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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Car Tour 3 Ancient Stones

Before starting the final part of the tour I feel the urge as an amateur geologist who is fascinated by geomorphology since my days in school, to explain what you are looking at when you see either the natural stone of Tors in places like Devon and Cornwall or things made from those same rocks.

If you have travelled anywhere in Devon or Cornwall and have noticed buildings, pavements or memorials, High Tors or dressed stones on bridges and all other varieties of stone objects like granite farm gate posts, you will find the patterns in the rock seen below very familiar. What you will be familiar with is a hard generally greyish rock with some sparkle which has cubic white blocks mixed in with it.

The term for what you are so familiar with is Megacrysts. Megacrysts are quite simply what they would imply, mega or large crystals. It is sometimes referred to as "Giant Granite" or "Big-Feldspar Granite". In geology, a megacryst is a crystal or grain that is considerably larger than the encircling matrix. They are found in igneous and metamorphic rocks.

Essentially, way deep down under our feet, although our feet were not walking around 280 million years ago, in fact animals had barely left the water to walk around at all, as there were just a few amphibians and lizards walking around, so, way deep down under the feet of a few amphibians and lizards, were layers of magma, formed when things got a bit overly hot down there and the pre-existing white stones became incorporated into the magma, which 280 million years later found itself exposed on the top of Dartmoor with young guys wearing neoprene shoes freeclimbing all over it being very butch and manly in brightly coloured synthetic climbing suits and hard hats.

So we've gone from our ancestors climbing out of a swamp to us climbing all over mountains in Lycra and Neoprene, that's when elderly less sporty tourists aren't pulling off the road in their Daihatsus to park next to the big rocks, where they unload a couple of folding chairs and unwrap their clingfilmed lunch to admire the view on a nice autumnal afternoon, where they will be interrupted by wild Dartmoor ponies wanting a selection of cake and sandwiches to nibble on.

Ponies, incidentally, which have exactly the same ancestors as us during that era 280 million years ago. If we had a photo of our relative on the mantle piece that was that old, a Dartmoor Pony would call it granny several times removed too. It was only about another 100 million years later that some individual animal, some sort of placental mammal horse human precursor, had some babies one day, one of which ended up being our ancestor while it's sister ended up being an ancestor of the horse.

If you are looking at ancient objects in South Devon, so old that the people who made them had not discovered metal let alone neoprene then you are looking essentially at Stone Age construction which means these very granite rocks which dominate the area.

Before we get to the really old stuff let's start with just the plain very old. The nearby pub is giving us a clue as to what lies here. We are in the village of Copplestone, which in fact is more of a road junction than a village.

This is that junction, and the cross mentioned in the pub name is what still lies, uncrossed, in the middle of this road junction. I say uncrossed because the cross is so old that it is now just a pillar which gives it's name to the village. We don't really know how old it is, but we do know that it probably has stood here or near here for over a thousand years. We know it was moved 10 metres in 1969 so they could alter the road layout, because somewhere in the dark recesses of Devon County Council head office there is a dusty old blueprint in the Highways Department. We have created a Heritage Industry since then, and it is highly unlikely that would happen today. Today it is more likely that any amount of money on a blank cheque would be found to ensure it didn't need to be moved, even 10 centimetres, but there we are, they moved it. That means I cannot claim that it has stood in this same spot for over a thousand years, which would have been nice.

How old is this "cross" then? Well, the only thing we know for certain is that it was here in 974, which is nearly 1100 years ago. We know that because someone got some animal skin and probably some iron gall ink and wrote a description of it and dated the document. To get iron gall ink you needed wasps. The wasp would lay it's egg in the bud of an oak tree where the tree would react by growing a lump called a gall. When the new wasp drilled it's way out and flew off, mediaeval ink makers wandered along and collected the galls. If they had managed to find a food processor they would have put the galls and some ferrous oxide and some gum Arabic together and whisked them up together. The best galls came from Syria, the best ferrous sulphate came from Spain and the best gum Arabic came from Turkey, you were expecting it to come from Arabia, well that would be too obvious, so the trading routes all over Europe into the Middle East would have enabled King Edgar's ink maker, to make for him, the best ink money could buy, as this document was a Royal Charter of King Edgar, which described the "cross" as a boundary marker of an area called The "Nymed".

Today, 4 miles from Copplestone is another village, called Nymet Tracey. The name 'Nymet' may originate in the old British language, and is found in many surrounding place names; amongst them Nymet Barton, Nymet Rowland and Broad Nymet). It appears to be an old name for the river on the course of which all these villages sit, The Lapford Yeo, which used to be called the Nymet.

English Heritage which has classified the cross as a Grade 1 monument seems to have all the wrong dates listed under it's classification online. The page was probably knocked up during a coffee break by one of our tens of thousands of Media Studies Graduates. They have a lot of coffee breaks, in fact some of them have work breaks, where they stop drinking coffee and do a bit of work.

As far as I can tell they have the charter date wrong as it does not match the dates for King Edgar whose charter it was, and they have the death of Bishop Putta wrong too, who it is suggested was the person whose memory the cross was raised for. Bishop Putta was murdered in 910 not 905. In any case the best guess is that 910 may be it's original date of manufacture. It is certainly carved in granite, probably from Dartmoor about nine miles away, complete with Megacrysts. Don't forget, you can show off in future when you spot this distinctive type of stone and you can drop the word Megacrysts. The reason it is still here is because they didn't have Media Studies Graduates back then, they just had highly skilled craftsmen.

King Edgar, also known as Edgar the Peaceful was the King of the English. He was a descendant of Alfred the Great, the first King of England. Alfred was so Great they decided never to use the letter A again and moved onto the next vowel instead which was E. This gave us a massively complicated list of kings to remember that goes Edward the Elder, who defeated a challenge from his cousin Ethelwold, followed by Ethelstan, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig, Edgar, Edward the Martyr, Ethelred the Unready, and came to a crashing halt with the inventively named Sweyn Forkbeard, who was the first Danish King of the English. That was 115 years of King E's. Even their Queens were E's. Ealhswith, Ecgwynn, now you think I am making this up, Elfgifu, another different Elfgifu, Ethelflaed and Elfthryth, yet another different Elfgifu again and the positively 21st century sounding Emma.

King Edgar the Peaceful further consolidated the political unity achieved by his predecessors, with his reign being noted for its relative stability. His most trusted advisor was Dunstan, whom he recalled from exile and made Archbishop of Canterbury. The pinnacle of Edgar's reign was his coronation at Bath in 973, which was organised by Dunstan and forms the basis for the current coronation ceremony of our Kings and Queens to this day.

In the not too distant future we will be having a Coronation Ceremony for the first time in over 70 years, so when it happens, pay attention, because what you see played out in real life will be as old as this stone cross..

The cross is nearly 3.2m tall and measures 0.6m square at the base. It is set upon a modern plinth which is 0.56m high, 1.29m square at the base and tapers upwards to 1.29m square at the top. The top of the cross has been slightly damaged, and on the south east face is the remains of what may have been a socket. Below this there is a niche which cuts through earlier decoration and may have sheltered a figure.

Over 350 wayside crosses are known nationally, concentrated in south west England throughout Cornwall and on Dartmoor where they form the commonest type of stone cross. The standing cross known as Copplestone Cross, although not in its original position, survives well and is documented from the 10th century onwards. The interlaced decoration is unique in Devon, and Anglo-Saxon sculpture of this high quality is very rare in the south west.

But all of that fades into mediocrity compared to these rocks, yet more Megacryst, fashioned into another sort of structure which wouldn't keep much weather out, a mere 4500 years before King Edward the Peaceful had his charter written. A mere 5500 years before photo blogging started.

This is Spinster's Rock and the last stop on our tour. We actually missed it on our first attempt to find it, but after our failed attempts to get into two churches at the start of the tour we were getting a bit more determined. We drove what seemed like miles because it was actually miles, down a very narrow lane where, thankfully we met nobody, until we came to a couple of farm gates which created a sort of natural turning area. We knew it must be a rare wide section, because there was a mail van parked in it, with a mail man happily consuming a late lunch at the wheel, astounded to see us appear and expecting even less, a request for directions to Spinster's Rock.

It's always a good option to ask directions from a mail man as they tend to get around a bit. Having said that, it's probably a few thousand years since any mail got delivered to Spinsters' rock. Especially as it was originally a burial chamber and the dead don't get masses of mail. It turned out that we had in fact driven right past it because it was hidden by a hedge, but there was a small sign a bit darkened with age which we also drove past. Anyway, luckily, we were able to turn around and head back down the very narrow lane, now pushing our luck for a second time. It turned out to be right opposite a farmhouse and on the farm itself, but with a special access gate and several guard sheep protecting it.

The guard sheep didn't offer a great threat and rapidly wandered off apart from those that were actually asleep. It's very stressful being a sheep.

The Spinster's Rock PR Department bills it as "the best-preserved burial chamber in Dartmoor." I can't really argue the point, because as 5500 year old burial chambers go it's in a lot better condition than a lot of 1960's tower blocks. In fact probably half of our 1960's tower blocks have already been dynamited.

Spinsters' Rock is a Neolithic burial chamber or dolmen standing in a farm field near the Dartmoor village of Drewsteignton. The dolmen is composed of three large upright stones supporting a huge capstone. Spinsters' Rock is the best surviving example of a prehistoric burial chamber in Dartmoor.

Have you spotted the Megacrysts yet?

The burial chamber would have originally been covered with earth but over time the earth has eroded, leaving only the stones behind. The capstone is estimated to weigh 16 tons and is 2.7m (9 feet) off the ground.

So it would appear that what we are looking at was never meant to look like this at all. The three uprights were the sides of a grave below ground level and the roof was a slab dragged over the grave as a lid and placed resting on the stone sides and then the whole was covered over with earth. But a lot can happen in 5500 years.

When archaeologists first investigated the site they found a number of stone circles and rows near the dolmen (across the road on Shilstone Common). That would suggest that Spinsters' Rock was part of a large ceremonial complex, of which it is the only remaining feature.

It seems very likely that these additional stones were added in the Bronze Age, after the burial chamber was built. They were removed by the tenant of Shilstone Farm, presumably because they got in the way of cultivating the land.

Why is the burial chamber called 'Spinsters' Rock?

The peculiar name comes from a local legend that the dolmen was erected by three spinsters one morning before breakfast. In this context, the word 'spinster' does not refer to an unmarried woman but to someone involved in spinning wool. The three spinsters had some time to kill one morning while waiting for their wool to be collected by the jobber (local wool trader) so they decided to balance several large stones.

Our tour was meant to continue to a very old stone clapper bridge, also probably made of Megacryst, but by now our enthusiasm was flagging, the road we were on had got even narrower, in addition to very steep and very winding, and on top of that we also missed the turn to the bridge. Even if we had found the turn, it was not negotiable by car, there was nowhere to park, there was a thunderstorm approaching and there was no indication of how far it was to walk. We were now, well and truly lost. I need to have a word with John Brooks who wrote this guide. Every blind bend held the prospect of a head on collision with the mail man and so, close to tears, we opted to set the Satnav for home, in the hope it would pick the shortest route to a piece of road wide enough for two vehicles. It only took us about another three miles to suddenly emerge onto a 1990's housing estate. I have never before been so relieved to see mock Tudor frontages with window boxes, in my life.

All other facts and errors gleaned from English Heritage and Wikipedia.

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Unknown member
Jul 22, 2022

Fascinating!!! As to how the earth has changed causing the "spinsters" rocks to be 'above' ground now. You did not mention why the word "spinters' referred to those spinning the wheel, is also referred to unmarried women. Is it because......if you did not have a husband to take care of then your next best job would be to spin?

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Jul 23, 2022
Replying to

Good question and sort of right. Only unmarried women spun wool so the term became synonymous with an unmarried woman and even appeared on official documents as a descriptor for an unmarried woman. I can only assume a married woman had a whole household to run and therefore spinning was an alternative role for women who didn't have those duties.

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