Walking through the Bronze Age on Dartmoor
As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to Dartmoor National Park, Paul Bloomfield discovers a wealth of Bronze Age gems on a walk on Bellever Tor in Dartmoor National Park.
I love Ordnance Survey maps – the unmanageable size, the colours, the impossibility of folding, the tiny symbols denoting bogs and crags and trees, the papery rustle. But there’s one element that gets my heart racing more than all others: that medieval-style gothic typeface used to label archaeological sites. And OS Explorer Map OL28 is awash with it – because Dartmoor has the highest concentration of Bronze Age and other prehistoric sites in the UK, and probably anywhere in the world. Literally thousands of cairns, menhirs, stone rows, hut circles and field systems stud the moor.
What’s more, these fascinating spots are open to be enjoyed by anyone – at least, anyone with a pair of hiking boots and an ounce of energy. True, some are visible from the few roads criss-crossing the moor: the stone rows just east of Merrivale, for example. But to really appreciate the national park’s incredible heritage, stride out on a moorland walk. You can’t fail to stumble upon a wealth of monuments.
I was joined by Dartmoor National Park’s communications officer, Mike Nendick, on my circuit from Postbridge through the forest and up onto Bellever Tor.
We’d been walking barely ten minutes when he beckoned me off the main track and along a muddy path to a curious assembly of granite lumps atop Lakehead Hill. A row of stones form a line leading to four flattened, upright rocks forming a box perhaps a metre high and a little more across.
“This is a cist – a Bronze Age burial chamber – and an unusually large one,” Mike explained. “Unfortunately, it’s not quite as it would have been originally; Victorian antiquarians excavated it – as they did most other sites on Dartmoor – and rebuilt it, but not exactly right.” The stone row, he explained, would originally have led to the cist’s entrance, while the chamber itself would have been partially buried.
Those Victorians were fervent in their obsession with what they believed – or wanted to believe – was ancient druidism. Unfortunately, their archaeological skills were primitive, and an unknowable wealth of information and artefacts was lost during their excavations.
Continuing out of the forest and onto the hillside below Bellever, large stone circles appeared among the heath – the remains of ancient field systems and a hut circle, barely visible among the heather and bracken. “In Bronze Age times, the climate was warmer,” Mike observed. “Back then, Dartmoor would have been a more hospitable place, important not just for farming but of course for the extraction of tin, vital for the production of bronze.”
The jumble of huge granite stacks atop Bellever looks almost manmade itself, like dozens of thin disks piled one on the other to form a succession of turrets. And from this striking formation, more of the moor’s heritage is visible: the hulking grey jail at Princetown, built by – and to incarcerate – French prisoners of war, and later used to house conscientious objectors during the First World War.
Dropping down to the south of the tor, we swung east and then north, passing a much wider stone ring perhaps 5m across enclosing a flat, grassy area: a hut circle.
“Imagine thatch forming a conical roof rising to a central point above the fire – this was a substantial family home,” Mike observed. “When this was excavated a few years ago, we found round holes in a ring inside the stone walls, holding ancillary posts for furniture or separating internal areas, perhaps for sleeping or storage.”
As we wound our way back to Postbridge, we crossed the medieval Lych Way, the ‘corpse path’ along which all bodies had to be carried to the nearest official graveyard at Lydford, many miles to the west. Here, the paths themselves tell stories.
This is an exciting time for anyone interested in Dartmoor’s history. The results of the excavation of a Bronze Age tomb on Whitehorse Hill are only now being revealed – and they are more important than anyone imagined. Amber beads traded from the Baltic, an intricately woven lime-bast basket, spindlewood ear plugs and an ornate woven cowhair bracelet embedded with tin pellets are just some of the artefacts buried with a young girl in this previously untouched cist. An exhibition opening at Plymouth City Museum in September will shed light on the internationally important finds.
These details add colour and depth to what we know about the area’s prehistoric inhabitants. But even without beads and bones, during a walk on Dartmoor you need only the slightest imagination to visualise yourself among the people who built homes, farmed and herded, were born, died and were buried here 4,000 years ago.
Further Information: The website of the Dartmoor National Park Authority has information on the moor’s Bronze Age sites and offers free downloadable audio tours, including one covering Bellever, as well as occasional guided walks. Moorland Guides is a cooperative group founded by former national park guides offering a wide range of excellent walks, some themed around archaeology and other topics, across the moor and farther afield.