Natural England - A missing manor house proves an education on Dartmoor

A missing manor house proves an education on Dartmoor

16 November 2012

Dartmoor is famous for being steeped in myths and legends, from murderous giant hounds to mischievous pixies, but one little-known legend concerns the mysterious, ‘lost’ manor house of Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

Pupils take a break from the dig to learn about farm conservation
Pupils take a break from the dig to learn about farm conservation © Yvonne Salmon / Natural England

According to local tradition, an impressive moated, mansion called North Hall Manor once stood near the church in Widecombe.  Today no trace of such a house remains and its existence and location has been the source of much local speculation and research.

North Hall remained no more than a folk tale until a local farmer teamed up with Natural England and the Dartmoor National Park Authority to use the appliance of some clever archaeological science to help solve the mystery.

Believing that the remains of the manor house were situated on their farm, the landowners decided to turn detective.  As the land is in a Natural England Environmental Stewardship Higher Level Scheme (HLS), Natural England agreed to help by providing funding through the HLS scheme for a Time Team-style survey of the site.  The geophys equipment created an underground map of the site and revealed previously unknown features hidden beneath the farmland.  One of the features looked to be circled by a ‘moat’, raising the tantalising possibility that maybe the legend of the Manor was true after all.

To find out more about what lay buried on the farm, Natural England supported a week-long excavation on the farm earlier this year as part of the annual Festival of British Archaeology.  In charge of the dig was Dartmoor National Park Authority’s archaeologist, Andy Crabb, supported by a team of specialists and more than 120 local volunteers and Exeter University students.

The dig produced some revealing information about the site.  The foundation courses of a substantial wall 1.5m wide and made of clay-bonded granite indicated that a large building was once present on site.  A piece of high status 15th century pottery from Islamic Spain was discovered, suggesting the site was once home to wealthy and well connected people.

The excavation also revealed that soon after the site was abandoned it was extensively robbed for its stone.  It is probable that the stone was used to re-build Widecombe Church Tower in the 1640s.

The farm’s HLS agreement includes educational access options and pupils from Ilsington and Widecombe primary schools also helped out with the excavation.  As well as turning their hands to some digging, the pupils learnt all about the farm, its history, the food it produces and the conservation work carried out on the land.

On the final day of the event the site was open to the general public.  This proved very popular, with around 800 people attending.  Visitors were able to see the underground features that had been uncovered, see the finds and learn more about the likely location of North Hall Manor.  Everyone also discovered more about how Natural England’s environmental stewardship scheme is supporting the management and biodiversity of the site, the native breeds and the traditional orchards on the farm.

Land owner, Margaret Rogers, said “None of this would have been possible without the commitment to the initial survey work supported by Natural England.  The results inspired us to produce a farm educational access programme that gives young people the opportunity to explore the North Hall Manor site and find out more about the farm that stands here today, its history and wildlife.”

Yvonne Salmon of Natural England added: “It was great to see an event like this so close to Widecombe village centre and involving so many local residents and young people.  It really made history come alive.  Although there are lots of questions still to be answered about the missing manor, it seems that this farm is starting to reveal its secret past.”

The dig was the culmination of many years of research by Peter Rennells of the Widecombe History Group who has been a leading light in investigating the history of the manor and its location.  The excavation would not have been possible without the help and support of the landowners Margaret Rogers and Michael Lamb and funding from the Dartmoor Sustainable Development Fund.