“The huge and solitary but featureless elevation of Cater’s Beam on Dartmoor arrests few eyes. Seen from the central waste, one hog-backed ridge swells among the southern horizon, and its majestic outline, unfretted by tor or forest, describes the curve of a projectile discharged at gentle elevation. No detail relieves the solemn bulk of the hill, and upon it ages have left but little imprint of their passing. Time rolls over the mountain like a mist, and the mighty granite arch of the Beam emerges eternal and unchanged. Its tough integument of peat and heath and matted herbage answers only to the call of the seasons, and it bears grass, bloom, berry, as it bore them for Palaeolithic man and his flocks.”, Eden Phillpotts, p.3.
As one may gather from Eden Phillpotts’ words above, Cater’s Beam is probably not the most inviting places to visit on Dartmoor. The fen covered expanse of Cater’s Beam stretches to a height of about 470 metres and is covered on three sides by some pretty serious mires. To the north-east is Aune head Mire, to south east is Fishlake Mire and to the south lies Blacklane Mire. Should you need more water then to the north the river Swincombe gurgle out of the fen, to the west runs the river Avon and to the south flows the Wollake. Therefore it is fair to say at best it’s damp and at the worse it’s a nightmare.
Cater’s beam in recent years has caused some slight confusion because the place-name of Cater’s beam refers to the actual hill. However, on its western flank can at times be found an old railway sleeper which marks the northern end of the Blackwood Path. On the Ordnance Survey maps the sleeper which is labels as a ‘post’ has actually been plotted. I say the post can at times be found because standing on such a bleak spot the poor old sleeper is exposed to some of the harshest weather Dartmoor can provide. Indeed the post has been replaced on previous occasions. Therefore depending on how the latest model has rotted is whether or not it’s upright. In 1969 the post had the words; “CATERS BEAM – HVS 69 – D,” carved into it and this tradition has continued although depending state of the sleeper it’s not always legible. Certainly in 2013 it had fallen over but by the following year it had been reinstated. Unfortunately by 2015 the post looked in a sorry state with the appearance of a finger pointing to the heavens for salvation. However, good news, a brand, spanking new beam has been erected with the old beam left forlornly lying in its shadow.
Since early times there has been a need for travellers to journey to and from the border countries of Devon which meant crossing through Dartmoor. Over time a route was established which today is referred to as the North – South Track which ran from Harford in the south of the moor to Okehampton in the north.
Having remarked on the fact that the land around Cater’s Beam is not the most favourable to travel over a route which in the greater scheme of things became part of the North – South Track was established. This section is now referred to as the Black Lane (South). The ‘south’ bit is added to avoid any confusion with another Black Lane which can be found on the North Moor. A part of this track runs from the west of Cater’s beam and up into Fox Tor Gulf. To the south of Cater’s beam there was an area of intensive tinner’s activities which ran down the length of the Wollake and into the river Erme headwaters. In addition there is plenty of evidence that the ‘Old Men’ had been at work on Cater’s Beam in the form of a line of tin pits some 250 metres long. In addition to this a section of stream workings around 200 metres long, 3 metres wide and 1 metre deep runs from the centre of the tin pits. Therefore the Blacklane became an ideal track for the old tinners to use when travelling between the Erme and central Dartmoor. Now we come back to the famous ‘post’ and its purpose which was to act as a waymarker on the Blacklane, sitting resolutely at the northern end.
One of the earliest records of the place-name of Cater’s Beam can be found on a map produced by the Ordnance Survey’s Official Superintendent, William Mudge in 1809. I would suggest that the etymology of the name has two elements; the first ‘Cater’s’ could well be a personal name. The second, ‘Beam‘ in Dartmoor terms refers to an area of opencast tin workings. Therefore we possibly have a person called ‘Cater’ who works a ‘Beam’ at that certain location, hence Cater’s Beam.
In previous years there has also been some confusion as to exactly where Cater’s Beam was located. If you look at the early OS 1888 – 1913 map opposite you can see that Cater’s Beam was located to the west of For tor whereas on the modern-day map it’s to the east of the tor.
To add more confusion to the pot comes the misplaced Cater’s Beam cairn. Back in the early 1900s there was a slight controversy regarding a possible northern terminus of the impressive Staldon Stone Row. Whilst today it is widely accepted that the stone row terminates on Green Hill it was suggested in 1905 that it went further northwards to Cater’s Beam. T. A. Falcon noted the following in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association:
“This sodden and exasperating district of the moor is intelligibly not overcrowded even by Neolithic enthusiasts. But it has one object interesting apart from its repellent remoteness, and that is the ruined cairn on it, which seems to be the real end of the Stall Moor stone row, terminated by the majority of descriptions positively at Green Hill.”, p.460.
In his opinion the aforementioned cairn was located cairn some 20 yards beyond the 917th northern stone in the row. Sadly on two occasions English Heritage field inspectors have visited Cater’s Beam and have been unable to find it. In their opinion what Falcon had found was the remains of either some tin pits or peat cutting activities.
Having kept on banging about how remote and how desolate Cater’s Beam is then imagine getting stuck up there in a fierce blizzard on horseback. According to some writers it was here that Childe the Hunter met his death in such a storm which led to the famous legend about him.
So there you have it, Cater’s Beam where one can easily get bogged down by both mires and the various causes of confusion. Hopefully now the question of when is a beam not a beam can be answered – when it’s a post, as well as when is a post not a post – when it’s a railway sleeper.
Falcon, T. A. 1905. Dartmoor: A Note on Graves. Transactions of the Devonshire Association – Vol. XXXVII
Phillpotts, E. 1904. The American Prisoner. Toronto: G. N. Morang & Co. Ltd.