Tuesday 25th February – This became a “Virtual Walk” due to a weather forecast of very heavy rain.
We were meant to meet in the car park of the Two Bridges Hotel to walk to Wistman’s Wood. Arrangements had been made with the hotel for parking and lunch afterwards. The hotel is marked as the Saracen’s Head on old maps. The Two Bridges name appears on the 1840 Lydford (Forest of Dartmoor) Tithe Map when it is said that the road crossed both rivers slightly upstream from today’s road bridge. Today, the name can be explained by the old turnpike road that crosses the West Dart River over the narrow, hump-backed bridge, going to the hotel door, and the nearby modern 1931 bridge on the B3212 road.
Many visitors to this old quarry (actually, a sandpit) car park do not notice perhaps the most interesting aspect. According to John W Perkins (1972), Geology Explained: Dartmoor and the Tamar Valley, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, p.81, this is a geological feature that explains the formation of the Dartmoor tors. It is essentially a body of granite that is eroded underground by the acid nature of percolating rain water. The rock is slowly transformed into “growan” which is large particulate sand as well as finer sand. This would then be eroded away when the overlying soil is removed and the tor is exposed. Perkins describes a vein of black tourmaline up the middle of each eroded funnel of sand. I have looked in an amateur manner with little success.
The walk left the old quarry, passed through the gate and turned right up the slope. The are two options – to take the steepest slope which is then followed by a level walk to a gateway or to head straight for the gateway, diagonally across the long slope. We chose ?????
Along the way, passing through the enclosures above Two Bridges, we saw a herd of black cows. I spent a while trying to identify them after one reconnaissance walk – were they Dexters or Angus? Both fitted the description and I had seen Dexters at Hound Tor (Swallogate) years ago. On the next recon walk, I saw the farmer. Galloways, he said, which surprised me because I always thought they were “belted”. He also said that some time ago he had a dun-coloured Galloway bull and that occasionally a dun calf is born as a “throwback”. There is one in the herd today (Feb. 2020).
The first “real” feature of the walk was Crockern Tor, the seat of the Stannary Parliament, where the tinners held court from perhaps 1300 AD. Tin was the most important industry on Dartmoor in former times – between 1100 and 1650 AD some 26,000 tons of smelted, white tin were extracted from Dartmoor – the work involved a tremendous amount of ground disturbance, especially in the river valleys. The most productive year was 1524 AD, when 252 tons of white i.e. smelted metal were produced in one year. The prominent rock seen at the right-hand side in the photograph above is “Parliament Rock”.
A closer view of Parliament Rock, and the formation described as the court cryer’s seat. There was a covered Judge’s Chair that was removed and now sits in Dunnabridge Pound. It was moved by a Mr. Leaman, who used “12 yoke of oxen” i.e. 24 oxen! There is still a balanced flat rock that makes a sturdy table. It is recorded that about 80 to 100 miner “jurats” would be seated on stone block benches in the hollow below Parliament Rock.
There are quite a few tors to be seen from the high ground near Crockern Tor – this one above is Bellever Tor, near Postbridge.
Across the valley of the West River Dart are the Beardown Tors, mainly as three rocky outcrops. The middle one bear a flagstaff used for the red danger flag when Merrivale Firing Range is in use.
The flagstaff above is on Beardown Tors.
Again, from high ground near Crockern Tor, among the tors that can be seen are Littaford Tors (nearest the camera), Lomgaford Tor (the conical pile) and Higher White Tor (in the distance, at the right).
Above, a zoomed view of two of the nearer tors.
There is a well known notion that, in one area, Devonport Leat, the thin dark line running across the photograph, flows uphill – and here it is! This is an illusion because the leat is built almost level but with a slight fall towards Devonport (to the left). The illusion is created by the fall in the valley bottom (to the left) and in the skyline of the hill behind (also to the left).
After visiting Crockern Tor, we returned to the valley, this being easier for the group than proceeding to Longaford Tor and picking a way through the tussocks to the valley. Unfortunately, this meant we did not see the 118-yards long rabbit bury (pillow mound) of Wistman’s Warren – probably the longest on the moor. Also, it seems impossible to get a good photograph of a long ridge of slightly raised tussocks in a sea of tussocks. I imagine the grass has changed since the years when the warren was in production. It was an undertaking to supply meat, from which a Tavistock butcher collected rabbits every week. It was started when the nearby gunpowder factory closed.
Walking up the valley, we came to Wistman’s Wood. There has long been discussion about the origin of the name: it might be a corruption of “wise man’s wood”, or perhaps derived from Welshman’s Wood, “Welsh” or “Wealas” – this being Saxon for “foreigners” or it derives from the Devon word “wisht” which means “haunted”. The wood consists of small, “ancient, dwarf sessile(?) oak trees that are no doubt stunted by their exposure to inclement weather conditions at this location. The trees are covered in mosses and lichens and are essentially growing in clitter. There are two similar copses on Dartmoor, at Piles Copse (in the Erme Valley) and Black-a-tor Copse (on the West Okement River).
Probably the most easily identifiable feature of Wistman’s Wood is the Buller Stone. This is just below the main path at the far end of the main grove of the wood …..
The stone bears an inscription that is now difficult to read due to the growth of lichens on it. The photograph above looks fairly good – but it was taken ten years ago, on 3rd June 2009.
BY PERMISSION OF HRH THE PRINCE OF WALES
ON SEPT 16th 1868 CUT DOWN A TREE NEAR THIS SPOT
IT MEASURED ( 9 IN ) IN DIAMETER
AND APPEARED TO BE ABOUT
168 YEARS OLD
The wood itself is a very difficult place to walk in – most people look at it from the edge. The moss-covered stones can be very slippery when they are damp, also the moss carpet can be easily damaged.
The photograph above shows the view from just south of the wood looking down the valley back towards Two Bridges.
Wistman’s Wood is an interesting place although it is not a large wood and the trees really are quite small. Also, in February, there are no leaves on the trees so they do not stand out a lot in photographs. The photograph above shows another section of Devonport Leat, not far from its head weir, running uphill again!
It is interesting to note that the modern road bridge at Two Bridges was built in 1931, although it was finally finished the following year. I have always taken it for granted (since arriving in the area in 1969) that it was simply “modern”, perhaps because of the tarmac?
A good photograph of the confluence of the Rivers Cowsic and West Dart has always eluded me – there is a tree that has always been “in the way”. This photograph was taken from the road bridge.
Another photograph taken from the modern road bridge.
The history of the building of the roads in the area is not easy to follow. Tavistock Turnpike Road Trust (created 1762) included the road through Two Bridges to Moreton Hampstead. Plymouth and Tavistock Turnpike Road (created 1772) and Moretonhampstead Turnpike Trust (created 1772) cut the new road across Dartmoor (Tavistock to Exeter). The road from Two Bridges to Moreton Hampstead was built in 1780. The Roborough and Dartmoor Turnpike Road Trust (created 1812) also seemed to have been involved. They all seem to have Two Bridges mentioned in their descriptions.
Finally, the Two Bridges Hotel, while browsing the internet, I came across these words: “Turning to page 2, I was delighted to read the following passage: ‘By 1772 the turnpike bridge had been constructed across the Dart at Two Bridges and by 1794 Francis Buller had constructed the inn near the site. The inn bore the name of the Saracen’s Head…’” Source: The Two Bridges Hotel Marks 225 Years by Sue Viccars in Dartmoor Magazine, issue no.137, Winter 2019, quoting from “Air Like Champagne” – a history of the Two Bridges Hotel by Alex Mettler.
Wentworth Buller, who cut the tree in 1868, was no doubt related to Sir Francis Buller, who had built the inn by 1794 74 years earlier? A web page about The Bullers of Bovey Tracy mentions Capt. Thomas Wentworth Buller (1792-1852); Wentworth William Buller (1834-1883. There is a Wikipedia entry for Sir Francis Buller that includes “He also built an inn, named the Saracen’s Head after the Buller family’s crest, at Two Bridges, on a site now occupied by the Two Bridges Hotel.” This was citing: William Crossing (1902), A Hundred Years on Dartmoor, 5th edition, The Western Morning News Co. Ltd, Plymouth, page 53.