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Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren

If the media hype following the release of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie ‘War Horse‘ is to be believed there is going to be an invasion of fans flocking to Dartmoor to visit the various locations shown in the film. A central part of the early story is set at the fictional Narracott Farm which in all reality was filmed at the old rabbit warren of Ditsworthy. It could be said that Ditsworthy would have made a better location for ‘Watership Down’ as for at least three hundred years the whole surrounding landscape has been the domain of the Dartmoor Rabbit. Therefore the purpose of this web page is to provide some background history to the warren for anyone visiting the location as having made the effort to get there it may be useful to know a bit more about the place apart from the fact that it appeared in the movie.

Ditsworthy Warren

Narracott Farm as depicted in the movie

War Horse was not the first time that Ditsworthy Warren featured in a story as in 1908 it also played central stage as the home of the warrening Bowden family in Eden Phillpotts‘ novel – ‘A Virgin in Judgement’. Below is an extract from the book where Phillpotts first introduces Ditsworthy:

Inflexible Ringmoor approaches Ditsworthy on one side; while beyond it roll the warrens. Shell Top and Pen Beacon are the highest adjacent peaks of the Moor; and through the midst runs Plym with the solitary, stern Warren House lifted upon its northern bank. A gnarled but lofty ash has defied the upland weather and grown to maturity above this dwelling. It rises wan in the sombre waste and towers above the squat homestead beneath it. Granite walls run round about, and the metropolis of the rabbits, with natural and artificial burrows, extends to the very confines of the building. A cabbage-plot and a croft or two complete man’s work here ; while at nearer approach the house, that looked but a spot seen upon such an immense stage, is found to be of considerable size.’, (Phillpotts, 1908, pp. 5 – 6)

The entire landscape around Ditsworthy is studded with evidence that not only includes the warren features but also many prehistoric monuments dating back several thousands of years. The whole area is a palimpsest that encompasses nearly every century and aspects of mans occupation thus providing a fantastic insight into the history of Dartmoor.

According to the English Place Name Society the first documented evidence of Ditsworthy appeared in the Court Rolls of 1474 as Durkesworth(y). It’s possible that the first element of the name derives from the Old English word deorc which mean ‘dark’ and refers to a medieval surname thus giving Dark’s Worthy (homestead/farm), (Gover et al. 1999, p.239). It has been suggested that documentary evidence shows that warrening was taking place at Ditsworthy in 1676 but there is clear field evidence of 14th century cultivated strips and settlements prior to this date, (Newman, 2011, p.170). The Tithe Map of 1844 shows that Ditsworthy Warren covered an area of 220 acres and following the abandonment of the nearby Eylesborough mine in 1853 and the later amalgamation with Legis Tor Warren grew to over 1,000 acres, (English Heritage Pastscape Record, 2012, on-line source). Hemery details the extent of Ditsworthy Warren at the end of the nineteenth century as being, (1983, p.219, footnote):

Location

Acres Rods Perches
Ditsworthy Warren 211 3 32
Ditsworthy Warren Enclosed Land 11 0 19
Legistor Warren 83 1 8
Aylesborough Warren 1050 10 10
About 20 acres above Combeshead 20 0 0

Total

1476 1 29

In 1676 Sir Nicholas Slanning leased the holding of Ditsworthy to one Edward Meade who was described as a warrener, (English Heritage Survey Report). The  Meade family remained at Ditsworthy until 1719 when it was transferred to the Nicholls’ were the warrener was William Nicholls. The warren was then handed on to his son John Nicholls in 1780, he was later succeeded by the Ware family when Nicholas Ware was the warrener in 1829. His son William then took over the warren sometime between 1851 and 1860, (Hemery, pp. 217 – 219). Having occupied Ditsworthy for 118 years the Ware family finally closed down the warren in 1947 upon the death of Percy Ware. According to the Devon and Dartmoor Historic Environment Register in its heyday Ditsworthy was the largest warren in Britain

Today Ditsworthy Warren is owned by the Maristow estate but is leased by the Admiralty and is used as part of their ‘Supporting Infrastructure’ in the capacity of a ‘Stone Tent’ which houses up to 23 personnel in the house plus tents outside when training on the moor, (Description of DTA and Military Activities pdf – HERE). The farmhouse is now a grade II listed building, monument ID – 14617.

In 1903 William Crossing published in his book ‘The Dartmoor Worker’ a splendid description of the warren house, he describes the remoteness of the place:

No other habitation is near, and save a glimpse of the distant Cornish hills with the channel beyond, nothing but moor is seen. With the exception of a single ash, bearing unmistakable signs of the buffetings it has recieved from the winter storms, there are no trees around this solitary dwelling, which is sheltered only by the rising ground behind it, and towards the west. A few enclosures adjoin, and a rough track leads down to the river (Plym) where there is a ford, and a clam, or wooden footbridge, high above the water‘, (Crossing, 1966, p.57).

Despite the warren being remote, compared to some other Dartmoor farmsteads the access  to it was and still is very good, hence Spielberg using it as a location. At one time the track was marked with small heaps of stones placed at regular intervals along it. These were even whitewashed to aid visibility in times of the infamous Dartmoor mists, Crossing informs us that this work was carried out by one George Davis of Plymouth, (Crossing, 1966, p.58).

It has been suggested that parts of the warren house standing today could possibly date back to the sixteenth century, (Haynes, p.160) along with later extensions. However, it may well be the case that this building is sited over where the medieval ‘Worthy’ once stood, (English Heritage Pastscape Record). You can see from the photographs below that originally there was a fairly large building attached to the left-hand side of the house which has now gone and all but some walls of the buildings on the right-hand side have also disappeared. The photograph of the kitchen is typical of a Dartmoor farmhouse and note the rack of guns hanging on the wall over the fireplace.

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren House

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren House

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren House

Ditsworthy Warren

Plan of Ditsworthy Warren House

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren House

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren House

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren House

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren House

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Warren House

There are a few interesting features associated with the warren house, one of which can be seen in the small field enclosure just to the east and is known as ‘Kennel Court’. It is here that the earlier warreners built small cave-like structures into the walls in order to shelter their dogs. You can also see from the photograph below that the Kennel Court’s enclosure wall is topped with large coping slabs, this was to stop the warren dogs jumping out. In fact it has been said that at some point in time the dogs at Ditsworthy were ‘so vicious that the warreners had to stand on the wall to throw them there food rather than entering the enclosure.’, (Earle, 2003, p.18). This arrangement apparently caused rheumatism problems with the dogs due to the porous nature of the growan. To overcome this Percy Ware constructed; ‘a very large bench in the centre of kennel court: below it he built two box-like compartments, and above it a rick of ferns (bracken); this he then thatched with rushes. Thus were the occupants of this Baba Yaga bungalow on legs protected from the elements’, (Hemery, p.220). All that remains of this today are the small supporting granite blocks that stand in the centre of the Kennel Court. The fictional descriptive term ‘Baba Yaga‘ was one that Hemery used and several years ago a letterboxer sited a letterbox which in its clue only referred to the name ‘Baba Yaga’. This got everyone scratching their heads because unless you actually read Hemery’s passage there was no mention of the name anywhere in the literature of Dartmoor.

Another interesting feature is the leat channel that supplied continuous running water to the warren which was taken from Elbow Gutter. This firstly ran into the kitchen and onto a marble slab, from here the water ran outside into the courtyard where it filled a granite trough, from here the flow carried on through the vegetable garden along a granite conduit and then rejoined the Elbow Gutter and travelled alongside ‘The Big Shed’. This was where the rabbits were dressed and cleaned ready for market. The water then flowed out of the warren farm and entered an artificial  pool known locally as the ‘Carronpool’ (Carrion Pool), in here carcasses were kept prior to being fed to the warren dogs, it quite simply acted as a refrigerator keeping the meat fresh. There was another spring fed hollow which was located nearby which was used to keep the warreners cream cool and fresh. Another ‘relic’ can be found standing beside the house and that is the two granite posts that once supported a grindstone which were set over a water supply taken from the leat.

There are three main landscape features associated with rabbit warrens; boundaries, rabbit buries and vermin traps all of which can be found at and around Ditsworthy . Back in 1970 Haynes recorded a total of 14 existing vermin traps dotted around Ditsworthy, (Haynes, 1970, p.160) and there is field evidence for at least 54 rabbit buries located within the warren’s bounds.

Ditsworthy Warren

Grindstone Supports

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Outbuilding

Ditsworthy Warren

Remains of ‘Baba Yaga’

Ditsworthy Warren

A Dog Kennel

Ditsworthy Warren

Ditsworthy Leat

Ditsworthy Warren

Rabbit Bury

 I along with my friend Rhys Eynon visited Ditsworthy on the 12th of February which was a bitterly cold and Dartmoor crisp day and I must admit there was no sign that the place had been used as a central film location, everything had clearly been restored to its original condition. It does appear that the media was correct when they suggested that it would be a popular place of pilgrimage to War Horse fans. There certainly were quite a few people in the area, some of whom seemed to be wandering about trying to find the place. As mentioned above there is a lot more than just Ditsworthy to be seen in the area and by extending the route by about two miles you can visit some splendid examples of Bronze Age ritual monuments and settlements, remnants of the tinner’s stream works and an old tin mine. Below is a suggested route map that shows the way to Ditsworthy and also the extended version if you would like to do it (of which I take no responsibility at all).

Ditsworthy Warren

Route Plan

Ditsworthy Warren

An Icy Leat

Ditsworthy Warren

A Local Resident

Just a couple of things to bear in mind, Ditsworthy Warren House is in fact on private land and the trespass law comes into effect should any damage be done which would include any War Horse souvenirs pertaining to the place. To get to the car park you need to drive down a narrow lane which does have some places where two vehicles can pass. It would be as well to ensure that you can reverse you vehicle if needed. I say this because when we left we met some muppet driving a campervan who was not capable of reversing about 8ft in order for me to pull into a space and expected me to go back a couple of hundred yards. Needless to say after a brief stand off and a few F’s he was persuaded to pluck up the courage to shuffle his van back far enough for both vehicles to pass. It’s also worth noting that parking spaces are very limited and the best idea is to get there early. I would also like to thank Rhys for allowing me to use some of his photographs on this webpage.

Ditsworthy Warren

Crossing, W. 1966 Crossing’s Dartmoor Worker, Newton Abbot: David & Charles Publishing.

Gover, J. E. B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F. M. 1992 The Place Names of Devon – Part 1, Nottingham: The English Place-Name Society.

Earle, J. 2003 Dartmoor Walks into History, Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing.

English Heritage, ???? An Archaeological Survey Report – Drizzlecombe, Eylesbarrow, Ditsworthy... Swindon, English Heritage.

English Heritage, 2012 Ditsworthy Warren Pastscape Record, On-line Source – see link opposite.

Haynes, R. 1970 Vermin Traps and Rabbit Warrens on Dartmoor, Post Medieval Archaeology, No. 4.

Hemery, E. 1983 High Dartmoor, London: Robert Hale Ltd.

Heritage Gateway, 2012 Devon & Dartmoor H.E.R. – Ditsworthy, On-line Source – see link opposite.

Newman, P. 2011 The Field Archaeology of Dartmoor, Swindon: English Heritage.

Phillpotts, E. 1908 The Virgin in Judgement, London: Cassell & Co, Ltd.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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2 comments

  1. Hello,
    I am a descendant of the Wares of Ditsworthy, just inquiring about information. Do you know anymore about the Wares as the warreners and also where did you find those great photos of it?
    Thanks

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