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Belstone Common

Belstone Common

I never thought I would see the day but I have enrolled with our newly formed village photography club which to be fair is teaching me a lot about photography. The group consists of a good mixture or ‘no-ideas’, in which group I class myself, through the spectrum to a couple of ‘too many ideas’. The first couple of topics were not too enthralling as they were still life and portrait but this month it’s landscape photography – yeah, bring it on. Now I know it’s a case of whatever floats your boat but to me the perfect photograph is one of a dramatic landscape with not a human soul in sight which preferably centres on some archaeological feature, ideally of a prehistoric nature. That is where my tunnel of vision ends, however having now learnt a bit about ‘f ‘(ing) stops, rule of thirds etc. all being well my photographic efforts on this website will improve.

So, as mentioned above, April is landscape month and the monthly competition is to submit two of ones very best photographic efforts at capturing such. Fortunately the scope for locations was not defined so where better than Dartmoor to hopefully get some wild and dramatic shots. Having checked the weather forecast I decided that there was nowhere better than around the Tavy Cleeve area but then as an afterthought I looked at the firing times. Good job I did because the Willsworthy Range was booked for the day to act as some battlefield scenario – bummer. After pouring over the map for ages whilst trying to picture the landscape it seemed plausible to opt for a stroll around Belstone Common. Just maybe the ‘Nine Maidens‘ would provide the foreground for that winning entry? A quick image search on Google provided enough evidence that other photographers has captured some stunning shots and the best ones were taken either at sunrise or sunset. It appeared that apart from the ‘Nine Maidens’ there could be some nice perspectives from the logan stone near to the ‘Irishman’s Wall

Now the big question – which one to go for? Being a total app freak I consulted my ‘Sunrise and Sunset’ and found that sunrise over the Belstone area was due at 06.04 and sunset around 20.25 that is if there was to be a visible one? This would either mean leaving home at 04.00 or getting back at 22.25 – hmmm, forget the sun’s rise and fall, it will probably be cloudy anyway, I’m not getting any younger you know.

So with camera battery charged, map printed (not that there was any need for one), mobile phone with all its useful outdoor and navigational apps also fully charged it was time to set off. One little tip I had learnt from the photography club was that it’s always useful to have some clouds floating around a blue sky but on the journey down the heavens were bereft. On the plus side it wasn’t raining and there was no sign of fog and compared to previous weeks it was a comfortable 12º. 

As I strolled up the hill towards the moorgate at the foot of Watchett Hill I saw something that made think maybe I had wandered off to the Andes. What with the warm weather, the steep hill and the sight of what I presumed to be a couple of Alpacas all it needed was a local wearing a funny hat whilst playing the pan pipes.

By the time I reached the Nine Maidens the sky began to fill with cotton wool-like clouds but initially it was merely a smattering and as I am learning – ‘patience is a virtue’, especially where landscape photography is concerned. So after a ponder, a couple of Marboro, a mooch around looking for flints, a crack at the Times crossword etc., the eastern sky began to foam with clouds.

Belstone Common

Whilst wandering around the circle it was noticeable that one of the smaller stones had become dislodged which was no surprise when one saw the depth of its socket hole. As can be seen from the photo below there is something definitely wrong and would possibly lead one to think this is part of some type of modern ‘restoration’, especially when you compare the amount of moss and lichen on it’s neighbour?

When you look around the landscape of the Belstone Tors the thing that dominates the whole ridge are the huge scatters of clitter, it’s as if someone has just lost a giant game of Jenga. On closer inspection it soon becomes clear that the stone cutters and masons were very, very busy hewing and shaping the granite. Everywhere is evidence of ‘jumper holes’, ‘tare and feather’ marks, and partly shaped blocks and artefacts. John Trevena in his book – ‘A Pixy in Petticoats’ gives a very evocative description of the stone working around Belstone  when he writes: “The sides of these tors were covered with white scars made by sundered granite and some of Eastaway’s men, as small as dolls, were working there getting the last load of granite for the day, their crowbars ringing upon the blocks and striking wild mountain music.”, p.221. When I look at some of them they remind me of that old Hamlet cigar advert where a stone mason is putting the finishing touches to a statue of some deity and his last chip of the hammer knocks its arm off and to console himself he lights up a cigar. All around you can find similar instances of such frustration in fact if you listen hard enough you can still hear the cussing and swearing of the old stone cutters. Some of the worked granite appears to have been finished and then just abandoned as if the cutter simply never returned. Several years ago a friend found a set of tare and feathers wrapped in an old cloth just below Tors End, again what happened? Where they misplaced? Did the stone cutter die? Or maybe he just moved away from the area? 

Having walked down to the old track which leads up to Higher Tor I decided to try a spot of wildlife photography as the warmth of the sun had brought out numerous birds, all trilling and warbling happily amongst the gorse and granite. In this photography club, which you’re probably getting sick and tired of hearing about, we are being encouraged to get away from using the automatic settings. This is all well and good if you know how to quickly set the ‘f’ (ing) stops etc., before the ‘f’ ing bird flits away. Ironically I was trying to get what I think was a Meadow Pippit to stop acting as if it had drunk 10 cans of Red Bull when a small, dark bird shot out of nowhere and promptly disappeared as quickly as it came. In my excitement, because I am sure it was a Hobby, I must have accidentally pushed the fire button only to find that I had captured a half decent (for me) photo.

Belstone Common

My next port of call was to be Higher Tor and whilst on the way I took numerous, stunning photos of the western landscape – yeah right, I have since seen them in all there not so glory. Just maybe the trio of boundstones just to the south of the tor would make a good subject? There are as suggested, three boundstones standing together overlooking Taw Marsh, two of them mark the Belstone parish bounds, The oldest one is inscribed ‘BBP’ and the later one simply ‘BB’. The third stone marks the bounds of Okehampton parish hence the ‘OPB’ inscription.

Sometimes on Dartmoor you get that uncanny feeling you’re being watched and this then no exception. Many is the time that I have met up with a fellow walker who said they previously saw me at such and such a place on Dartmoor when I know full well I never saw them. The reply is normally; “Oh, I was sat up at so and so and spotted you down at wherever (usually miles away) with my binoculars.” Having scanned the horizons looking for the glint from some binocular lenses I could see nothing. Then as I crested the ridge I could see a loan bullock stood stock still and intently watching what I was up to. For a good twenty minutes it stood and stared at me from the same position wherever I went and never moved a muscle. During my next cigarette break a little Wheatear was kind enough to alight on a nearby rock and just stay long enough for me to ‘f’ around with my ‘f’ stops and capture the moment for prosperity. As I made my way over to the Irishman’s Wall and its guardian logan stone I spotted a glinting in the grass. Was this my lucky day? Maybe it’s some gold jewelry that somebody had dropped? No such luck, it was a live blank rifle round from a SA80, now there would have been a time when I would have let it off but now, being much older and wiser, I just took a photograph of it.

The final location of the day was the ‘Logan Stone which sits alongside the ‘Irishman’s Wall‘ and there is one thing for sure, whatever nationality built the wall they made a pretty good job of it. Apart from a slight curve to the north its as straight as a dye. 

There are numerous examples of logan stones scattered across Dartmoor but this one must rank amongst the top ten for size and style. In fact back in the early 1900s Sabine Baring Gould had the following to say on the subject: “Perhaps, the largest (logan stone) is one above the West Okement, which I remember seeing many years ago, when a boy, rolling in a strong wind like a boat at sea.”, p.77. This in itself provides something of a puzzle to me because the English Place-Name Society and a couple of other publications cite this logan stone as being a possible root of the name – Belstone. In the Domesday Book of 1086 the settlement is recorded as Bellestam this being a compound of the Old English word Belle meaning literally that – bell and Stan meaning stone. Thus giving the term Bell Stone which relates to the nearby settlement or settlement of such and this idea was based on Baring Gould’s comments above, p.131. However, as the crow flies the West Okement river is a good three and a half miles away from the logan stone and is certainly outside today’s parish of Belstone. So in my eyes, either this particular theory as to the origins of the name Belstone is completely wrong or Baring Gould made a mistake and should have written East Okement river which flows just below the logan stone? Whilst babbling on about the etymology of the word Belstone, John Ll W. page gives another explanation and I make no apologies for this quote; “The folk of the moorland borders give another cause for the name – the bell-like sound emitted by some of the granite fragments when sharply struck. From personal observation I am not aware that the ‘clatter’s of Belstone are more given to a tintinnabulation (word a fantastic word, I had to look it up and it means: the act or an instance of the ringing or pealing of bells) than others on the moor.”, p.81.

At this point in time the camera’s battery ran out which either means I had been clicking away like a cricket in the fireplace or the thing is duff, probably the former as I later discovered there were 168 frames.

Belstone Common

So, mission complete it was time to turn around and head for home having had a glorious stroll with Dartmoor in its best of moods. On such days as this it becomes easy to see the landscape through rose-tinted spectacles and halfway down Belstone Tor I came across an all too familiar reminder of the moor’s less forgiving side. Scattered amongst a small field of clitter were the rotting remains of a ewe which clearly demonstrated that both man and beast are always at the mercy of ‘Old Crockern‘. As I saunter back towards the ‘Nine Maidens’ there was an obvious upright ‘standing stone’ nestled in another clitter field which was far different to all that surrounded it. I know not whether it’s a natural occurrence or man-made but from the look of it I would suggest the latter and it served either as some bound marker or possibly have a much earlier history and is somehow connected to the stone circle (marked by the red circle on the photo below) ? Having once again reached the old stone circle I took a final ‘rear view’ of my bimble before the arduous 114 mile journey back up the M5 motorway. As I wandered through the village I just could not resist one final photo of the famous or even infamous ‘Ye Olde Stokes‘, something that has become synonymous with Belstone.

Belstone Common

Belstone Common

Baring Gould, S. 1982. A Book of Dartmoor. London: Wildwood House Ltd.

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

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

Trevena, J. 1906. A Pixy in Petticoats. London: Alston Rivers Ltd.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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