30 Years of Telling Stories about Dartmoor: a 380 Year Life History of Landscape Heritage Myth and Reality

Just a few weeks after I first came to Exeter University as an undergraduate student in October 1988, I remember being taken by Vic Ambler, the Warden of the St Lukes Hall of Residence, for an evening walk to Dartmoor. We got dropped off near Challacombe, and walked via Grimspound, the Headland Warren and Bennett’s Cross to the Warren House Inn. Just before we reached the pub, we walked past the Devil’s Playing Cards; four mysteriously shaped fields laid out on the hillside, in the shape of the four suits of a deck of playing cards. I remember Vic telling a story about how these got their name: that during a Great Storm, the Devil crashed through the roof of the Church at nearby Widecombe-in-the-Moor and carried off a man called Jan Reynolds who was playing cards at the back of the Church. As he flew across the moor, Jan dropped the four aces that he had up his sleeve and they fell to earth as four enclosures. I squinted at the hillside – OK; I could pick out the Diamond quite clearly… perhaps the Heart; but one needed to have a bit more imagination to make out the Club and the Spade. It was a good story – though I would have thought that the Devil would have been happy with someone playing cards at the back of a Church Service?

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Widecombe Church (Author’s Photo)

The walk, across Hameldown, between Widecombe and Warren House is one of my favourites, and the legend about the Devil is a nice story to impress visitors. It might even place me as a ‘local’, or at least as someone who ‘knows’ the Dartmoor landscape. Over the following years, I became more and more familiar with Dartmoor and its legends; lots about the Devil, many about ‘hauntings’, and a good few about environmental hazards – deep bogs or terrible storms. Indeed, there’s a story about a ‘Great Storm’ of 1638, written up on a series of tablets in the Nave of Widecombe Church, in which several people were killed – victims of God’s Judgement. I vaguely realised that the Devilish Legend about the Playing Cards was referring to the same storm event as the tragedy of 1638 in Widecombe, but never really followed up on how and why the two stories were connected.

In the Autumn of 2013, I was to run a 3rd year day field trip to Dartmoor to talk about landscape history and archaeology. The Headland Warren, Bennett’s Cross and the Devil’s Playing Cards was an obvious destination to take a group of third years in the Autumn Term of 2013, and all my Landscape Knowledge or Lore comes into its own when running such a student field trip. The legend of the Devil will be memorable for the students – just as it was for myself in 1988 – and if that helps to instil the ‘factual’ elements of landscape history, then all the better. On Friday 18th October 2013, I led a group of 35 students up to Dartmoor, as part of the Undergraduate Level 3 ‘Geographies of Heritage and Memory’ module within the Geography Department at Exeter.

 

I wrote a blog about this field trip here – and was struck by the juxtaposition of the two stories about the ‘Great Storm’. Of course, the students also asked some tricky questions – surely, they ask me, the Devil should have been happy that people were playing cards in Church(!); and how come the figure of ‘God’ turned directly into the figure of the Devil. These loose ends needed tidying up….

I re-visited the Church at Widecombe and took some photos of the tablets on the wall of the Nave. This story was very clear – that it was God that brought on the Great Storm and God’s Judgement that carried off several parishioners.

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The poem about the storm; Widecombe Church (Author’s photo)

I also began talking to my colleague in the English Department, Joanne Parker, who had previously written about Dartmoor stories and legends. We had been working together within the ‘Past-Place’ research team, at Exeter, and so the idea of producing a ‘life history’ of storytelling associated with an event such as the Great Storm took hold.

Together, we started to patch together the accounts of the Great Storm, of October 1638, from the first pamphlet publications only a couple of weeks after, through renditions in poetic and prose form during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and to their re-deployment in tourist legend in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first accounts of the event appeared in London in November 1638, and in this version, the storm is very much associated with God’s Judgement – though we also found the vestiges of some quasi-scientific reflection and interest. The Devil gets a mention in the 18th century, but only starts to dominate the accounts in the 19th century – which is the point at which the stone enclosures (the Devil’s Playing Cards) near the Warren House Inn enter the scene. At the end of 2019, we have now published a full scholarly account of this work in the Medieval and Early Modern Studies journal, Parergon, (Volume 26, number 2) https://parergon.org/current.html

  • Abstract: This article explores the nexus between the folk heritage of an unusual archaeological site, an early modern account of ‘ball lightning’, and the literary construction of an affective atmosphere. It examines how a violent storm in October 1638 provided a symbolic reservoir for narrative accounts of both the performance of God’s power and the Devil’s trickery, thereby providing lessons for civil conduct alongside explanations of some unusual archaeological features. Tracing a biographical life history of how the storm has been remembered at different periods since the event, we chart how various narratives of landscape can unfold over several centuries.

Just as my imagination was captivated in 1988 – and just as I have recounted it to many visitors in the last 30 years – the legend of the Devil has good currency through which to support ‘insider’ credentials. In some ways, its slightly comical and clearly mythical nature provides a gloss of specifically ‘local’ landscape knowledge. It is a story of ‘place making practice’, both over the last 380 years over which the legends have been circulated, and also the 30 years over which I have been telling the stories myself – as a ‘professional landscape historian’. And over the last 6 years, the blog on a WordPress site has now become a published journal article!

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Dartmoor resident (Author’s photo)

 

 

Norwegian Wood: Planned and Unplanned ‘Re-wilding’ in Norway and Scotland

I have just returned from my summer holiday, cycling along the coast of Norway from Kristiansand to Bergen; a beautiful part of the world, which strongly reminded me of many holidays spent in the NW Highlands and islands of Scotland. At least, I say that “it reminded me of Scotland”, less because of its similarity and more due to the fact that I kept on asking myself “Why is Norway so different from Scotland?!”

Of course, there are many similarities – of topography, geology, climate and traditional economies – which one might expect of two regions that are not too far apart, in the wet and temperate, Gulf Stream affected coastal highlands of the north Atlantic. But what struck me as more surprising was just how different the two regions were, particularly since the seemingly more luxuriant in flora and fauna (as well as perhaps the more populous) was the region lying further to the north: Norway. One might expect that the more northern region – more climatically inhospitable, wetter, more mountainous and more isolated – would be the tougher place to live, both for humans and for flora/fauna, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

This isn’t the place to get into the politics of concerted massive regional State spending in a comparatively equal society (just yet!), but it struck me that there was something more going on in Norway, in terms of landscape and ‘natural’ heritage management, than it just being the product of the oil money bonanza. Put simply, while much of the NW Highlands and islands of Scotland are fairly bare of forest, Norway seemed to be almost entirely forested – and without the densely-packed plantations that seemed to be favoured by the old Forestry Commission in the UK.

These questions reminded me of a blogpost I write back in May 2017, about issues of afforestation and ‘rewilding’ in Scotland and on Dartmoor. But, while many ‘rewilding’ debates in the UK tend to revolve around the twin issues of sheep farming and deer stalking, cast as a sort of zero-sum game, coastal areas of Norway seem to have plenty of sheep (mostly with bells around their necks) as well as plenty of forest.

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Typical forested coastline in Norway

While on our cycle tour, we stayed at a mix of ‘cheap’ (by Norwegian standards) hotels, hostels and campsite cabins, many of which had old photos on their walls; showing what their location looked like in the late 19th and early 20th century, before the Second World War, and before the oil bonanza. And the thing that immediately struck me was just how bare the landscapes were – these black and white photographs really did look just like Scotland. In Mandal, we stayed in a hostel that was once the town’s gaol. In their historical notes, I found a reference to how the gaol was planned to be built out of wood, but had to be built in brick due to the scarcity of timber in the region. Really?! … Norway ‘scarce of timber’?!

This was certainly a very different-looking landscape to what we were cycling through today. So, how did the paths of Norway and Scotland diverge so sharply in the later 20th century when it comes to forest cover?

On the face of it – following a few discussions with a professional forester, and some critical reflection on what I know, the following observations seem pertinent:

First: While both regions saw a general depopulation and experienced wholesale emigration in the early 20th century, the nature of this experience, together with the implications for landscape management were different. While it seems that land abandonment in Norway led to afforestation, the emptying of tenanted crofts in Scotland did not lead to a similar expansion of forests. This might be connected to differences of land ownership and tenure – with Scotland (in)famously divided up into huge estates owned by just a few hundred people, and Norway known for its small holding traditions. And/or I might be connected to the power and continued prominence of deer stalking in Scotland, which requires the wide open ‘empty’ spaces that you find in the Scottish Highlands.

Secondly, and connected: while walking and mountaineering pursuits seem to be popular in both regions, it struck us that forests were at the heart of expectations for walkers and backpackers in Norway – while the Scottish Mountaineering Council have (controversially) made a few strong statements about how the ‘empty spaces’ of the Scottish Highlands are what is expected.

Third: while George Monbiot and other rewilding enthusiasts seem to see sheep farming as a root of all evil, we saw a lot of ‘forest sheep’ in Norway. We presumed that the stocking levels and management systems of Norway must be different (?), but it suggests that sheep farming livelihoods and ‘Caledonian forestry’ can go hand-in-hand.

Lastly: we assumed that a wealthy State and strong regional policies were behind the apparent fertility and abundance of the Norwegian experience, but this has some interesting heritage paradoxes – that the experiences of so many marginalised and impoverished people in Norway can be largely forgotten and elided, partly due to the ‘success’ of contemporary landscape management. While we should cherish all that rich biodiversity, we should not forget that this resulted from abandonment and emigration – something that it is difficult to ignore in Scotland.

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Remains of old settlement, Glen Carnoch, Knoydart. Difficult to ignore the human story behind this ’empty’ landscape

 

 

 

Landscape Painting and the Invention of the Danish Landscape

I recently saw a very good seminar by Dr Gry Hedin of the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, in Copenhagen. Entitled “Can landscape painting influence climate change?”, Hedin’s paper explored the development of landscape painting in Denmark from the 18th to the 20th century. (See also Hedin, G. (2018) ‘Anthropocene beginnings: entanglements of art and science in Danish art and archaeology, 1780-1840’, in G. Hedin and A-S.N. Gremaud (eds) Artistic Visions of the Anthropocene North: Climate Change and Nature in Art, (Routledge; New York), pp. 15-40).

This was a period in which ‘deep time’ was discovered, and this narrative was communicated to the public partly through art. It was an excellent paper, lavishly illustrated with images of many of the period’s most famous artists, from Jens Peter Møller and JL Lund in the early 19th century, through the work of Skovgaard and Lundbye in the mid-nineteenth century, and Peter Hansen at the turn of the 20th century, with works such as Ripe Rye (1891):

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Peter Hansen’s ‘Ripe Rye’

It was the images of the paintings of this last group that struck me as being familiar, but I couldn’t place it at the time. According to Hedin, it was in the 1890s that a genre of Danish landscape painting developed that focussed on fields of cereal crops. These monochrome fields of industrial farming act as a celebration of human control and the practical marshalling of landscape resources epitomised for Hedin, in Peter Hansen’s The Ploughman Turns. Nature seems to be reduced to plain surfaces; a modern and thoroughly engineered landscape of production, clearly portrayed in Hammershøi’s Landscape from Falster for instance:

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Vilhelm Hammersøi’s ‘Landscape from Falster’

This is not a ‘natural’ landscape – and nor is it an ‘ancient’ landscape, unchanged for millennia. Rather this seems to be a narration (or ‘curation’) through which the rapidly industrialising landscape of late 19th/early 20th century Denmark can become naturalised, and legitimated as the authentic landscape of the Danish nation. Certainly, this genre of landscape art seems to go hand-in-hand with the development of modern Danish agriculture, which, through the attendant growth of influential agricultural co-operatives, lies at the heart of wider Danish modernisation and economic expansion during the 20th century. Harald Slott-Møller’s Danish Landscape (1891) is typical of this style of painting – the ‘natural’ national Danish landscape is a field of cereal crops:

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Harald Slott-Møller ‘Danish Landscape’

There are three ‘critical heritage’ points that I would like to make from this:

First, while the landscapes depicted in these paintings appear to be thoroughly modern – give or take some technical machinery, they could have been painted yesterday – one should always remember the side of things that they do not show, but which they are completely connected to. Most obvious to me – at least when I am cycling around the countryside near Aarhus – are the huge pig factories; covered barns and silos (to store all that cereal-based feed), which dominate the Danish rural landscape. Pigs are everywhere; you may sometimes hear them, you always smell them, but you never see them!

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Modern ‘pig factory’, near Odder, just south of Aarhus

Secondly, while these modern landscape paintings depict a thoroughly recent landscape, they seem to have instilled themselves within the psyche as to how the Danish landscape should look – and perhaps even as always looked. Most oddly to my mind, this industrial landscape has come to be seen as the epitome of a Danish landscape even among landscape historians and archaeologists who are working in entirely different eras. The Slott-Møller painting was familiar to me because I had seen something like it on the cover of a book: Fabech et al’s (2000) Settlement and Landscape. Skimming through the 54 chapters of this landmark publication by Aarhus University Press, I see that the vast majority of chapters deal with the Prehistoric era, with just a few chapters on the medieval era, and next-to-nothing on the post 1500 landscape, whether in ‘Denmark’ or elsewhere. It is perhaps ironic that the stork seen flying low over golden fields in Slott-Møller’s painting, is now extinct in Denmark – for reasons that I would assume are connected to all that modern industrial farming! It is a nice painting, but it seems odd that it somehow stands for ‘landscape’ to a group of archaeologists who are mostly engaged in Prehistoric subject matter.

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Settlement and Landscape, front cover, Aarhus Library

Lastly, as I cycled home from Gry Hedin’s seminar, it suddenly struck me why those images were so familiar. Of course, I had seen such an image, countless times, last Summer and early autumn. Mostly in magazines, newspapers or perhaps on bus shelters – connected to a massive advertising campaign by Danske Folkpartiet (the Danish People’s Party). Throw in a church and a flag, and for the Danish People’s Party this modern, recent and industrial version of the landscape is Denmark.

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Danish People’s Party poster

This is Denmark