Beacons

Beacons

Another fire rose furious up; behind

Another and another: all the hills

Each beyond each held up its crest of flame.

Along the heavens the bright crimson hue

Widening and deepening travels on; the range

O’erleaps black Tamar, by whose ebon tide

Cornwall is bounded; and on to Haytor rock

Above the stony moorish source of Dart

It waves a sanguine standard…

In these modern times of mobile phones, text messages and the internet if we want to get a message to somebody then it is relatively easy. But what did people do before these everyday technological innovations? How could they convey an urgent message over long distances? Simple, they went up on top of the nearest and highest hill and simply lit a fire which could be seen for miles around. As Dartmoor is not lacking in high hills the moors became what could be considered as an early telephone exchange with signals coming in from all directions. Today we have the vestiges of this practice bequeathed us in various place names scattered across the moor and there are no prizes for guessing that they are all on high hilltops or tors.

The most obvious place-name element is Beacon as this suggests the location of a one-time beacon or signal fire. On Dartmoor there are at least eight specific beacons with another six places that have taken their name from the nearby beacon, ie. Beacon Plain or Beacon Plantation. Other possible associations with beacons are the place-names with ‘fire’ connections as in Firestone Cross which presumably refers to the crossroads with the stone from where the beacon (Cosdon) can be seen? Another example is that of Fyerbicken which appears on a document of the 1500s which lays out the Natsworthy Manor bounds, today it’s known as Hameldown Beacon, (Hemery, 1983, p.629). Below are a list of some of the place-names I have found with beacon associations:

Name OS Grid Ref Date Comments
Beacon Sites      
Bowden Ball SX 71750 90372 Post Medieval Beacon Site – EH Record – HERE
Brent Hill SX 70311 61700 Medieval Beacon Site – EH Record – HERE
Bridford SX 80901 85100 Medieval Beacon Site – EH Record – HERE
Buckfastleigh SX 74101 66502 Medieval Beacon Site – EH Record – HERE
Buckland Beacon SX 73500 73100 Medieval Beacon Hill – EH Record – HERE
Cosdon Beacon SX 63605 91438 Medieval Beacon Hill – EH Record – HERE
Eastern Beacon SX 66850 59110 Medieval AKA Ugborough Beacon
Fyerbicken SX 70812 78900 Medieval AKA Hameldown Beacon
Hameldown Beacon SX 70813 78902 Medieval Beacon Hill – EH Record – HERE
Hennock SX 82601 80520 Medieval Beacon Site – EH Record – HERE
Okehampton Hamlets SX 59510 90800 Medieval Alleged Beacon Site – EH Record – HERE
Penn Beacon SX 59900 62900 Medieval Beacon Hill
Shaugh Beacon SX 53711 63600 Medieval Beacon Hill
Ugborough Beacon SX 66852 59113 Medieval Beacon Hill – EH Record – HERE
Western Beacon SX 65402 57511 Medieval Beacon Hill
Yarner Beacon SX 77??? 78??? ???? Beacon Hill
Beacon Associations      
Beacon Down SX 79700 86100   Nr Bridford
Beacon Hill SX 73600 72600   AKA Buckland Down
Beacon Lane SX 82272 80831   SE of Lustleigh
Beacon Plain SX 66000 59000   N of Ugborough Beacon
Beacon Plantation SX 73140 73198   W of Buckland Beacon
Beacon Plantation SX 80885 85113   SW of Bridford
Fire Associations      
Brandis Cross SX 68755 93873   Crossroads
Firestone Cross SX 66791 93021   Crossroads
Firestone Ley SX 66812 93110   A small common

The map opposite shows all the known place-names that are specifically connected with beacons, as can be seen there is a larger proportion located on the southern edges of Dartmoor. This is probably explained by the fact of geography and the fact that Cosdon Beacon commands a huge panorama that stretches in all directions. Crossing, (1990, p.11) considers that only two beacon fires would have been needed to get a signal from north Dartmoor to south Dartmoor. One would be required on Cosdon and the other on Western Whitaburrow thus giving a line of sight from South Devon to the North Devon Coast. It should be noted that Western Whittaburrow has not been suggested as a beacon site.

The above list is by no means the only Dartmoor vantage points used for beacon fires, for example in 1887 a chain of beacon fires was lit across the country to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria’s accession. There were at least 12 hilltops used on Dartmoor and the operation was timed to precision whereby all beacon fires south of the Lake District were to be lit up at 10.00pm. The location of the Jubilee Dartmoor beacons can be seen in the map opposite.

In a similar occurrence a chain of beacons was lit across Dartmoor to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1997, this event was slightly marred when the beacon which was lit on Three Barrows and the heat from the fire damaged the stones in the cairn. In 2002 a similar event was planned by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and this time a mighty uproar occurred when they suggested using Three Barrows again. In the end the beacon chain comprised of fires lit on; Meldon Hill, Mardon Down, Whitchurch Common, Sampford Tor, Buckland Beacon, Widecombe Hill and Lydford sports field. As can be seen from the map opposite, these beacon fires were links in a chain that was heading for London hence they all run from west to east across the moor.

The actual beacons varied in design across the country and ranged from a stone built turret to a simple iron basket, sometimes referred to as a cresset, which was placed on top of a pole. There were two methods of using the beacon sites, in daylight smoke would be used for signalling whereas a flaming fire would be used for nighttimes, clearly because smoke is more visible in daylight and a flame at night. As previously noted, the majority of beacons were sited on the top of hills but in some cases an ecclesiastical site would have been used. Indeed, one only has to look at Brentor to see such an example, this was definately used in the 1887 Jubilee chain. Another commonality to be found with beacon sites is that many of them are located at sites previously used by prehistoric man. In the case of Dartmoor such examples include; Brentor, Cosdon, Eastern Beacon, Hameldown, North Hessary Tor, Penn Beacon, Prestonbury Camp, Western Beacon and Yes Torr. All share their vantage points with either Bronze Age cairns or Iron Age settlements. In many cases it can be argued that each landscape feature needed a high vantage point to serve their purposes and so it is not surprising that they share the same sites, albeit for different reasons.

It has been suggested that place-name evidence shows that some form of beacon system was in used from at least the twelfth century, (Muir, 2004, p.13). William Crossing, (1990, p.11) draws our attention to a document of 1626 which states that one of the privileges of the manor of Sheepstor was that all that lived within were free from, ‘watching and warding of all beacons, or any other where, save only within the same hamlett‘. This obviously was the big problem with a beacon chain, in times of imminent peril somebody had to physically man the fire which on the face of it doesn’t seem that onerous. But imagine having to be the poor soul/s who had to sit on exposed Dartmoor hilltops just waiting and watching for contiguous warning signals to be lit. But what happened when the beacons were lit? Basically it was the signal for those with military training and/or arms and armour to assemble at the parish church and await deployment orders. It has been muted that when the Spanish Armada was approaching the beacon chain was lit across Devon and as a result between four and six thousand men were mustered, (Hemery, 1983, p.20).

There is another viewpoint on beacons which ranges from the incredible to the plausible depending on ones views or alignments and ley lines. One element of this viewpoint is working on the theory that beacon fires were used from the prehistoric period through to the modern day as opposed to dating them to the medieval period. This idea is quite acceptable as it is known that the Romans used signal stations, just one example being the Pharos at Dover, another local case in point is Beacon Heath in Exeter. Therefore, could this idea stem back even further whereby prehistoric people used them as well but in a different way? The modern thinking of a beacon was to pass a message on to the next point in the chain but what if instead of sending a signal away from the beacon it was guiding people to it? On certain festive days when early man congregated to carry out their various rituals it is conceivable that many of them would travel long distances to reach their destination. In this light would it not be logical to light beacon fires on prominent hills to guide the travellers to the ritual centre? In which case, if this was happening several times a year, over a long period would traditional routes and trackways not become established? This would then give a direct correlation between early beacon sites and ancient trackways thus creating alignments that in the modern landscape are now invisible.

The word ‘beacon’ is said to have its roots from the Anglo Saxon word – béacn or béacen which meant ‘a sign or portent’ or ‘a banner’. Closely associated with this word is béacnian which again comes from the Anglo Saxon and today means ‘beckon’ or ‘signal’, (Clark Hall, 2004, p.33). Therefore if we have a sign, a gesture or a signal does this not suggest that a ‘beacon’ was a method of guiding, attracting or assembling people to a certain location – if so then this concept of prehistoric beacons is perfectly plausible. Alfred Watkins, (1995, p.110) the guru of alignments and ley lines himself considered that, ‘The prehistoric purpose of a beacon fire was to guide and direct. Not until sun alignment and the sighted track had decayed came the entirely different use in medieval days as a warning signal‘. He also suggests that the Brent place-name element was also an indication of a beacon site as it meant ‘burn or burnt’ thus suggesting the onetime presence of fire.

On a Dartmoor level this would then apply to Brentor and Brent Hill which are both beacon sites. However, the majority of opinion lies in the name Brent deriving from the Anglo Saxon word, brant which means ‘steep or high’, (Clark Hall, 2004, p.55) which in both cases is also applicable. The Anglo Saxon word for ‘burn’ is bærnan, (Clark Hall, 2004, p.32) which out of the two words seems the least likely to mutate into Brent.

On a local moorland note, Watkins (1995, p.116) then enters the realms of fantasy with his theory insomuch as he cites the idea of a Mr. R. H. Watkin from Torquay. This basically says that the natural rock basins (small, naturally formed depressions often found on Dartmoor’s granite outcrops) were formed as a result of prehistoric man burning ram’s fat in them to act as beacon fires. Watkins then compares the natural rock basins with the stone cressets used in medieval times to hold the beacon fire which frankly should only interests the ‘woos’ of this world.

The Queen’s Jubilee in 2012 will also see another beacon chain lit across Dartmoor and as of the 16th of May the official beacon chain list recorded 12 locations although nearer the time there may well be a few more.

Beacons

Clark Hall, J. R. 2004. A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary. London: University of Toronto Press.

Crossing, W. 1990. Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor. Newton Abbott: Peninsula Press.

Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Hale Publishing.

Muir, R. 2004. Landscape Encyclopaedia. Macclesfield: Windgather Press.

Watkins, A. 1995. The Old Straight Track. London: Abacus.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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