Nature’s notebook

Reading 10,000 years of history written in the land

At Headland Warren Farm in Dartmoor, shown in the distance, Scottish Highland cattle and Scottish blackface sheep are among the livestock. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

My husband’s cousin lives on a farm abutting Dartmoor National Park in Devon, England.  (As my friend Sam says, everyone should have family so well placed.)  Like the Uwharries, it’s a landscape of rolling topography punctuated with rocky outcrops, and the park is fragmented by villages and farms. Trails traverse a patchwork of public and private lands. In the English countryside, a hike often includes a ploughman’s lunch and hand-drawn pint at a historic pub.

We’ve explored dozens of trails across the moor, but time and again we return to one in the heart of the park – halfway between Princetown and Moretonhampstead. Over the course of only 4.5 miles, an observant hiker can witness the impact of 10,000 years of land use on the moor. The hike begins at Bennett’s Cross, one of the many granite crosses on Dartmoor erected as a boundary or wayside marker.  Bennett’s Cross is mentioned in a document from 1702, but its rough, organic form – a crooked shaft with stubby arms – suggests it’s much older.

Bennett's Cross marks the start of the hike. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

Beyond the cross, the path traverses a relatively flat section of moorland, thick with grasses and heather, a few pink flowers lingering into early October. The panorama from craggy peak to narrow valley is unobstructed by trees. This wasn’t always the case. After the Ice Age, Dartmoor was a forested landscape. Pollen records indicate Stone Age inhabitants cut trees and set fires, presumably to make their hunting grounds more productive. This deforestation accelerated during the Bronze Age (2300-700 BC) as more settlements were established and the land was farmed and grazed more intensely. During this period the climate changed, turning wetter and colder. Without trees, the soil and nutrients washed away, creating a “wet desert” in the words of Alan Titchmarsh in the BBC series “British Isles: A Natural History.”

Soon, the path before us ascends a grassy hill. The summit reveals a large circle of stones cradled in the saddle below us. Grimspound is one of the best Bronze Age ruins on the moor. Inside the tumbled-down walls of this settlement, the remains of pens and roundhouse huts are still visible. The inhabitants likely grazed their livestock in the surrounding countryside but brought their animals inside at night to protect them from wolves and other predators. When the climate and poor soils made the high moor inhospitable, settlements like Grimspound were abandoned. Agriculture was then restricted to more protected and fertile areas in the valleys.

At the entrance to Grimspound, ruins from a Bronze Age settlement on the moor. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

A prime example can be seen as the trail progresses through the Headland Warren Farm, an enchantingly remote outpost tucked into a narrow valley and populated by shaggy Scottish Highland cows and hardy Scottish blackface sheep. In recent years, llamas have been added to the mix. During the Middle Ages, farmers here built low stone walls to capture the soil and create narrow strips of arable land. These lynchets are still apparent across the valley. The sunken walls and earthen mounds along the trail are evidence of a commercial rabbit operation that once prospered at this site. When rabbits were introduced during the Norman Conquest, their meat was considered a delicacy, but by the early 18th century, it had become standard fare for the men working nearby mines.

Deep gullies mar the gentle bracken-covered hillside next to the trail, a testament to the long history of tin mining in the region. Written records date ore extraction to the 12th century, but it likely began in cruder forms much earlier. Tin was a valuable metal. Combined with copper, it forms the stronger alloy, bronze. Some veins remained productive until the nearby Golden Dagger mine closed in 1930.

The trail passes through the medieval hamlet of Challacombe, where we spotted solar panels and a couple of free-range hogs.  The farm of the same name seems to have an interest in environmental stewardship, with Facebook posts about fledgling swallows, the rare marsh fritillary butterfly and efforts to remove invasive bracken interspersed among updates about their livestock. Cows and sheep graze the pastures and moor, alongside bee hives strategically placed to take advantage of the heather. 

In the distance is a sight familiar to those of us in the Uwharries – a pine plantation. According to Tim Powles with the U.K. Forestry Commission, the Duchy of Cornwall established this conifer plantation, known as Soussons, in 1862.  Pockets of Scots pine remain, but the dominate species is now Sitka spruce, planted in the 1940s. In this area, it’s typically harvested on a 60-year rotation, with an initial thinning at 17-20 years and subsequent thinnings every five years. I’ve witnessed this low-impact harvesting over the past two decades since we first discovered this hike.

The Soussons conifer plantation, originally planted in 1862, is timbered with low-impact harvesting.  Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

After admiring the gentleness with which the timber was removed – and the care with which the slash was arranged in tidy piles to provide habitat and enrich the soil – we slog through a shallow stream bed then up a steep gravel path, spurred by the knowledge that the Warren House Inn  awaits at the crest of the hill. Standing alone at an elevation of 1425 feet, this iconic pub was built to serve tin miners and was named for the rabbits that fed them. 

According to the lore, a welcoming fire has burned continuously since 1845, but on a fine October afternoon we take our pints to the picnic tables out front and drink in the view of the historic landscape we have just traversed.

Pints with a view of the moor at the Warren House Inn. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom