We tend to think of Dartmoor as a barren wasteland, largely unpopulated aside from the Hound of the Baskervilles. It fact it has a long and varied history. The majority of the prehistoric remains on Dartmoor date back to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. Indeed, Dartmoor contains the largest concentration of Bronze Age remains in the United Kingdom, which suggests that this was when a larger population moved onto the hills of Dartmoor. The large systems of Bronze Age fields, divided by reaves, cover an area of over 10,000 hectares (39 sq mi) of the lower moors. The climate at the time was warmer than today, and much of today's moorland was covered with trees. The prehistoric settlers began clearing the forest, and established the first farming communities. Fire was the main method of clearing land, creating pasture and swidden types of fire-fallow farmland. Areas less suited for farming tended to be burned for livestock grazing. Over the centuries these Neolithic practices greatly expanded the upland moors, and contributed to the acidification of the soil and the accumulation of peat and bogs.
The climate became wetter and cooler over the course of a thousand years from around 1000 BC, resulting in much of high Dartmoor being largely abandoned by its early inhabitants. It was not until the early Mediaeval period that the weather again became warmer, and settlers moved back onto the moors. Like their ancient forebears, they also used the natural granite to build their homes, preferring a style known as the longhouse — some of which are still inhabited today, although they have been clearly adapted over the centuries. Many are now being used as farm buildings, while others were abandoned and fell into ruin. The earliest surviving farms, still in operation today, are known as the Ancient Tenements. Most of these date back to the 14th century and sometimes earlier. Peat-cutting for fuel occurred at some locations on Dartmoor until certainly the 1970s, usually for personal use. The right of Dartmoor commoners to cut peat for fuel is known as turbary. These rights were conferred a long time ago, pre-dating most written records. The area once known as the Turbary of Alberysheved between the River Teign and the headwaters of the River Bovey is mentioned in the Perambulation of the Forest of Dartmoor of 1240 (by 1609 the name of the area had changed to Turf Hill).
From at least the 13th century until early in the 20th, rabbits were kept on a commercial scale, both for their flesh and their fur. Documentary evidence for this exists in place names such as Trowlesworthy Warren (mentioned in a document dated 1272) and Warren House Inn. The physical evidence, in the form of pillow mounds is also plentiful, for example there are 50 pillow mounds at Legis Tor Warren. The sophistication of the warreners is shown by the existence of vermin traps that were placed near the warrens to capture weasels and stoats attempting to get at the rabbits. The significance of the term warren nowadays is not what it once was. In the Middle Ages it was a privileged place, and the creatures of the warren were protected by the king 'for his princely delight and pleasure'. In 1844 a factory for making gunpowder was built on the open moor, not far from Postbridge. Gunpowder was needed for the tin mines and granite quarries then in operation on the moor. The buildings were widely spaced from one another for safety and the mechanical power for grinding ("incorporating") the powder was derived from waterwheels driven by a leat. Two chimneys still stand and the walls of the two sturdily-built incorporating mills with central waterwheels survive well: they were built with substantial walls but flimsy roofs so that in the event of an explosion, the force of the blast would be directed safely upwards. The ruins of a number of ancillary buildings also survive. A proving mortar—a type of small cannon used to gauge the strength of the gunpowder—used by the factory still lies by the side of the road to the nearby pottery.
Extending over three floors, the museum's fascinating collection and interactive displays bring to life "the people's story" for visitors of all ages. Highlights include a reconstructed Bronze Age hut, Victorian kitchen, blacksmith's shop and farming exhibits. Learn about traditional Dartmoor industries such as glassmaking, quarrying and rural crafts. Young visitors can explore discovery zones and dress up in historical costumes. The Museum is fully accessible to less mobile visitors and there is a lift within the main museum building suitable for wheelchair users. There is also a disabled toilet within the museum and in the museum courtyard. Please advise in advance if lift assistance will be required. There is no admission charge for Carers who are accompanying disabled visitors. There is parking for disabled visitors please phone for details. Dartmoor is known for its myths and legends. It is reputedly the haunt of pixies, a headless horseman, a mysterious pack of "spectral hounds", and a large black dog, among others. During the Great Thunderstorm of 1638, the moorland village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor was even said to have been visited by the Devil.
Location : 3 West Street, Okehampton EX20 1HQ
Transport: Okehampton (National Rail) from May 15th. Bus Routes : 5A, 6, 46, 178, and 630, 631 stop nearby.
Opening Times : Monday to Friday 10:15 - 16:15; Saturday 10:15 to 13:00
Tickets : Adults £4.00; Children £2.00
Tel: 01837 52295