Time Periods

Medieval and later Moor

During the Middle Ages, after the previous centuries when Dartmoor’s inhabitants had been mostly temporary residents, farmers once more moved onto parts of the moor. However, these settlements lasted for only one or two hundred years before being abandoned. The ruins of some of these farmsteads can still be visited. Remains of the industrial structures used for extracting tin from the ground can also be seen.

People move back to the moor

This reoccupation of Dartmoor seems to have occurred around 1250 and is characterised by farmsteads or small farming settlements. More than a hundred of these settlements have been found on Dartmoor and some have been excavated (like Houndtor, Hutholes, Dinna Clerks, Dean Moor and Okehampton Park). These people grew crops such as oats and barley, and raised small herds of animals. Many of the houses within these settlements were longhouses, a building in which the people and cattle were housed under the same roof.

Rain, plague and wool

Most of the farmsteads were abandoned between 1350 and 1400, due to a combination of several influences. The climate had become colder and wetter and so harvests were more likely to fail. The Black Death took a severe toll on population numbers. There was also a general move away from arable farming in Devon to one based on large scale sheep farming. As in many other parts of the British Isles, sheep produced more wealth for the landowners than peasants, so the people were moved away to be replaced by this new cash crop. Amongst the biggest landowners on the moor were the monasteries of Buckland, Buckfast and Tavistock, which grew rich from the proceeds of the wool trade.

Dartmoor was again a landscape with few human inhabitants, and only stories lived where homes had once stood.

Medieval tinners and carbonarii

The other medieval product of Dartmoor was tin. Tin was extracted from stream gravels by panning, a potential occupation for anyone with a few hours to spare, or by more systematic opencast mining of the tin lodes. Some of the tinners would have been the local farmers whereas others would have journeyed up from the surrounding areas to work for a few seasons on the moor. Water power was harnessed to drive huge hammers to break up tin-bearing rocks, the sound of which would have carried for miles around. The remains of tin mills and the leats (man-made channels) that brought water to the mills can still be seen around the moor.

Another part of the industrial landscape was peat extraction, dug by hand from the moor to be dried and used for fuel. In an area where few trees grew this was an essential resource, especially for powering the tin smelting furnaces. By 1400 there were often over 100 ‘diggers of turves’ or carbonarii (workers who produced peat charcoal) working on the moor. Their living conditions would have been harsh.