Here’s a question for you – have you ever been sat at your favourite spot on Dartmoor and wished that you owned it, (I know I have on many occasions)? Here’s another question; if you did own it what kind of public access would you allow? Would you follow in the footsteps of the owner of the land on which Vixen Tor stands and ban all public access? Or would you be more public spirited and allow full access and just hope the public don’t cause too much damage or leave too much litter for you to clear up? One last question – supposing you went for the public spirited option at what point would you reverse your decision – excessive damage to the landscape and its wildlife, litter strewn everywhere, livestock pestered or allowed to escape, vandalism to any ancient monuments, etc.? All these public annoyances and many more are experienced by many landowners on and around Dartmoor today. I know I said the previous question was the last but I lied, here’s one more for you. Would you consider these are modern day dilemmas caused by 21st century disregard for property coupled with the easy access to Dartmoor which motor vehicles provide along with the number of visitors now coming to the moor? If your answer to the last question was yes, then your’e wrong and to prove a point here now follows a classic example from the late 1800s – early 1930s.
“On one side the Moor slopes steeply strewn with boulders, on the other the almost precipitous declevity is well wooded and in spring-time gay with wild flowers. We are soon beneath the Dewerstone, a beetling crag which in sublime grandeur frowns over the stream. Its fissures, however, are not unadorned. Here and there plants have obtained roothold, and, contrasting with the ivy which clings to its rugged face, soften the stern beauty of the precipice…” J. Ll. W. Page, An Exploration of Dartmoor, p.275.
So, as can be gathered from the above description the Dewerstone and its surrounding area is a place of beauty and at one time belonged to the Manor of Goodameavy. As can be seen from the map extract below it was at one time also a busy industrial area with various mills, mines and quarries. Additionally it is located about ten miles form the city of Plymouth which made it a favourite spot for the inhabitants to visit and partake in its scenery and fresh air. On the 11th of July 1887 the following letter appeared in the pages of the Western Morning News:
“Sir, – Last Saturday I, with a party of friends, went on a pleasure excursion to that beautiful portion of Bickleigh Vale known as Shaugh. Previous to that time I had always looked upon that piece of ground enclosed by the two streams that meet above the Shaugh Bridge, and on which the Dewerstone stands, as public property, and was consequently, surprised when proceeding over the wooden bridge by which the place is reached, to see an old man unlock the gate to let us pass, as if it we were entering private grounds. Now, as this place is one of the most beautiful within easy reach of Plymouth people, it would be well, if we have any rights in connection with it, that we zealously guard them…“.
At this time there were no public rights of access and such was permitted by the kind permission of the landowners. Its seems slightly strange that as access was permitted, albeit through a locked gate, that the correspondent should be complaining? Anyway, three days later on the 13th of July 1887 another letter appeared in the Western Morning News which succinctly put things into perspective:
“May I be allowed to say that I have made enquiry of a well-known resident of Bickleigh, and am informed that the piece of ground enclosed by the two beautiful streams meeting at Shaugh Bridge, was formerly approached by stepping stones across the river, and upon the further bank there was a gate kept firmly fastened, and through, or over this formed the only access to the Dewerstone.
Some few years since the wooden bridge the writer alludes to was erected by the Brick Works Company, by permission of Sir Massey Lopes, Bart. and the late Mr. Scoble of Hoomeavy, who together own the whole of the property referred to, and for a time this bridge was entirely open, owing to the stoppage of the company, but it was even then occasionally kept fastened, and no public right of access or thoroughfare ever existed to these ground in living memory of man, and I am credibly informed that they are entirely private property, and, therefore the public are lucky nowadays to possess the practically free access to a lovely spot which they do at Shaugh Bridge, ‘barring the old man and the gate,’ and drawing the ‘attention of the proper authorities,’ might perchance cause a curtailment of privileges by the erection of another gate o two, or a charge for admission to natural beauty we all admire and should strive to protect, whether publicly or privately owned.”
It appeared that the issue was laid to rest for a while and Plymouth folk enjoyed the privilege of enjoying pleasure excursions around the Dewerstone area despite the fact of the gates. That was until the 22nd of April 1924 when another letter appeared in the Western Morning News & Mercury which read;
“Sir, – Hundreds of people who visited Shaugh Bridge on Bank-Holiday were disappointed to find that the rustic bridge which spanned the Meavy and enabled them to get to the Dewerstone had been removed. For years a frail structure did good service in helping people to cross the river Cad (River Plym), which joins the Meavy at Shaugh Bridge. That disappeared some years ago, and until this year a picturesque structure was made to do duty on the Meavy. Now this has been taken away and timid people are unable to get to the opposite bank to visit the Dewerstone and the historic boulders on one of which the Poet Carrington has carved his name. Can anyone say who is responsible for removing the bridge? – Leitch Greenaway.“
The above letter was quickly responded to on the 28th of April 1924 by a resident of Shaugh Prior who pointed out that unlike town dwellers those living in the countryside do not have the luxury of; “paid scavengers who remove daily the rubbish of untidy persons.” It was also noted that if the ‘multitude’ were to light fires, burn grass, destroy young trees, break down walls and hedges, strew the ground with paper, bottles and other things in the gardens of the town’s people what would they do? Certainly not construct a footbridge to make it easier for even more numbers to be added to the ‘multitude’.
About a month went by before this question was answered by a long letter that appeared in the Western Morning News & Mercury on the 24th of May 1924. It is a long letter and I make no apologies for including it in its entirety as it demonstrates the ‘Dewerstone Dilemma’ perfectly:
“Sir, – As owner of Good-a-Meavy Manor in which the Dewerstone is situate, I desire to make clear to your readers and the public generally certain points raised by ‘Leitch Greenaway’ and others in recent issues of your paper.
The Dewerstone and all its approaches to it are my private property. There is not and there never has been any public right of way to it from Shaugh Bridge. ‘Leitch Greenaway’s contention in support of a claim of public right of way from Shaugh Bridge to the Dewerstone that ‘one person could remember sixty years ago there was a fording place near Shaugh Bridge, marked on either side by stone pillars, and that this was the main path from Shaugh village to Clearbrook,’ even if correct does not establish a right of way to the Dewerstone which lies in an entirely different direction.
As to ‘the substantial bridge’ constructed by workmen over the river, the late Mr. Edwin Scoble, my uncle and predecessor in title, leased a portion of the property to a company for quarrying, when a bridge, presumably the one referred to, was constructed, and paths and roadways were made and used solely for the purposes of working the quarry. Neither the bridge nor the roadways or paths were constructed for the use of the public.
When the quarrying was discontinued the bridge naturally was allowed to fall into decay and it no longer exists. ‘The handsome rustic bridge’ also referred to by ‘Leitch Greenaway,’ was constructed by a tenant of mine recently, solely as a matter of convenience to himself in providing convenient access to and from work he was doing at Shaugh prior; when this was finished he removed it at my request.
I have never refused visitors the pleasures they derive from visiting the Dewerstone, nor is it my desire to do so, but I naturally should require my permission to be obtained before any bridge is constructed over the river giving access to my private property. I also expect such visitors to restrict their movements to the direct approach to the Dewerstone and refrain from damaging trees and setting fire to the gorse, bracken and coverts which (to my loss) has occurred on more than one occasion, and also to exercise reasonable care in seeing that paper, tins, bottles, and refuse are not left lying about.
I should be sorry to be obliged to forbid access to the Dewerstone from Shaugh Bridge, but if visitors cannot treat private property in a fair and reasonable way I can have no other alternative but to do so.
In conclusion, I desire to say that if any person or body of persons should desire to make arrangements with me for the construction of a foot bridge over either of the rivers to my property (at their expense, of course), in order to facilitate access by the public to the Dewerstone, I should be quite willing to consider any such proposal, but it can only be on condition that my rights as an owner of private property are clearly recognised and assured, and further that if such privilege should be abused I should have the right to require the bridge to be removed. – Arthur M. Hill.”
The first letter by Leitch Greenaway was followed up with another by him published in the Western Morning News & Mercury on the 30th of May 1924.
“Sir, – The very interesting story of a ‘Dartmoor Adventure’ shows how popular Shaugh Bridge and the Dewerstone are to visitors who love beautiful scenery. The Queen of Rumania, then Princess Marie, with other distinguished persons, were picnicing on the banks of the river at Shaugh and Princess Marie, as she then was, fell into the river whilst trying to cross over the boulders.
Surely, Mr. Hill, the owner of Hoo Meavy House, and who owns the land in the neighbourhood, would have been only too pleased to have thrown a rustic bridge across the stream on that August occasion. Thousands of people visit Shaugh Bridge during the summer, and most will cross the river by the boulders and get to the Dewerstone, as they have been doing so for a great many years, and probably many timid ladies will fall into the stream whilst attempting the passage…
In the goodness of his heart Mr. Hill has already expressed his willingness to allow a bridge to be placed near to where the old one was, providing the public will not regard it as an abrogation of his legal rights. I think Mr. Hill can be quite assured by this, also that visitors will be careful not to leave the place untidy. Perhaps Mr. Hill will assist in having a rough bridge constructed over the Cad or Meavy, the latter for choice, because the waters are never so heavy in the Meavy as the Cad. – Leitch Greenaway.“
It seems as if Mr. Hill’s offer of allowing a footbridge had struck a chord in certain quarters as on the 13th of June 1924 the following was published in the Western Morning News an Mercury:
“A few friends (of whom an artistic member of your staff is one) are anxious to see a small rustic bridge placed across the river, and consider the most suitable spot is just above Shaugh Bridge on the river Meavy. Of course, we desire that many hundreds who visit this lovely spot, with its hills, valleys, and stream, and woodland, shall not abuse the privilege given by Mr. Hill, and should do all in our power to uphold him in that respect, and I have written to him to this effect.
It is thought that there are many who would like to contribute a small sum towards the cost of erecting a rustic bridge, and with this object in view, I shall be pleased to act as honary treasurer to a shilling fund, and any balance that may be required to complete the structure (which will not be expensive to make) will be made up by us.”
On the 8th of July 1924 a new rustic bridge was officially opened over the river Meavy, it was built by a Mr. Jeffery who at the time lived in a cottage near Shaugh Bridge. The structure was supported by two large boulders placed on each side of the river. It had a rails and trellis on each side and was wide enough for two people to pass each other. The timber used to build the bridge was given by Arthur Hill with contributions form Sir Henry Lopes as well. The official open day was on the Sunday when Leith Greenaway took a ‘sovereign collection’ which went towards the costs of building the bridge. Reports say that over the Saturday and Sunday a ‘thousand’ of people took advantage of the new crossing during which at times saw twenty two people cross the bridge at the same time – testament to its strength.
So having a rustic footbridge in place the ‘multitude’ were placated for a short while, that was until some heavy winter floods in 1927 washed it away. However a new bridge was constructed in early 1928 albeit of a different design. It was decided that the ‘rustic’ sides to the old bridge acted as an obstruction to any branches etc. being washed down the river in times of flood which lead to its demise. Therefore the new bridge was of a less ‘rustic’ but more practical design thus ensuring it lasted much longer. During this year the Great Western Railway reduced their fares which meant people from Plymouth could get to Shaugh Bridge for sixpence. According to the train company many hundreds of people were spending the whole evening either at Shaugh Bridge or the moorland around Yelverton.
In the November of 1938 a ‘deluge’ on the river Plym completely submerged the wooden footbridge (and nearly did the same to the Shaugh Bridge) causing a great deal of structural damage. By the December of 1939 it was ‘groundhog day’ as once again the folk of Plymouth were lamenting the dilapidated state of the footbridge which was preventing ‘the timid’ from visiting the Dewerstone. The ‘bridge’ was described as being in the form of a ladder with a slack wire handrail and several gaps where the rungs had rotted away. So the call went out for another collection to be made in order to construct a new bridge. Despite and exhaustive search I cannot find out what happened with regards to a new bridge or any future bridges. However today the area around the Dewerstone is owned by the national trust and as can be seen above a new footbridge was erected in 2010.
Albeit a long-winded way of pointing out the problems with owning a beauty spot in the past by no means have the concerns abated today. Not only are they susceptible to damage, litter, etc there are new dangers such as fly-tipping, livestock worrying, traffic congestion and many more. Latterly the majority of headaches are the responsibilities of various national organisation such as the Dartmoor National Park Authority, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust to name but a few. So returning to my original question – if you owned a Dartmoor beauty spot what public access would you allow?
Finally, I was intrigued to find out a little more about the ‘ducking’ that the Princess Marie got on her visit, so – “Princess Marie, then 17, essayed to cross the river by means of the quaint old stepping-stones, but her foot slipped and she was plunged into the water. Other members of the party rushed to her assistance, and she was extricated from her plight, dripping, but uninjured. It was then that she repaired to the nearby mill, where the miller’s daughter provided her with clothing while her own apparel was being dried.” – The Western Morning News & Mercury, May 24th, 1924.