Moses did go forth unto the Mount of Buckland, and the peoples of Israel gathered below on the Common of Wellstor, in much fear were they held. Upon the summit God appeared from a burning gorse bush and spoke to Moses. “Receive ye now the laws of God which you and the people of Israel must obey.” A flash of lightening came from the heavens and two mighty slabs of granite were hewn from the rock face and upon these an awful finger of fire inscribed the eleven laws of God. Moses returned to his people on the Common of Wellstor and gave unto them the eleven commandments, yes that’s right the – ‘eleven commandments’.
You could be forgiven for thinking that it was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the commandments and that there were only ten of them. But for all to see on Buckland Beacon are two slabs of granite upon which there are inscribed the eleven commandments of God. If you visit here at swaling time you may even see the burning gorse bush. Once more, this is not really a legend but another of the ‘must see’ Dartmoor gems.
The Ten Commandments
Buckland Beacon stands at a lofty height of 1,253ft (382m) and is one of the chain of Dartmoor frontier heights which was and is used as a fire beacon. It is said that the Spanish Armarda was spotted from this very lofty height. An inscription on a rock records that it was used in 1935. It reads: “Buckland Beacon. A beacon fire one of a chain lit here by the Parishioners of Buckland-in-the-Moor in celebration of their Majesties’ silver jubilee May 6th 1935. And the people shouted and said ‘God save the King.” Buckland Beacon was part of the fire chain of beacons for both the Millennium and Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee celebrations.
The Jubilee Beacon inscription.
Close to this can be found the two commandment stones. In 1928 Parliament rejected the adoption of the proposed new Book of Common Prayer. This was seen by many as a victory for Protestantism as the new book was considered a ‘popish trend’. One that certainly shared that view was the then lord of Buckland Manor – Mr William Whitely of Wellstor. To celebrate this ‘victory’ he commissioned a sculptor called W. A. Clement to engrave the Ten Commandments on two ‘tables of stone’ on Buckland Beacon. I have recently (January 2017) received a message from Samantha Dyer informing me that when he was a young boy it was her grandfather – Sidney Lang who assisted Clements by carrying his buckets and tools.
Clive Gunnell interviewed Mr Clement who informed him that he and a colleague first dressed the two selected stones, Clement then with prayer book in hand started engraving them. Work was started on the 23rd of July 1928. The wording on the left-hand slab was the first four commandments and then the dates December 15th 1927 – June 14th 1928. These dates represent the dates of the readings of the bill in parliament. Following this at the bottom were the words of a favourite quotation of Mr Whitley’s:
He then added his initials – A. C. On the second slab the remaining six commandments are written. Clements then realised there was a large blank space and suggested to Whitely that an eleventh commandment was added, this being “John, Chapter 13 Verse 34,” along with the third verse of the hymn, ‘Oh God Our Help in Ages Past’. So, the exact wording is:
The work was finally completed on August 31st 1928, and Mr Clement had earned himself the nickname of ‘Moses’. When he was first presented with his new name he said he was nothing like Moses because he was not going to carry those huge slabs down from the beacon. During the task ‘Moses’ lived in a ‘cow shed’ at the edge of the nearby woods. His bed was some wire netting and his light a candle, a nearby stream allowed him to wash and obtain drinking water. Although this feat may not seem that difficult imagine day in and day out being knelt beside the stones chipping away in all weathers, Buckland Beacon is a very exposed promontory to say the least. The stones were re-cut in the summer of 1995 and the letters painted with black paint, the work was carried out by the Dartmoor National Park Authority and Mr Whitley the present landowner. pp25-6.
An early postcard showing the inscriptions.
In the June of 2016 the lettering on the stones underwent a lengthy £16,000 restoration programme involving the re-cutting of the letters. The work was funded jointly by the ‘Dartmoor Communities Fund’ and the ‘Moor Than Meets the Eye’ project. The restoration was carried out my Ian Cotton, a conservator and lettering expert from Bath. There were two stages to the restoration; the first objective was to clean just the lettering which meant the natural lichens were left intact. This was achieved by use of a brush and later a small wire pencil followed by an application of a biocide. The second stage was then to deepen and refine the lettering which was the most badly worn, once done two coats of a hard wearing paint will be applied to the letters.
There can be no question that the ‘Ten Commandments Stones’ receive a huge amount of visitors each year, many of whom regard them as part of Dartmoor’s heritage. Many will not know the exact wording carved into the stones and will possibly wonder what they say. In this respect this restoration project will make their visit more meaningful and put things into context for them. However, having put a post on my Legendary Dartmoor Facebook page regarding the restoration I was amazed at the number of people who commented that in their opinion the programme should not have been allowed to take place. Some considered that Mr. Whitely committed an appalling act of vandalism by defacing the natural environment of the moor in the first place. They also regarded this latest restoration programme as an act of revamping the original vandalism and consider that the stones should be left to let nature take its course.
Gunnell, C. 1977 My Dartmoor, St. Teath: Bossiney Books.