There always have and still are land disputes between neighbouring communities and there have been several notable ones occurring on Dartmoor. Many of these involved various landowners, the Duchy of Cornwall or between rival parishes. Since prehistoric times on Dartmoor such ‘tribal lands’ have been delineated by various landscape features which clearly laid claim to the lands encompassed within their boundaries. In later years it became the practice to utilise boundstones intermingled with landscape features such as natural rocks, tors etc. Once established there was then the need to regularly lay claim to these boundaries, which in many cases had been sacrosanct for generations. This lead to the tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds‘ which still takes place today in many parishes. Occasionally it was not unknown for two adjoining parishes to carry out the ceremony on the same day which if there was a disputed boundary could lead to interesting encounters. On the 11th of June 1909 both the parishes of Bridestowe and Sourton performed their septennial beating of the bounds at which a Western Times reporter was in attendance. The following events were witnessed by him and his article published under the heading of – ‘A Dartmoor Comedy‘:
“Bridestowe and Sourton Bounds Beating is a septennial affair. The two parishes combine for the purpose of beating the bounds and the occasion is always made a public holiday. Previous to last Tuesday the last tramp of this character took place in Coronation Year, but that was quite a mild and prosaic undertaking compared with the latest beating of the bounds which was fixed for the same day that both Bridestowe and Sourton were to hold the high festival in commemoration of the arrival of the Prince and Princess of Wales at Bridestowe for the commencement of their Royal Highnesses’ tour to the West. For both parishes, therefore Tuesday was unusually eventful, and certainly the peripatetic ceremony with which the holiday was opened was one of the most remarkable in Sourton’s history. It was a comedy from beginning to end and Okehampton and Lydford for reasons to be explained hereafter, would no doubt dub it a comedy of errors.
Estimates differ rather considerably as to the distance which was covered in this Dartmoor tramp (for a Dartmoor tramp is what Bridestowe’s beating of the bounds practically amounts to), but it is tolerably certain that over eight miles was covered A start was made soon after nine o’clock. The party numbered about 150. Some of the older villagers were armed with good, stout walking sticks, while some were mounted on moor ponies, but the majority, young people, full of holiday spirits and sniffing adventure, tramped the journey on foot, and in their ‘Sunday best’. The rear was brought up by the inevitable ‘refreshments van,’ a heavy farm cart laden with sandwiches and beverages in plenty. The quality of these was sampled, by the way, before the eventful journey was commenced, and then, in a pell-mell and unmarshalled order, the brave spirits of Bridestowe and Sourton set out to establish their territorial rights. In view of what subsequently happened, one might almost say that they set out on a morning’s frontier warfare.
Though the greater number of the party were young people who, no doubt, judged the merits of Bounds Beating by the amount of ‘sport’ it provided and the quality of the refreshments, there were parish dignitaries from both Bridestowe and Sourton to whom the septennial tramp was a much more serious affair. They had prepared for it by diligently consulting parish maps, parish minutes, and parish annals, and they had planned out in their minds a route to be covered, any deviation from which they would regard as wantonly prejudicing the ancient rights and privileges of their combined parishes.
It was ‘King’s Weather.’ Dartmoor had not before this year, appeared in a more propitious setting, and the excellent and peaceful spirit which prevailed when the journey was commenced little foreboded the troubles which were later to beset the party. The Iron Gate was reached by way of Black Rock, and then another break was made for refreshments. The halt was brief, and the Bound Beaters resumed their prearranged route along the Okement River. It was about a mile further on that the first slice of real comedy took place.
About eight years ago, it appears, Okehampton Bound Beaters had carved the letters ‘O.P.B.’ (which stand for Okehampton Parish Bounds) on the rock of Slipper Stones. Now Bridestowe, or Sourton, or both (probably both) immediately objected to this tacitly established boundary of Okehampton. They claimed that Okehampton had exceeded their frontier limits, and they forthwith gave notice to that parish that on such and such a date the inscribed initials would be chiselled out of the rock.
Chiselled out they duly were, and Bridestowe and Sourton rejoiced in the belief that they had irrevocably established their claim. Recently, however, the same portentous letters ‘O. P. B.’ have reappeared in the same place – this time not chiselled on the Slipper Stones, but set forth in mud! The patriots of Bridestowe and Sourton had heard of this second infringement and it was part of last Tuesday’s programme to remove the offending letters.
The advance party arrived on the site, and at that time (so their subsequent recital of the story sets forth) they foresaw nothing of any likely opposition to the removal. Two gentlemen climbed to a point of vantage from where the rubbing off of the mud letters would be easy, but they had no sooner started this work than certain gentlemen on horseback (about half-a-dozen, report declares) appeared on the scene, and made objections to the removal in no uncertain manner. Their remonstrations having failed, they summarily dislodged one of the two Sourton parishioners who had begun the demolition.
By that time, however, the main body of the Bound Beaters had arrived, and the odds of 150 infantry opposed to six cavalry being undeniably in favour of the infantry, the Okehampton squadron refrained from further aggressiveness, and contented themselves with very full and detailed arguments in support of their case. Perhaps that was the wisest course for them to pursue, for it was afterwards solemnly declared by one Sourton worthy that had he known (he didn’t at the time) that one of his party had been forcibly removed from the Slipper Stones, the member of the Okehampton cavalry who was responsible for it would have come off his horse, and gone – headlong for preference – into the cooling stream of the Okement river. All of which shows the comedy of Slipper Stones might easily have become the tragedy of the Okement River.
The obliteration of ‘O. P. B.’ having been well and truly performed, the party proceeded on their way undisturbed past Kit Ford, the Rattlebrook, Dinagoat (Dunnagoat) and ‘Dick’s Well Pits,’ and then over gaunt Armis (Arms) Tor to Vale Down, where the journey ended, and where the second comedy took place just prior to the order for dispersing. In two long rows, the Bound Beaters sat down at this spot, and final refreshments were handed around from two huge clothes baskets. All was going as merrily as the proverbial wedding bell when ‘Western Times,’ representatives after a long search came across the dusty, triumphant Bound Beaters. Refreshments over, the ‘Western Times’ snap-shooter posed the whole group for a photograph and it seemed that the party after all, would break up without further incident.
At this moment, however, a Lydford parishioner on horseback, accompanied by two other Lydford worthies, and also a gentleman representing the Duchy, called over one of our representatives and explained to him that he and his three friends were present (they were armed with a map and documentary evidence) to formally protest against Bridestowe and Sourton having beaten bounds along a certain line from Sandy Ford to the Rattlebrook. This, they alleged, was a trespass upon another parish, and they proceeded to advance an argument about the ‘territory’ they disputed, including certain peat works which were not rated either in the parishes of Bridestowe or Sourton “How then,” they wanted to know, “could Bridestowe include the property in their bounds?”
Our representative, wary about being drawn into the terrible vortex of frontier warfare, assured the Lydford gentlemen that he had no idea, and that even if he had any idea he did not desire to be established as a vale Down Court of Appeal. He ventured to add, however, that he would make a note of Lydford’s objection, and it should duly be recorded in the minutes of the proceedings as set forth in the next weekly issue of the ‘Western Times.’
By this time, however, a number of Bridestowe and Sourton patriots had come around, and these gentlemen having heard the conversation, the fat was immediately in the fire. “If that gets in the ‘Western Times,” one of them remarked, “what will people say who see it in fifty years hence. They’ll say that we had no right to those bounds.”
This appealed to the majority present as such irresistible logic that a dispute became at once general, and rapidly warmed up to such a degree that our representative withdrew from the centre of the group, and watched the proceedings from a distance.
Of course, nothing was settled. One gentleman lost his horse (a friend had ridden it off for him in case it got cramp), while one or two other gentlemen addressed the party in turn upon Sourton rights, Bridestowe rights, Lydford rights, and Okehampton rights, and the whole matter became at length hopelessly jumbled until the storm of words subsided, breaking out in loud disclaimers now and again from different points, like the last peals of a departing thunderstorm. The final peal of all came from a Lydford worthy. “Before long,” he remarked, “we shall beat our own bounds and then you’ll see!” – The Western Times, June 11th, 1909.
History records another territorial dispute between Okehampton and the Bridestowe/Sourton folk. Apparently centuries since the body of a dead man was discovered in the vicinity of the boundary banks known as Iron Gates (OS grid ref. SX 5447 8949). At this time it was the duty of whichever parish a dead body was found in to provide the deceased with a decent burial. However, in this instance the Commoner of Bridestowe and Sourton flatly refused to carry out their duty. So some men from Okehampton took on the responsibility and in doing so promptly claimed the land in question as belonging to their parish. This event naturally led to heated arguments between the parishes for many generations until, very reluctantly, the folk from Bridestowe and Sourton conceded the land to Okehampton. But for many centuries afterwards the debate still flared up, especially on the day of the Beating of the Bounds. With regards to the heated debate between Lydford, Bridestowe and Sourton – today, on the left bank of the West Okement at Sandy Ford sits a lone boundary stone marked with the letter ‘P’ which is reputed to denote the word ‘Parish’ and marks the outer boundary of the Bridestowe and Sourton parishes. Brewer, pp. 174 – 175. By the way, if you look at a modern-day O.S. map you will see that the Bridestowe and Sourton parish boundary does infact encompass the old peat works as disputed above.
Brewer, D. 2002. Dartmoor Boundary Markers. Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing.