Monday, August 29, 2011

okehampton castle

The evenings are drawing in now, the nights begin to have a chill and the air begins to smell of autumn as we face the prospect of another long dark winter ahead, so I can present to you one of the spookier places that I spend some time in on occasion.

Okehampton is situated in the geographical centre of Devon and to the south are the largest hills of Dartmoor, tree covered from this aspect, they rise quickly to 620 metres at High Willhays and Yes tor. A short walk from the town and to west are the ruins of the old castle. This castle was not ruined as is often by war, but by time, neglect and abandonment and also the fact that the locals nicked a lot of the stone to build houses from. An engraving from 1734 shows it already in an advanced state of decay.

The castle has been here for a very long time, the oldest portion being the part that looks like, but isn't, a large chimney and the walls surrounding it, which is in fact the remains of a stairway. This forward keep was built on a motte (an enditched mound) in the late 11th century and is one of the famous symbols of Devon. The larger keep behind it, which actually has the spookier atmosphere, (pictured above in photo nine) was built in the early 14th century.

The castle was first mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday book and is thought to have first been established in 1068. In 1274 the castle was described as 'an old motte which is worth nothing, and outside the motte a hall, chamber and kitchen poorly built.' although this should not be regarded as a full description of the whole site.

Okehampton shows signs of settlement going back a few thousand years and the choice of location for the castle is a natural spur of shale projecting into the valley of the West Okement river, which also gave control of a nearby river crossing. The field between the castle and river was waterlogged until at least 1800 and was probably so in medieval times. The slope underneath the keep is very steep indeed, and a tight path runs around the walls up there where you can scare yourself with the possibility of falling off, a prospect that the children seem to enjoy very much here as they run merrily around it. It has a long drop which is not really apparent in the photos.

There are many ghost stories associated with the castle (The Maid has one) which I haven't got the space to go into here unfortunately though I can say that I consider the best time to view the castle is any time after about 5:30, as the National Trust gatekeeper drives away and you are free to hop over the fence and walk around without paying for the privilege of your own history. Also at that time you can savour the pleasing sound of an enormous amount of Jackdaws and Rooks that inhabit two large neighbouring trees as they kick up their evening racket. They do very much add to the atmosphere.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

east dartmoor walk

A good walk out on the east of Dartmoor to see if I can locate the other stone circle in the area. To the south is the more famous Scorhill (pronounced skoh-rull) stone circle which is easy to get to by walking from Gidleigh and which is popular both with walkers and photographers, and it is a beauty. I get off the bus at South Zeal and walk south a few miles down the lane avoiding the massive shape of Cosdon Hill which at 550 metres I don't need to be walking up today and then out onto the moor by following a lane made up of large stones, up over a hill and tor and down the other side heading westwards.

It is very difficult to locate anything out here as the landscape is so vast and empty that there isn't much in the way of landmark to orient yourself to. Finding a small stone circle in a landscape that is liberally covered in rocks turns out to be more of a challenge than I expected and I miss the circle completely on the way down. Realising that I had probably missed it I decide to work my way back up the hill again to see if I can see it on the way back, and there, just at the point of my giving up finding it, it appears, a low collection of stones arranged as a circle in exactly the same place as they were set about 4000 years ago.

Dartmoor is an odd and empty place and although very green is as close to a desert landscape as we get around here. Lots of sky, lots of grass and then the occasional sheep, cattle and dartmoor pony, but very little else. Easy to get lonely in this emptiness as you are made very much aware of your own insignificance, not only in space but in time as well. All afternoon and to the east I have been observing a large dark cloud shifting and spinning, building itself up to a large raincloud. It promises rain but as so often lately, it doesn't deliver.