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!)
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
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.
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.
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!)
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?!).
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).
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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 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
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.
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!
The Mediaeval Moor
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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?
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Find out how to get to Merrivale on your next Dartmoor hike below, and thanks for reading. Until next time…
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.
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
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
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