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August 2012 - Whither Withycombe?

Helping the Dartmoor National Park Authority

at Widdecombe

Tamar Dowsers’ events come in all tones and textures, various colours and contents. This one was a magical mix of the agricultural and the archaeological, with a dash of water divining and earth energy dowsing for added interest.

Our day in Widecombe (aka Withycombe - the valley of the willows) got under way with a fascinating talk by Margaret Rogers on the history of her farm and its previous occupants. To a lowland and more urban audience, her explanation of the social history of the area and of the evolution of upland farming practices was a fitting introduction to the event. Margaret’s family have farmed in the area for several centuries, and her discourse on the trials and tribulations of rural management over that time helped to put into context the testing cultural and economic changes of more recent times.

We were then handed over to experienced local historian Peter Rennell, who used maps and aerial photographs to illustrate the findings on the site to date - and to explain the area’s archaeological and socio-historical record. In a nutshell, the former Widecombe North Hall lies beneath a field of sheep, just behind the main tourist café. It is known to have been a mediaeval building, later comprehensively robbed of its stone to construct, amongst other things, the nearby rebuilt tower of the church of St Pancras, which was destroyed by a lightning strike in 1638 - an event that killed four members of the congregation and injured another 62!

After an opportunity to admire a remarkable collection of local antique agricultural equipment, housed in Margaret’s barn and awaiting renovation, we ventured onto the site of the North Hall itself. Led by Alan Neal, we were soon able to pick up the alignments of some of the internal and external walls - thankfully with suitably mediaeval dowsing dates. However, we also found the remanence of a previous construction, possibly partly thatched or slated, dating to around 1100 - and also the outline of a complete and substantial cook-house to the north of the hall itself. Our dowsed walls matched pretty well with the fragmentary evidence of two open trenches, yet to be backfilled following a recent archaeological dig.

An ancient trackway, overlaid on an even more ancient ley - which in turn corresponded to the alignment of a geological fault - leads from the former manor house to the church - and passes between two substantial stone stanchions, still embedded in the wall of the churchyard.

In the next field to the north of the hall lies an even more enigmatic complex. On one of Peter’s aerial photos, taken in the 1940s, are what appear to be outlines of several rectangular buildings. The site has a distinctly pre-Roman feel to it and our dowsing certainly picked up the energetic traces of several round houses. However, these were not the shapes on the aerial image. Alan dated the latest occupation of this part of the site to have been around 500AD, with previous cycles of habitation back to as far as at least the Bronze Age.

The dowsing was difficult, especially given that we were on quite boggy ground, but the consensus of our short period there was that we were sensing agricultural enclosures - possibly even fish containment moats or stew ponds dating from between the 13th and the 18th centuries. The superfluity of surface water today gave this suggestion some credibility, but in the absence of anything visible or tangible, there would need to be a much more extensive survey undertaken. Having invited ourselves back (!) for another visit, on another - hopefully drier - occasion, we broke for a late light lunch and then headed off to the parish church.

Given the disproportionate size of the Church of St Pancras, it is sometimes referred to as ‘The Cathedral of the Moor’. We picked up the 14th (and possibly 13th) century stonework in the earliest phase of the current building. We also found the outline of an earlier construction - presumably built of wood - inside the church itself.

The massive tower, rebuilt partly with stone from the North Hall, marks the crossing point of at least three leys. One of these exits through an ancient doorway, which was presumably part of the structure destroyed in 1638.

A fourth ley courses through the oldest part of the church, which now looks like a forgotten side chapel, and houses the organ. It traverses the current nave diagonally. The tower is also unusual, as it does not contain the typical large central energy spiral. It has just a couple of smaller spirals, which were probably not even inside the footprint of the tower’s smaller predecessor.

The font had evidently been moved from its original site on crossing water lines, possibly to avoid a pillar, which would have partially obstructed the congregation’s view of baptisms. It is likely that this move was contemporary with the relocation and reconstruction of the pulpit in Victorian times.

Widecombe church, sited on its textbook celtic llan (or raised ‘circular’ mound), was clearly a sacred site long before Christianity rebranded it for more modern times - and there was dowsable evidence for religious activity and standing stones on the site, possibly dating as far back as the Neolithic period.

A particularly pleasant spot, slightly to the left of the energy crossing point in the nave, and just in front of the astonishing remains of the late mediaeval rood screen, gave some of us the chance to recharge our batteries.

We were also afforded a brief opportunity to explain the practice of dowsing to visitors from Germany - and even to give a young French lady her first experience of the craft.

Many thanks to Michael Lamb and Margaret Rogers for allowing us access to their working farm, to Peter Rennell for giving up his time and sharing his local knowledge with us - and, as ever, to Alan Neal for setting up the visit.

Nigel Twinn

Tamar Dowsers

August 2012


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