Sunday, 21 August 2016

Walkham Valley from Merrivale

Most people passing through Merrivale nowadays probably have no idea of the complexity of the landscape that surrounds them. There are signs of at least 4000 years of human occupation and the walk we took this week touched on artifacts from both ends of the timescale.
For those who like to know, the walk started and ended at the lay-by at 555348 75017. Just cross the road, hop over the stile and you are on your way. It was just on the 6 mile mark and was a mixture of open moor, sheep tracks, not too much mud, some rock hopping across a river, some leat-bank following and a short stretch of road walking at the end.
Looking up along our route along the east side of the Walkham and back down the west side. Spot the footpath? There wasn't one, which leads to a 'head for that point in a straight-ish line' approach to navigation. Not a problem when you can see where you are going but one not to be recommended when the mist comes down. Then the GPS comes into its own.
We contoured around Great Mis Tor, the sides of which have a generous sprinkling of scree and boulders. But all of this jumble hides the fact that it is a landscape of human occupation since the Bronze Age or even Neolithic times (there is some evidence of a Neolithic fort on the summit of the tor).
Dotted here and there are circular enclosures and hut circles. Sometimes, like this one, obscured by the bracken..
...And sometimes far more visible where the bracken doesn't grow. This collection comprises around 12 hut circles within a large stone enclosure.
Members of our group dropping down to the River Walkham looking for a safe place to cross and a good spot for lunch. As with all Dartmoor rivers, the Walkham served two purposes: water for domestic and agricultural uses and water for power.
A good example of using the Walkham for power is this leat, now overgrown but still discernible as a line to the left, which provided power to the long defunct Wheal Fortune. Nominative determinism was common in the naming of Dartmoor's mine: give them an optimistic name and they will produce the goods. Unfortunately many of them didn't. As well as drawing water into leats for waterwheels elsewhere, the raw power of the Walkham was also used to wash out metal bearing silt, which was further processed in blowing houses on the river banks.
Also coming off the Walkham is the Grimstone and Sortridge Leat. This leat is thought to be at least 500 years old (some say 700). Water from the leat supplied Grimstone Manor, Grimstone Farm, Monkswell House, Sortridge Manor and Sortridge Farm; it also turned waterwheels at Sortridge Consols and Moortown farm. It runs for about 5 miles and water is still drawn off for domestic use along its course. I find that fact very satisfying.
Highland cattle are becoming a relatively common sight on the moor. They seem to fit in with the barren landscape as if they were born to it.
These objects alongside the leat and quite close to the Merrivale Quarry are sett maker's banks. Here stone workers knelt or crouched at these low benches, fashioning granite setts (cobble stones) that were used in making the streets of Plymouth, Tavistock and other places. This was an industry that flourished for about fifteen years from the 1870's, although some people put them a little earlier, from 1850-1860.
The 'anvil' stone is sloping backwards so the stone chippings flew away from the worker towards the rocks behind. You can see a pile of chippings still in place. Apparently one man could produce about 60 setts a day. I'm assuming that there was some sort of production line going, with other men fetching and despatching the raw materials. Not a nice place to work but they did have wattle fence shelters to protect them from the elements.
And here is an old back lane in Devonport by the Royal Albert dockyard gate showing some setts in situ. Somebody once told me that Plymouth still has the most cobbled streets in the UK. Is it true? I don't know but there are certainly lots of them still visible.
At the latter stages of the walk, looking back across the valley to our starting point and King's Tor to the right. Those with keen eyes might be able to make out what looks like a line of stones just off centre to the right. These are the remains of a railway project which would have taken stone from the quarry to join up with the main railway line. An impressive undertaking but it didn't get much further than what we see now before the money ran out.

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