Sunday 20th September – White Horse Hill Excursion

The Torbay Rambling Club have always supported Dartmoor National Park and in previous years contributed walks to the summer Walking Festival. Our Sunday walks were frequently moor based and our Club benefitted from a number of experienced and capable leaders, prepared to attempt those remote areas where few have trodden the tussocks and barely discernable paths.

In preparation for re-starting Sunday walks, four of our members opted to take advantage of a walk, intended for the Co-Vid cancelled annual Festival and led by Geri Skeets, a National Navigation Award Tutor, to White Horse Hill and surrounding area.

The group of 8 set off from Batsworthy Farm, itself quite a way from the beaten track, along a tricky narrow lane. Navigated capably by Gail on this occasion.

Having received our briefing on Covid requirements and previously provided our contact details, we headed uphill in the early morning sunshine, to Shovel Down and a concentric stone circle and 5 double stone rows, nestled on the hillside below Kestor Rock,  well known to our moorland walkers.

A breather soon at the edge of Fernworthy Forest and removal of outer layers as the temperature and gradient rose. From here, we negotiated a path below Manga Hill and Teign Head Farm, then up towards Sittaford Tor where a tea-break took place, the views before us of rolling open moorland, below blue skies, were stunning.

Geri led us capably across and up the open moor to Quintin’s Man.  The word Man, Maen, meaning ‘stone’, like Beardown Man, an ancient memorial for someone of great importance. The cairn here provided a good place for another breather and interesting talk.

We were south west of Cut Hill, which it is said you either love or hate. A vast open expanse, lacking rocky features and peppered with tussocks and purple grass, emerging yellow gorse and heather. On a wet or misty day any walk in this area would be a challenge beyond most, but we were blessed with clear skies, wonderful visibility and a confident leader, taking a fit and capable group to find the focus of our walk, the incredible White Horse Hill Cist.

Back in the 1990’s two walkers stopped on a peat hag, high on the moor at 600m, for a tea break – as you do! They noticed some stone slabs had been exposed by the shrinking peat and seemed to vaguely form a ‘box’. It was reported to the National Park who, on investigation, decided it was indeed a cist, or burial tomb, but unlike Victorian times when it would have been opened immediately, they left it untouched, but monitored carefully.

Over time the peat shrank further and in 2011 it became clear erosion had made it vulnerable to ruinous exposure so a carefully planned excavation began – the outcome was beyond their highest hopes. It has been called the most important archeological find on Dartmoor in modern times, arousing interest worldwide.

They discovered an animal skin, thinking at first it was a dead fox but it turned out to be a brown bearskin pelt, fixed with a copper alloy pin and inside that the cremated remains of a female, in her early 20’s, buried with amber beads, a bracelet of woven cow hair, a flint tool , fragments of textile, a basketry container and wooden ornamental studs which told them much about the creative skills of the ancient peoples. woodturning was not thought to have been undertaken until very much later, but it was dated to around 1800bc, therefore, Bronze Age, or late Neolithic.

The amber beads were not obtained locally, probably from The Baltic, which meant people were travelling and trading. It is known that the climate on Dartmoor was Mediterranean then and communities spent the summer on high ground but retreated to lower pastures during the winter.

We listened in awe to the story of the discovery, each taking a quiet moment to ponder on the status of this young woman, why this high point was chosen and how she died?

Careful negotiation of ‘bridges’ through the peat pass, being managed by the NP to ensure drainage to reservoirs,  now took us to the clearer track, west to Hangingstone Hill, another cist long since cleared of remains or artefacts. The view across to Okement Ridge, the Taw Valley and distantly, Belstone, was panoramic and Steve pointed out the spot in the distance where a carved memorial stone slab was ‘air-lifted’ in for Ted Hughes, in 2001.

A pause at Wild Tor prompted an interesting explanation of the strata of the granite, ‘decompression layering‘, a release of pressure as the plutons of magma rock on hilltops are exposed, particularly evident here and at Watern Tor.   A tea break In warm sunshine beside the stream at Gallaven Ford was enjoyed before we picked up the rough path to the impressive Scorhill Stone Circle, and over two clapper bridges to end our meander through Neolithic and Bronze Age Dartmoor.

The terrain was dry but testing at times and the walk quite long at 11 miles but the rewards outweighed the efforts and a wonderful day was enjoyed by all, in glorious weather.

An exhibition of the White Horse Hill excavation and it’s treasures, has now opened in the newly extended Postbridge Visitor Centre. Some of the artefacts are on display at The Box Museum in Plymouth.

We hope the Torbay Rambling Club will be out on the moor again, if not this year then next, when we can once more enjoy the challenge and beauty of our National Park.

Final thanks to Geri for her knowledge and leadership, as well as Mike’s explanation of ‘decompression layering’ and Steve for pointing out The Ted Hughes’ Memorial location in the distance.

Karen H

Karen H