By Andrew Westcott
Dartmoor is a region of high moorland overlying a large area of granite which is situated in the county of Devon, South West England and covers an area of over 360 square miles. It was declared a national park in 1951 and is now overseen by the Dartmoor National Park Authority.
I consider Dartmoor to be a fascinating place, mainly because of its rugged natural beauty but also because of its long history of use by man. Evidence of early human activity can be found on the moor and it has been estimated that there are around 5,000 hut circles scattered over the area. Also to be found are the remains of entire villages or settlements although many consider the most significant and well known of these early communities to be the ancient settlement of Grimspound.
The site itself consists essentially of a walled enclosure of just over four acres in area and measuring at the widest points roughly 145 yards by 170 yards. Within the wall are the remains of many structures, taking the form of circles of granite boulders known as hut circles or round houses.
Although located at about 1,500 feet above sea level, it wasn't well-placed from a defensive view as it is still overlooked by the adjacent high points of Hookney Tor and Hameldown Tor, so I believe that it was not built as a fortification but rather the home of a farming community, or possibly a community who made their living primarily by mining and smelting tin, one of the key ingredients of bronze.
Grimspound is generally regarded as having been built in the middle bronze age about 3,000 years ago, but the complete absence of any metal artefacts or smelting residue would suggest the site could be of neolithic origin. The inhabitants normally credited with its construction may simply have moved in to an existing site, and for certain some of the huts have been used in more recent times as temporary shelter by various people including the early tin streamers who worked the area for surface deposits of tin ore.
A glance at the map in diagram 1 will give you some idea of where to find Grimspound once you are in the vicinity, as there are no directions to it posted on the roads. The site is under the care of English Heritage and as it is on open moorland, it is free of charge to access.
Follow the B3212 for about 4 miles from Postbridge in the direction of Moretonhampstead until you find Challacombe Cross, a small junction to the right sign posted to Widecombe-In-The-Moor. After turning right here, travel just over a mile down this narrow road until you see a tarmac pull-in on the right, room for perhaps 5 cars. Grimspound is a few hundred yards up the steep bank on the left, the path being very clear and easy to follow as it is well worn and the more susceptible parts have been paved with granite slabs to protect these areas from erosion due to walkers. Although easy enough for able bodied people to negotiate, it is not suitable for wheelchairs or the severely disabled due to the nature of the terrain.
Over the years several official archaeological surveys of the site have taken place with varying degrees of accuracy, the earliest I am aware of being the 1829 survey by A.C. Shillibear, and I consider the map thus produced to be of particular importance as it shows the site as it was before the disruption caused during a major excavation which was initiated by the Dartmoor Exploration Committee in 1894.
This dig was intended to research the history of Grimspound by initiating an in-depth study of its archaeology, as there was much disagreement as to its purpose and origin at that time. A small superstitious minority even considered the site to have been the work of the devil, allegedly giving rise to the name of Grimspound.
The site map shown in diagram 2 is my own record of the features to be found at Grimspound after close examination of the enclosure. Although the final graphics are my own work, this map was based heavily on the Shillibear map so I can take no credit or criticism for the initial layout and accuracy of the boundary. It is reproduced here simply as an aid for any visitors who wish to identify the various structures within the enclosure, and the numbers I have used for the huts follow the convention set during the 1894 to 1896 excavation to avoid ambiguity if a separate reference is being used.
The dotted line running horizontally through the map represents the old Manaton to Headland Warren path, the actual construction date of which I am unsure although it must have been before the turn of the 19th century. The builders saw fit to build straight through the site rather than around it, creating as they did two new breaks in the perimeter wall and damaging evidence of parts of the enclosures to be found at the western side.
A stream named Grimslake passes through the lower northern end of the settlement, although it does pass underground for some of the distance. This stream could possibly have provided a useful local source of water for the inhabitants and their animals avoiding the need to visit the lower valley for this purpose, assuming the stream was there in those days.
It is worth remembering that Dartmoor was once a heavily wooded area with a somewhat milder climate than it experiences now, and it is currently the deep layers of accumulated peat (a feature of moorland rather than a woodland environment) soaking up the rainfall which is probably responsible for the stream seen today so it is entirely possible that no stream at all existed here at the time of Grimspound's earliest occupation.
Upon approaching Grimspound the first structure you will notice are the remains of the perimeter wall as shown in photo 3, consisting of vast numbers of randomly sized granite stones scattered along the line of the wall which in some places amounts to more than 15 feet in thickness. In some places it is still possible to detect some order in the placement of the stones, although there is probably no way now of knowing whether this is the original wall structure or whether it is the result of work done during the aforementioned 1894 to 1896 excavation, when parts of the wall were known to have been rebuilt. In some areas it looks as though the wall may have consisted in fact of two separate walls about 3 feet thick with a gap between of a similar thickness, although the subsequent collapse, a bit of a mystery itself for such a massive structure, has made this difficult to determine.
I am aware that the site has been visited by various people expert in the art of dowsing, and claims have been made that there are two dowsed lines running down the path of the wall lending weight to the cavity wall theory. Unfortunately, although having had a go at dowsing, my experience in this field falls way short of allowing me to positively verify the findings myself and readings taken across the wall were spurious and inconclusive. If the wall was constructed as two separate structures as has been suggested, I would imagine the cavity would have been filled with peat, soil, rubble, branches and so on which would have made a more solid and resistant structure. The wall would possibly have been intended to keep out large predators of the time so would probably also have needed some sort of wooden palisade fence on the top to stop them climbing over.
To the South East of the enclosure at the top end is an impressive gateway which was most likely the single original entrance to the pound, built using several very large stones and amounting to about six feet in width, although I was interested to note during my research that in some of the early descriptions of this site, this most obvious and visible gateway has been given little or no mention.
Assuming it was the original entrance, the villagers would probably have taken their livestock through this gateway up onto the hills during the day to graze, and would have returned them to the enclosure at night to avoid losing any to marauding wolves. The floor of the gateway is paved with large flat granite slabs which are visible in photo 4, presumably to avoid erosion, and there is evidence of three large steps being placed just inside to help reduce the severity of the drop in ground level upon entering the pound, evidence of the steps still visible in photo 5. Once all the animals and villagers were safely inside, a wooden gate would probably have been drawn up and lashed into place across the gateway to secure the community against the threat of the wild animals.
One interesting feature I noticed while examining the entrance stones at Grimspound was the presence of a small cross about 6 inches in height carved into the granite to a depth of about half an inch. It is located on the middle stone of the entrance wall on the left hand side as you face outwards, and the cross itself is shown in photo 6.
Although I doubt very much that the cross dates from the time of occupation, it is certainly quite old as lichens have grown over and into the carving in the same manner and to the same extent as on the rest of the stone, and lichens, especially in this environment are very slow growing indeed. The carving itself also seems to have suffered from the effects of weathering to some degree. I have closely examined other stones around the site but as yet haven't found any other carvings or inscriptions. For me, at least, this small cross seems to be a bit of an enigma as I can find no references to it in any of the texts I have studied.
Within Grimspound itself can be seen the remains of the many dwellings and storage huts, manifesting themselves as roughly circular structures between nine and fifteen feet in diameter consisting of large granite boulders lying embedded in the ground. Eighteen of these hut circles were altered during the 1894 - 1896 excavations, as they were dug up and in some cases 'restored', something modern day archaeologists would consider unthinkable, and of the eighteen huts that were excavated, it is understood that thirteen were found to show evidence of having been lived in, the remainder apparently of simpler construction and so maybe only used as storehouses or cattle shelters.
The construction of the inhabited huts mostly seems to follow the same basic style and pattern, with an entrance passage leading to a paved doorway constructed using two uprights supporting a lintel, inside there being evidence of a raised section which could have been used as a raised bed area to minimise the effects of damp, where bedding material made from old skins, dried grass and so on may have been used to enhance comfort and help keep the occupant warm. A hearth stone is also present in some, but by no means all of the huts lending weight to the idea that some were used for storage only, and the remains of fires have been identified although without the benefit of carbon dating we don't know if these burnt remains are the results of more recent occupation. The walls of the huts would have stood perhaps 3 feet high and it has been reported that in some cases they seem to have consisted of a double row of stones, so it is possible that vegetable matter or soil would have been pushed between the stones for windproofing and insulation.
How the roof was constructed is completely unknown as there is absolutely no trace now of any wooden remains anywhere on the site. We can, however make some sensible guesses as to the form a roof could have taken based on results of surveys on similarly aged sites. Most likely in my opinion it would have been constructed from a framework of timbers set to a central pole with simple thatch tied over the top to waterproof it and probably a small ventilation hole being left in the roof to allow smoke to escape. Quite how the roof was persuaded to stay on is also a subject for guesswork as during one of my visits there was a gusty 25mph wind blowing from the west, so some serious lashing down must have been in order.
Photo 8 to the left shows hut 3, which is of particular interest as it is one of the ones 'restored' during the 1890's excavation. This one had had its walls rebuilt and a complete roof added, the whole lot originally being surrounded by iron railings to keep moorland livestock at bay - I have seen a postcard of this somewhere on the 'web. It would be interesting to learn how they dealt with the wind problem, as little remains of their work now and the stone circle has started to fall into disrepair although it is still the best display of how these huts may have once looked. Photo 9 below shows the remains of hut 16 in a well grazed area and may be one of the few hut circles which were left relatively untouched by the archaeologists of the 1800s.
A total of 24 circular stone structures have been officially identified within Grimspound although I personally believe there to be at least two more, and there are many loose rocks apparently strewn at random about the site suggesting other as yet unidentified structures. Several more hut circles can be found on the south side of the hill leading up to Hookney Tor, and presumably these were connected in some way with the main village. I have seen suggestions that low-ranking villagers might have lived in the dwellings outside the pound, with just the more important living within the perimeter.
There are some unexplained but interesting structures present at the right-hand (Western) side of the enclosure as you view my map, indicated by the two parallel lines of stones just below (North) of where the Headland Warren path breaks the wall, and I've been able to dowse several linear structures coming in perpendicularly for perhaps 15 feet from the outer wall at intervals of about 10 to 15 feet to the North of this point. I have no idea what they were, but possibly could have been animal pens or areas set aside for growing crops.
Whilst walking around Grimspound it is easy to be blind to the history of the place and just see boulders lying in the heather but I imagine there were originally also extensive timber buildings here, taking the form of fenced paddocks to separate livestock, store rooms annexed to some of the huts, workshops and maybe several wooden dwellings in addition to the stone ones. A large portion of the enclosure seems to be devoid of any remains, and it is possible that this area had once contained wooden structures long since rotted away where perhaps the less affluent members of the community lived, with the more permanent stone huts being reserved for skilled craftsmen or leaders, but until such time as a full scale archaeological dig can take place making full use of modern techniques, we can only guess how this dwelling would have looked, and what life was like here.
The Ancient Dwellings Of Grimspound & Hound Tor - Lesley Chapman
An informative booklet running to 29 pages offering in-depth information
on both Grimspound and the Hound Tor settlement.
Available from Orchard Publications.
Dartmoor Exploration Committee
The Dartmoor Exploration Committee's reports on excavations, including Grimspound.
English Heritage: Grimspound
Some basic information on the site.
It's even on here now!
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© Andrew Westcott 2003 - 2021