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Water and Rock

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Dartmoor. 15th February

I went to an MTA course on the archaeology of Dartmoor on Saturday the 11th of Feb. The course leader, Simon Dell, was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and a good communicator. He leads walks on Dartmoor and for a small fee anyone can join him. His website is ‘Dartmoor Guides’. I recommend him.

So to follow this up, and get a good blow out I planned a route on the moor taking in crosses, cists and stone rows marked on the map. Thursday had a good weather forcast. I put out a Facebook notice and Caroline, an old friend and fellow mountain leader, said she would come with me.

I collected Caroline from her home and got slightly lost as I left her drive so we took a rather long winded route to the M5 as a result. We had lots to catch up on and the time passed easily as we made our way to Princetown.

Fortunately Caroline knew the car park I wanted and was able to help me out with directions. As we turned down the one way road we passed a sign telling us there could be long delays with timber lorries being loaded. We could only see the mud they had left on the road. The car park was small but apparently has been known to hold 6 minibuses. While we were putting our boots on a small van pulled in. A man got out and went through the same routine as us, socks, boots, water bottles, backpacks and map. But all without looking at us or acknowledging our presence, yet we were only 10 feet away from him. I looked up to say good morning several times but he steadfastly ignored me. His loss.

Our first task was to find Nuns Cross Farm, not too difficult as many tracks lead to it. We opted to walk along the leat which ran just below the car park. The water was fast flowing and clear, the plants growing under water were bright green and swayed gently in the current. As we walked a pair of ducks paddled along just ahead of us, taking flight as we approached the farm. If they had waited a little longer they needn’t have flown as we left the leat to follow a muddy path onto the open moor.

Our second task was to find a cross just south east of the farm. We followed the path to a field boundary, or at least its remains then turned left and walked until we found it. It was a plain standing stone but had a cross engraved on it. So far so good.

From here we wanted to find Plym Ford where I hoped to cross the river and look for features on the other side. We plotted our path across the moor, there was a bridle path marked but of course this was Dartmoor so it didn’t exist on the ground. This is where Caroline came out with the comment, ‘Shall we take a compass bearing on that, just for fun?’ We did, I sighted a large stone on the bearing and off we went. We were climbing uphill and wanted to pass through a shallow col, the height differences were small and it felt more like a plateau than a coll. It seemed like we were climbing for ages, then on the flat for ages more but eventually we were dropping again, Plym Ford was clearly visible ahead of us, a shallow part of the river with several tracks materialising from the moor to cross the river and then disappear again. The water was clear but brown from the peat. The water was too high to cross without filling our boots so we decided to follow the river downstream and try again at Plym Steps. On a warmer day a paddle would have been pleasant, but not at these temperatures.

Keeping the river on our left we passed evidence of tin mining. Cassiterite, a black rock containing tin oxide has been mined on Dartmoor for thousands of years, at least as far back as the Bronze Age. Tin was extracted from its ore in Blowing Houses. There had been one on the other side of the river at Plym Steps. Bronze is an alloy of tin and copper. This area is also known for its gold deposits.

We crossed the unpleasantly named Evil Coombe without mishap. Climbing up the slopes of Higher Hartor Tor but still following the river we stumbled across the remains of the outer wall of a settlement, inside of which we found three clear round house bases and just outside a cairn. We decided was probably Stone, Bronze or Iron Age on account of the houses being round. From here we dropped back down to the river, we were at Plym Steps. The stepping stones were washed away long ago but the area remained a ford,still too deep to cross. I stared longingly at the stones on the far bank, I knew that as well as the blowing house there was a cist there I might have found, but not today.

It was 1.30 so we sought a rock big enough for us both to sit on. We ate quickly as even with the sun out the wind was cold.

We back tracked to the settlement and from the boundary cairn we walked to the stone row. We could see it for a while before we reached it, the end stones being particularly tall. We took our time walking up and down the row, there was a small circle with a hole in the middle which I knew now to be the remains of a cairn and cist. Placed in the stone row it was almost certainly an important person. We discussed the alignment of the stones and enjoyed a teacher’s giggle about two stones always lining up. The idea of them being a calendar and indicating the middle of the winter seems a logical one but I don’t know if these stones do line up with something to show this. I’d need to go and live there for a year to find out. Any sponsors?

We left the stone row to examine a single standing stone which took us to the remains of another settlement. As we were considering the direction to walk in to get back to the car Caroline pointed out that we were standing on the walls of an oblong long house, suggesting a medieval settlement. We felt very satisfied with our day and decided it was time to go home.

We were 3 miles from the car.

The track back to Nuns Cross was clear and well surfaced, we easily fell into step, making good time. The car park was well hidden, we could make out the road and the leat but only knew where it was when another car pulled out. When we got back to our car it was the last one there. Lying on the gravel was an almost new roll of duct tape, presumably fallen from the van of the silent walker who had ignored us 5 hours earlier.

We were delayed on our way home for half an hour as we sat in the car and watched a timber lorry being loaded up, but it was quite entertaining to watch and gave me a chance to finish my flask of coffee

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