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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Dartmoor 1, Jack and Charlie

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas DECEMBER. 02, 2020

This is the first post of my Dartmoor photo drive series. There will be another to follow when I work my way through the rest of the photos. Dartmoor is huge and I am only scratching the surface on this trip. To find out who Jack and Charlie are you will have to wait until the end of the post. Only one clue, bouldering. I had not heard of bouldering but I will let Charlie explain it.

I start my journey at Buckfastleigh and climb the steep and winding road up on to the moors. Forests gradually fade into grassland and scrub, with gorse, bracken and heather interspersed. It is a windswept, wild, relatively untamed and still potentially dangerous, grandiose landscape inhabited by more sheep and ponies than people.

My first stop is a stone bridge. I have passed over this bridge on several expeditions of discovery already and have always wanted to stop and get a closer look. You have to think twice before driving over the bridge as it is approached and exited at perfect right angles first left to cross and then right to exit. Large vehicles are not so much prohibited from it as precluded from it, due to the fact they would not fit. It is little wider than a car. Although very short it has four pedestrian refuges. It crosses the river Dart in it's upper reaches, which meets the sea at Dartmouth.

To most people it probably looks quite ordinary but it has always fascinated me and I wanted to see it from below and to find out more about it. It is obviously old but even I was surprised to find out how old. I don't know the exact age, I'm not sure anyone does, but to give you some idea it was rebuilt 600 years ago. I don't know about you but this main road carries hundreds of cars and vans a day over a bridge constructed more than 600 years ago, and that blows my mind and is truly awe inspiring.

Holne Bridge is a Grade II* listed medieval bridge over the River Dart, Dartmoor, Devon, England. The narrowness of both this bridge and nearby New Bridge means that the length and width of vehicles on this road are restricted. The bridge is constructed of local granite and has four arches, three of which are semi-circular, the other segmental. It was rebuilt in 1413, at the same time as the building of the nearby New Bridge. The two central pillars have cutwaters on both sides; on the north side of the bridge these extend up to road level and provide triangular refuges for pedestrians. (wikipedia)

In the year this bridge was rebuilt 1413, Henry V was crowned King of England. It was nearly two hundred years later that Shakespeare wrote his play Henry V. Henry V is a history play, probably written around 1599. It covers events during the Hundred Years' War, immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt.

The Battle of Agincourt took place two years after this bridge was rebuilt. King Henry V of England led his troops into battle and participated in hand-to-hand fighting. The French were commanded by Constable Charles d'Albret and various prominent French noblemen of the Armagnac party. This battle is notable for the use of the English longbow in very large numbers, with the English and Welsh archers comprising nearly 80 percent of Henry's army. Agincourt is one of England's most celebrated victories and was one of the most important English triumphs in the Hundred Years' War. It forms the centrepiece of William Shakespeare's play Henry V, written in 1599.

At the time of the battle this bridge was probably still thought to be an engineering marvel of it's day. The lime mortar was still fresh. The stones still fresh cut, gleaming and bright.

Early on the 25th October 1415, Henry deployed his army (approximately 1,500 men-at-arms and 7,000 longbowmen) across a 750-yard (690 m) part of the defile. The English men-at-arms in plate and mail were placed shoulder to shoulder four deep. The English and Welsh archers on the flanks drove pointed wooden stakes, or palings, into the ground at an angle to force cavalry to veer off. The English made their confessions before the battle, as was customary. Henry, worried about the enemy launching surprise raids, and wanting his troops to remain focused, ordered all his men to spend the night before the battle in silence, on pain of having an ear cut off. He told his men that he would rather die in the coming battle than be captured and ransomed. (wikipedia)

The French had suffered a catastrophic defeat. In all, around 6,000 of their fighting men lay dead on the ground. The list of casualties, one historian has noted, "read like a roll call of the military and political leaders of the past generation". Among them were 90–120 great lords and bannerets killed, including three dukes (Alençon, Bar and Brabant), nine counts (Blâmont, Dreux, Fauquembergue, Grandpré, Marle, Nevers, Roucy, Vaucourt, Vaudémont) and one viscount (Puisaye), also an archbishop.

Of the great royal office holders, France lost its constable (Albret), an admiral (the lord of Dampierre), the Master of Crossbowmen (David de Rambures, dead along with three sons), Master of the Royal Household (Guichard Dauphin) and prévôt of the marshals. According to the heralds, 3,069 knights and squires were killed, while at least 2,600 more corpses were found without coats of arms to identify them.

Entire noble families were wiped out in the male line, and in some regions an entire generation of landed nobility was annihilated. The bailiffs of nine major northern towns were killed, often along with their sons, relatives and supporters. In the words of Juliet Barker, the battle "cut a great swath through the natural leaders of French society in Artois, Ponthieu, Normandy, Picardy."

Such was the superiority of the English longbow that while numerous English sources give the English casualties in double figures, record evidence identifies at least 112 Englishmen killed in the fighting, while Monstrelet reported 600 English dead.

This view below is on Corndon Tor looking South. It is one of the high points and well worth a small trek up to see the view. More than 160 of the hills of Dartmoor have the word tor in their name but quite a number do not. However, this does not appear to relate to whether or not there is an outcrop of rock on their summit. The moor varies from hard and stony to wet and boggy sometimes between paces. This beautiful pool was nearly at the top of the tor and was lined with luscious vivid green mosses. Smoke was rising from a house chimney lower down on the left. There are no trees because of the exposed nature of the weather.

In areas where water accumulates, dangerous bogs or mires can result. Some of these, topped with bright green moss, are known to locals as "feather beds" or "quakers", because they can shift (or 'quake') beneath a person's feet. Quakers result from sphagnum moss growing over the water that accumulates in the hollows in the granite.

I have mentioned the Dartmoor ponies before and as they roam wild through most of the year you never know where you will come across them, but they are never far away. They are not nervous and are probably well used to having their photos taken as this is one of Britain's most popular National Parks, established in 1951

At an altitude of about 1,300ft stands a lone cross firmly affixed to a large boulder, this is known as the Cave-Penney Memorial or the Sherwell Cross. It is an impressive monument in memory of a brave young man who died in the First World War. At the bottom of the inscription are the following words, “Look up and lift your heads”, and considering the view I can’t think of a more apt sentence. If you stand at the cross and lift your head you will be rewarded with a magnificent view, especially towards the south where Sharp tor juts proudly into the far horizon. This is one place that no matter what the weather there is always an imposing sense of grandeur. (legendary It was touching to see that someone still places memorial poppies here over a hundred years later.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third of the four crime novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. His ideas came from the legend of Squire Richard Cabell of Brook Hall, in the parish of Buckfastleigh, Devon, which was the fundamental inspiration for the Baskerville tale of a hellish hound and a cursed country squire. Cabell's tomb survives in the village of Buckfastleigh. It is believed that Baskerville Hall is based on one of three possible houses on or near Dartmoor: Fowelscombe in the parish of Ugborough, the seat of the Fowell Baronets; Hayford Hall, near Buckfastleigh (also owned by John King (d.1861) of Fowelscombe) and Brook Hall, in the parish of Buckfastleigh, about two miles east of Hayford, the actual home of Richard Cabell. (wikipedia)

Devon was once close to the equator, located on a boundary between two sections of the earth's crust. These sections collided, causing volcanic eruptions which flowed over the land. As the magma cooled and hardened, it created the rock formations we see today. Dartmoor includes the largest area of granite in Britain, with about 625 km2 (241 sq mi) at the surface, though most of it is under superficial peat deposits. The granite was intruded at depth as a pluton into the surrounding sedimentary rocks during the Carboniferous period, probably about 309 million years ago.

This is a private estate overlooking the East Dart river. It has the look of a hunting lodge. There is certainly some Arts and Crafts influence with a French Chateau touch to the look of the place. The setting is unique.

Just below the house is Dartmeet where the East and West Dart rivers meet to form the main river Dart. That happens just through the arch of the main bridge. The main bridge is positively new for Dartmoor only having been built in 1792. That also means it is a little wider too. I have a theory after this day out that it may be possible to date bridges on Dartmoor by their width. The stone slab in front is the original clapper bridge which is medieval. Some might say it looks more like one built in the Stone Age. If the Flintstones built a bridge it would probably look a bit like this. It is not complete as only two sections are still intact. The pillars that supported the other sections are still visible.

William Crossing describes a clapper bridge as being: ‘A bridge composed of immense slabs of unwrought granite laid upon buttresses and piers of the same… They are mostly on the line of pack-horse tracks and were probably built by the farm settlers in the Forest (of Dartmoor)’.

As you can see from the width, no wheeled traffic could have crossed one of these. They were exclusively used by foot traffic, either two or four.

The age of these bridges is not generally agreed upon, most experts reckon they don't predate the medieval period. Having said that, nobody can be exactly sure as to the age of clappers, indeed, if one travels to Exmoor there is Tarr Steps which is purported to date back to prehistoric times. The actual origin of the word ‘clapper’ is said to have stemmed from the old Anglo Saxon word cleac which translates as ‘stepping stone’, apparently the Dartmoor dialect then mutated the word into ‘clapper’. This does beg the question that if clappers date back to medieval times why are their roots lying in a language used prior to their advent? (legendary My bet would be prehistoric rather than mediaeval, if you take into account Holne Bridge at the start of this post built in 1413 and place it next to this clapper bridge they seem in technological terms light years apart.

Combestone Tor. This time the Tor is a pile of rocks not just a name for a summit. It is also one of the more spectacular tors and one of the most accessible.

Notable occurrences in the vicinity- On the afternoon of Thursday 10th of June 1858; “The atmosphere became clouded and the mutterings of distant thunder were heard. About sunset the lightening began to play on the horizon, at 9 o’clock the rain fell, and the electrical storm burst directly over our town (Ashburton); the scene was awfully grand , the lightening was a continual vivid stream; the storm lasted about an hour and a half, and was the most severe that has visited us for many years…

In the road over Holne Moors, towards two Bridges, is situated a small farm called Compston, rented by Mr. Peter Mann, who, with his wife and family were in the house between 9 and 10 o’clock; the thunder was terrific, and in a moment a crash was heard, and all the inmates were hurled against the walls; the scene cannot be described, the father and mother imagined that some of their family were seriously hurt; Mr. Mann looked out of the window and perceived the thatched roof was on fire; the inmates, who recovered from the astounding effects of the shock, got out of the house, and saved a cask of cider and some wool, but most of the furniture, with some other property, with some money in notes, were entirely burnt, the farm belongs to Sir B. P. Wray, Bart., but the loss to Mr. Mann who is not insured is considerable.” – (Western Times)

A tragic event made all the more bearable by having saved the cider. It is probably only in Devon that a homeowner fleeing his burning home would leave his money behind and take the cider.

Today, the tor is bustling with activity both of a human and animal kind all going about their daily business. Often the tiny car park will be crammed with military Landrovers as some exercise is taking advantage of its height for a communications centre. The area around the tor is also popular with letterboxers and rock climbers as well as picnickers. (

And this is where Jack and Charlie appear in the story. As I arrived at the tor I noticed two young men carrying equipment over to one of the taller tors. I wasn't sure what they were up to so I carried on taking pictures of the stones and the views from the other side, working my way back into the groups of stones.

I eventually emerged between two large boulders to find Jack and Charlie climbing the tor free hand. I had never seen anything like this before up close so I was quite interested. I thought it might result in some interesting photos so I asked them if they minded and they couldn't have been more obliging. We didn't really chat much because I felt I was intruding enough already and I didn't want to outstay my welcome. Anyway, I got Charlie's email address to send him copies of the photos which I have done and I also asked him to explain what exactly they were doing. I had researched climbing without gear and thought it might be something called Free Soloing, but here is Charlie's description below.....

"It's called: Bouldering. Dartmoor is a very popular place for Bouldering and has lots of really amazing spots. Bouldering routes are typically short, technical routes of only a handful of moves and the only protection is a bouldering mat placed below the route.

Free soloing is similar to bouldering in that it doesn't use any ropes, harness or protectional gear in the wall however to be considered a free solo it would be climbing up high on tall vertical routes that are usually climbed with ropes and gear. "

So I will leave you with these closing shots of Jack and Charlie, getting to the top, and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank them both for allowing me to take the photos and place them here in my Blog.

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