Discovering Dartmoor: on patrol with the landscape detective | Travel


Become a landscape detective, and you’ll not just see the new, the now; you’ll spot thousands of years of secret history layered and woven into the countryside around you, telling the story of what came before.

We’ve been tramping across the rough tussocks of Dartmoor for a couple of hours. Every now and then one of us yelps and disappears from view, knee deep in mire. If ever there were a British landscape designed for waterproof socks and hillwalker’s gaiters, even in summer, it’s this one.

But then sunlight streaks out across the rough green-brown, glinting off jewel-bright pools of standing water. The shadows of a rain-sopped morning are chased away and the landscape is wild and beautiful. And there, in the distance, is our goal. A finger of stone, at the head of a long, low line of rocks, sticking vertically from the turf. We roam onwards, bog-drenched boots feeling lighter, and are soon in the heart of an enigmatic prehistoric landscape.

Drizzlecombe, near Hartor Tor, south of Princetown, is one of more than 1,000 archaeological sites scattered across the 954 square kilometres of Dartmoor national park. And although stone rows like the one in front of me are rare in other parts of the UK, there are more than 70 known examples on Dartmoor.

These puzzling arrangements, sometimes in single lines, sometimes in double- and triple-row avenues, date from the late stone age and the bronze age, erected perhaps as much as 5,500 years ago. That’s 1,000 years older than the pyramids of Egypt. That’s worth a hike.

We live on an island crammed with archaeology. Britain has been continuously occupied for around 10,000 years, and every generation has left its mark on the landscape – shaping the land for agriculture and settlements, to commemorate the dead and honour the living, to fight, travel and trade. Archaeologists describe it as a “palimpsest” where, as with an ancient manuscript, you can read the traces of previous stories scratched underneath what’s written now. If you know the clues to spot, Britain’s historical stories reveal themselves at every turn.



A row of ancient stones on Dartmoor. Photograph: Mary-Ann Ochota

You’ll notice details out on walks, biking along country roads, staring out of train windows, wandering through villages, even when you’re in the pub. And most of these sites that tell the story of Britain are unmarked – no heritage signs, interpretation panels or souvenir tickets. It’s up to you to start noticing, and then ask the key questions – what am I looking at, and what is it telling me?

Once you start as a landscape detective, it’s hard to stop. Puzzling out how old a church is, why a bridge seems too fancy for the little village it sits in, why these fields are small and irregular but those fields are straight and square, is fascinating and fun. Pore over an Ordnance Survey map, look at online satellite photos, and then tramp around, looking for traces of ditches and boundaries, for strange stones in walls and marks on doors.

Try to work out which features in the landscape came in what order, known as the “stratigraphy”. Look for natural features that have been altered – earthworks encircling a hilltop, trees that were coppiced or pollarded in medieval times to produce more timber.

The earliest features you’ll spot in the landscape are monumental sites from the late stone age, 4500–2400BC, a time when people were settling specific areas of land, rather than living as nomadic hunter-gatherers.

On Dartmoor, the archaeology comes thick and fast. There are plenty of burial cairns, round mounds of stone used to commemorate the dead in the bronze age, from around 2400BC to 1100BC. There are the rare doughnut-shaped “ring cairns” and stone age “long cairns”. There are stone circles and single standing stones, known as monoliths. And then there are the stone rows. Sometimes, the rows link monoliths with cairns. At other times, they appear to meander across hillsides before petering out into nothing.

The double rows aren’t usually wide apart enough to act as avenues for processions. But maybe people walked alongside them? Or maybe these lines marked areas in the landscape that were taboo to the uninitiated?

Rocks on Dartmoor signs of farming life from centuries ago



These rock clusters are reminders that Dartmoor was once a busy, farmed landscape. Photograph: Mary-Ann Ochota

At sites like Drizzlecombe, it appears that some of the features were reused much later – perhaps first erected in the stone age, but then incorporated into new alignments, with standing stones and burial cairns added more than 1,000 years later. Why? We won’t ever be sure – and at that point, your guess is as good as any expert’s. Identify the physical clues, and then make a leap of imagination.

Scattered across the hillside are homes – low-walled “hut circles” (look for a doorway gap on the south side). There are larger stone enclosures that were probably animal corrals or farmyards. There are also the traces of reaves, the boundary walls that mark the earliest field systems in Britain.

Hopping between tufts of bog grass and the deep black of the peat, it’s hard to imagine Dartmoor as a busy, farmed landscape. But in the bronze age, the weather was warmer and drier, and the land now under peat was fertile enough to support small hard-working communities growing crops and raising cattle and sheep. As the weather declined, families moved to lowland areas. The next people who tried to farm on Dartmoor were medieval peasants, driven here by “land hunger”. Once the climate changed again, the marginal became the impossible, and just-about-managing peasants were forced elsewhere.

It’s because of these vagaries of climate that we have such a trove of amazing archaeology on Dartmoor. It was once very busy, but now it’s wild and remote. If the land had been developed since, the layers of history would not have survived.

We munch our sandwiches perched by a leat, an artificial stone-lined stream that delivered water to farmsteads and tin-works in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then we hop across a clapper bridge, and head on, lured by the promise of a medieval cross waiting at the next track junction.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: FIVE ANCIENT FEATURES TO LOOK OUT FOR

Clapper bridges

A clam bridge (single clapper bridge) over Wallabrook on Dartmoor.



A clam bridge (single clapper bridge) over Wallabrook on Dartmoor. Photograph: Alamy

These simple stone bridges are constructed from large flat stones laid over rough dry-stone boulder supports. Sometimes the flat stones will have been washed away, but you might spot raised stonework in the middle of the watercourse. A single-slab span bridge is known as a clam bridge; Wallabrook’s clam bridge on north Dartmoor leads towards Scorhill Stone Circle. You’ll also find good examples in the Pennines and Lake District.

Ancient fields

Remains of a bronze age village at Grimspound, Dartmoor.



Remains of a bronze age village at Grimspound, Dartmoor. Photograph: Alamy

Dartmoor’s bronze age reaves mark out the earliest field systems in Britain. The low walls are now covered with peat (a sign of their great age) but it means they’re hard to spot close up. Look at facing hillsides to see if you can decipher traces of parallel lines, or try armchair landscape spotting, and look at online aerial photos of Mountsland Common, Ilsington.

Hillforts

The hill fort of Cadbury Castle, Somerset.



The hill fort of Cadbury Castle, Somerset. Photograph: Alamy

The iron age was a time of warrior tribes and regional strongholds. Activity was centred on hillforts, circuits of earth-cut ditches and banks topped with timber walls and gatehouses. Some don’t appear to have been lived in permanently; others were at the heart of tribal life. There are a dozen on Dartmoor, including Hembury near Honiton. Others around the UK include Cadbury Castle in Somerset and Danebury in Hampshire.

Medieval crosses

A medieval cross on Dartmoor.



A medieval cross on Dartmoor. Photograph: Mary-Ann Ochota

There are around 150 granite crosses on Dartmoor, many along remote tracks crossing the moors. They showed the way, defined territorial boundaries and blessed the route. A line of crosses runs from Buckfast Abbey to Buckland Abbey, dating back to the 13th centuries. There are lots on the North York Moors too.

Pillow mounds

Ashey Down on the Isle of Wight.



Ashey Down on the Isle of Wight. Photograph: Alamy

You’ll spot signs of medieval rabbit breeding across Dartmoor and beyond – for example, at Ashey Down on the Isle of Wight. Look for long, low oblong artificial burrows known as pillow mounds. You’ll also spot clues in place names – Coney, Cunning, Clapery and Warren are all associated with rabbit farming. Pillow mounds can be spotted east of Brisworthy, and local place names include Brisworthy Burrows and Trowlesworthy Warren.

Mary-Ann Ochota is author of Hidden Histories: A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape (Frances Lincoln, £20). To order a copy for £17, including UK p&p, visit the guardian bookshop. The Festival of Archaeology runs across the country from 15 to 30 July



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