A Walk Across Dartmoor – part 2

A riverside path heading north from the village of Postbridge, famed for its ancient clapper bridge, leads into the heart of the moor.  The bridge dates back at least to the fourteenth century and some of the slabs weigh over eight tons.  The ‘modern’ bridge in the background was built as recently as 1780.

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At the point where the river turns abruptly westwards are the remains of a beehive hut.  These were used mostly for storage and, compared to many of Dartmoor’s archaeological features which date back millennia, are also of more recent origin and date from the 1500’s.  They ‘disappear’ into the moorland  features but are clearly visible once you know where to look.

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Walking further onto the moor and leaving the river behind are the low grey shapes of the Grey Wethers double stone circle.  Sitting close to Sittaford Tor, they are so named for their resemblance to sheep, ‘wether’ being the Old English name for a castrated male sheep.  A tale, often repeated, is of a traveller stopping off at the remote Warren House Inn (where this walk started and will end) who complained of the poor quality sheep in the district.  After a drink or two, he was led to the circles and in the mist mistook the stones for sheep and bought them, only to discover later that he had been fooled.

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The two circles of Grey Wethers appear to the eye as one shaped as a figure of eight but an aerial view shows them to be quite separate to one another, sitting side by side.  The circles are of similar size and lie on a north-south axis although whether this is of relevance is unknown.  Numerous theories abound: perhaps the meeting place of two separate groups of people, or possibly they represent life and death. When excavations took place in 1909 a thick layer of ash was found to cover their centres but, again, the purpose of this is unknown.

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From Grey Wethers the walk back to the Warren House Inn skirted the edge of Fernworthy Forest.  Hidden behind the trees is Fernworthy reservoir, created by damming the South Teign River.  When water levels are low the remains of an old farm can be seen, as can the remains of a small clapper bridge, drowned reminders of life on the moor in times past.

the remote Warren House Inn

the remote Warren House Inn

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A Walk Over Dartmoor – part 1

All the best walks start and end at a pub and a popular place to aim for is the Warren House Inn.  Located in the heart of Dartmoor, a national park in the county of Devon in England’s West Country, it has been a stopping point for thirsty travellers since the mid eighteenth century.  The fire, according to tradition, has never been allowed to go out – probably out of necessity for the inn is isolated and exposed on a high windswept plateau.

Warren House Inn copyright

Two miles to the south-west of the inn is the village of Postbridge, famed for its ancient clapper bridge, first mentioned in 1380 and reached by a track opposite the pub.  It passes the remains of habitation for Dartmoor once had a tin mining community and these are just some of the signs of this now vanished industry throughout the moor.  The mining is thought to have predated the Romans, flourished during medieval times and also the nineteenth century before finally ending in the mid-1900s.

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Spring comes late to this harsh environment: the few trees grow slowly and stunted.  When the moor flowers many different species of butterflies can be seen.

Stunted and sheep grazed hawthorn

Stunted and sheep grazed hawthorn

Small Pearl-Bordered FritillaryButterfly

Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary Butterfly

As with many parts of Britain where rock lies close to the surface, drystone walls are a feature.  Unlike the soft limestone walls of the Cotswolds which use small pieces of thin, flat stone, Dartmoor’s are granite and some of the stones massive.  It is hard to conceive how they were built but the huge slabs foreshadow those that are to be found at Postbridge.

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Crossing the East Dart River, the clapper bridge at Postbridge is perhaps the best known of all of these bridges in England although there are more than two hundred on Dartmoor alone.  Thought to have been built to allow carts to carry tin off the moor, the bridge is over four metres long and two metres wide.  Some of the stones weigh more than eight tons.  The village consists of a few houses, a pub and a post office and is a favouriteplace to stop  for a traditional Devon cream tea.

The clapper bridge with the 'new' bridge behind built in 1780

The clapper bridge with the ‘new’ bridge behind built in 1780

Postbridge 2   copyrightPostbridge 3   copyright

A riverside path heading north from the village leads into the heart of the moor towards the next stopping point, the prehistoric Grey Wethers stone circle, featured in part two of this blog.

East Dart River   copyright

Grey Wethers Double Stone Circle

Last summer I spent a day walking on Dartmoor, an area of wild, remote and barren land situated in the south of the county of Devon. Dartmoor is an area of granite outcrops (tors) and coarse grassland, trees are few – except for occasional conifer plantations – and people and properties even fewer. It is a country of streams, bog, cotton grass and silence.
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Remote and empty it may be now but, thousands of years ago, this was a highly populated area and all over the moor there are signs of occupation of our ancestors. The buildings have long disappeared but stone circles, standing stones , scrapes and bumps in the ground are everywhere as the Ordnance Survey map will show.
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The most mysterious and atmospheric sign of these early settlers is the stone circle found to the northeast of Sittaford Tor. Stepping into a stone circle is always a mystical experience: it feels as if our living history has been trapped within them. The spaces between the stones seem to disappear and you feel completely enclosed by them as if the circle ‘walls’ were completely solid. It feels this way with our own Cotswold stone circle, the Rollright Stones but it feels even more extraordinary up on the wilderness of Dartmoor for there is not one stone circle but two, standing side by side.

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Grey Wethers, as the circles are known, get their name from the old English word for a castrated ram. ‘Wether’ is still a term used in farming and the word is remarkably similar in the old German, Frisian and Nordic languages. It is not uncommonly used to describe large stones that scatter some areas of landscape, whether manmade or left in place as a result of Ice Age glaciation – presumably as, from a distance, they can look remarkably like sheep resting.
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Walking amongst the stones, it is difficult to see that the circles are completely separate for they feel as if they are intertwined as in a figure of eight. However, from above (thanks to Google Earth) the circles can be seen to be quite distinct although sitting side by side. The smaller of the circles measures 31 metres in diameter and the other 33 metres, making them the largest circles on the moor. Together, they have 49 stones standing. Much of this information I have sourced from the web (where else?) and more can be found here.
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What was the purpose of their building, 5000 years ago? Many theories exist but no-one knows for sure. Excavations have shown that there were charcoal deposits here so fire was certainly used – was it for ritualistic purposes? The theory I like most, is that the circles stand on the boundary of two separate tribes and that this was a neutral meeting place. It would be good to find that it was a place of peace for it certainly feels that way now.
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To the south of the circles and on the northern bank of the East Dart River are the circular remains of a ‘beehive’ hut. These tiny buildings of stone with, once, a turf roof were most likely built in medieval times and used as a store or shelter from the worst of the elements. It is surprisingly well camouflaged – perhaps designed that way to prevent their contents being raided by others. More information on the ancient huts of Dartmoor can be found here.
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After a picnic lunch high on the moor with only the sound of skylarks, cuckoos and buzzards for company, the path descended to the Warren House Inn, a remote (in the past, tin miners) hostelry, some distance to the east. It is said that the fire here has never been allowed to go out since 1845 and it and a pint or two of ale were most welcome.
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Beyond the pub, more remains of old buildings and walled enclosures could be seen, probably of deserted farms or small mining communities. Now, at lower levels, the climate was noticeably more clement and wild flowers provided some welcome colour after the drab greens and browns of the higher moor. The Bird’s Foot Trefoil, especially, were covered in beautiful Fritillary butterflies.
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Finally, after several hours of walking we returned to our starting point, the village of Postbridge, to cross the river by the ancient stone clapper bridge, featured in one of my earlier posts. This, and more photographs, can be found by clicking the link here.
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"A Massive Piece of Granite"

It is a family joke that whenever a large piece of stone is seen, one person asks “What is it?” and the other answers – slowly and after much deliberation and head scratching – “well, it’s a massive piece of granite”. For, many years ago, this was the only answer we got from an old countryman at an ancient stone burial chamber that towered above us.
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Burial chambers, stone circles and other standing stones, which mostly date back 5000 years or so are reasonably common around Britain,and a surprising number of them are quite impressive. There are several scattered around the Cotswolds and I have written about our little known and little visited Old Soldier and also the very well known and very much visited stone circle, the Rollright Stones.
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The Old Soldier
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The Rollright Stones
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Far more scarce and, perhaps even more impressive, are the stone ‘clapper’ bridges. These are often not as old as they look although, even these, were probably built the best part of a 1000 years ago. I find these bridges, which are mostly in the West Country on Dartmoor and Exmoor, just as impressive as Stonehenge, England’s world famous ancient stone monument. The clapper bridge in the photoographs below is at Postbridge, on Dartmoor, in the county of Devon. This clapper bridge was built to aid the transport of tin from moorland mines about 1200AD.
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The ‘new’ bridge in the background, which carries the road and car traffic over the East Dart river is a mere upstart, having been built about 1780. In the photo below, I love the way the arch of the new bridge is framed by the ‘arch’ of the old one.
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The granite slabs measure over 4 metres (13ft) long and are over 2 metres (6ft 6in) wide and weigh over 8 tons each. Despite this, over the centuries they have been swept away downstream by floods. Some have been rebuilt many times, others lost forever. However did they, without modern technology, transport them?
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The bridge just invites you to step onto it and it can be the starting point of many walks that lead across the open moorland. It was for me, a couple of months ago. On that walk, I found deserted settlements and the most incredible stone circle – unusual in that there were two circles side by side. I shall write more of this soon.
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Even now, when a special occasion needs to be commemorated it is to stone that we often turn to. To my knowledge, no modern material is in common use to mark the burial place of a loved one: we mark our graves in a very similar way as our most distant ancestors, with stone slabs.
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We also use stone to mark more joyous occasions. This standing stone was placed on Ibstone Common, high in the Chiltern Hills, to commemorate the millenium. A small thread that unites us through 5000 years of history and far into the future – a comforting thought.
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A Day’s Plant Hunting

One of the pleasures of living on a small island is that you are never far from anywhere – except another country (apologies to Wales and Scotland, I know that you are proud of your separate identities and rightly so).

So last Friday I spent at home in the Cotswolds – limestone country, wide open views and rolling pastures. Saturday I spent walking across Dartmoor (post to follow) – granite country of bleak, open moorland and few trees. Today I spent walking in the Chiltern Hills, my birthplace, a chalk country, densely wooded and secretive. All are beautiful in their own way.


And today was especially special for I was on a mission: looking for rare plants. And with some success, although just as much delight was found in the more common ones, for seeking pleasure from rarity for rarity’s sake is a poor emotion. What could be more charming a discovery than this group of foxgloves in a woodland glade? A common enough plant: I prefer the wild to the garden varieties, that have been bred to have ever larger ‘cups’. Here, the wild plants have a grace and delicacy that is so unlike their brasher relatives.


The group of thistles didn’t seem to be of special interest other than for the pleasure of watching the bumble bees feed from their flowers. But when seen in close detail the flowers really are quite spectacular. Most of these were purple but some that, from a distance, appeared to have prematurely gone to seed turned out to be a variant – they had white flowers. How glad I was that I had dawdled and not just rushed past without giving them a second glance!



Further into the woodland and growing in dappled shade was the first of the ‘finds’. Our native Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is not often seen. Many that appear wild are garden escapes and are usually close to roads or houses but these were a long way from either. And, again, the flowers have a delicacy and lightness about them. Ladies Bonnets is another country name for them – it is easy to see why.


The Narrow Leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) is also uncommon and it was only after this one was found that we realised that there were over forty plants scattered over the area. Like the Columbine, where the plants were not sheltered by scrub or ferns, the deer had eaten the tops off. The flowers remain closed, making them unavailable to insects so, I assume, the plants self pollinate – perhaps that is why they are not at all common.


Further still along the path, was this solitary speciman of Daphne laureola, the Spurge Laurel. Although this plant grows quite widely in the Chilterns, this was the only specimen seen today. It flowers in late winter, it’s greenish-yellow flowers lacking the sweet scent of its garden cousins. Already the berry seedheads are forming, these will turn black later in the year. The Mezereon, a popular garden shrub in the past but not grown so widely these days, is also a native but extremely rare. It is known to grow in the Chilterns although I’ve never found one.


Returning once more to open meadows the woodland gave one last surprise: tall Field Maples, Acer campestre, usually grown as a hedging plant. And this is how it would have started out: one trunk, coppiced and layed to create sturdy, stockproof fencing. The original trunk has long disappeared and the ‘new’ stems from around its base have grown to be trees in their own right. For a maple to be of this size – and they rarely are – it would have been planted in Medieval times and it is known that the field that it borders was first created by the Saxons, 1000 years ago.


And as a grand finale, the meadow gave us dozens of Common Spotted Orchids – only common in favoured places, the spots refer to those on their leaves. The Chilterns are a great place for orchids and are home to some of the rarest species – their sites a closely guarded secret.
A most successful and satisying day!

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