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Fernworthy Circle

Fernworthy Circle

A rough road leads from the farm (Fernworthy) on to the Moor. Here, on a level piece of ground, we shall descry a fine sacred circle, which although smaller than that of Scorhill Down is more perfect. The stones are about three feet high, and resemble, though their height is considerably less, those forming the Grey Wethers… Twenty-seven stones are erect, and apparently but one is needed to complete the enclosure. The diameter is sixty feet.’, (Page, 1895, p.197).

Sometime prior to 1908 Johnson visited Fernworthy Circle and noted the following: ‘Fernworthy Circle, or Cromlech, near Chagford, Dartmoor. The outline is somewhat oval and the long diameter is about 60 feet. In the neighbourhood are several cairns and mutilated alignments. Sittaford Tor stands in the background.‘, (1908, p.66). He also made a pencil sketch of the scene which can be seen opposite. This along with the early postcard views (see opposite) were among some of the last true impressions anyone had of the prehistoric monument.

The first plantation to be established on Dartmoor was at Brimpts in 1862, this was an initiative embarked on by the Duchy of Cornwall, (Rouse, 1964, p.7). In 1917 the Prince of Wales purchased the farm of Fernworthy as part of his Duchy Estate, this coincided with an initiative by the government to increase the supply of home timber resources. This was prompted by the realisation that following World War I, Britain as a country, was heavily dependent on imported timber supplies. Therefore in 1919 they created the Forestry Commission and gave it a target of planting 1,700,000 acres of woodland by 1980. Clearly in order to do so they needed vast tracts of open land, it did not take long for eyes to be focused on Dartmoor and the Duchy lands. Accordingly the Forestry Commission persuaded the Prince of Wales to plant 5,000 acres of open moorland in order to replenish British timber resources and provide much needed local employment. The first tract of land to be afforested was Fernworthy and by 1930 there was over 800 acres of woodland planted, (Somers-Cocks in: Gill, 1977, pp. 268 -269). From the initial planting it did not take long for the trees to grow and completely engulf any archaeological features that were present thus completely obliterating any landscape context there may have been. In addition there were other smaller features lost, not long ago a former forestry worker revealed a kist that had become overgrown.

On the plus side, previous tenants of Fernworthy Farm had pretty much left the prehistoric features intact, this was amazing because as the OS map of 1888 shows (see opposite) there were an inordinate number of walls in the vicinity of the circle. There was always the temptation when building enclosure walls to rob the stone from cairns, stone rows, stone circles and other prehistoric features, it saved the time and effort of having to fetch it from elsewhere, this act was termed ‘despoiling‘ on Dartmoor. Additionally, the Forestry Commission did show some respect for the circle by way of leaving a woodland clearing where they stood.

The actual stone circle dates to the Bronze Age and is known locally as Froggymead Circle along with the other associated prehistoric features, the name deriving from Froggymead Hill. This in turn comes from the two elements; frog (referring to the amphibian) and mead (from the Old English mæd-efes meaning edge of meadow land) giving the meadow edge of the frogs. Now, I am usually a stickler for using the old Dartmoor place-names but sorry, Froggymead Circle sounds like something Paul McCartney would sing about so I will stick to Fernworthy Circle.

According to Worth, (1988, pp. 222-224), he described the circle as having 26 stones standing with evidence of four missing, it had an internal diameter of 64½ feet. There clearly is a difference between Worth’s stone tally of 26 and that of Page’s at 27. If you want to confuse things even more then somehow the English Heritage field investigator managed to find 29 in 1995 (see Pastscape Record link opposite). According to them the two stones that everybody seems to have missed can be found at the southern edge of the circle, lying nearly flush with the ground? The circle has a diameter of 19.3m (north/south) and 18.6m (east/west) the height of the largest stone is 1.1m which does not make for the most impressive examples on Dartmoor. Petit, (1974, p.154) suggests that originally the circle would have consisted of 29 or 30 stones which again demonstrates how intact the feature has remained.

It is interesting to note that the stones which stand on the southern side of the circle are remarkably bigger than their counterparts opposite.  It almost seems as if the circle builders held in reverence something that occurred or was visibly aligned to the south? A recent theory expressed in the Antiquarian Times suggested that the Fernworthy complex has an association with the lunar standstill or extreme. This is a term first used by Professor Thoms and refers to an astronomical cycle which affects where and how high the moon rises and when eclipses occur. 

Robert Burnard along with the Dartmoor Exploration Committee ‘examined’ the circle in 1897 which meant they virtually dug the place up. All they found at the circle was a large quantity of charcoal lying on the bedrock. As with the nearby Grey Wethers this suggests that the use of fire was commonplace which in turn would point to some ritualistic activity taking place in the circle. Is it a quirk of fate that its neighbour Scorhill Circle lies virtually due north and is 2.03 miles away?

Fernworthy Circle

There are other prehistoric monuments in the area which go to make what was once called a sanctuary and now seems to be referred to as a ceremonial centre. In this case it comprises of the stone circle, three stone rows and five cairns plus whatever else has been lost over the centuries. The stone row and cairn that run north of the circle (numbered 1 on plan) have only been cleared in the past 20 years or so. Much of this feature has been damaged by the planting of trees but there are suggestions that the row ended with a cairn and retaining stone circle, there is also possible evidence of a kist. The cairn numbered 2 on the plan revealed a kist from which the early ‘investigators’ recovered, ‘masses of burnt bone’ but there was evidence that tomb raiders had been there previously. The same story went for cairn number 4 and all the antiquarians recovered was a tiny flint chip. They had better luck with cairn number 5 as here they found a flint knife, a small piece of bronze with a wooden handle and a conical button made from Kimmeridge shale. This assemblage would be suggestive of burial goods but surprisingly no human bone was found, (Butler, 1997, pp 162,164). In this north eastern sector of Dartmoor there is a cluster of 8 stone circles whose locations for a ‘sacred crescent‘ when plotted on the map and Scorhill sits in the middle of these.

Leaving the factual for the fabled, there was/is a tradition that the Fernworthy area was/is home to a tribe of earth gnomes who had/have earned themselves a fiercesome reputation as a one time farmer of Fernworthy found out to his cost – see HERE.

I think it must have been on my first visit to Fernworthy Circle that I met the mysterious foal, which have been a good few years ago because the actual photograph I took was pre-digital era. Anyway, it was early one morning and not a soul was around, as I approached the circle I saw, stood motionless in the centre a young foal, there was no sign of its mother anywhere. I looked at it and it looked at me and then the youngster began to slowly walk towards me, this in itself was weird because normally the foals from the wilder moor won’t approach a human. The youngster was clearly in no hurry or showing no fear, I had plenty of time to snap off a photo as can be seen opposite. The foal kept coming straight ahead until it was alongside me, I remained motionless in order to see what it would do which in hindsight turned out to be a mistake. Without even stopping the little sod nonchalantly took a nip at my arm and then carried on calmly past. My first question is why was it stood motionless in the centre of the stone circle? As can be seen from the photo it was about the only bit of ground which was in the sun so maybe it was warming itself? Secondly, why was it not in the slightest bit afraid and why did it decide to imperturbably take a chunk out of my arm? Over the years I have been bitten by several horses but none so gentle and non-aggressive as this one.

Fernworthy Circle

Butler, J. 1991. Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities – Vol. II, Exeter: Devon Books

Gill, C. (Ed.) 1977. Dartmoor – A New Study, Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Falcon, T. A. 1900. Dartmoor Illustrated, Exeter: James G. Commin.

Johnson, W. 1908, Folk Memory, Oxford: Claredon Press.

Page, J. Ll. W. 1895. An Exploration of Dartmoor, London: Seeley & Co. Ltd.

Pettit, P. 1974, Prehistoric Dartmoor, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Rouse, G. D. 1964. The New Forest of Dartmoor, London: H. M. Stationary Office.

Worth, R. H. 1988. Worth’s Dartmoor, Newton Abbot: David & Charles.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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