“Halshanger, where an army rifle-range of red brick, gaunt and hideous, leaves on the landscape a blot exacerbated by the weeds and creepers now sprouting from it.”
“This monstrous construction, as high as two houses, must be quite the most unbelievable building in the National Park.”, Hayward, p.256.
I suppose that the comments above do very little to inspire a visit apart from out of morbid curiosity but the building is one that once belonged to a military firing range centred 1.76 kilometres south of Rippon Tor. Oddly enough this structure is like Marmite, people either love it or hate it, personally I find it impressive, somewhat daunting and oppressive. However, it is a part of Dartmoor’s military heritage and doubtless played an important part in training the troops ready for war.
The rifle range was constructed in 1942 as a vital part of troop training on Dartmoor and it belonged to the East Dartmoor Ranges group or simply Scorriton Ranges. The total area encompassed by this group covered some 4,451 hectares. The range was eventually closed in the 1960s which was the last of this group to be closed, the rest were decommissioned in the late 1940s and 50s. Despite the adverse comments the range can be considered as one of the most intact relics of military training on Dartmoor.
Sadly today much of the area is now covered with scrub which has obscured many of the smaller features belonging to the range. The easiest way to gain access is via the gate at OS grid reference SX 7492 7346, this will take you onto the track which leads directly up to the firing range, although there is only the gateway to park in which is frequently fully occupied. The not-so easy route is to park in the small and unofficial layby located just opposite Rushlade Bridge at OS grid reference SX 7450 7379. However, be warned it will be a wet, muddy climb through thick gorse.
Just as you pass through the moorgate a small brick built structure can be seen near the wall. This it is thought to have been a possible pumping station which drew water from the nearby river Ashburn. Some 370 metres due east of here is the second brick building which contains four galvanised water tanks. It was here that the water from the pumping station below was stored.
Incidentally, just some 100 metres west of the storage tanks was the site of The Old Summer House which was built by a member of the Woodley family of Halshanger. Apparently he had some strange ways and would take guests up to the summer house for some sport. Armed with shotguns they would toss coins to have their pick of the windows and then blast any poor rabbit that came in range. Refreshments were at some convenient point in time delivered to the summer house to refresh the ‘hunters’. Gradually the passage of time and the unwanted attention of soldiers from the range led to the destruction of the building.
The next structure to come literally looming into view is the stop butt and it is this that both Hemery and Hayward refer to. The dimensions of the red brick retaining wall are; 55 metres long, 15.5 metres wide, and approximately 9.2 metres high. There are nineteen buttresses on the north side and six on both the east and west sides. As noted before the structure is impressive especially with its towering height and there is a kind of eerie atmosphere to the place. I am not sure if its the size, the unexpectedness of finding such a structure in this remote spot or what but there is definitely something unnerving. Apparently the stop butt even appeared in a Zombie movie not that long ago – such is its character. Anyway, the southern face of the butt comprises of a steep sand and gravel bank into which the bullets would fly. Maybe because Mr Woodley no longer shoots rabbits or possibly the bank makes for a handy burrow but it is now home to a thriving population of rabbits. If you dig around near their holes you can find the green coloured mutilated remnants of the copper bullets heads.
Immediately in front of the stop butt is the marker’s gallery, this is housed in a concrete and earth covered bunker. Inside can be seen the twelve target frames (which are of the ‘Hythe’ pattern) along with their winding mechanisms. The purpose of this building was where the range operators would raise and lower the targets, patch the shot holes and to signal any necessary adjustments to the firing points.
At the eastern end of the gallery is the now derelict concrete store and workshop, this where the targets would be kept and any running repairs made. Sadly some village idiot has mistook exactly what type of gallery the building is attached to and left their inane version of artwork sprayed over the inside wall.
Amidst the jungle of bracken and gorse are four firing points which are roughly 91 metres apart and as can be seen from the aerial photograph below are much more distinguishable from above. To the west of the second firing point are a series of ancillary buildings the first of which is a toilet block consisting of seven cubicles and what I presume was an urinal? Today this building appears to serve as a nightspot for the village idiots as the floor is strewn with empty beer bottles and cans. Once again some mindless idiot could not resist the urge to inflict their idea of artwork upon the wall. The second building consists of twenty four cubicles which it is thought acted as a troop shelter for those awaiting their turn on the range. At some point it was suggested that the building acted as stables but firstly horses would not have been used at the range during the 1940s and secondly it would be hard to fit even a Shetland pony into the bays. At the end of the shelter is another small room whose purpose is uncertain. It is here that nature has left its mark as a tree is now thriving inside the structure and is even growing out of the roofless top.
One cannot help wondering what would have been going through the soldiers minds when using the range during the Second World War. As they were taking aim on the dummy targets were they pondering on the fact that in all possibility the next target they would be aiming at was a German soldier and that would be a target that could shoot back?
Although the leviathan stop butt does not rank amongst the ‘must see’ things on Dartmoor it is certainly one that is worth a visit if only to decide whether it is a “monstrous construction,” or a landscape feature belonging to Dartmoor’s recent heritage. Certainly it stands head and shoulders above the more modern structures found on the Willsworthy Range today.
Hayward, J. 1991. Dartmoor 365. Exeter: Curlew Publications.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Robert Hale Ltd.