Having recently completed a webpage on the Okehampton medieval deer park it only seems logical to do the same for the later Tudor deer park at Whiddon as these are the only two examples to be found on Dartmoor. The medieval deer park would have served as a status symbol that portrayed the owner as a wealthy nobleman to all who looked upon it. Additionally the park would have served as a larder where fresh meat could be kept alive until needed for the table. Along with this went the ability for the nobles to hunt the various beasts whilst entertaining their guests. Some park owners also took the opportunity of making money from the other natural resources that were found within the park such as grazing, timber, wood, stone etc.
By the time one reaches the Tudor period the deer park became virtually a symbol of high status, no longer was it so necessary to have a live larder grazing within its woods as other sources of meat were more readily available. True, there were those park owners who still enjoyed the hunt and liked to entertain their guests in such a manner. But, the main reason for imparking was to show all and sundry that you were wealthy enough to own so much land that vast acreages could be turned over to a landscaped park.
In the case of Whyddon/Whiddon, this deer park was created around 1570 by Sir John Whyddon who owned the adjacent Whyddon House. John Whyddon/Whiddon was a reader, double reader and Treasurer of the Inner Temple, in 1547 he became a Sergeant-at-Law. In 1551 he was made King’s Sergeant which two years later was followed by an appointment to Judge of the Queen’s Bench so clearly he was a respected and influential man of law. A man of such standing would therefore need his country seat where he could entertain and impress his guests which is why along with the house came the deer park. It was not only the landscape of the park and the herds of fallow deer that were meant to impress, in this case the high boundary walls would have been a statement of opulence in themselves. The very fact that someone could afford to build such a magnificent boundary would have indicated a high degree of wealth. The walls also served to instill in the local population the fact that behind them lay the private park of their lord and master. Incidentally, it is Whiddon Park where Mary Whiddon lived prior to her murder in 1641 at Chagford church. Pevsner describes the house as being a, ‘picturesque granite building of the late C.16 or early C17 century with mullioned windows, a one storeyed porch and a fine group of square chimney stacks‘, (1952, p.76). The following descriptions range in date from 1793 to 2004 and give a picture of the park in its declining years:
‘In Whyddon Park, a fine old seat in the parish of Chagford, is still preserved the memory of the Whyddon family. This place came from the Northonæes to the Seymours; and by the marriage of a Seymour to a Bailey. The house is in Chagford and the park in the parish of Moreton (hampstead), It is a truly romantic spot. The situation of the house, like that of many old buildings in this county, was very injudiciously chosen. In front of it, the prospect has nothing remarkable: yet, behind the house, we are presented, at a little distance, with a distinct view of rock and wood, the most beautiful I have observed in the vicinity of the Teign. It may be called a cliff, that seems divided into bare and solid rock, and wood of deep rich foliage. By the side of the mill, behind the house, this scenery is viewed to great advantage. The park (and many other parts of the estate) was overshadowed by noble trees, that were condemned to the axe. Venerable beech and ash indeed, were already prostrate; and a few solitary deer, that yet remained, appeared to speak the approaching ruin of this dismantled place‘, (Polwhele, 1793).
‘Whyddon Park, near Chagford, formerly the seat of the Whyddon family, displays several fine views, arising from the combination of its woody and rocky scenery. The situation of the house, like that of many of the ancient mansions in this county, is injudiciously chosen; though at no great distance behind, is one of the most beautiful prospects in the vicinity of the Teign. “The rocks are immense, and shaded, for the most part, by the dark umbrage of some magnificent oak trees, which throwing their giant arms over these hoary piles of stone form an association highly interesting to the imagination.” (Polwhele). Whyddon Park is a royalty, and appears like Gidleigh, to have been originally a part of Dartmoor.” (Brittan & Brayley, 1803 p.238).
‘No stranger to this neighbourhood should neglect to visit Whyddon Park, a romantic hill-side at the entrance to the gorse of the Teign, and a short 2m. walk from Chagford by a path along the river bank. You will enter the park at the mansion of Whyddon, anciently the seat of the Whyddon family, and now the Bayleys. Here are huge old Scotch and Silver firs to delight you at the threshold; but higher on the hill are scenes and objects magnificently wild, – vistas of beech and aged oaks, chaotic clatters and piles of granite, herds of deer among the ferns and mossy stones, at a distance, the towering tors of Dartmoor’, (J. Murray, 1851).
In 1892 Whitaker (p. 204) noted that the park covered 195 acres and was enclosed by a 10ft wall, at that time it was estimated that between 40 and 50 fallow deer were within the grounds. Sixty years later, St. Ledger Gordon suggested that there was a herd of around 80 fallow deer in the park and that some had ventured out of the enclosure and were living wild in the Fernworthy area, (1950, p.316).
‘Whiddon Park rises sharply from the river up to 228.5 metres (700ft). Here is an unaltered Tudor deer-park, made by Sir John Whiddon in about 1570. There are no deer today, but the great wall built to contain them, constructed from immense blocks of granite, still stands 2.5 – 2.75 metres (8 – 9 feet) high. The park is wonderfully picturesque, with granite outcrops, groves of ancient oak, ash, and rowan, broom, gorse, bracken and bilberry, and a lichen and invertebrate community that has survived from pre-Neolithic woodland‘, (Greeves, 2004. p.386).
In October 2008 I recieved an email from a resident of Drewsteignton, who kindly informed me that in fact there are deer living in the park today. He related how:
“The fallow rut is underway at the moment, and the park, the valley indeed, echoes at dawn and dusk with the roaring of the stags. Two nights ago, there were two close together in the park that tried to out-vocalise each other it for fully twenty minutes – I hoped they might fight, but they didn’t. I don’t know the size of the herd, although they are sufficiently abundant to been seen on almost every outing I make, but then I am deliberately looking for them, with the stealth that entails. There are some particularly magnificent stags about at the moment, and they are quite easily observed at this bold time of year for them. In addition to the fallow, the park is thick with roe deer, as indeed is the whole valley hereabouts. There is currently, I am told, a true albino roe doe in the area further down the valley, though I sadly have not seen her myself.”
As can be seen, all the authors agree that the landscape of the park with its natural granite and thick woods was an impressive sight. In later years a quarry was opened up in the park supplied much of the granite used by Edward Lutyens to build the nearby Castle Drogo. Apart from the enclosure walls there is not a lot of evidence from the former deer park, the National Trust record a deer culling hut at OS grid reference SX 727 892. It appears that the Whyddons were the type of landowners who utilised their park for other enterprises, one such being a rabbit warren. According to English Heritage there are at least 8 pillow mounds situated at OS grid reference SX 7267 8922 which they suggest date from the medieval to post medieval periods. They survive as either circular or rectangular mounds along with their associated drainage ditches and vary in length from 6.7 – 14m long and stand between 0.7 and 0.9m high. Interestingly enough, it has since Linehan’s report of 1966 been thought that there were 16 rabbit warrens to be found on Dartmoor, if English Heritage are correct that list has just grown to 17, (Linehan, 1966, p.139). The deer culling hut and the rabbit warren’s pillow mounds can clearly be seen in the aerial photograph below:
Today the park is a designated SSSI and is owned and managed by The National Trust, it is home to a great diversity of plant and wildlife. In order to protect these species there is no public access to the actual woods although a footpath does run around the lower north end of the park. There is a species of rare lichen found in the woods called Bacidia incompta otherwise known as the Sap Grove lichen, there are only three other sites in the whole of Devon where this species can be found. Other rarities to be found in the old park are the High Brown Fritillary butterfly. a beetle known as Conopalpus testaceus (found only at one more site in Devon) and two other rare lichens known as Schismatomma graphidioides and Collema fragrans.
So if you are ever walking around the north Dartmoor area and you spot some fallow deer you now know where they may have possibly originated.
Brittan, J & Brayley, E. 1803. The Beauties of England and Wales – Vol. IV. London: Vernon & Wood.
Greeves, L. 2004. History and Landscape – A Guide to National Trust Properties. London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd.
Linehan, C. 1966. Deserted Sites and Rabbit Warrens on Dartmoor. In Medieval Archaeology – No. 10.
Pevsner, N. 1952. The Buildings of England – South Devon. Hammondsworth: Penguin Books.
St. Ledger-Gordon, D. 1950. The County Book – Devonshire. London: Hale and Co.
Whitaker, J. 1892. A Descriptive List of the Deer Parks and Paddocks of England. London: Ballatyne & Hanson.