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Knowing Dartmoor

As with many of these 19th century topographical writings there are some fascinating insights into Dartmoor of yesteryear and this one is no exception. Clearly penned by a true ‘Moorman’ who spent over half a century amidst stream and tor. He also gives a poignant political viewpoint of Dartmoor in the 1870s along with his thinking on a productive Moor which is unusual  for such an inclusion. Also fascinating are the various place-names which in some cases use either the spelling or the actual name of times gone by.

“To have knowledge of Dartmoor and form a correct opinion of its merits one should reside on the Moor for some years at least, and make himself well acquainted with every detail, jotting down any new ideas that have come to his notice. You cannot hurry over Dartmoor and take notice of what is required at full gallop. You must jog about in the valleys and dales and take notice of the nature of the soil, the grass, and ferns growing there, and the cattle grazing off it. If you make but slow progress you will very likely be all the better pleased at the end of the week, simply because what you have done has been properly done.
To do this I propose to start from South Brent taking with us good Moors men and a light pick axe. We can then dig and examine the nature of the soil as often as we like along the route Taking nearly a northerly course we are soon on the Moor proper, with Pew (Penn Beacon?) and Shell-Top to the west some miles, having the Erme river on our left and the Avon on our right. We are crossing Brent Moor for Erme Head which is now in view before us. The Erme, with its green valleys and the beautiful Erme Plains, with the old Broad Rock in the distance, will arouse one to a sense of duty towards his future King and fellow-countrymen. Here we have miles in extent of beautiful plains of grazing land, with its sweet rippling streams slowly winding their way to the ocean. These beautiful plains are neglected at present. It was here on these plains Mr. Waycott of Brook Farm, reared and kept his splendid flock of Dartmoor sheep, which sold for such high prices about three years since. Having satisfied ourselves of the merits of this great plain, and the nature of the soil as well, we turn down the valley a short distance, then up Redda Brook (Red Lake) – that ever favourite of the fox-hunter. Within a short space of time we are in the Avon, with Michelmore’s Warren before us (Huntingdon Warren). Make a stand point here, and with your glass take a view south down the course of the river. You can from here see along the plains of the Avon towards Dock Hill (Dockwell Ridge?) and Limson (?), with Lambsdown and Hayford away to the east – all plain, fertile land, but few rocks or bogs, and it is almost the cream of Dartmoor to the fox-hunter; from Piles to the Avon and thence to Brockwood has been the bane of contention with our gentlemen in red on more than one occasion. The plains below Huntingdon Ford are well adapted and easily fenced for all farming purposes, and now with the aid of the Buckfastleigh Railway, lime and other manures can be brought in cheap. We are now on the south and south eastern slopes of Dartmoor, with the South Devon Railway not far in the distance, and the Buckfastleigh Mills and Tanneries in the valley beyond. Those mills and tanneries have grown immensely within the last few years, and completely shut out the old spinning wheel and bobbins. The Buckfast Mills, thanks to Messrs. Hamlyn and Co. employ hundreds of operatives, and pays thousands of pounds yearly in wages, rents, rates and taxes. Those gentlemen contribute a large sum yearly  to rates and taxes, and give the farmers of the district long prices for wool, hides and grain.
Turning north up the valley from Huntingdon, and by keeping  a mid-hill course of a couple of miles we are shortly on Black Lane, from thence to Fox Tor Hill; on reaching this I propose a rest for a while. From this point we have a glorious view of Mid Dartmoor to perfection, with Princetown in the distance. Before you, and far away to the east you have Holne Moor and Compsin Tor (Combeshead Tor), and coppices. From this hilltop, Fox Tor, in my early days, would have been seen the old pack horse, with his pack-saddle and crooks, loaded with two barrels of cider of 12 gallons in each, one on either side of Old Dobbin, their position being parallel with the horse. They were returning from Buckfast and Holne over the Moor to Walkhampton or Sheepstor with cider. In those days 3 or 4 horses would be engaged to bring a hogshead of cider from Buckfast to the home farm. Now it is placed in a railway truck at Buckfast and sent to the nearest railway station in a few hours. It was necessary in those days to make a friendly party of several teams to fetch cider, because we often got bogged, and required help, having provided oneself with a shovel, no spades then,, and supposing Old Dobbin got bogged, he was soon dug out, re-loaded, and away. Such was our mode of cider fetching.
We now start from Compsin Tors to Dartmeet and Dartmeet Bridge, with Brimpts nearby, and mark the progress made at Brimpts of late years. It was in those cottages at Dartmeet, old Tom Caunter, the veteran fisherman and otter hunter once did dwell. Who didn’t know old Tom, he had fished the Dart from its fountain-head to the sea, and most other streams of the moor as well. Up the hillside at Brimpts and you are quickly standing erect before Beliver farm, and here then you will be repaid for you long walk, you will see Dartmoor cattle and sheep to perfection, and you will be surprised to find such a dairy of milch cows in this nook of Dartmoor.

‘Twas here in years gone by could have been seen the piping geese and salmon on the good old table at Belliver at Christmastide. We now return towards Fox Tor passing on our way several small enclosures and over an extensive range of uncultivated Moorlands, sweet in blue heatherbell. On reaching Dunnerbridge we have the Forest cattle pounds, on the wall of which the late Mr. Coaker of Belliver, in his official capacity of Reeve of the Forest, on a certain day named by the council of H.R.H. the prince of Wales, would in a strong clear voice not to be mistaken proclaim “Oh yes! Oh yes!! Oh yes!!!
We are at Dunnerbridge and almost in the midst of the Best Moor farms, such as Huckaby, Sherbiten, Exworthy, Brownberry, Prince Hall and Bogland, with their large numbers of cattle and sheep. We cross the West Dart and are on to Swincombe and note the new enclosures going on towards Tor Royal newtake. There are extensive plains for a long distance here which are easily fenced into suitable fields and facing the south having a beautiful aspect in the quiet well-watered nook of the Moor. There are many good dairy cattle and cows to be seen along the valley as you go along on old Swincome, and one will not be surprised at the crossing of this murmuring stream if you “Jaze a salmon,” but the watchers are about, and we must proceed up stream to Whiteworks turning the corner by Fox Tor brook we are on Whiteworks, with its white mine burrow clear before you, which has made very good progress of late, a good stock of cattle and many acres of Moorland being brought into cultivation.
Pitcott (Peatcott) has grown to a decent little Moor farm. and can boast of a good stock of cows and cattle; whilst at Castle Gate, towards Tor Royal, new cottages have grown into existence, and the Moor once a “Peat bog,” is now showing a comfortable farm – enclosures – rich in grass. It is to this fact I wish to call attention, and to make a stand point; we live in a great and free country, and on Dartmoor we posses tens of thousands of acres of productive land, which nature seems to have laid out in its most beautiful form, the valleys posses the very silvery stream and brooks of the purest water, and the hills and plains the purest air. Those vast plains, then, the property of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, are capable with but little expense to the state of producing an immense addition to the yearly income to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, or of bringing the revenue of the Duchy up to what it can and ought to be – an increase of £50,000 per annum over and above its present returns. If, then, the Government will not grant state aid to improve and make profitable the Duchy estate, let us have fair and equitable leases for a certain period of time. There would be no difficulty in this way of raising capital and making Dartmoor all that can be desired. As Duchy Steward (Mr. C. Barrington) we have amongst us a gentleman of great experience of Dartmoor, extending over a period of nearly 49 years. He is perfectly acquainted with all our wants, and at all times ready to lend  a helping hand to those who require his advice and assistance. We have to contribute our mite in rates and taxes; this is all right and proper, but yet we leave the Duchy property neglected, and we have a faint idea of raising an extra £50,000 per annum off the Duchy estates. We won’t vote a few thousands for a railway to Dartmoor, so that the resources of this “wild and wonderous region” may and shall be developed. We are told how rapidly the population of this country increases and that we are at our wits end to provide them with food and employment; and that we live in an age of great progress and enlightenment. Is this possible? Surely, if we cannot “see” our way clear to bring the Duchy property of Dartmoor into a great state of profitable return, we are only worthy to be classed with those of darker ages. To show our friends what can be done on Dartmoor  in shape of roots and vegetables, we can get up a cottage garden show for Dartmoor alone, and we might have a store cattle show, towards the end of the summer, exclusively for cattle bred and kept on the tenant moor farms; we could invite landed proprietors and gentlemen farmers to come and join with us; those gentlemen would see our wants and necessities. The Duchy hotel will be found replete and comfortable in every way, and the worthy hostess and family, I am quite sure, would make all agreeable and comfortable.
We are told by Dr. Oxland, of Plymouth, the vegetables there are very far from good, and there is seldom good fruit to be had at Plymouth market. I think we can do in vegetables at any rate, better than this. Let us try.
I am asked what I know of Dartmoor. Well, I knew the Duchy Hotel, Princetown, when occupied by host Worth – when the front room, on the right in entering the hotel from the Plymouth road, over the granite steps, was hung around with the prepared and well-preserved stuffed skins of otters, foxes, badgers, and pole-cats &c. You would be informed by mine host of the great battles fought and won by Hector, Pincher, Spite, and Teasy (fox hounds), either at Mistor, Foxtor, or some other noted cover. I have trotted over the rocks and bogs of the good old Moor a great deal of 55 years, and have taken my salmon and peel in days gone by from its murmuring streams, as well as a few snipe and “black cock,” too from the brown heath of the Moor. In fact, –

I have enjoyed the sweet smell of the blue heather-bell,
And drank of the glorious old Swincome as well,
I have tripp’d over yon plains in both early and late,
And do not despair of old Dartmoor yet.
The Crow of Mistor.
The Tavistock Gazette, March 9th, 1877.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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