It can be bleak on Dartmoor, but there is real beauty in that bleakness, even when the winds howl and the mists descend across the barren stony landscape. I’m moved by sights like this lone tree bravely clinging to its rocky footings, a poignant reminder of Dartmoor’s past as a Royal Forest, now more like a setting for Waiting for Godot.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could live up here, but they did, back in the days when Dartmoor was rich with forests and grazing land. Traces of these existences can be found in places like the evocatively-named Grimspound.
Literally meaning ‘Enclosure of the Devil’, Grim being another word for Odin, Grimspound is a late Bronze age settlement, comprising the remains of 24 stone huts inside a circular wall. It is most spectacularly seen from the air, but for those of us earth-bound, it can be reached on the B3387 between Bovey Tracey and Widecombe-in-the-moor (have you been to the fair?).
When Grimspound was settled, deforestation had already begun, with land being cleared for grazing cattle. There was plenty of running water, with the Grims Lake Stream running down the hill, and so it would have been an ideal place to keep livestock.
Archaeologists have been unable to find many traces of the lifestyles of those who lived in Grimspound, beyond a few pottery shards and flint fragments. This is due to the acidity of the soil as a result of deforestation, which means that by the time it was settled, peat bogs were already building up and being cut for fuel. The surrounding landscape shows the scars of this, with deep rifts cut into the hillsides.
What is known is that over half the huts were used as animal enclosures, and the rest for humans. These huts had a fire in the centre, and I can only imagine those Bronze Age settlers, huddled around the warmth, tired after a long day of herding their cattle and cutting wood or peat; nothing like today's holiday homes on Dartmoor I'm glad to say!
Today, you will not find many signs of life on Grimspound, unless you witness, as I did, a brave troop of mountain bikers intrepidly bumping down the hillside - a testament to how times have changed, the resilience of the human spirit, and how we adapt the ever-altering landscape to our current needs. This display cheered my soul and I’m sure our Bronze-age ancestors would be pleased to see their former homeland put to such good use.
By Mary Costello (of Molly and the Princess blog)
All image credits to Mary