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(CC [5]) Photo: Jonathan Camp
The characteristic boggy ground and granite tors of Dartmoor

Dartmoor is an area of moorland in the county of Devon in south-west England, characterised by gentle slopes, granite tors and high rainfall creating much boggy ground and plentiful rivers. It is designated as a National Park. The highest points are High Willhays (621m or 2039 ft) and Yes Tor (619m or 2030 ft) near to each other on the north-west edge.[1]

Dartmoor is known for its ponies which roam freely on the moor. The ponies are semi-wild, but all have owners. Archaeological findings have shown that there were domesticated ponies about 3,500 years ago, and the earliest written record (a reference to wild horses owned by the Bishop of Crediton) dates from 1012. The numbers have reduced in recent years to about 3,000.[2]

The National Park

Dartmoor was designated a National Park in 1951, the fourth area to be so designated in Britain (after the Peak District, the Lake District and Snowdonia. The area covered by the National Park is 954 sq km (368 sq miles). Within this are several villages or small towns, the total population being estimated at around 34,000. The National Park Authority itself is responsible for planning, conservation, promotion of public access and some other functions. Other local authority services are provided by Devon County Council or the three district authorities which cover the area. The ownership of the land is varied. The Ministry of Defence carries out military training on 12,906 hectares (31,891 acres), of which 10,871 hectares (26,862 acres), known as the Defence Training Estate, is owned or leased by it. Just under half of the National Park is estimated to be moorland, the remainder being mostly farmland.[3]

© Image: Martin Wyatt
Looking south from Hare Tor


Dartmoor does not experience the numbers of tourists which visit other national parks, but nevertheless does get many visitors. The principal activities are walking and on-road and off-road cycling. Some routes, such as the walk to Wistman's Wood (see below) and the cycle route from the Plym valley to Princetown are particularly popular. Because of its mild climate, the south-west of England gets relatively little snow at lower levels, and "snow tourism" leads the national park authority to regularly reissue its advice to people who do not normally go on the moor.


The underlying rock of Dartmoor is a granite massif which has risen through the older sedimentary rocks around it. The mineral veins formed during this process include tin, copper, lead and iron. Granite can decompose into china clay, and this is extracted on the south-western slopes. In the same area the extraction of wolfram (tungsten) has been intermittently viable, depending on the price available, and is now again being mined, but using opencast methods.


Dartmoor is roughly bisected by the Swincombe River flowing into the Dart on the east side, and the river Meavy and its tributaries on the west. The watershed between these two rivers is just south of Princetown. North of this line the landscape is dominated by the tors, some of which, notably Great Mis Tor, Fur Tor and Sittaford Tor, are visible from large areas of the moor. Although there are tors south of the line, the far-seen landmarks tend to be of human origin, for instance, Three Barrows, the Eastern and Western White Barrows, and the enormous spoil tip at the disused Red Lake china clay works.

Cranmere Pool and Ducks Pool

(PD) Photo: Martin Wyatt
Cranmere Pool.

The practice of "letterboxing" has developed over the years. A "letterbox" typically contains a rubber stamp for visitors to use on envelopes or other stationery, and a visitors' book. There are only two open and fairly permanent letterboxes on Dartmoor, at Cranmere Pool and Ducks Pool. All the others are concealed in some way and of a temporary nature. The one at Cranmere Pool is the origin of the activity. It was set up in 1854 by James Perrott, in the form of a small cairn containing a bottle in which gentlemen and ladies could place their visiting cards. Cranmere Pool is a remote location (not a pool these days) in the northern moor, by the source of the West Ockment river and near the sources of the Dart. The one at Ducks Pool was set up in 1938 in memory of William Crossing. The site was presumably chosen as being near the centre of the southern moor, as Cranmere Pool is near the centre of the northern moor. It is close to one of the tributaries of the Erme and although very wet, it is not really a pool. Both areas are bleak.

Water and its uses


Most of the Dartmoor rivers run south into the English Channel. The only ones to run north to the Bristol Channel are the Taw and the Okement, which is a tributary of the Torridge. On the west side the Tavy with its tributary the Walkham run into the tidal stretches of the Tamar, which flows into Plymouth Sound. The Sound is also the outflow for the Plym and its tributary the Meavy. Rivers running directly into the English Channel from the southern moor are the Yealm, the Erme and the Aune or Avon. The East and West Dart originate in the northern moor, come together at Dartmeet, and enter the sea at Dartmouth. The Teign also starts in the northern moor and heads east before eventually flowing south to Teignmouth.

The etymology of most of the river names is uncertain or contentious. British (Celtic) origins seem to predominate, with the others being Old English. It seems that there is general agreement on the derivations of four of them. Avon, as elsewhere in the country, comes from a British word meaning simply river, and Aune just reflects the local pronunciation. Dart is from a British word meaning oak. Taw means silent one. Plym is a back-formation from Plympton, which means place of the plum trees (Old English).

Rivers, as much as leats (see below), were used for water power. For instance, at Sticklepath near Okehampton, there was a water mill, later converted into a forge, the Finch Foundry[4], using water drawn off from the River Taw.


There are several reservoirs, notably Meldon on the West Okement, Fernworthy on the South Teign, Burrator on the Meavy, and the Avon Dam. They have been constructed with a view to providing water supply rather than water power.


© Image: Martin Wyatt
The start of the Mine Leat, where its water is taken off from the river Tavy.

Leats are artificial water channels. They have been constructed for water supply, or water power, or both. Most start and end on Dartmoor, having been created to provide power for mining operations or water mills, or to supply water to other users such as Dartmoor prison. They often follow very complicated courses and may take water from more than one source. In addition, two long-distance ones were constructed to bring water to towns. Plymouth leat, often known as Drake's leat, because its construction was supervised by Sir Francis Drake, was one of the dual purpose ones. It brought a water supply to Plymouth, but it also, at no cost to Drake, brought power to his water mills. Legend has it that when it was opened, Drake rode down the leat on a white horse, with the water following him. Since water was let into a new leat gradually and by stages, this is not improbable. It took water from the south-west moor and no longer exists as a continuous waterway. The Devonport leat later performed the same function for the expanding naval base at Devonport, and that also took water from the south-west moor.

Because of the relative slowness and uniformity of their water flow, some leats have silted up, and others are in the process of doing so. In other cases, embankments have broken and not been repaired. Some leats, however, are still in use.


Although much of Dartmoor is known as the Forest of Dartmoor, "forest" in this case is a purely technical term referring to the application of the Forest laws that particular area. The clearing of trees to create pasture for sheep and cattle may have begun in the Mesolithic age[5], and there are now few trees on the moor, mostly birch and rowan (mountain ash), these being mainly, but not all, in the river valleys.

The comparatively gentle slopes and flat tops encourage the growth of those grasses, mosses and other plants which thrive in waterlogged conditions. In drier parts, heathers grow, while gorse spreads to the extent that it is occasionally controlled by burning.


There are three small patches of ancient broadleaf woodland, mostly oak, in river valleys on Dartmoor: Black-a-Tor Copse on the West Okement in the north-west, Wistman's Wood, on the West Dart near the centre, and Piles Copse on the Erme in the south. All are Nature Reserves. In addition there are large plantations of conifers, grown as a crop, notably at Fernworthy and Bellever. There are aslo some areas of mixed woodland on the outer slopes in the south-west.


The moor has been intensively used since at least the Bronze Age, without being intensively settled. This has resulted in the survival of many sites of archaeological interest, but the acid soil has destroyed much of the evidence in sites of human habitation and interment.


There is some evidence of neolithic settlement.

Bronze Age

There are many significant remains of settlements, burial sites and stone rows.

Because of the acid soil the recent (2011) discovery of a Bronze Age burial kist on Whitehorse Hill is not only rare in revealing organic material from that era, but unique to Dartmoor. The burial was of the remains from a human cremation, probably of a high status young woman. It has been dated to the Early Bronze Age, between 1900 and 1700 BC, and it has yielded much information about conditions at that time. The terrain seems to have shifted from being predominantly damp, to consisting, below the tops, of drier areas with moor grass and heathers, and, lower down, thin woodland. There is evidence of grazing. The kist contained fine quality woven goods, tin and copper alloy products, and turned wooden studs, unique at this period. The well-worn amber bead suggests trade with the Baltic that was already long-standing.[6]

A particular feature of Dartmoor is the survival of the reaves, low, broad stone walls which may have had hedges on top. Some of these extend for miles, others enclose considerable areas, while the smallest enclose what were obviously fields. In their present form they are thought to date from around 1700 to 1600 BCE, though they may overlie older trackways or forms of boundary. Some of them respect older structures, such as stone rows, while others violate them. It has been conjectured that the major ones demonstrate a sophisticated system of land division. They were first identified on Dartmoor, but since then others have been identified in other parts of the country.[7]

Medieval and later

The moor shows conspicuous evidence of farming, warrening, tinworking (see below), mining for other metals, peat extraction, quarrying, water extraction, and other activities. There are some deserted medieval villages.[8] (See also Leats, above).


Tin is found on Dartmoor in the form of cassiterite (tin dioxide). It has been extracted and worked probably since the Middle Bronze Age, and traded in the form of ingots. Production reached its peak in the first half of the 16th century. It died away during the English Civil War period, but revived slightly. There was renewal of major activity from the 1780s and through the 19th century, mainly the reopening of old pits in the belief that they could be better worked. However, production was limited and some mines never recovered the investment. No tin has been extracted in recent years, except as a by-product of the Hemerdon wolfram mine, which has been operated from time to time when wolfram prices have been high.[9]

Military ranges

Three "ranges", together taking up most of the northern moor are designated as areas where live firing may take place. There is no public use when there is such firing. The southernmost is Merivale, the smallest is Willsworthy on the west, and the largest is Okehampton in the north and east. The boundaries are shown on Ordnance Survey maps and on the ground by marker posts with notices, placed at regular intervals regardless of the terrain or the tracks which walkers use. Masts for the display of warning flags or lights are placed on conspicuous heights. There is normally no firing on Saturdays and Sundays, or in August and at Christmas. For the rest of the time a schedule is published on the internet.

In addition military exercises may be carried out in another area between the river Plym and the road from Yelverton to Princetown, but no live firing is permitted in this area.

The moor in literature

The Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles was set on Dartmoor. Conan Doyle, who had been a GP in nearby Plymouth, stayed at a hotel in Princetown at the centre of the Moor, and was said to have had Foxtor Mire in mind when writing of the Great Grimpen Mire. Agatha Christie, who had a house near Dartmouth, set her novel The Sittaford Mystery (1931) on Dartmoor. Eden Phillpots (1862 — 1960), a prolific and once popular author, wrote many novels set in Dartmoor, showing an intimate knowledge of the different locations.

Dartmoor Prison

Dartmoor Prison started as part of Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt's project to develop Dartmoor. He committed himself to developing Princetown as a centre for the moor, it being adjacent to his new house at Tor Royal, and named in honour of the Prince Regent, a friend of his. In 1805 he persuaded the government of the desirability of using Princetown for building barracks for French prisoners of war, many of whom had been confined in hulks on the nearby river Tamar. Building started in 1806, to a radial design based on continental models and later advocated by Jeremy Bentham as the Panopticon,[10] except that the spokes of the wheel were supervised from the perimeter wall rather than from the central point.[11] In 1809 the first prisoners of war arrived, and the "depot", as it was first called, soon held 5,000 of them. None of them were actually engaged in building the prison, but some were employed in building the nearby church of St Michael and All Angels. During the war of 1812 American prisoners of war were also held there. Following the restoration of peace, the prison closed in 1816 and stood mainly empty until 1850, when it became a prison for those serving long-term sentences. The first of these did work on adapting the buildings to single cells. During the 1914-18 war the prisoners were removed and it became a "work centre" for conscientious objectors.


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]
  5. Pryor, F. The Making of the British Landscape. Allen Lane. 2010
  6. Dartmoor National Park Authority. Whitehorse Hill information booklet 2014 (associated with exhibition in Plymouth City Museum, 2014)
  7. Fleming, A. The Dartmoor Reaves: Investigating prehistoric land division. Batsford. 1988
  8. Newman, P. The Field Archaeology of Dartmoor. English Heritage. 2011
  9. Newman, P (ed) The Tinworking Landscape of Dartmoor in a European context. Dartmoor Tinworking Research Group. 2017; particularly Scrivener, R. Tin Deposits of the Dartmoor Granite; Greeves, T. The World of the Dartmoor Tinner; Quinnell, H. Dartmoor and Prehistoric to Early Medieval Tinworking; Newman, P. Mining for Tin on Dartmoor in the Eighteenth to 20th Centuries.
  10. Foucault, M. Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. English translation by Alan Sheridan. Allen Lane. 1977
  11. Cherry, C and Pevsner, N. The Buildings of England: Devon. Yale University Press. 2004