Dartmoor. A beautiful heathland and National Park in Devon, Southwest England.
Although on this peninsula the sea is never far away, Dartmoor reaches a height of 621 metres (2,037 feet) above sea level, where it offers one of the most mystical landscapes of Europe. It is the land of tors, bogs, horses – AND of course: gorse! (See below, the flowers)
Tors are the beautiful granite rock formations (outcrops on the hill tops). They look sculpted, and in a way they are – by erosion, after the primeval oak forest of Dartmoor was cut down.
The bogs are what makes moors highland marshes: thick layers of moist peaty soil that cover hills and plateaus (‘raised bogs’) and fuel the many clear-watered springs and creeks – that together feed the river Dart.
And also the horses (a purist would say 'hill ponies') of Dartmoor are special. Here (among other types) you can spot the Dartmoor ponies [edit: and the 'Dartmoor hill ponies'(!)], a local breed that’s unique to this mountainous heathland, where horses have grazed for thousands of years…
=== First, the flowers of Dartmoor ===
But let’s start this little story about Dartmoor with that beautiful little flower, shall we? Gorse – or Ulex europaeus. Gorse is a sturdy evergreen shrub with impressive thorns and bright yellow flowers that some say taste like coconut. Gorse is native to the Atlantic coasts of western Europe, from Scotland to Portugal – and on Dartmoor (where multiple species grow) it flowers almost year round, adding something gentle to this primal, elementary landscape, even in the worst of weather.
There is a local saying in Devon and Cornwall about the yellow flower. If you don’t know it, it goes as follows: “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season” [and when is that, right]. Having said that, there are times (spring!) when gorse flowers more intensely and some slopes on Dartmoor fully turn to its bright yellow. (Come in May, if you want to see that.)
However, if you like flowers it’s even nicer to wait till summer, because then the yellow of the gorse flowers is complemented by different tones of purple-flowered heather. One of these heather species, shown in the video together with the gorse, is another plant species that is quite typical for the temperate Atlantic coasts of Europe (and milder regions in the Southwest, including parts of Spain and France) – but very rare in the somewhat more continental heaths of Germany and the Netherlands (where dry glacial soils can lead to quick drops in winter night temperatures, a bit too low for some heather species).
It’s called bell heather and it’s almost as purple as common heather (Caluna vulgaris). It is however an Erica species (Erica cinerea) and therefore more closely related to cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) – a pink-flowering heather species that can be found on the wetter parts of the heaths of continental Europe. (You can see both common heather and cross-leaved heath flowering in our special video about the ‘purple hills of Holland’ – Veluwe heathland, in the Netherlands: bit.ly/2w61ama)
Anyway, the bell heather of Dartmoor is purple. And we think that mixes very well with the gorse. (Go see the video to enjoy - and don't forget to spot the wagtail at the little stream, its yellow also matches the gorse beautifully!)
But enough about the flowers – let’s get to the land itself:
=== Dartmoor, its name & history ===
The word Dartmoor has a double root, one Celtic and one Germanic.
The word ‘moor’ is derived from a broad Germanic root of words that usually refer to wet areas (compare for instance old-Dutch words ‘goor’ & ‘moor’, common-Dutch ‘moeras’ (all meaning swamp) and ‘meer’ (lake) – and then old-English ‘morass’). Unlike many proper marshes or swamps, which are generally low-lying, in landscape-naming moors tend to be highland wet areas, that are often covered in ‘bogs’, blankets of elevated -but always moist- peat.
‘Dart’ is the presumed old Cornu-Celtic word for oak tree – compare for instance ‘dair’ in Irish, ‘derw’ in Welsh and ‘daraich’* in Scots Gaelic.
[*)If you’re interested, this Gaelic version illustrates in its ending (‘-aich’) that both Celtic and Germanic languages (compare German (‘eiche’), Dutch & old-Norse (‘eik’) and Frisian (‘oak’)) turn to the same Indo-European base – which is actually the ancient word for ‘tree’ (while the old Indo-European root for oak (‘deru’) become our base for the word tree – a funny turn of events). We hope to show how important this tree once was – in related cultures, and therefore in shared language.]
As the old Celtic word suggests these low mountains were once part of a giant British primeval oak forest. Although a few well-preserved patches of ancient oak forest still stand (possibly surviving the Bronze Age deforestation) the vast majority of the ancient forest was cut down over the centuries. Agriculture was attempted, but as the climate deteriorated and the Dartmoor soil is low in nutrients, it was left mostly to cattle. With most of the oak forest gone, their overgrazing led to large-scale erosion on the ancient hilltops, many of which lost their organic soils to the elements – exposing the iconic Dartmoor tors.
These are impressive granite outcrops, almost exclusively on the hilltops (over 160 tors have been named!) – looking almost as if they were carved by a culture of giants from long-forgotten times.
The tors do in fact tell a whole different history of Dartmoor, one that delves much deeper than any saga or troll legend does: Geology… [What’s more, all of it from evidence-based science – whihoo! ;) ]
The granite outcrops that are the tors are only the tip of a very large iceberg that lies underneath: the Dartmoor granite massive – the largest granite area in Britain. This granite massive was formed during a volcanically active period in the Carboniferous (359-299 million years ago).
[For our regulars: Yes, in geological terms that means that we have already come a long way in our We Love Earth trip through southern English landscapes, since our coverage of the Cretaceous White Cliffs (145-66 million years ago – see this video: bit.ly/2uCOBtf) and the Jurassic Coast (201-145 million year ago – see this video: bit.ly/2wLtlUH) 8-) We’ll go deeper though – and pay more attention to both the Carboniferous and what lies beneath in upcoming videos – stay tuned!]
=== Man-made stone sculptures ===
The granite itself is very important, not just for the essence of the Dartmoor landscape, but for Devon, Cornwall, and the wider area around it – in fact for much of western Europe, as it is these metal-rich crystalline igneous rocks that enabled very-early tin mining (possibly tin river extraction) that combined with copper from Ireland and Wales led to the dawn of the Bronze Age on the British Isles and other parts of Atlantic Europe.
That, yes, is also a long time ago – let’s say about 2,000 years BC. Around that time locally human inhabitation could have been denser than it is today – in fact Dartmoor has the highest concentration of Bronze Age remains in the United Kingdom, including foundations and walls of about 5,000 Bronze Age houses (‘hut circles’) – some of which are very well preserved.
There are also older, Neolithic remains to be found in the Dartmoor landscape, including a large variety of megalithic constructions – including stone circles, stone rows, menhirs (standing stones) – some of which span from the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age, the subsequent Iron Age and into medieval history.
An interesting example of the latter are the ‘Dartmoor crosses’, primitive Christian crosses, that look like Christianised menhirs – and that were erected as markers of routes through this remote landscape that for a very long time lacked proper roads and is so often in bad, disorientating weather.
One of the oldest of these Dartmoor crosses is in the video – it’s called Bennett’s Cross and was probably erected by monks of a local Benedictine Order.
Another very famous Dartmoor landmark that’s also in the video is the ‘clapper bridge’ at Postbridge (tiny hamlet, 2 or 3 houses), which lies central in Dartmoor National Park and is a very well-preserved medieval stone bridge that runs across the East Dart River – that runs downstream until it meets the West Dart River (to continue as Dart River) in the small village of… Dartmeet. Yes, everything is wonderfully named in Dartmoor.
=== The sounds & smells of Dartmoor ===
Throughout all this time of human settlement and structure building something else has determined the looks, even the sounds and the smells of Dartmoor – something we’ve only touched on above: horses.
The Dartmoor pony is a very real breed and it can be found in wild herds across the heaths – even sometimes standing on top of the tors, a majestic sight. These large, resilient ponies probably evolved from the early Holocene wild horses of Eurasia – a time when the British Isles where still connected across the North Sea bed through Doggerland – a land bridge connecting northern England to the northern Netherlands (that became an island about 8,000 years ago, and later fully submerged – the current Dogger Bank).
The oldest horse-bone remains in the area data back 3500 BC – so very much in the Stone Age, around the time human inhabitants transitioned from hunter gatherer to agricultural lifestyles, and domestication of wild horses started. Today the Dartmoor pony has ‘rare breed’ status, and most horses live a wild live – on top of the moors. Let’s keep it that way. (Visitors therefore are asked not to feed the ponies.)
[Edit: the two mix-colour ponies in the video are not Dartmoor ponies. If you want more information about the pony race and how it's preserved, here's a good link: www.visitdartmoor.co.uk/explore-dartmoor/dartmoor-animal-life/dartmoor-ponies]
[Edit number 2: the two double-colour ponies are 'Dartmoor hill ponies' we learn from the comments - it turns out to be a very complex matter - only people from Dartmoor can tell this properly, not us. So we refer to the comments below this video for those who want further information about the different pony breeds on Dartmoor! Let's all agree they look lovely :) :) ]
=== We Love Earth ===
If you like this video and our text, please tell others about it too. And if you visit Dartmoor or any of the other landscapes we cover, please try to travel low-carbon (bikes, trains, shoes), leave nothing but footprints, and just admit that you too love Earth. Then quite likely there will be plenty for everyone – not just humans. Thank you & see you next time!
More info: www.weloveearth.org
"We had a fantastic run in the half marathon last year. We loved the new experience in the beautiful scenery of Dartmoor - so much, we have entered again!" - John & Olivia, Preston, UK
Looking forward to see if Olivia will defend her first place in this year's Something Wild Half Marathon! Either way, we look forward to seeing you both again. And in a few years time, we are sure that little William will succeed in his first Something Wild Kids Races ;) ...
Have your cake and eat it: Invitations are open for our Something Wild trail Festival cake competition. Bring your entries along to our dinner night on Saturday 9th and our judges will award the best cake at our presentation evening,just prior to the speaker's night. Speakers include a SW Coastpath BKT holder, wild swimmer, functional expert and an alternative take on navigation. Entries for kids races, 10k, marathon, half marathon and ultra are still available to book something-wild.co.uk/...