The high-land of the Dart has always been valued for its special qualities – today it might be for its exposed, featureless expanse of rough moorland, treacherous mires and scoured granite tors but seven thousand years ago it was revered as a thickly forested otherworld. These wooded remnants cling on in three diminutive places within the heart of the moor and still richly clothe the steep valleys that embrace it.
Neolithic then Bronze Age tribes saw this high place, above them, as a sacred land – a place to take their dead on a journey to the after-life and a place to return and seek their intercession with the spirit world. They cleared small pockets of forest to build dolmen, barrows or burial cairns with their kistvaens to hold their ancestors. Some of these cairns developed stone rows or processional walks that channelled the approach of both the dead and those wishing to commune with them. Some of these sites developed into larger ceremonial complexes that covered huge areas such as the Merrivale ceremonial complex or the Stall Moor stone row, at 3300 metres, making it the longest prehistoric stone row on Earth.
Looking at these sacred places it is hard to imagine them as they would have been – placed within a forest landscape. The forested Froggymead stone circle and Assycombe stone row give some sense of what this may have been like, even though they are now surrounded by sombre, mirky plantation woodland. But whilst the stone rows were the runways or landing strips for the cairn gateways to the otherworld, the open stone circles were a place of ceremony that encouraged looking outward from within the circle into the landscape they were a part of. These stone circles were indivisible from the landscape around them – seen and interpreted together – even though their meaning is now long lost. Standing in the centre of Scorhill stone circle and facing the largest, most significant menhir you cannot help but notice that its point eclipses the White Moor Stone several kilometres away: a useful pointer for anyone, given that back then it was obscured by a million trees.
These high places of Dartmoor remained as forest for thousands of years. Initially as a happy hunting ground then as an ancestral burial ground and a ceremonial, sacred landscape. It was only later, towards the iron age, that this reverence for ancestral spirits started to erode and land pressure saw greater clearances of the forest. Permanent settlements started to appear – often on the edge or on these sacred sites.
The forest still remains within the folds of Dartmoor. What is left of this ancient Dartwood are just a hint as to the power and significance the forest had. And although one might point an accusing finger to those first small clearances in the forest to make way for those ceremonial sites – the increased clearance of the land pointed to the end of the Dartwood and the forgetting of sacred landscapes – their physical and spiritual memory eroded by the changing times of a more pressing humanity.
But the sacred places still exist. The landscape they sit in still exists. And the forest lives on too.
This week I undertook a journey, with a few others*, to walk 56km. We explored some of the most significant sacred landscapes and ancient forests of Dartmoor – linking them directly back to Embercombe – thereby keying Embercombe, with its stone circle and woodland, into this same sacred and wooded lineage.
The journey took just over two days.
And after the blisters heal – more journeys will follow.
Places visited: White Moor stone circle, White Moor Stone, Buttern Hill stone circle, Buttern Hill chambered cairn, Scorhill stone circle, Round Pound, Kestor Rock basin, Shovel Down ceremonial complex, Fernworthy (Froggymead) stone row and circle, Grey Wethers twin stone circle, Assycombe stone row, Grimspound, Jay’s Grave, Houndtor kerb-cairn and cist, Houndtor medieval settlement, Black Hill stone row, Houndtor ridge, Houndtor Woods, Lustleigh Cleave, Casely Wood, Tottiford, Kennick and Trenchford woods and submerged ceremonial complex, Canonteign Woods, Embercombe stone circle and woodland.
*Accompanied by Rob, Alastair, Tina and Juliette.
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