One thing Dartmoor is not short of is walls and another thing is stone with which to build them, there must be literally hundreds of miles of walling across the moor. It is also surprising how deep into remote areas the walls extend and are a true testament to the wall builders resolve.

The first job the early Dartmoor farmers had to do was enclose his land and that meant building sturdy walls. One of the rights of an Ancient Tenement (farm) holder was that on succession of the farm the son could enclose a further 8 acres of land excluding rock and bog. During the 1700’s the So called improvers abused this right so much that it was rescinded in 1796. Many would enclose vast tracts of land under the pretext that much of it consisted of rocks and/or bogs. The 3D aerial map below shows the Teignhead Great Newtake which was enclosed during the early 1800’s. The wall around the enclosure is 4 miles (6.43km) long and as can be seen from the map crosses some very steep and remote areas.


These enclosed areas were called ‘newtakes’ and a look at any OS map will reveal the extent of them. During the late 18th century and early 19th century many acres of commoners’ land was enclosed under licence from the Duchy and understandably this made the ‘improvers’ very unpopular with the moorfolk. These latter day newtakes were in utter contradiction to the old Forest customs. The chart below shows some statistics on the enclosure acreages of Dartmoor:


So having established the need for enclosure walls there then came a need for people to build them and a good ‘Waller’ was worth his weight in gold. The newtake walls were built by piling stones to a height of between 4 and 5 feet and in some instances even higher. No mortar was used for binding and all was down to the skill of the builder. The materials for building walls was normally near at hand in the form of the moorstone. In the early days the wall builder would never break or shape the stones used in building the wall. When the available stones were large the wall would be solid but where the materials were smaller the result would be a less substantial enclosure where “daylight could be seen through,” them. In situations where there was not a convenient supply of stone it would be brought to the site by means of sleds drawn by ponies.

In later years many of the wall builders started using only the large stones which were roughly squared or dressed.  The discarded smaller stones would be gathered into heaps and left in the newtakes and today are classifies as ‘clearance cairns’. Another way the discarded stones were utilised was to build them into the corners of the enclosures which in some cases resulted in them being up to five or six feet wide.

When the course of a wall met an obstacle such as a large boulder the builder had two options, he could either build it into the wall or deviate around it, many newtake walls show examples of both such features. Sometimes if you look down the length of a wall it will be seen that it suddenly make a semi-circular sweep and then return to the original straight course. This was done to encompass a spring into the newtake which would provide a water source for the livestock. On the edges of the moor, some of the walls will make a large sweep into the newtake thus forming a semi-circular bowl sometimes known as ‘courts’ or ‘telling places’. The purpose of this was to allow the farmer to gather his cattle or ponies so they could be counted.

In some places, usually on the edge of the moor the walls can be seen to gently taper towards a gate. These are known as ‘strolls’ or ‘tongues’ and were used as a funnel to gather livestock. When driving animals, they hate to be suddenly bunched so a stroll allowed them to be gradually and gently driven into a group. The strolls also provided shelter in bad weather and accessible feeding points in wintertime.


Two plans of ‘strolls’ or ‘tongues’.

There are many examples of walls that abruptly finish with for no obvious reason and this is because either money ran out or the enclosure was deemed as being unviable, these are often called ‘Walls End’.

Every newtake has a name with some of them having early Celt or Saxon derivations. In some cases the word newtake has been added to an existing name, ie, ‘Newtake Hill’. Not only do the individual newtakes have names but very often so do the gates in their walls and some of the corners formed by them. The names often refer to the land owners, enclosure builders or newtake uses such as ‘Deer Park Corner’, James Lobb’s gate’ and Templar’s Newtake.


Three letterbox stamps showing newtake, gate and corner names

Probably the most noted Dartmoor wall builder was John Bishop of Swincombe whose work is easily distinguishable from that of other builders and much of which exists today. He always maintained that any wall he built was “ordained to stand,” and the reason being was that he was one of the first to use the large, shaped and squared stone building method. John always used large, tightly fitted blocks of granite through which very little ‘daylight’ could be seen. When once asked how he managed to move such heavy granite stones he replied, “Aw, ’tis surprisin’ what ee can do with a laiver or two.” Which meant some of his essential tools were crowbars or as he called them, “bar ires.” Bishop was one of the builders that always used a pony and sled to carry any stone. He was full of praise for his pony and it has been recorded that he always maintained that the pony “belonged to vayther, an wudden no more’n vourteen, or vourteen an’ a half, an’ I’ve a zeed’n shift a stone up dree tin (ton) wight ‘pon a sled.”  Below are two examples of newtake walls and it is not hard to distinguish the large slab work of John Bishop.


John Bishop was born in 1821 and if the 1851 census is correct he and his wife had their first child at the ages of 14?.  In the 1851 census his occupation was described as ‘labourer’ and they were living at Cherberton (Sherberton). The ruins of his house still stand today beside the Swincombe river and whether this too is a reminder of his building skills is unknown. John Bishop died in 1892 at the age of 71, although long gone his work still encloses many newtakes on the moor and act as a tribute to a true craftsman. He was known as the type of man who would not suffer fools gladly and who intensely hated being watched whilst working. It was said that if anybody did he would stop work, fill his pipe and stand in silence until the offending spectator had retired. He despised modernisation and always stuck to the traditional ways, he was famed for continuing to use a steel and flint lighter long after matches had become the norm. His work was legendary and his skills were always in demand but if any employer dared to criticise his labours or suggest other ways of doing he would find himself blacklisted for any future work – sounds my type of man. There is one story about how he an two friends were accused of poaching hares on Duchy land and as a result John was given notice to, “determine his tenancy.” Bishop clearly had friends in high places because the upshot of the matter was that the Duchy Steward, Charles Barrington, received a strongly worded letter from the Duchy Secretary in London which suggested that the accuracy of the allegation was dubious to say the least.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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