Hingston Hill, sometimes known as Hingston Down, has sitting on its crest one of the more iconic of Dartmoor’s prehistoric ritual features. The Bronze Age stone row and cairn circle is also referred as ‘Down Tor stone row’ despite the fact its is actually sited on Hingston Hill. If one expands their focus to the surrounding landscape it soon becomes clear this location held some special significance to those early moorland settlers. Today there is evidence of their dwellings, burial sites, boundaries and ritual monuments, these come in the form of enclosures, dwellings, cairns, kistvaens, a reaves, a stone row and associated circle.
The actual place-name ‘Hingston Down’ has two elements, the second being a landscape element of ‘Down’ which is a mutation of the old word dun meaning hill. The first element is probably alludes to a personal name, possibly something like Hengest? This would give a translation of ‘Hengest’s Hill’. At sometime the extra ‘Down/Hill’ was added giving a rather pointless double meaning as the landscape element was already in place.
As can be seen from the 3D topographical map below the majority of the landscape features are situated on the crest of the hill with the settlements below the ridgeline. It is interesting to note that the cluster of three kistvaens are located down slope of the hill and would have been more prominent when viewed from a northerly direction.
I seem to have spent the past few weeks walking amongst the burial grounds of the long dead and this was no exception. As always when visiting these sites I can’t help thinking how glorious it would be to lay peacefully in such a grave awaiting the final call (if there is such a thing) and simply admire the Dartmoor views. I am often reminded of the closing scene in the movie Gladiator, where Maximus’ friend buries his small pagan statue in the arena and says; “Now we are free, I will see you again, but not yet, not yet.” It does not take much imagination to see a similar scenario taking place thousands of years ago at these Dartmoor kists. Family and friends would be hoping for the same meeting in whatever afterlife they believed in. Anyway, enough of fanciful thoughts and on to the more tangible information.
Heading westwards from the Eylesbarrow track the first monument one encounters is a ridge-top cairn (Cairn B on map above). It measures 17 metres in diameter and stands around 1.5 metres high and has a possible kerb which is now largely buried. There is evidence of a quarry ditch in the form of a 1.5 metre band of rushes on the northern side of the cairn. As with many of Dartmoor’s cairns this one has been badly damaged and in its centre shows possible signs of an early excavation. The cairn has a direct alignment with both of the terminal stones belonging to the nearby stone row.
About 100 metres NNW of the cairn is a sub-circular enclosure, it has a diameter of roughly 43 metres and covers approximately 1200 square metres. Today the walls stand at just under a metre high and 2.5 metres wide with a possible entrance on the eastern side. It is thought that due to the isolation of the enclosure and the lack of habitation evidence it may have been a prehistoric cattle pound.
Roughly 100 metre SSW of the enclosure sits the ‘star of the show’ in the form of a stone alignment and its associated cairn. The stone row is 316 metres long and comprises of 174 stones which vary in height from 0.2 – 1 metre tall. Guarding each end of the row are two standing stones, the largest one at the western end is 2.8 metres high and its counterpart at the eastern end is 1.6 metres tall. This stone row was the subject of some ‘restoration’ in the 1890s during which the western standing stone along with some members of the row were re-erected. The Rev. Hugh Breton tells us that; “The stones were tampered with in 1880, but the late Rev. S. Baring-Gould and the late Mr. Robert Burnard came to the rescue and saved this beautiful monument from destruction.”, part 2, p.51. At the western end of the row sits a cairn and its kerb circle, it has a diameter of some 8 metres and stands 0.7 metres high. The circle is encompassed by a kerb of 24 orthostats which vary in height from 0.3 to 1 metre tall and has a diameter of 11.5 metres. Again the tell-tale hollow in the centre of the mound would suggest that sometime in the past it had been excavated or robbed. This circle has also been ‘rescued’ as in 1820 it is recorded that only 22 of the stones were standing, Butler, p.72. Although Hugh Breton mentions the presence of a kistvaen there is no concrete evidence of its existence today.
There is photographic evidence that the stone row has an alignment with the rising sun at the summer solstice. At this time as the sun casts the shadows of the smaller stones in the row each one falls onto the stone ahead of it. Also the main standing stone at the western end of the row casts its shadow around the cairn whilst the eastern standing stone casts its shadow onto its counterpart. Walker, pp.24 – 27. There is also another alignment with the setting sun on the day of the winter solstice when three of the stones in the circle cast their shadows onto the western standing stone, Walker, pp.45 -51.
Unfortunately today the stone row is becoming the victim of its own popularity as the numbers of visitors trying a touch of ‘phenomenology‘ are slowly eroding a pathway alongside the row. In wet weather this becomes muddy and then when drying out begins to shrink causing more erosion. Although the monument is regarded as being under no great threat at the moment the military have excluded activities in the immediate vicinity.
Just east of the stone circle is another cairn (marked A on the map) which is virtually buried under a blanket of heather. This one measures 15.5 metres in diameter and stands to a height of about 1.5 metres. Once again this poor feature has been badly mutilated with signs of a ‘T’ shaped trench cutting into it. Virtually touching the cairn are three prospecting pits which were once dug by the tinners in search of the ore.
Roughly 500 metres due east of Cairn A is Down Tor upon which is located a tor cairn, this can be found some 60 to the south east of the tor. It comprises of a horseshoe shaped group of stones projecting from a granite outcrop. The northern side is built of two parallel rows of edge-set stones standing around 0.5 metres tall. At the southern end are 9 stones sitting upon a large granite boulder. The area enclosed by the cairn bank covers a width of some 6 metres at the western side and 4.3 metres to the east, the entire length from west to east is 4.3 metres long.
Some 630 metres NNE of Down Tor is a cluster of three small cairns each containing a kistvaen which were allegedly discovered by R. Carpenter in 1958. The diameters of the earthen mounds vary from 3.3 to 4.4 metres and their heights between 0.4 and 0.7 metres tall.
The northernmost of the actual kists is reputed to be the smallest example thus found on Dartmoor, Petit, p.113, and measures internally just 0.5 x 0.3 metres and is 0.2 metres deep. It is more than probable that this tomb belonged to a small child, Newman, p.5. The eastern kist is slightly larger and has internal measurements of 1.2 x 0.7 metres. The kist to the west of the group clocks in at 1.0 x 0.7 metres and is 0.5 metres deep. The question here is was this a family group of burials? It seems slightly puzzling that all three burials should be so close together? Whoever was buried here must have held some importance and status for such efforts to be made in building the cairns and kists. The other intriguing question is where did these folk live? Was it at the settlement that lies due south of the kists or the one to the NNE, probably the larger southern settlement?
There is a disconnected section of reave that is situated to the west of the stone row which appears to be a contour reave. The purpose of such was to delineate between the high moor and the lower grazing lands further down the slopes, Fleming, p.57.
Having done the background research it was time to get out there and get some photographs for this page which beats sitting in front of a PC screen any day. The plan was to bimble on down to Peat Cott, stroll across to Nun’s Cross and then over to Hingston Hill. The weather Burrator forecast promised early morning showers becoming dry with sunny spells by 10.00am which on the face of it seemed ideal? Yeah right, Rhys and I left home with the pisscipitation sheeting down and two hours later arrived at Peat Cott with it still sheeting down. Clearly nothing was in the best of moods because we soon met a herd of cows with their calves who had their stubborn heads on and wouldn’t move out of the road. Eventually we parked up, donned the waterproofs and sloshed of down the track to Nun’s Cross or at least that’s what I thought it was. As the years go by it seems one has to trust the map more than the diminishing memory cells and is a lesson I must learn. We were not on the Nun’s Cross track, I had taken the wrong one and we were heading down to Drivage Bottom. Having reached there it was a matter of following the leat back around to Nun’s Cross and then slop over to Hingston Ridge. Just part way along the leat we met a small herd of bedraggled ponies who looked about as hacked off as I was.
We soon came upon the large cairn (B) and the nearby enclosure which I must confess was a lot larger than I had imagined. For photographic purposes the light was terrible and as the pisscipitation was still making its presence felt the need to continually wipe the camera lens did not help. Undeterred we followed the eroded pathway along the stone row and up to the circle clicking and wiping as we went. After quick debate as to the whys and wherefores of the monument we headed off to Down Tor. At the time I thought I imagined a small handkerchief-sized patch if lighter sky peeping over the granite mass. However, by the time we had reached the top of the tor a streak of bright sky appeared as well as Burrator Reservoir. If anyone wanted confirmation of the recent dry spell there is lay below. Having only visited the reservoir a couple of months ago it was surprising to see how much further the water level had dropped. So I suppose the water authority at least would have been pleased to see the rain.
Next we went in search of the kistvaens which thanks to the numerous tinner’s trail pits was difficult to say the least. Another lesson learnt, take the grid reference and a GPS because we sought them here, we sought them there but couldn’t find them anywhere. By the time we arrived back at the stone row the sun was out, the skies were blue which miraculously gave a good photo opportunity.
So having returned to the car on the correct track this time we retired to The Plume to partake for some Dartmoor Legend which was ‘Legendary’. Once again the old adage of; “rain before seven dry after eleven‘ proved to be true. Before leaving Princetown we popped into the Visitor’s Centre to see the new Prehistoric Dartmoor exhibition. This comprised of some stunning photographs taken by Anna Curnow and Adrian Oakes. There were some photos of the Hingston Hill circle and row which made my efforts look crap but I can thoroughly recommend a visit to see their amazing work.
Fleming, A. 2008 The Dartmoor Reaves. Oxford: Windgather Press.
Newman, P. 2011. The Field Archaeology of Dartmoor. Swindon: English Heritage.
Petit, P. 1974. Prehistoric Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
Walker, J. 2005. Dartmoor Sun. Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing.