Stephanie Boon hiking on the South West Coast Smiling at the camera.

Blog

 FAQs    Contents    Resources    Say hello    About

Merrivale, Dartmoor National Park: A long neolithic stone row travels diagonally across a typical moorland landscape, with a second, parallel row in the near distance. A tor rises sharply on the horizon with a clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds above

Merrivale: Discover One Of Dartmoor’s Best Prehistoric Settlements

Dartmoor. Windswept, boggy, covered in thick mist or drenched in heavy rain. That’s the first impression you often get of this fantastic national park in Devon, whatever the season. It’s not the only version though: when I visited the Merrivale prehistoric settlement in mid-April, I was lucky enough to enjoy bright sunshine and no wind to speak of. (There was a bit of a nip in the air, but you can’t have it all!)

A hexagonal Dartmoor National Park sign, with a pony in the centre, is fixed to a low granite stone. The open moorland is rising in the distance and a few sheep graze in the fields below.

Heading up onto the moor from Tavistock

I was there for a guided walk that counts towards the ‘continual professional development’ I commit to as a Lowland Leader walking guide. Besides that, I was keen to learn more about a landscape I fell in love with decades ago.

The national park represents freedom and peace, spaciousness and the wildness of the natural world. Dartmoor looks the way it does though, because of thousands of years of human activity, and this activity was the focus of the guided walk.

We had a brief guide to thousands of years of archaeology, from the Neolithic age to 18th century industrial remains

A typical Dartmoor view near Merrivale Quarry. The front of the image is dominated by slabs of granite and golden, open moorland stretches away into the distance below.

Beautiful views above Merrivale

We were a small group, just me, another leader called Chris and our guide, Simon Dell. Simon is an expert on Dartmoor, a speaker and author of local guidebooks, so I was expecting a good day. It turned out to be a seriously good day. (If you measure a day’s worth by the number of times you utter the word ‘wow’ then this one was off the scale!)

We started our walk a stone’s throw from the Neolithic stone rows that Merrivale is famous for…

Merrivale Prehistoric Settlement

No one knows the true meaning of Neolithic stone rows and circles, but no one can deny the atmosphere they create. Their presence stops you in your tracks and Merrivale has such a profusion you can’t help wonder at the significance of this landscape.

This three metre tall standing stone is central to the Merrivale Prehistoric Settlement and stands in rough open moorland with a rocky hill rising behind.

This standing stone is almost 3m high

King’s Tor looms above a substantial 3-metre tall menhir with a stone circle beside it. There are two parallel stone rows, the longest I’ve seen, leading roughly east to west. There’s another single row too, as well as lots of smaller standing stones. And as if these aren’t impressive enough, there are more jaw-dropping revelations to come.

Merrivale prehistoric settlement is famous for its stone rows and this this photo shows one of the rows stretching from right to left across the frame. A rocky hill rises behind and there's a bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds - with no-one to be seen.

There are more than 50 stones in this row

Simon explained the arc of the winter and summer sun, where it set and rose, and the relationship of the equinoxes and solstices to the stones.

There were two things in particular that blew me away – god knows how many times I said “wow!”.

First, was the fact when you line up the taller ‘end stones’ on the eastern end of the stone rows, you’ll see the sunset directly through a notch in the rocks opposite on the top of Staple Tor. (I confess I can’t remember whether this was on an equinox or solstice, but I think it was summer solstice – however, don’t quote me!)

This is a view looking down one of the Merrivale double stone rows and it stretches way off into the distance. There's a taller lichen-covered granite stone in the foreground casting a shadow onto rough grass on this bright sunny day.

Looking down one of the rows from one of the taller ‘end stones’ (naturally, there’s one at either end!)

The Holed Stone (And My Seriously Bad Astronomy)

Second, and this one really is phenomenal, there’s the holed stone nearby. When you look through from the eastern side, the tall menhir beside the stone circle exactly lines up with – again, don’t quote me, my memory is rubbish for this kind of thing! – sunrise on the summer equinox. I think. (The sun was involved somewhere along the line (no pun intended). And so was the solstice or equinox).

Even more amazing is that if you look through the hole from the other side (ie facing east) it lines up with another standing stone and sunrise on the opposite equinox/solstice (winter?!).

This is a detail of a sharply focused holed-stone on the Merrivale prehistoric settlement with a a blurry moorland landscape in the background. The hole is an odd shape and the granite is covered in different types of lichen from pale grey to bright orange. All the lovely texture makes me want to touch it!

The holed stone

But, even more remarkable is that this holed stone is below knee-level so an ignoramus like me (and I’m guessing you!) wouldn’t notice it in a month of Sundays. Wow, wow, wow! (PS if you’re not an ignoramus (I apologise!) and would like to enlighten me on the movements of the sun, please leave a comment).

This is a view of a very narrow stream that runs parallel between stone rows on the ancient Merrivale settlement on western Dartmoor. It's a clear sunny day and the grass looks golden under the bright blue sky.

Views and stones seem to go on for miles

You Might Also Like

Discover this fantastic 17-mile walk in West Penwith: Tinners Way: 8 Of The Best Ancient Sites In Cornwall

A graphic for Pinterest

Save me for later!

From the enigmas of the Neolithic age, we stepped forward into the Bronze Age and the story of the Merrivale Cist, which is between the two stone rows.

The Bronze Age

The Merrivale Cist

Simon’s story of the Merrivale Cist began with a 19th-century farmer who planned to use the large granite capstone. He cut the stone in two and uncovered the deep Bronze Age grave below. The partially lined pit is over 2-metres long, which is large enough to take a body rather than cremated remains.

As minimal as it is, this type of grave was doubtless for the great and the good, but the acidic peat soil means any remains are long gone, so there’s no clue whether this great person was male or female.

The Merrivale Cist on western Dartmoor has a large almost oval shaped granite capstone lying on the ground. It appears to have been sheared in half. There's a shadow under the rock you can see a dark shadow indication the chamber below. It sits in a sparse moorland landscape, but if you look closely you can see two parallel stone rows in the distance.

Merrivale Cist (burial chamber) with one of the double stone rows in the background. You can also see Merrivale Quarry on the far hillside

The interred might be a mystery, but just think, the grave lay untouched for thousands of years and all it took was a Victorian farmer to come along and destroy it in a few brief hours – for gate posts!

Incidentally, you pronounce cist like ‘kissed’. This is because it’s believed to derive from the Celtic word ‘kistvaen’, which means stone chest.

As a side note, we had lunch on the cist and although Chris and I had sandwiches in our lunchboxes, Simon revealed he had Neolithic arrowheads and beads in his!

This was the best ‘show and tell’ ever!

Hut Circles – A Large Settlement

Simon Dell, our moorland guide, is striding across a bronze age hut circle in the Merrivale prehistoric settlement. He's walking towards a narrow entrance to the circle of low, irregular granite stones. It looks like a lovely spring day, but he's wrapped up well against the cold breeze.

Simon showed us where the narrow entrance to this hut would have been

There are so many hut circles in Merrivale that you can’t miss them. In fact, there are so many you’d trip over them in a thick mist without even realising.

They vary in size from the large to the bijou. (Simon told us that the large circle was an animal pound and reckons the tiny one is where they sent the inhabitant with the worst halitosis. But maybe a store’s more likely?!)

There’s another large settlement up the valley too, and I realised how populated this landscape was. Compared to the empty moorland landscape now, where we head for peace and solitude, it must have been hectic.

Merrivale, Dartmoor. Part of a bronze age hut circle arcs it's way to the left of the photo and a barren rocky tor rises on the horizon.

A Bronze Age hut circle. There are so many in this small area of Merrivale that you can’t possibly miss them

There’s one odd thing about the hut circles, though, and that’s a perfectly shaped round stone on the edge of the large pound. I asked what it was and discovered it was a much more modern (post mediaeval) apple crusher (for making cider, not another capstone, as many people think). What’s that doing here, I asked. There’s not an orchard in sight! (Obviously.) “They made it here, but didn’t need it so left it where it was”, said Simon. Ask a stupid question!

This is an oddity in the Merivale prehistoric settlement: there's a smooth almost circular stone slab lying slightly raised from the ground in the foreground that makes it really stand out. A hill rises in the background and Merrivale Quarry can clearly be see cut into the hillside.

Spot the incongruous stone!

This lichen covered, almost smooth oval stone sits on the edge of a Merrivale hut circle. It's coved in lichen with reeds growing in front of it and the shape of it is pretty obvious that it's of a totally different time period. It is in fact an apple crusher for cider-making, probably intended for Tavistock when it was first made.

The granite apple crusher was worked and left here

The Mediaeval Moor

Waymarker Stones

More exploring reveals tall medieval waymarkers on the south side of the road carved with an ‘A’ on one side and ‘T’ on the other, for the towns of Ashburton and Tavistock.

Waymarker, Merrivale: the letter A is carved into a tall granite post and the barren Dartmoor landscape stretches away into the distance under a clear blue sky.

A for Ashburton

They head off around the east of King’s Tor and mark an ancient track called the Abbots Way. (Before 1794 it was called the Jobbler’s Path.) The Way is 23 miles long between the towns of Buckfast and Tavistock and hikers still walk it today.

As tall as the markers are, I reckon you’d still have trouble seeing them in a typical Dartmoor fog — so if you plan to hike it, don’t forget your map and compass!

Dartmoor Longhouse

There were people living here during this period too and back on the north side of the road, you’ll find the remains of a dwelling. The building stands out thanks to its rectangular shape. It is, in fact, a typical Dartmoor longhouse.

These Dartmoor longhouse remains at Merrivale are very different from other parts of the settlement: low, rough foundation stones are laid out in a rectangle shape and overlook the spectacular tors of Dartmoor.

The Dartmoor longhouse remains

The dwellings were ‘shared accommodation’: the inhabitants lived in them cheek-by-jowl with their livestock. (Most people screw their noses up at the thought!) They were basic single-storey buildings with gabled ends, built in a simple rectangular shape with two rooms that were divided by a cross passage (hall). There was a small ‘top’ room for the human occupants and then across the passage there was a larger space for livestock (called a shippon). And this is where it becomes interesting: they built longhouses on a slope so that the slurry in the shippon would drain away through a floor-level drain. Genius! I thought so anyway.

This shows a view along a the foundation stones of a Dartmoor longhouse at Merrivale prehistoric settlement. The stones lead your eye along to Merrivale Quarry cut into the hillside in the distance.

Dartmoor longhouse remains. This is a view looking down towards the shippon, with the building’s entrance midway along the foundation wall

Besides the granite remains of the longhouse, Simon also pointed out an enclosure at the front of the building, which he said would have been somewhere to grow food. It’s hard to imagine anything growing in this exposed landscape, but in fact it was a change in climate that forced people off the high moor. That and the Black Death of the 1340s.

With that thought, and the end of mediaeval life on the high moor, we went down the road to hear about the lives of Merrivale’s 19th century workers: the industrial sett makers.

Modern Industrial Archaeology

19th Century Sett Cutting On The Moor

Large boulders seem to be formed into rough walls in the foreground of this stunning moorland view . You can see for miles on a spring day as sunny as this, but the stones might have offered shelter from the element to the people that worked here cutting setts from the moorland stone.

The sett cutters’ view across the moor

First off, what’s a ‘sett’?

A sett is a dressed stone cobble, and the sett-makers here at Merrivale made them in their thousands for the streets of Plymouth and Tavistock.

Men cut setts from granite lying on the hillside, rather than from a quarry, and I would never have known what went on here if Simon hadn’t shown us. (Simon co-authored a book on the subject.) Once you get your eye in, you can see evidence of industry everywhere, from the telltale ‘half cylinders’ on split granite, to the low ‘bankers’ and the staging where carts were loaded to take the setts down the hill.

Bankers

I’d never heard the word banker in this context before, but it turns out it’s a low stone platform for cutting the setts. You can see what they looked like in the photo below – they’re about knee height. The stone-cutters leant their knees against the granite and chiselled the stone towards themselves – pretty basic stuff. Bankers were everywhere on this hill, with mounds of off-cuts behind them.

Looking at the ground at a Dartmoor 'banker' used by the sett makers (dressed granite cobbles) on the hillside near Merrivale. The banker stones form a rudimentary workbench - a horizontal slab lies across two uprights, but nowadays the top of the slab is wonky and covered in sedums and rough grass.

Bankers are easy to spot once they’ve been pointed out to you! Look for knee-high slabs of cut granite (note the evidence of cylindrical drilling) lying across two upright stones.

Unearthing Loading Bays For Horse-drawn Carts

There was something else that was more difficult to spot, though. At first sight, the loading bays for the horse-drawn carts that took the cobbles off the hill looked like natural ripples in the earth. (See the photo below.)  However, Simon explained that the ‘ripples’, or parallel grooves really, were the exact width of an axle, and behind the grooves was a large slab or more of granite. (Axles have been a standard width forever – the width of a Roman chariot, to be precise!)

Looking for this kind of evidence made me feel like a real archaeologist!

It's hard to see, but if you look carefully you can make out two ruts in the grass in the foreground beside a large half-buried granite slab that's actually a 19th century loading bay for a horse and cart. Merrivale, Dartmoor.

The two parallel raised mounds in the foreground with granite slabs behind indicate that this was a loading bay

There were other clues to their activity on the moor, too. Down at the bottom of the hill, just off in the distance, was a wheelwright’s stone and the remains of a forge.

All this information, the stuff that makes the landscape come alive, is exactly what you’d miss on your average stomp across the moor (as rewarding as they are).

It takes time, and an expert guide, to appreciate the historical significance of place. And Simon Dell was brilliant.

Keep going to find out how to get to Merrivale, but before you go if you’ve been inspired why not support me to write more guides and articles?

Ko-fi logo

Join my other lovely supporters and POP OVER TO MY KO-FI PAGE AND BUY ME A ‘COFFEE’!

For the price of a coffee you can help me save for a rail ticket to one of our fabulous UK trails, which means I’ll be able to share everything I learn with you, just like I have here.

Thanks for your support (whether it’s a cuppa or click of a share button!)

Find out how to get to Merrivale on your next Dartmoor hike below, and thanks for reading. Until next time…

Happy hiking!

Stephie x

Where Is The Merrivale Prehistoric Settlement?

Here’s How To Get There

Start/finish SX 5606 7490 – Four Winds Car Park, Merrivale, Dartmoor National Park, Devon

The Merrivale prehistoric settlement is next to the Four Winds Car park just east of the hamlet of Merrivale on the B3357 between Tavistock and Two Bridges.

A typical, bare hawthorn tree stands stout and firm against the Dartmoor weather on this exposed rocky hillside.

A windblown hawthorn is a good indication of the direction of the prevailing wind (south-westerly in this case)

Travelling To Merrivale By Public Transport

Merrivale is on the western side of Dartmoor and the nearest town is Tavistock

There’s no train station in Tavistock, but the town is served by a number of regular bus routes from the surrounding areas (including the no.1 from Plymouth and the 118 from Okehampton).

It’s another 5.5 miles from Tavistock to Merrivale and although there is a bus service it’s very limited with only a couple of buses a day (none on Sundays or bank holidays): service no. 98 Tavistock to Yelverton. I decided to walk instead and the details are below.

NB If you’re travelling from the east of the country I recommend taking the train to Plymouth via Exeter and then completing the journey by bus from there (details below)

How I Got To Merrivale From Truro In Cornwall, Including Costs (2022)

Truro to Plymouth by train > Plymouth to Tavistock by bus > Tavistock to Merrivale on foot

I travelled by train to Plymouth using a Devon and Cornwall Railcard (approx £12 pa) for £13.25 open return. This type of ticket allows you to return within a month of your outward journey – perfect for a weekend away. (If you’re planning a longer journey, check out my article on how to find the best public transport prices.)

From Plymouth I took the number 1 bus service (Plymouth to Tavistock) from the bus stop in Royal Parade (a 10-minute walk from Plymouth Railway station) to Tavistock bus station. It took about an hour and cost £5.90 (single). (Download a bus network map for Plymouth for all services and stops.)

Then I walked from Tavistock Bus Station to Merrivale, stopping en route overnight at Tavistock Camping And Caravanning campsite.

Walk From Tavistock Bus Station To Merrivale (Four Winds Car Park)

(Approximately 5.5 miles)

Download my GPX file for free on OS Maps app.

Directions It’s a straightforward walk to the Merrivale Prehistoric settlement from Tavistock bus station: turn left out of the bus station onto the A386 and follow the signs to Okehampton round over the river, for about 10 minutes. You then pick up the B3357 (Mount Tavy Road), which heads uphill on the right-hand side (opposite a small green with benches beside the river) clearly signposted ‘Princetown’. Continue on this road through Merrivale village all the way to Four Winds Car Park on the right-hand side – surrounded by tall pine trees (grid ref SX 5606 7490).

NB. This is a road walk and the pavement soon disappears, so beware of traffic. However, there are grass verges in places, especially when you reach open moorland. I recommend high viz if you have it (a rucksack cover, for example).

Travelling By Car

At Tavistock on the A386 (Bideford to Plymouth road), you take the B3357 signposted to Princetown. Stay on this road through Merrivale village and on to the Four Winds car park on the right (it’s the only place with trees beside the road).

The two principal routes to Merrivale from the eastern side of the moor are from Moretonhampstead (approx 17 miles) and Ashburton (approx 21 miles).

Tavistock Camping And Caravanning Club Campsite

Tavistock Camping and Caravanning Club Site (Higher Longton)

The campsite is right on the B3357, 2.5 miles from Tavistock bus station. (SX 51701 74767 and also waymarked on the GPX file).

They say non-members are welcome and “we always have room for backpackers”

It costs just £7.80 per night for hikers without a car.

Tip: phone to book in as a walker otherwise if you book online you pay a much higher rate (the assumption being you’re camping with a car).

I had a really peaceful stay here. The facilities were excellent and spotlessly clean; I had a level grass pitch and there’s a small shop where you can pick up a few essentials. What more could you want?

Wild Camping On Dartmoor

It’s perfectly legal to camp in a lot of places on Dartmoor, but be aware that Merrivale is exposed, and

If you’re planning to head north of the B3357, you need to check the Merrivale Range firing times (MOD)

Looking For Somewhere Else To Stay?

If you don’t fancy a night in your tent, you could try the Dartmoor Inn Merrivale instead – it looks good for a post-walk pint too!

Guided Walks On Dartmoor

I can’t recommend Simon enough What three words? Passionate, informative, and fun!

Simon Dell MBE of Moorland Guides

This large granite boulder is evidence of how the granite formed around older rock in Dartmoor National Park.

Learn more about this amazing area (including geology – like this example of how granite has formed around basalt) on a guided walk with Moorland Guides

Where Next?

Why not explore another national park near Dartmoor: Exmoor: 3 Short Walks For Fantastic Photography or be inspired by the Lake District National Park in this article: Hiking In The North West Of England: Women Afoot With Sarah James. Enjoy x

Pin Me For Later!

A graphic for Pinterest

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.