“The view from Pu Tor is exceedingly fine, much of the moor being revealed on one side, and a vast extent of the cultivated country on the other.” Crossing, p.146.
“Grey through the thickening trees, the heights of Pu Tor towered northerly, and round about the land fell by fields and homesteads to the river.”, Eden Phillpotts – The Mother, p.72.
Pew Tor, now there’s a place-name that conjures up a few mind pictures, does it refer to ornately carved church pew? Maybe that legendary Warner Brothers cartoon character the infamous skunk – Pepé Le pew? Sadly I can find no definitive answer, according to the Place-Name Society the earliest record of the anything like the name comes from the Recovery Rolls of 1697 when it appeared as Pewterdowne, Glover et. al. p.249. Clearly this name refers to the common as opposed to the actual tor. However, locally the tor was simply called Pu Tor. One explanation of the place-name comes from J. Ll. W. Page when he suggests that; “there are many crannies which will remind us of the seats in a church.”, p.132. This would relate to the idea of church pews as locally the word pew would be pronounced ‘pu‘ hence Pu Tor.
Staying slightly on the religious theme there can be no doubt that throughout the ages Pew Tor has been endowed with some mystical traditions. Locally the granite bastion was known to be the residence of the King of the Piskies and deep down below the dark outcrops lay his fabulous palace. It is said that on some nights you can hear the little folk as they dance and prance at their revels deep down under the tor. Somewhere amongst the cracks and joints lies the entrance to this magical palace but as tradition goes nobody has ever found it or really wanted to.
If those early antiquarians who believed many of Dartmoor’s landscape features were ritual places of Druidical worship then Pew Tor was one of their temples. The main reason for the is the presence of several rock basins on the tor. These were supposedly used in the Druid’s rituals, possibly as font-type basins containing heaven knows what. Then just to link the Druid’s to the Piskies one of the rock basins is according to Ken Ringwood is known as the Piskies Pond, p.149. This being the case did the basin act as a mini public lido for the little folk?
Additionally Mrs Bray supported the idea that; “The rock at the northern angle principally attracted our attention. From the form of it I could not hesitate to suppose that it was a Druidical seat of Judgement.”, p.229. As can be seen below, if somebody had a firm belief in the Druid connection with Dartmoor there is indeed what can conceivably be taken to be a throne-like ‘Seat of Judgement’. If ever you do visit Pew Tor and scale the northern outcrop not only will you see the rock basins and on the nearby outcrop an Admiralty Hydrographic Department Trig Station. This simply comprises of a small round disc inscribed with the words ; “Hydrographic Department MOD Navy London SW9 Triangulation Station HMS.”
It is not only in the dim and distant past that mysterious and strange things have happened on Pew Tor. In the January of 2005 a walker discovered seven dead sheep on the slopes of Pew Tor that seemingly were arranged in a seven pointed pentagram. A post-mortem carried out by a local vet revealed that all the animals had their necks broken. There was also evidence that the sheep had been penned up prior to their slaughter. This is but one on several unexplained animal deaths on Dartmoor which have been attributed to either witchcraft rituals or alien activity.
Pew Tor is the last resting place of Cyril Martin CBE a distinguished army officer who during his career was awarded the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Service Order amongst a whole host of other military awards. He died in 1980 and his ashes scattered on the tor.
As with many of the Dartmoor tors there is a variety of flora and fauna to see or was seen on and around it’s rocky slopes. Pew tor at one time was the favourite haunt of a pair of Ring Ouzels who in 1850 gained the interest of the quarrymen. On most days a herd of ponies make it one of their food stops and are surprisingly tame thus allowing some good photographic opportunities. One oddity we did spot on our last visit in 2015 was a small, pure black rabbit scurrying around on the edge of the old quarry. Perhaps at one time somebody has released an unwanted pet or pets which have now bred upon the tor. If it’s flora that you are interested in then here is a miniature Kew Gardens with many species such as Stonecrop, Foxglove and many more varieties of flowers nestling in the numerous granite cracks and joints.
The other wartime claim to fame that Pew Tor can make it that it was the only Dartmoor tor ever to receive direct hits from German bombs as testified to the craters that can be seen today – see below.
Anybody who visits Pew Tor cannot help to notice that at one time the ‘Graniteers’ had been very busy chipping away at the granite on and around the tor. So much was the destruction of the tor that the poet L. W. N. Keys wrote his lamented poem – Pew Tor. The salient lines being:
“Yet thou art in peril: I am sad to see
Gangs of rough quarrymen thy form surround,
And, penetrating to thy depths profound,
Block after block pluck forth with ruthless glee.”
One of the main reasons why so much granite was taken from Pew Tor was that much of it was located at a low level and therefore easily accessible. Additionally there was a good network of tracks leading downhill from the tor which made for easy transportation of the quarried stone. Despite this many of the attempts to quarry the granite from Pew Tor failed thanks to a small local market and lack of funding. In addition some of the rock was removed by unauthorised stone masons from Tavistock which used the granite for their own building projects, Stanier, p.60.
During the 1840s a series of disputes took place as to who actually owned Pew Tor Common and the tor. Originally the land belonged to the Parlby family. Sometime in the 1840s William Courtney of Walreddon manor issued a claim that part of the common belonged to his lands. The upshot of this was that the common was divided, 201 acres to the Parlby family and 181 acres to Courtney. As stone working was being carried out on the common and not wishing to miss out on some profit the Duchy of Cornwall waded in to further complicate matters. Their argument was that as the land was part of the commons of Devonshire which adjoined the Forest of Dartmoor they also had land rights. Consequently they began issuing various quarrying licenses to private individuals and companies. As one can imagine Mr Courtney was none to happy about this and lodged several complaints to the Duchy In 1848 a settlement was reached and the Duchy agreed to pay Courtney 50% of the freehold profits. Around about the same time it was decided that Pew Tor needed some form of protection and so a cordon of nine boundary markers was set up around the summit inside which no quarrying was to take place. These markers consisted of a circle of a 50cm diameter inside which sat a cross (an example of which can be seen above).
During the period from 1854 – 1855 there were numerous incidents of unauthorised folk taking the stone from Pew tor. Consequently in the January of 1854 a noticed was issued saying that anyone found trespassing on Pew Tor or removing granite from within the sett would be prosecuted. No we are not talking of a few stones being taken to build a rock garden here, on one occasion four wagon loads were spotted trundling away from the tor. Much of the stone illegally removed from Pew Tor was used to build or repair various public and private structures in and around Tavistock. Following one prosecution another notice was issued in 1855 with the promise of a five shilling reward for any person giving information of illegal stone removal which led to a conviction.
Whilst out on a walk in 1861 the Duchy Secretary visited Pew Tor and apparently was shocked and dismayed to how badly the tor had been disfigured by the Graniteers. He soon brought this to the attention of the Duchy who immediately made their concerns known to the lessees, messrs Mr Roberts and Trago. Roberts then expressed his concerns with his foreman and pointed out that stone was being taken from within the protected area. It appears that the situation did not improve apart from the fact that Roberts was made bankrupt and Trago no longer held any ‘beneficial’ interest in the quarry.
In the January of 1862 public notices were issued which invited tenders for the quarries of Pew Tor and Staple Tor. The following March a twenty one year lease was granted to one John Greenwood. However, things did not work out for Greenwood who by 1864 had begun to fall into arrears with the Duchy. As the years ticked by a combination of ill-health and mounting debts led to Greenwood having to sell off his assets and surrender his licence.
On Christmas day of 1874 a one year licence was granted to William Duke which was further extended to to 21 years the following Christmas. It appears he intent was to concentrate more on the nearby Merrivale quarry as this stone was more adaptable for ‘intricate’ cutting.
Over the following years there appears to have been further cases of unauthorised stone removal which gave cause for concern. So in 1896 the Pew Tor protective limit was further extended, this one marked by a 150 cm diameter circle containing five 25cm holes bored into it, (again an example of which can be seen above)., A full paper on the topic was written by Harris, pp. 29 -49 for the Transactions of the Devonshire Association.
On the visit to Pew Tor I was unable to find any of the two protective boundary markers mainly due to the fact I never took the co-ordinates for them – doh. However Keith Ryan has painstakingly plotted these on his website at the following link – DartmoorCam – Pew Tor.
Just to the east of Pew Tor is Pew Tor Cottage, a fantastically secluded property nestled under the shadow of the tor. Originally it consisted of two quarrymen’s cottages that have now been converted into one house. Just to give an idea of how desirable the cottage is today, in 2014 it was on the market for £640,000.
In 1887 one Frederick Maitland related how at onetime an old man squatted at Pew Tor Cottage in an effort to find solitude. So much so that he actually banned the postman from delivering any mail to the property. It appears that at the time Pollack was lodging at the cottage and for some odd reason refers to Pew Tor as Jubilee Teapot Tor? From his writings it appears that he had some difficulty in initially finding the cottage: “But if I begin to tell the acts of the Putorians, I shall never cease, for they are a race with a history of their own… but the ignorant beggars did not know Pu Tor cottage and it seemed that we should wander about all night.”, p.41.
About 1.3 kilometres north of Pew Tor was a blacksmith’s shop which would have serviced the quarrying of Pew Tor, Staple Tor, and Roos Tor. It was here that the blacksmith would sharpen the stone cutters tools and shoed the horses which were used to haul the granite wagons. Finally any of the wooden wagon wheels which needed the iron rims sealed onto them would also be done there. Just outside the ruins sits a beautifully fashioned wheelwright’s stone laying testimony to its use for sealing the iron rims. It is thought that the Blacksmith’s Shop was built by John Greenwood, the lessee of the granite setts sometime in the early 1870s. However, it is just possible that there was an earlier building on the site prior to the above shop. Mike Brown notes how he discovered a report of an escaped prisoner taking refuge in an, “unoccupied house on Barn Hill.” In his opinion there never has been another ‘house’ on Barn Hill so it could well have been an earlier building erected on the same site. p. 9. According to Stainier the Blacksmith’s shop was demolished by the military sometime in the 1950s. p.63.
So there you have it, a very mysterious but vandalised tor that is easily accessible as the Graniteers knew only too well but well worth a visit.
Bray, E. 1836. Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of that part of Devonshire on the Borders the Tamar. London: Murray.
Brown, M. 1998. Mike Brown’s Filed Guides – Vol. 6. Plymouth: Dartmoor Press.
Crossing, W. 1990. Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.
Gover, J. E. B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F. M. 1992 The Place Names of Devon, English Place-Name Society, Nottingham.
Harris, H. 1981. Granite Working on Pew Tor and Staple Tor – TDA Vol.113.Torquay: The Devonshire Press.
Maitland, F. W. 1910. Fredrick W. Maitland, a Biographical Sketch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Page, J. Ll. W. 1898. An Exploration of Dartmoor. London: Seeley & Co. Ltd.
Phillpotts, E. 1909. The Mother. Toronto: William Briggs.
Ringwood, K. 2013. Dartmoor’s Tors and Rocks. Plymouth: University of Plymouth Press.
Stanier, P.1999. South West Granite. St. Austell: Cornish Hillside Publications