Think of the word ‘black’ and you will be hard pressed to come up with anything that does not have dark, evil, sinister or menacing associations; blackmail, black arts, black ops, blackball, Black Friday, Black Death, blacklist, black mark, black market, black sheep, etc. The very colour is synonymous with death and morning in most European cultures, again suggestive of sombre connections. The actual word comes from Old English blæc which means amazingly black or dark and in some contexts ink, incidentally the earliest prehistoric art yet found was painted in black. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following description of the word:
“Etymology: Cognate with Middle Dutch blac ink, Old Saxon blac ink (Middle Low German blak ink, black dye, black colour), Old High German blah- (only in blah-faro of the colour of ink, blah-mal niello decoration (Middle High German blach-mal ), blah-malon to decorate with niello); further etymology uncertain; on formal grounds the word could be from a base related to the Germanic bases of blank adj. and the various forms discussed at blik v., but since this would give an expected meaning ‘shining, white’ there is an obvious semantic difficulty; many have sought to resolve this by hypothesizing that the word meaning ‘black’ originated as a past participle (with the meaning ‘burnt, blackened’) of a verb meaning ‘to burn (brightly)’ derived from this base; this verb may perhaps be reflected by Middle Dutch blaken (Dutch blaken) to flame, to burn.”
To some people Dartmoor has a black menacing appearance with many dark and sinister places which if you use the above suggestion is easily brought about by looking at the Ordnance Survey map. There are many, many locations that have the ‘black’ descriptive place-name prefix element attached to them. For instance – Black Hole, does that sound a welcoming place? Possibly the ‘Blackhole of Calcutta’ also springs to mind? Black Dunghill, is that a place you would relish the thought of visiting? The Dark Lake, one might be forgiven for thinking it’s a location from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ but no it can be found on Dartmoor.
Ok, enough of the dramatics, there is a much more agreeable reason why so many places on Dartmoor are ‘black’ and that is quite simply in some instances thanks to the presence of peat. Well, I use the term ‘pleasant’ loosely because it’s not so pleasing if you find yourself hip deep in a ‘black’ peat bog. Blackwood is an old Dartmoor term sometimes used to describe the peat which was cut for fuel, Hemery, p.23. It may well derive from the fact that in the deeper peat deposits can be found the remains of ancient trees that are literally jet black? Therefore it was quite logical to describe such landscape features where peat occurs as being ‘black,’ be they downs, hills, fens, or moorland tracks used for transporting peat or peat workers. Crossing confirms this idea when he noted: “There can be no doubt that Black, also frequently met with, had reference, in some cases at least, to the peat.. The Dartmoor man never speaks of it as such: he calls it either ‘turve’ or ‘black ‘ood’, i.e., black wood.”, p.48. Similarly, brooks, lakes and streams would also take on a dark appearance especially in times of torrent flows although the waters are darker than normal they do have a rusty tinge not black.
For a different interpretation of ‘black’ Worth, notes the following;
“Black, this may derive from two very different sources, either ‘bleak’ or ‘black’, both of which however, come from the Anglo Saxon blaec, meaning pale or colourless. Hence if we regard the first meaning, the limit of paleness is white, places bleak and exposed are apt to be covered with snow, and hence white at times. The other extreme of colourlessness is black… The task of determining which meaning of ‘black’ is intended in any Dartmoor place-name is wellnigh hopeless; so many places are both black and bleak Erica cinerea (Bell Heather) is not inaptly named, and is by no means the only moorland plant which is dark in shade when dry, and practically black when wet. Calluna vulgaris (Ling) has a very similar effect as a ground covering. On the other hand, places where these plants grow are often exposed and bleak.”, p.435.
There is another theory about the word ‘black’ that could possible apply to a few of the Dartmoor place names which was muted by Alfred Watkins. He considered that the element ‘black’ could refer to hills or high point where beacon fires were lit, this being based on the idea that the original meaning of the Anglo Saxon word ‘black’ was light or shining, p.81. But as can be seen from the O.E.D.’s etymology above this is a dubious connection.
There will also be instances where the ‘black’ element refers to a personal name such as ‘Blackman’s Holt’ or Black’s Newtake. Again, Watkins associated surnames with elements of ‘black’, ‘blake’ or ‘cole’ in them as being synonymous with beacon minders.
Below is a list of just a few ‘black’ locations on Dartmoor but there are numerous others when one takes into consideration the associated locations of the original place-name. For instance; Black Tor = Black Tor Falls, Ford, Hole, Mead, Mire and Rings.Some of the information listed below have been taken from Mike Brown’s ‘Gazeteer of Dartmoor Place names’.
|BLACK BEAM||SX 664 679||Beam|
|BLACK BRAKE||SX 683 631||Brake|
|BLACK BROOK||SX 588? 608?||Farm||Ruined farm.|
|BLACK BUSH||SX 671 677||Miscellany||A small, natural hollow.|
|BLACK DOWN||SX 50 82||Down|
|BLACK DOWN||SX 58 91||Down|
|BLACK DOWN||SX 681 783||Down|
|BLACK DUNGHILL||SX 581 774||Hill|
|BLACK DUNGHILL STREAM||SX 585 777||Stream|
|BLACK FEN||SX 673 832||Mire||AKA Turf Hill, Broadmoor Mires.|
|BLACK FURZES||SX 649 738||Miscellany||AKA Blakey Furzes, Blackfursses|
|BLACK HILL||SX 523 825||Hill|
|BLACK HILL||SX 604 846||Hill|
|BLACK HILL||SX 761 786|
|BLACK HOLE||SX 5731 7820||Hole|
|BLACK HOLE||SX 582 845||Hole|
|BLACK HOLE||SX 6125 8290||Hole|
|BLACK HUT||SX 6458 6783||Miscellany||A junction of paths where a peat-cutters hut stood|
|BLACK LANE NORTH||SX 5587 8030||Peat Pass|
|BLACK LANE SOUTH||SX 6270 6944||Moor Cut|
|BLACK MOOR||SX 7366 6831||Habitation|
|BLACK POOL||SX 6549 5812||Pool|
|BLACK POOL||SX 6850 7199||Pool|
|BLACK RIDGE||SX 595 855||Ridge|
|BLACK ROCK||SX 533 853||Rock|
|BLACK ROCK||SX 5350 7599||Rock|
|BLACK ROCK||SX 5710 7804||Rock|
|BLACK ROCKS||SX 6295 6705||Rocks|
|BLACK ROCKS||SX 6553 5832||Rocks|
|BLACK SHELLS||SX 638 760||Enclosure||Single enclosure.|
|BLACK SHELLS||SX 5170 7825||Pool||AKA Tadpole Pond.|
|BLACK STUBBS PLANTATION||SX 723 699||Plantation|
|BLACK TOR||SX 567 895||Tor||AKA Blacktorr Hedges, Blacka Tor. Great Black tor|
|BLACK TOR||SX 573 718||Tor|
|BLACK TOR||SX 681 635||Tor|
|BLACK TOR FALLS||SX 5740 7149||Waterfall|
|BLACKA BROOK||SX 550 707||Brook||Also known as The Dark Brook|
|BLACKA BROOK||SX 574 634||Brook|
|BLACKA BROOK||SX 580 778||Brook|
|BLACKA TOR||SX 567 895||Tor||AKA Black Tor.|
|BLACKA TOR||SX 666 750||Tor|
|BLACKA TOR||SX 6943 7850||Tor|
|BLACKADON FARM||SX 6655 5769||Farm||Formerly known as Blacket.|
|BLACKALLER||SX 7375 8381||Habitation|
|BLACKATON||SX 6950 8020||Habitation|
|BLACKAVEN BROOK||SX 592 885||Brook|
|BLACKBROOM PLANTATION||SX 525 872||Plantation|
|BLACKDOWN DOWN||SX 714 733||Down||AKA Blackadon|
|BLACKFURSSES||SX 649 738||Miscellany||A piece of ground so called in 1350.|
|BLACKHAY||SX 56?? 67??||Habitation||AKA Jobbers.|
|BLACKHOLE PLANTATION||SX 7848 8970||Plantation|
|BLACKINGSTONE||SX 7920 8559||Habitation|
|BLACKLANDS||SX 537 640||Habitation|
|BLACKMAN’S HOLT||SX 6820 6478||Miscellany|
|BLACKMOOR||SX 699 773||Habitation|
|BLACKPOOL||SX 8127 7406||Pool|
|BLACKROCK POOL||SX 7441 6673||Habitation|
|BLACK’S NEWTAKE||SX 638 760||Enclosure|
|BLACKWOOD PATH||SX 6420 6502||Trackway|
|BLACKSLADE DOWN||SX 734 756||Down|
|DARK BROOK||SX 550 707||Brook||AKA The Blacka Brook|
|DARK LAKE||SX 627 690||Lake .||AKA Wollake,|
So basically you can pay your money and take your choice as to the meaning of Dartmoor’s ‘black’ places, they could be in areas of peat or dense coverings of heather or maybe beacon fire locations, possibly even bleak and remote locations. They could even be a mixture of several of the suggested ideas or none.
Brown, M. 1995. The Gazetteer of Dartmoor Place Names. Liverton: Forest Publishing.
Crossing, W. 1996. Crossing’s Dartmoor Worker. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Hale Publishing.
Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A., & Stenton, F. M. 1992 The Place-Names of Devon, The English Place Name Society, Nottingham.
Watkins, A. 1995. The Old Straight Track. London: Abacus
Worth, R. H. 1988. Worth’s Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
Oxford English Dictionary – online source at – Oxford University Press. 18 August 2013 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/19670?rskey=17nIyu&result=1>.