HANGINGSTONE HILL – if you are expecting grizzly tales of miscreants jiggling around on the end of a rope then please accept my apologies for there are none. Granted there is a large stone near the summit and it is this from whence the hill takes its modern name. As always with Dartmoor place-names nothing is simple, there are hanging stones from which various sheep stealers have hung themselves but not on this one. There are also numerous logan stones which are large boulders pivoted on other rocks which ‘log’ when pressure is applied and in this case the Hangingstone was a logan. Please note I say; “was a logan,” as it logs no more or in the words of Monty Python; “it’s deceased” but in its defence it does ‘hang’. Just to confuse things even more, Crossing tells us that to the moormen of old the hill was always known as ‘Newtake Hill’ and that Hangingstone Hill was only applied to; “the N. W. side of it where there is a small outlying pile of rock.”, p.238. The reason for the name – ‘Newtake Hill’ was that the one-time owner of Teignhead Farm had plans of enclosing a large newtake which would encompass the entire hill. The work was actually begun but for whatever reason never finished as is evident from the remaining sections that were built.
Back to the actual hill, the lordly summit sits at a lofty 603 metres where it is the master of all it surveys with panoramic views extending to Exmoor, the Quantocks, the Teign Estuary and many of the Dartmoor heights. Thanks to it’s elevation, Hangingstone Hill can claim to be the third highest of the Dartmoor Tors and is just 18 metres lower than the tallest – High Willhays. The hill is also classed as one of Dartmoor’s thirteen ‘Deweys‘ and can claim to be the tenth highest ‘Dewey‘ in England – I know, whatever next! Apparently a ‘Dewey‘ is an English high point which is between 500 and 610 metres above sea level and has at least a 30 metre ascent on all sides. Not only is Hangingstone Hill a ‘Dewey‘ it’s also a ‘Sub-Hewitt‘, A proper ‘Hewitt‘ is A Hill in England, Wales, or Ireland over Two Thousand Feet a ‘Sub Hewitt‘ is one that didn’t quite make the 2,000 feet – shame metrication has buggered this up.
About 1.4 kilometres to the west of the hill lies the famous Cranmere Pool, just over 500 metres to the south is the now world famous Whitehorse Hill kist and 1.4 kilometres to the north-west sits the enigmatic Watern Tor.
The Ordnance Survey map suggests that Hangingstone Hill was once a ritual location for the Bronze Age moor folk. Two cairns are shown, one on the summit and another 328 metres to the north. Thanks to the military the summit cairn has been despoiled by way of an observation post being built into its southern edge. If this was not bad enough the builders actually used stones from the cairn to construct the building. Today the cairn measures about 18 by 1.8 metres with a shallow pit that now contains a flagpole base, again despoiled by the military, Butler pp. 211 – 212. With regards to the second cairn to the north both English Heritage and Jeremy Butler can find find no trace. It would be as well to point out that this observation post was a very early one and so blame cannot be heaped on the modern day military.
Now back to the Hangingstone, as mentioned above, originally the hangingstone/logan stone did rock or ‘log’ and remain so up until the early 1960s. I am sure I have read somewhere that the stone was estimated to weigh around four tons thus making it no lightweight. In 1964 Eric Hemery paid a visit to the hill and found that the hangingstone no longer logged as somehow it had been toppled off its base and lay on the ground. He reported the matter to the Dartmoor National Park Committee who received an offer of assistance from the Army headquarters in Plymouth. The upshot of this was that an army Scammell recovery vehicle was sent out to the hill with a crew of two along with Major J. O’brien. Two rope slings were fastened under the stone and gently hoisted it up with the vehicle’s crane. Using a photograph of Hemery’s which showed the stones original position it was lowered back from whence it came. Apparently the mission was a success for when the slings were removed the hangingstone once again rocked. Unfortunately Hemery returned to Hangingstone Hill nine years later to find that once again the Hangingstone was deceased and lay static, In his opinion the fault lay squarely at the feet of the military as; “a tiny wall had been built alongside the pivot-rock to form a butt, or shelter, so that the logan shad been sat upon, jumped upon and pushed into an off-pivot immovability.”, Hemery, pp. 823 – 824. Over the years there have been several attempts to re-site fallen logan stones and virtually none have been able to get them log again, so precise is nature.
Hangingstone Hill is also the terminal of the old South Zeal Track which at one time would have been used by peat cutters and miners go to and from South Zeal. The peat cutters would go to their turf ties which lay to the south of the hill and the miners went west to various stream works. Part of this track on the eastern side of the hill is the result of military operations and can be described as; “wide, stony track… artificially bald in character.”, Hemery, p.210.
In 2010 Hangingstone Hill was the subject of an archaeological and palaeoecological survey carried out by the University of Plymouth. This work was part of the investigation into possible re-wetting sites encompassed by The Dartmoor Mires Project. The survey used non-invasive survey methods in the form of ground penetrating radar in order to assess the archaeological potential Additionally remote sensed data was examined and sample cores were taken. These were later radiocarbon dated and the pollen content assessed.
The Ground Penetrating Radar revealed that the peat depth ranged from between 1 and 3.5 metres with the thinner parts lying to the north and south of the hill. The radiocarbon dates obtained from the peat showed a calibrated AD/BC age of between 5611-5478BC and AD 646-678. Sixty one pollen samples were taken on and around the hill. The lowest and earliest pollen zone (c.5400-1500 cal BC) revealed the presence of hazel (40%of the total pollen), oak (10 – 20%) and alder (c. 10%). Heather and two grass families; Poaceae and Cyperaceae were also present.
In the second zone (c.1500-1100 cal BC) there was a decrease in both alder and oak with heather showing a marked increase. Several herbaceous grasses also increased which suggested that the ground had been cleared and improved through human intervention.
The third zone (c.1100-800 cal BC) revealed a sharp decline in heather along with the grasses, however there was an increase in the tree species, especially oak.
Zone four (c.800-200 cal BC) appears to be a return to zone one with a marked increase in alder and oak and a decrease in open ground grasses.
The final zone (c.200 cal BC–recent) records an overall decline in tree species, and an increase in heather and grasses, basically very much like what can be seen today.
In terms of the archaeological record, there is clear evidence of human activity in the area from around about the early Neolithic period through to the late Iron Age. The presence of a cairn and nearby kist would suggest ritual activity and the evidence of ground clearance would point to pastoral uses. If you would like to read the complete survey then it can be found – HERE.
Hangingstone Hill was also the site of a tragic plane crash in the March of 1941 where all four crew members were killed. The incident happened at 2.00am when the Hampden medium bomber was returning from a mine laying mission just off the coast of La Rochelle. For some unknown reason the plane just crashed into the hillside.
I must admit Hangingstone Hill is not a place that I have frequented much, I called in at a checkpoint that was located there on the 1993 Ten Postbox Walk at precisely 11.15am. At one time there were several letterboxes sited on and around the hill which would have called for another visit sometime later.
But on another occasion I can remember never being so glad as to get anywhere as that hill. We had been letterboxing around Fur Tor and become so engrossed in what we were doing that it got dark before we knew it. The car was parked at OP15 and therefore the choice was to slog back northwards over Kneeset, Black Ridge and across to the observation post. Or to cut across Black Hill to East Dart Head and then on to Hangingstone Hill where we could pick up the military track which would lead back to the car. Neither was a gleeful prospect but we opted for the latter route and ended up slopping and bog hopping across what seemed endless miles of quaking bogland in the pitch black. I can remember getting to Hangingstone and my friend realising he had dropped his umbrella, yes I know, an umbrella – how naff, but it was his I might stress. I know not what was so special about that particular umbrella but it must have been something spectacular as he actually wanted to go back and find it – yeah right, on yer own mate!
There is another story which involved Hangingstone Hill, the flagpole, a sex aid and a letterbox stamp but I won’t go into that right now, suffice it to say I still have the letterbox stamp.
I will leave the last words on Hangingstone Hill to F. H. Starkey who says; “Hangingstone – at nearly 2000 feet Dartmoor’s third highest eminence – ought to be experienced by every Dartmoor explorer.“, p.85.
Please note: Hangingstone Hill lies within the Okehampton Firing Range so please check the firing times before visiting.
Butler, J. 1991. Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities – Vol. 2. Exeter: Devon Books.
Crossing, W. 1990 Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Robert Hale.
Hemery, E. 1986. Walking Dartmoor’s Ancient Tracks. London: Robert Hale Ltd.
Starkey, F. H. 1984. Odds and Ends from Dartmoor. Cornwall: F. H. Starkey.