jan was caught sleeping in Widecombe church and, to the accompaniment of Reverend Lyde's violent storm, was carried off aloft, dropping his ace cards about Vitifer as he disappeared. The cards became the fields seen today; at least, that is what the guide books say, with various embellishments. A less prosaic, though more correct interpretation is that the fields were part of nearby Headland Warren. They were used for luring rabbits in to feed on good grass, so that they might be more easily caught for market.
Further down the valley, in amongst the firs of Soussons - planted in 1946 - lie traces of Golden Dagger Mine, its wheelpit, stamps and dressing floor now made more difficult to find by the trees. Like Vitifer, this mine was worked throughout the nineteenth century. Deep mining finally ended in 1914, after which there was some sporadic surface activity, picking over the spoil heaps for anything metal that had been missed. The easiest building to see is Dinah's House, beside the track that runs alongside the Redwater from Vitifer. It was last occupied as a residential house in the 1940s, a few years after the mine had been abandoned for the last time.
Between Moretonhampstead and Postbridge the Forest of Dartmoor begins near the Warren House inn. This is a Royal holding which dates back to Saxon times, when it was part of Edward the Confessor's manor of Lydford. William I sequestered all Edward's lands on his conquest and it remained with the crown until 1240, when Henry III gave it to his brother as part of the Duchy of Cornwall, of which it remains a part to this day. Only a few early mediaeval farms lay within the Forest boundaries and most of them have been worked continuously to this day. They are known as "ancient tenements", which around Postbridge includes places such as Hartyland and Meripit. Elsewhere the moorland was unenclosed and remained so until the turnpike - the present road - arrived late in the 18th century. The village we now call Postbridge was then promptly begun by two "Improvers", John and Thomas Hullett.
Improver is the Dartmoor term for the Georgian developers who considered that cultivation, with liberal amounts of some suitable manure, would make the moors productive. Large fields called "newtakes" were enclosed from the better pastures of the open moorland. Not all were made with the express permission of the Duchy, which was at first alarmed: but Thomas Tyrwhitt, who was himself active developing land around modern-day Princetown, was a personal friend of the Prince Regent. He was able to persuade the Prince that his Duchy would make handsome profits from leasing land. Today central Dartmoor is largely enclosed by these newtakes, though many remain uncultivated and today are used merely as rough grazing. Dartmoor's greatest chronicler, Mr. William Crossing, was scornful of the Improvers, pointing out that by enclosing the better land they were robbing those "who possessed an undoubted right of pasturage" and leaving them "only the boggy parts of it" in Crossing W, 1965; Guide to Dartmoor, page 114.
The Tavistock to Moretonhampstead road was built some time after two Acts of Parliament were passed in 1772. The first gave powers to repair and improve the road as far as the Cherrybrook, the second one continued the new road through to Moretonhampstead. Before tarmac these roads were often rough and well rutted towards the end of summer. Tavistock council, which was responsible for the surface as far as Postbridge, kept it noticeably better made and rolled than the Moretonhampstead end; see Cresswell B F, 1905; Dartmoor and its Surroundings in Homeland Handbooks No. 8, page 122.
When the turnpike bridge was built across the East Dart its predecessor, a "clapper", was left still standing. This was made of large flat blocks laid on piers, all as carefully fitted together as the finest drystone walling. Today maintained as a complete structure, it was not so always: during the nineteenth century one of the imposts - the cross-pieces - was deliberately cast into the river, in an aborted effort to make a duckpond. It was replaced, unfortunately the wrong way round, fifty years afterwards by Merivale's quarrymen. In a wry coincidence, exactly the same juxtapositioning befell Avon Clapper, many decades later in 2001!
There are a number of such bridges on the moors. They date from Mediaeval times onwards. Some are small, being no more than a single slab laid across the stream; Postbridge's has a total span of over 42 feet long, which makes it the largest one within the National Park. It is very popular and to find it deserted is a rarity on fine days in summer; but the photograph here was taken late on a chilly winter's afternoon.
Along the East Dart are many prehistoric settlements, one of the better known being Broadun Ring. To reach it, leave the car park by way of Drift Lane, which here runs along its NW boundary on the right bank of the river, and pass through a gate ahead. As the ground rises a field wall lies right: in a little way where this appears doubled lies Roundy Park, a prehistoric enclosure now made into a field. The hills in front are, left to right, Row Tor (OS Rough Tor), Wildebanks Hill - over which an unfinished newtake wall runs - and Broad Down. Keep the field wall immediately right and, heading WNW, the small stream of Braddon Lake can be easily crossed.
On its opposite bank - a short steep stretch of mirey ground - there is a stile in the newtake wall ahead, over which a dry leat will be found; it belonged to the gunpowder factory at Powder Mills. Ahead is another prehistoric enclosure, the path threading just W of N amongst various hut circles. This is a long pull uphill, but the gradient is not steep and there is firm ground and short grass underfoot. The enclosure's northern boundary has been made into the newtake wall; on reaching it leave it to your immediate right and in a little way another prehistoric enclosure will be found. This latter is Broadun Ring, about a mile or so above the car park. The view south shows the ring against a horizon backdrop of Corndon Down and Yar Tor, here dominating the sunlit slopes of Lakehead Hill and Riddon Ridge. Roundy Park is in the middle distance, extreme right. Falcon also took his picture here - his plate number is 44 - and besides the firs of Lakehead extending to the skyline, right, and extra trees round Hartyland in the middle distance, left, there has been very little change.
The top of Bellever Tor is a good viewpoint and deservedly marked as such by OS. It overlooks not only the Cherrybrook, but also the valleys of both East and West Dart on their approach to Dartmeet. Originally most of the area west of the tor was unenclosed. No Ancient Tenements lay that side of the Cherrybrook except Prince Hall and apart from its fields, all the others there today are due to Georgian Improvers. Examples of their work are to be seen at Beardown, a farm started by Edward Bray late in the eighteenth century; he was then the Duke of Bedford's Estate Manager. Beneath his newtakes (and from the tor itself apparently close by) are trees that make a windbreak for Cherrybrook Hotel, which was a farm in 1810 and rented by the same John Hullett who was active developing around Postbridge.
One path to the tor summit is along a green lane from Higher Cherrybrook Bridge at SX634769, that climbs almost due east into a Forestry Commission plantation. It is a branch of the Lich Way, the mediaeval path connecting the settlements round Postbridge to their parish church at Lydford. In the Middle Ages when people were compelled to attend services, those who lived in the Ancient Tenements faced a long journey for their religious devotions. This was the route they used, especially when they had to bury their dead in Lydford's churchyard, hence the name, or "way of the dead".
The hill above is called Lakehead and its summit, together with a ridge connecting it with nearby Bellever Tor has been left clear of trees. Elsewhere the plantation makes a roughly triangular shape, occupying an area north of the tor and between the East Dart River and the road to Moretonhampstead. Afforestation here was first begun in 1930 on lands previously enclosed by the farms of Lake and Bellaford. OS does not mention Lake as it has gone: it was beside Bellaford, which they call Bellever, SX654773.
In the storms of the late 1980s extensive damage was done to the trees here. Michael Fish's hurricane of 1987, though proving windy in Devon, caused its devastation very much further east, coming ashore in Hampshire. However, in 1989 a series of storm-force winds boxed the compass and it was these that uprooted many trees on Dartmoor. Hard gusts of wind ripped through all the plantations and turned long swathes to matchsticks, whilst just beside them other areas were left untouched.
Clustered round the top of Lakehead are sites from the Bronze Age. It has been reported many more were removed in the nineteenth century. Their loss is ascribed to the farmer at Bellever Farm, in Baring-Gould S, 2002; A Book of Dartmoor, page 242. The best known and most monumental is Lakehead Cist, where large central stones form a sarcophagus of flat, undressed stone.
Dartmoor cists are usually made of five such slabs, laid together in the shape of an open-bottomed box. Most of them are small, averaging three feet long inside and are simply let into the earth, but this one is now all above ground and has a massive six-by-eight foot capstone which, with its enclosing stone circle and a row, makes it truly monumental. Found in a collapsed state late last century, it was restored by members of the Dartmoor Exploration Committee. A noted antiquary says their work was lamentable. The site was so utterly ruined that the original Bronze Age layout was completely unknown; nevertheless, no ground plan was made prior to its restoration (see Worth R H, 1953; Dartmoor, page 229). The site can be quickly reached by walking uphill from Higher Cherrybrook Bridge and into the central clearing: then turn left and just before the ground stops rising walk through a narrow opening in the right-hand trees. The cist lies in a clearing bounded by orange-tipped posts, but tread lightly for the ground around is quite squelchy.
The development of Dartmoor in the nineteenth century, both in farming and in mining and quarrying, needed large amounts of black powder. It was made here at Powder Mills, by mixing together charcoal, saltpetre and sulphur in a well-known formula (a modern variant using weedkiller can also prove most satisfactory . . . ). Each part was ground up in a different building before being combined in a mill set apart from other buildings. They were then re-milled together with graphite to make the mix more frangible. Lastly, the completed mixture was carefully dried, for which some form of heating plant was necessary. Fumes from its fires were carried out of the building by horizontal flues laid along the ground and vented through chimneys.
The chunky-looking mill buildings lie dotted over a large area; they are deliberately set well apart so that any accident would not destroy them all..All were given deliberately massive walls and thin roofs so that the force from any accidental explosions would take the roof off, without bringing the house down. Set in pairs, they had a central water-wheel between them. Despite all the safety measures, making black powder was obviously dangerous and it is ironic that through the site runs a continuation of the Lich Way from Bellever Tor and Higher Cherrybrook Bridge. History does not relate what the gunpowder makers thought of this, but there is a story that one used to eat his lunch at breakfast, lest an explosion prevented him from savouring its delights later in the day!
Gunpowder production at Powder Mills did not continue for very long: building started in 1844, but in 1867 dynamite was invented; it was so successful that by 1890 all production here had ceased. Today the manager's house is a farm. The site is quite easily reached from a car park beside the Cherrybrook, via the Lich Way, though care is needed where the path crosses a small mire, where there is very boggy ground which Curlews often visit, so to avoid wet feet some athletic hopping is necessary.
From Two Bridges a well-used path runs parallel with the West Dart, northwards to Wistman's Wood. In less than half a mile there are old rabbit burys (on Dartmoor a "bury" is a man-made rabbit burrow). Artificial burys are a common sight, recognisable by their low outline and rectangular shape; OS usually marks them with "pillow mounds" in gothic. One method of construction consisted of digging a branching trench and covering it with granite slabs, then heaping up rubble and soil from a ditch dug all round the trench, topping everything off with turves. The resulting mound was finally faced with larger granite boulders, loosely laid with gaps between them, which gave the rabbits access to their new home.
The commercial farming of rabbits has had a long history on Dartmoor, starting as early as the thirteenth century. It continued right up to 1956, finally banned by the Authorities following the arrival of myxomatosis in Devon. Warren practices were perhaps a little grisly by modern standards. Rabbits were left in peace to graze at night, but in the early dawn dogs were loosed to frighten and drive them towards netting. Once caught they were then killed and in a shed skinned, gutted and hung up on wires to cool.
Unusually the rabbits kept here were not to eat, but to shoot for sport. Beside the burys is a small house: once home to the warrener, its whitewashed southern wall catches the afternoon sun in late August. The day it was pictured here had been pleasant and walking was still warm enough in shirtsleeves, but now a north wind had begun to blow and the chimney smoke was kept horizontal by a strengthening breeze. A sharp drop in temperature foreshadowed the end of summer; and though it might seem strange that autumn should come to Devon in August, one moorland saying maintains that Dartmoor weather is "nine months winter and three months wet"!
- Vust 'er rained, thin 'er bloard,
- Thin 'er ailed, thin 'er snoard;
- Thin 'er cumd a shoer o' rain,
- Thin 'er vroz an' bloard agin.
Heavy rain is unpleasant on the open moors. The wind is almost always blowing and apart from a tor, or an occasional thorn or rowan there is little shelter. Analysis of the peat has shown that Dartmoor once had trees, but it is unlikely ever to have been thickly forested. Since Mediaeval tinners needed large amounts of charcoal for smelting, most woodland had quite probably disappeared by Elizabethan times.
One place where the trees are thought to have remained is Wistman's Wood, situated about one-and-a-half miles north of Two Bridges beside the West Dart river. Wistman's Wood interior contains small, often decaying boles festooned with epiphytes that are both typical and claustrophobic. It is easy to see why tales of adders should persist in such a spooky place, though I have never seen them here.
Historically, there is a tradition that Isabella de Fortibus did the original planting; she was Countess of Devon in the latter part of the thirteenth century [Although no supporting written evidence of her involvement has ever been adduced: Crossing, Gems In A Granite Setting, Plymouth 1905; page 19ff]. Sometime later, in the early seventeenth century, it was known to Risdon. He described the wood as being of some acres in extent, with trees small enough for a man to touch the canopy, though they are taller now. In 1979 a survey based on historic, photographic views produced evidence that lately the trees have been growing more luxuriously than before, owing to global warming since the nineteenth century mini ice age [Procter, Spooner and Spooner in Report And Transactions Of The Devonshire Association Vol. 112 p73. The photographs shown are interesting not only because of the direct pictoral comparisons, but also because of the differing contrast ranges, something that perhaps results from using various film emulsions]. Older trees are considered to be aged between two and three hundred years. Curiously, one was felled and its rings counted in 1866, when it was found to be 168 years old; a rock above the central grove records the deed.
Today, rather than a single wood Wistmans is really three separate spinneys, each growing on a richly bouldered steep south-westerly facing slope. It has been like this since at least the middle nineteenth century, despite a fire in 1882, started by day trippers brewing up for tea. The central grove was damaged, but happily none too badly. Mostly the trees are oak and all have been forced to struggle with climatic adversity and are diminutive, their shapes made grotesque by hard, cold winds. Far more remarkable is the luxurious epiphytic growth, where each horizontal space holds a miniature garden. High in the sky is a mixture of Wood Sorrel and Whortle, Climbing Corydalis and Herb Robert, Polypody and hard ferns and even Tormentil. Lichens hang down like icicles and below there is woodrush and bramble, while all the rocks are covered in rich green mosses. The whole place is a proper Dartmoor treat, though sadly few new sapling trees are growing and thus little regeneration is taking place.