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Bleak House

Bleak House

The men followed this stream, and so approached a solitary grey cottage that stood nakedly in the very heart of the wilderness. Stark space surrounded it. At first sight it looked no more than a boulder, larger than common, that had been hurled hither from the neighbouring hill at some seismic convulsion of olden days. But, unlike the stones around it, this lump of lifted granite was hollow, had windows pierced in its lowly chambers, and a hearth upon its floor. It seemed a thing lifted by some sleight of power unknown, for it rose here utterly unexpected and, as it appeared, without purpose. No trace was left of the means by which it came. Not a wall, not a bank or alignment encircled it; no enclosure of any kind approached it; no outer rampart fenced it from the desolation. Heather-clad ridges of peat ran to the very threshold; rough natural clitters of rock tumbled to its walls; door and windows opened upon primal chaos, rolling and rising, sinking and falling in leagues on every side. Heavy morasses stretched to north and east ; westward rose Dunnagoat Tor, that gave a name to the cot, and past the entrance Rattle-brook rippled noisily‘, (Phillpotts, 1907, pp. 22 -23).

Not very far from the tor (Green Tor) are the walls of a building erected in connection with some peat works further up the Rattle Brook, but which were only worked for a short time. It is now known as Bleak House, a name which its situation on a bare moor at an elevation of 1,740 feet, renders very appropriate‘, (Crossing, 1990, p.180).

In the direction whence the Rattle Brook comes down from its lofty cradle, the masses of Dunnagoat are visible, and Green Tor, on the slope of Amicombe, and one solitary building near it. This is bleak house, but the hopes of those who reared it (modern adventurers who sought to wring wealth from the Moor) were shattered, as is now the edifice itself,’ (Crossing, 1987, p.192).

Above are a few descriptions of the ruin now known as ‘Bleak House’, Phillpott’s words vividly portray the bleak and remote landscape in which the building stood and how he actually saw it standing as a complete house. Originally the house was known as ‘Dunnagoat Cottage’, (Hemery, 1983, p. 976) due to the fact that it stands opposite the two Dunnagoat Tors. I have been as yet unable to find very much written about Dartmoor by the prominent topographical authors. As can be seen above even William Crossing has very little to say about the place or its one-time inhabitants. The Pastscape Records states that ‘The walls, of mortared, dressed granite blocks are 0.5m wide and stand to a maximum height of 5m in the north eastern corner‘, (Online Source- see link opposite). As Dartmoor buildings go this one must have been fairly easy to build as the granite building blocks were cut and simply sledded down the hillside from the nearby Higher Dunnagoat tor. Even today the tare and feather marks adorn the tor, everlasting scars left by the stone cutters of old.

But why and what? Basically in 1878 a licence was granted by the Duchy of Cornwall to extract peat from Amicombe Hill and Dunnagoat Cottage was built to house a one-time manager of the works. Sited about half a mile south of the main works buildings this abode would have been secluded to say the least. Water would have been taken from the nearby Rattle Brook and there certainly would have been no shortage of peat for heating and cooking. Just outside the building stands an old tinners cache, originally used to store tools etc but later used as a cool store for the house’s occupants.

When taking into consideration the desolation of this part of Dartmoor it would come as no surprise that local folklore has something to say. Supposedly on some nights fires can be seen flickering on the huge dome of Amicombe Hill that looms behind Bleak House, these were/are said to have been lit by the Devil himself. It is also rumoured that he lurks around this spot where he keeps a mischievous eye on the people of Tavistock and Okehampton, ever on the lookout to enflame the age old feud between the two communities, (Crossing, 1990, p.181). Not wishing to spoil a good yarn, but this tale probably came from the fact that folks saw fires associated with the drying of the peat, a slow process which may well have continued through the hours of darkness. Another Satanic tale regarding Amicombe Hill states that (presumably following his deeds associated with the infamous Widecombe Storm?) the Devil was banished from Widecombe in the Moor and ended up stalking this area, (Crossing, 1994, pp. 43 – 44).

Another more plausible tradition in the locale was that during the First World War a German scientist was living at Bleak House, as one can imagine this attracted a great deal of suspicion as to whether or not he was a spy, (Amhof, 1998. p.6). To add some credence to this story, Helen Harris (1986, p.113) notes that between 1917 and 1919 a German scientist named Muller was employed at the peat works to investigate the chances of extracting various chemicals from the peat.

There clearly has been some recent maintenance work on the track that runs down from the peat works to Bleak House (see photo below) which in wet weather will entail a good deal of slopping and squelching.

Bleak House

Bleak House 1900s

Bleak House

Bleak House 2012

Bleak House

Bleak House 2012

Bleak House

Bleak House 2012

Bleak House

Bleak House Cooler 2012

Bleak House

Bleak House Track 2012

Bleak House

Amhof, G. 1998 Peat from Amicombe Hill – Dartmoor Magazine, No. 13, Brixham: Quay Publications.

Crossing, W. 1987 Gems in a Granite Setting, Exeter: Devon Books.

Crossing, W. 1990 Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.

Crossing, W. 1994 Echoes of an Ancient Forest, Liverton: Forest Publishing.

Harris, H. 1986 The Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor, Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.

Hemery, E. 1983 High Dartmoor, London: Hale Publishing

Phillpotts, E. 1907 The Whirlwind, London, Chapman & Hall Ltd.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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