Visiting Dartmoor’s noted landmarks for the first time is always an exciting experience and something that lodges pleasant thoughts in the library of the mind. I can remember such thing when I first went up to the Grey Wethers stone circles. I have stumbled across this similar visit paid to the sacred circles seventy seven years ago by Arthur Wilde. What is interesting when reading such accounts is that in your mind you can follow in every footstep and picture the walk landscape feature by landscape feature. It is also fascinating to read about features and traditions encountered then that have long gone, never to be seen again. If you never have experienced any of these walks then it can be fun to follow the old routes on an Ordnance survey map.
“A perfect day in mid-June favoured our walk to The Grey Wethers. Leaving Chagford that gem of a moorland town, we were soon proceeding along Holy Street. When I first heard Holy Street mentioned I visualised it as being in the vicinity of The Square, but it is really well out of Chagford, and is actually in a typical rural setting. It is certainly a very charming walk and quite a beauty spot in itself and the lively river running alongside and the splash of colour made by the rhododendrons among the fresh foliage on the other side, made a very sweet picture.
Mounting the steep hill which starts at a delightful house in its own grounds at the bend of the road, we found ourselves at the entrance to Gidleigh Park at the foot of yet another steep hill called Teigncommbe Lane. The condition of this lane in days gone by was so atrocious that it was ironically called Featherbed Lane. Now there are not many lanes that have had a special piece of poetry devoted to them, but Teigncombe Lane, owing to its bad condition inspired rather a good poem, which indicates a lesson on life itself to any one of us, “Teigncombe Lane is all uphill, or downhill, as you take it,” runs the opening line; and a line of the last verse says that the lane is, “just like life.” On that afternoon however, I found the lane fairly comfortable, for the weather was dry; furthermore it appealed to me because it was leading to Kes Tor, which I had not visited before.
I had often admired this tor from the distant ranges and it was a surprise when I found myself so near to it after climbing that famous lane. It is an easy gradual climb to the tor’s summit, and I was most interested in some Scotch sheep which were gathered near the railing that surrounds the wonderful rock basin (no longer there). It is the first time I have seen Scotch sheep hereabouts and I thought they looked smaller than our Devons or Sussex Southdowns.
The views from Kes Tor are simply glorious. Chagford, with lovely Meldon Hill on one side; the truly sweeping moorland heights beyond Okehampton on the other. I shall never tire of admiring the Devon scenery, and although I know the scenery of some of our other counties, it is the intense colouring and the charming way it is blended here that appeals to me so deeply – the colour of the soil, moorland, tilled fields, meadowland, woodland and sky effects – at any season of the year. Being reared in the heart of a great industrial county makes me appreciate all this lovely scenery and colour more perhaps, than a native of these parts; and I know that my readers will understand my continual praising of the natural beauty I see around me.
Our special objective of that day, however, was The Grey Wethers, but I realised while on Kes tor that I could spend the best part of the day inspecting the stone antiquities in that particular vicinity. This will have to wait for another visit. My friend consulted his map to find the direction of The Grey Wethers, and we tried to get a bearing by taking in Kes Tor and using the line from there to the Longstone. We soon found this interesting relic of a bygone age standing in solitary state. It is nearly twice my own height, and I am above average in this respect. I presume the letters ‘GP’ on one side and ‘C’ on the other make the stone a boundary mark for the Gidleigh and Chagford parishes. Disappearing down the moorland slopes, however, we lost our view of the Longstone, and also our sense of direction, for we were then overlooking a moorland bog near a stream where some ponies were grazing. Getting clear of the bog, we headed for a gate which appeared on the skyline, and by then, indeed, we had begun to think we should never reach The Grey Wethers on this half-day tramp.
A large plantation was in front of us, and we knew we should have to skirt it. However, that gate gave access to a broad grassy trackway that runs along a wall and while we were admiring some grand looking cattle near by we quite suddenly saw in front of us a lonely farm. This turned out to be Teignhead Farm which I had often wished to see, and it gave us our real bearing for the direction of The Grey Wethers.
I understand that this farm is the loneliest on Dartmoor. It must have been lonely, particularly in winter but on that perfect midsummer day its situation struck me as being perfectly congenial, and it made me wish I could stay there for a month to explore this very fascinating part of the moor. Resting on the moorland slope and enjoying our tea, the only trace of the river was an attractive gush of water through some rocks, but when we explored it later we found a fairly wide river in such a pretty setting and quite a quick flow of water. We slaked our thirsts and my friend thought he detected a peaty flavour.
A friend who has unrivalled knowledge of Dartmoor has given me some notes, and I understand that Teignhead Farm was built over a century and a half ago. One of its occupants had the appropriate name of Lamb, and he devoted the place to the rearing of Scotch sheep, with a shepherd in charge, but I believe the venture was not a success. At Great Varracombe, near by, there used to stand a homestead called Mandles, but it is now in ruins. There is a charming clapper-bridge at Teignhead, quite a miniature of that at Postbridge, and close at hand is an area which is being used for digging peat. It is the first time I have seen these slabs of peat taken from the ground, and I noticed that hundreds were laid out for drying by resting one against the other, angle-wise, so the air could get to them. I picked one up, and was astonished to find how firm it was. Indeed, I felt I was holding a tile in my hand. Here we had an interesting chat with a gentleman from Chagford who was most kindly showing two soldiers from my native Northcountry some of the lovely scenery of the moor. He certainly knew the moor well, and his explanation of newtakes and ancient grazing rights was most instructive.
Leaving Teignhead farm, we made our way to a gate which we could see on the top of an incline near Sittaford tor, and on arriving there we were delighted to see The Grey Wethers in front of us. Entering that gate, with those ancient stone circles in such a lovely spot, gave me the feeling that I was on the threshold of a sacred place. Indeed, my first reaction to the surroundings was to doff my hat in reverence. I have not been in Devon long enough to study closely these old moorland monuments in order to get a fair understanding of them; whether or not the Druids or some other Order worshipped at The Grey Wethers there is certainly something about the environment that struck me as being profoundly sacred. There are two circles, quite adjacent, and each according to my pacing, is approximately one hundred feet in diameter. One circle is now complete with twenty-nine upright stones, but the other has only twenty. In an oft quoted line, Shakespeare refers to sermons in stones, and I feel that The Grey Wethers are eloquent sermons in themselves. They appear as if they were trying to tell me something of their age-long story, and handing on a message of faith of long, long ago.
They made a noble picture on that sunny evening, but I felt I would like to visit them on a frosty night, with a full moon. The only song of two or three skylarks filled the air with their gorgeous music, and I like to think that those who worshipped or held their counsels here in the dim past also heard the same lovely song of praise. I hear that these stones are so named by reason of their resemblance to a flock of sheep when viewed from a distance (see the Legend of the Grey Wethers); but on looking around occasionally this impression was not conveyed to me, mainly because, I think, of the regularity of the stones now that they have been restored to their original positions. The grey Wethers will always be one of my most abiding memories of this very historic county.
A grand tramp over White Hill with majestic Bellever Tor in front of us brought us to the foot of Merripit; and then on to a celebrated hostelry near by for refreshment and rest before our walk back to Moretonhampstead.” – Arthur Wilde, The Western Times, July 17th, 1942.
Assuming these pilgrims arrived at Chagford by some means of transport and as there is no mention of how they got back to Moretonhampstead let’s also assume they walked this would make for around a sixteen mile walk. Certainly today I would suggest that the preferred route would be from Fernworthy, through the plantation and up to Sittaford Tor. It is also worth noting that should you ever visit the Grey Wethers then there is now another recently discovered stone circle nearby – Sittaford Stone circle.