When talking of the ‘Take Off Stone’ you could be forgiven for thinking it is something connected with NASA and Space Shuttles. But no, it is/was a small insignificant stone that stands beside the A386 Tavistock to Okehampton road and which hundreds of people drive past every day. During the summer the poor little stone is usually cloaked behind a curtain of grass and weeds and is almost invisible. Sadly, it has not always been so invisible as sometime during the late 1990’s the stone was stolen, what stands there today is a replacement stone. As can be seen when comparing the original stone with the replica there is not a lot of difference that time and lichen will not remedy – see ill. 1 here and ill. 2 here.
But what is the significance of the Take Off Stone? For that answer we are going to have to travel back to 1760’s and the days of mail coaches, wagons and horsepower. At this time there was an increase in road building and improvement, much of which was done at private expense but with a keen eye to later covering the initial outlay. In order to do this the ‘new’ roads were turned into turnpike roads by official acts of parliament which allowed tolls to be collected. Many of these roads had new surfaces which, naturally, the turnpike trusts wanted to last as long as possible. The continual clomp of hooves were the main culprits of road wear be it the cloven variety or metal shod types. Initially, the number of horses allowed to pull a cart uphill were limited by act of parliament but in 1752 another act was passed which allowed local magistrates to relax the earlier ruling. This now meant that turnpike trusts could obtain special dispensation which would allow an extra trace horse to be added in order to facilitate heavy loads be pulled up hills. The condition for this was that a marker stone had to be erected at the point where it was deemed the extra horse was no longer needed. Or the spot where the Wagoner had to ‘take off’ his extra horse – hence the marker stone became known as a ‘Take Off Stone’. In some areas this extra horse was known as a ‘Cock Horse’ and some refer this as being the same as the famous nursery rhyme, “Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross”. English Heritage define a Take Off Stone as being, “A stone used to instruct a coachman to unhitch a horse, previously taken on to help pull the coach up a steep gradient”. Incidentally, although there are no examples on Dartmoor, elsewhere in the country are examples of ‘Put On Stones’ at which the coachman had to hitch on an extra trace horse.
In 1885, the Clerk to the Trustees of Exeter wrote the following:
“The General Turnpike Act regulated the Weights which might be drawn on the roads in Summer and in Winter, the number of Horses or other beasts which might be used fro drawing, or might be driven when in pairs or when singly, except during Snow and Ice, where any number might be used, and empowered the Trustees to allow an additional number to be used when the Hills rose more that 4 inches in a yard with a variation according to the width of the wheels, e.g. not exceeding 10 for wagons with 9 inch wheels, or 7 for 6 inch wheels…“, Brewer, 2002, p. 225.
The actual limitations imposed by the1800 Turnpike Act were that for wagons with wheels 9 inches in width no more than 10 horses could be used to draw it. In the case of wagons with 6 inch wheels, they were allowed a maximum of 6 horses. It could therefore be concluded from the clerk’s comments that the large 9 inch wheeled wagons were not allowed any extra help but the smaller 6 inch wagons could hitch up one extra horse?
There are 4 known Take Off stones in the Dartmoor area, 3 near Lydford and 1 at Fullamoor all of which were to be found on roads belonging to the Tavistock Turnpike Trust – see ill. 3 here. It is not known exactly when the stones were erected but is thought to be around the mid 1820’s. As mentioned above there is the replica stone that stands just outside Beardon on the main Tavistock to Okehampton road. Alongside the stone is also what is thought to have been a ‘tethering stone’, see ill. 4 here, which was used to tie horses to, presumably when unhitching the ‘cock horse’?
Another Take Off stone now resides in a garden of a house on the edge of Lydford where it has supposedly been rescued. It was thought that it once stood near to its current location but as the lane is virtually level this seems highly unlikely. The OS map of 1889 show a ‘stone’ standing just above the brow of the hill by Lydford Bridge which would seem a more appropriate location – see ill. 5 here.
The other example of a take off stone stand just outside the National Park boundary and is set against the wall of Hurdwick Farm. This too is no longer in-situ and most probably came from a steeper section of the Brentor road.
The fourth Take Off stone is once again set into the farm wall, this time at Fullamoor Farm. Brewer, p.228 explains that this stone was found in a job-lot of stone purchased from somewhere in Tavistock so once again where it originally sat nobody knows.
Brewer, D. 2002 Dartmoor Boundary Markers, Halsgrove Pub., Tiverton.
Hawkins, M. 1988 Devon Roads, Devon Books, Exeter.
Kanefsky, J. 1976 Devon Tollhouses, Exeter Ind. Arch. Group, Exeter.