11 April 2015

The Beacon, Woodbury


'...the ridge ends in a rather well-defined 
mound commanding the level fields 
of rough grass, and a little knot of fir 
trees crowns it.'

M.R. James, A Warning to the Curious (1925)  

BEGINNING with a quote from what is undoubtedly one of M.R. James' best-known stories is perhaps rather clich├ęd, but as the subject of this piece is likewise a barrow arboreally adorned - as in the tale with Scots pines, although in this instance deliberately planted by the 1st Baron Rolle, about the turn of the eighteenth/nineteenth century - and commanding a dominating position not unlike the royal burial chamber which is at the epicentre of A Warning to the Curious, such an analogy is not, perhaps, entirely without merit. Before we turn our full attention to this site, it is first necessary to furnish the reader with a brief introduction to the land over which it has stood sentinel for more than a millennia

The Heaths of East Devon

The pebble-bed of East Devon extends inland from the coast between Littleham and Budleigh Salterton, forming a modest upland - 607ft at its highest point - which runs in a band some 1-2 miles wide between the Exe and Otter river valleys, the most northerly spur of which extending to just below Ottery St. Mary, and which here-and-there is bisected by roads, pathways, habitations, quarries, and parcels of farm land. The geology and flora of this 'bed' are peculiar: at one's feet is a sandy soil strewn with pebbles which are formed from rock some 44o million years old, whilst about one grows furze, heather, bracken, Scots pines, along with a smattering of birch and beech. Blocks of commercially grown pine may be discerned and embanked 'holloways' rich in hedgerow diversity lead down from the ridge, alongside innumerable winding brooks, to the verdant river-valleys on either side. These scattered islands of heathland are divided into a number of common lands, each associated with a nearby parish or settlement to which the denizens are granted historic 'rights of use'. These are, Woodbury, Colaton Raleigh, East Budleigh, Bicton, Hawkerland, Aylesbeare, Venn Ottery, Harpford, Dalditch, Withycombe, and Lympstone. These areas, some converging some isolated, but all sharing the commonalties discussed above, are known in the vernacular as 'The Common'.

The majority of European heathlands were formed by the piecemeal clearance of forest from light soils by a succession of Neolithic, later Bronze and Iron Age farmers for arable and pastoral farming, which use gradually denuded the land of its fertility; eventually admitting only hardier vegetation to take root, and relegating the areas to rough grazing and waste. An Iron Age hill fort (from which the nearby village of Woodbury derives it's name) and circa twenty-six Bronze Age barrows are testament to the antiquity of human occupation on the East Devon heaths, and it is in this direction that our first inquiry shall take us.

The Beacon, Woodbury Common

Our subject for this inaugural foray is a well-known landmark to denizens of the lower Exe valley. Standing proud from the escarpment which in this vicinity abruptly defines the westernmost extent of the pebble-bed and which boasts the highest point of the entire heath (Woodbury Castle, some 547yds to the south) is a well-appointed bowl barrow (SY 03258786) known locally as 'The Beacon'. Its status as a landmark is due in part to its position at a point when the northern-running scarp, from which it protrudes, sweeps around to the north-east, situating the tumulus on something of a promontory, and also to the crown of Scots pines which it bears. Indeed, it can easily be espied, along with the beech-capped Woodbury Castle adjacent, from such diverse locations as Mamhead Obelisk some 7.97 miles SW, or Killerton House (Dolbury hill fort) some 8.38 miles NNW. The prospect from The Beacon itself is magnificent and is eloquently conjured by local historian U.W. Brighouse in Woodbury: A View from The Beacon (1981):
'The eye, sweeping round clockwise from the mouth of the Exe estuary, takes in the red cliffs of Dawlish and Teignmouth, the highest points of Dartmoor sticking up in blue peaks above the straight line of the Haldon Hills, the great green basin of the Exe valley hemmed in by the red hills of mid-Devon; to the north-east, framed by the Honiton Gap in the Blackdown Ridge, is the familiar and favourite silhouette of Dumpdon – a prehistoric hill-fort crowned with beech trees; to the east rises Pinn Beacon with the sea beyond and in the distance Portland Bill, looking like an elongated island, sixty miles away in Dorset.'

Sadly the eastern view is now somewhat obscured by a straggly growth of pines, which lie between The Beacon and the B3180, which passes a mere 70yds away. Indeed, despite the proximity of the road the site itself is not as easily obtained as once it was: there used to be a small car-park adjacent, but during the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, when access to the British countryside was restricted, the various car-parks on The Common were sealed with earthen barriers to deny entrance to walkers. When the all-clear was given in late September of that year, not all these blockaded areas were reopened and that at The Beacon was amongst these; in the intervening years furze and bramble have contrived to erase all trace of the car-park. Of course this seclusion has doubtlessly aided preservation of the site from the erosion caused by the passage of many feet, and it should be pointed out that, although not obvious, the current approach is of no especial hardship for the veteran countryman. Given the dearth of visitors, it cannot be denied that the place exudes a silent and rather forsaken atmosphere, even on a warm April eve.

As mentioned, the barrow is currently shielded from the road by 
a small band of pines, but an overgrown trail passes through this 
barrier, revealing the above view.
Recent storms have considerably thinned the mantle of pines
on the summit, although enough currently remain to ensure
the site continues to be identifiable from afar. 
The barrow itself is flat-topped and is some 105ft in diameter and 11.9ft tall at the highest point. A low encircling bank runs around the central mound, but has been partially destroyed by some minor quarrying further down the escarpment to the SSW. Structurally it is similar to other barrows in the vicinity, especially that at SY 03758799 (on which, more later) and those which line the Four Firs Cross-Yettington road in pairs. Given that there is some controversy over the providence of these latter tumuli, doubt has also been cast on the antiquity of The Beacon. However, in the end, its solitary, prominent position and substantial size suggest an original Bronze Age site which has probably been improved for romantic purposes in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Interestingly, it has never been opened.

The flat-top of the barrow.
Looking south towards the beech-bedecked Woodbury Castle.
The broad ribbon of the Exe Estuary may be seen on the right.
Looking SW towards the Haldon Hills, which rise up from the 
Exe Estuary. The estuary mouth is hidden by the Scots pine on 
the left.
Looking WNW towards Exeter, which lies below the hills in
the centre of the picture.
The contention that this mound was used as a signal beacon was first proposed by H.R. Watkin in 1922. That venerable scholar's study of the cartulary of Torre Abbey - a collection of medieval deeds once owned by said abbey - revealed, in Charter 98 (which relates to the endowment of the farm at nearby Greendale Barton), the phrase: 'under the verbecna [fire-beacon]; and just as that way stretches as far as to chastiller [castle]'. Using some of the other topographical references provided in the charter, Watkin's was able to make a persuasive argument for this barrow being the mentioned fire-beacon. More recent investigations (1990 and 1997) have adjudged that there is no conclusive evidence to support such a hypotheses, but whatever the truth of the matter it cannot be denied that the site commands sweeping views of the surrounding area, as previously discussed, and would have served admirably for such a purpose. Regardless, it is still known locally as 'The Beacon'.

On the other side of the B3180 some 558yds ENE from the Beacon is sited another bowl barrow (SY 03758799), some 65ft in diameter and standing 7.6ft high. Similar aspersions have been cast about the site's authenticity. However, again due to size and location, it is now accepted as being an original barrow, albeit landscaped at the same time as the others (the surrounding ditch is considered to be an addition of this time). Again, it has never been excavated.

Looking WSW towards The Beacon from the summit of the barrow 
at SY 03758799. The B3180 snakes past to the right.