WHITEHORSE HILL - A PROMENADE PERFORMANCE OF DARTMOOR'S HISTORY

The Play

Whitehorse Hill was commissioned from MED Theatre by the ‘Moor than meets the eye’ Landscape Partnership project. This project was funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund and spanned five years of heritage and wildlife work taking place on Dartmoor. 

MED Theatre’s brief when creating the piece was to produce a community play that explored central Dartmoor’s history from the Bronze Age to present day. We chose to do this across seven episodes. 

For more information on Whitehorse Hill as a performance please click the below link.

Music

Music for Whitehorse Hill  was composed by Gillian Webster and has been performed in the production by member of Wild Nights Young Company with Gillian’s mentorship. Singing of the songs is done by members of the cast as well as local school children who were recruited to be Lantern Bearers in the performances through outreach workshops.  

 

The HISTORY BEHIND WHITEHORSE HILL

In the play we travel through time, led by the Storyteller, beginning in present day before being swept back nearly 4000 years to the early Bronze Age. Here we meet Marwen, a chieftain’s daughter and witness her divination using tin and then continue on through time, visiting the Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, Elizabethan and Victorian eras on Dartmoor. 

Each period of time on central Dartmoor has significance, and in each episode Whitehorse Hill explores a story of the time and the possible visitors to the land. All of our stories in the play are inspired by either historical accounts or speculation and folklore, below you can find some of the background information for each period. 

Most prominent to our story, however, is the historical significance of the Whitehorse Hill Burial Cist, discovered in the peat near Postbridge… 

A Bronze Age Cist

In 2011 a Bronze Age burial site was excavated on Whitehorse Hill, near Postbridge. Discovered some years before, it was decided that the cist ought to be examined as the surrounding peat became less structurally reliable. In the excavation it was discovered that this ‘unreliable’ peat had in fact allowed the preservation of many organic and historically significant artefacts, buried within the stone chamber with human remains. 

Included in the objects that were found, in many cases almost entirely intact, were nettle clothing fibres, a woven basket, amber and shale beads, a bear skin, meadowsweet and tin beads, potentially made from local tin. The human remains are thought of have been that of a young woman, based on the fragility and size of the bones. Although this is only speculation, it is this young woman (likely to have been of some social importance within her village, based on the artefacts she was buried with) who inspires Marwen, the Bronze Age princess of Whitehorse Hill

Artorius the great Romano-British Leader

In modern society we are all aware, to some extent at least, of the mythical tales of King Arthur, his knights of the round-table and his doomed relationship with Guinevere. But to those living on Dartmoor in 440AD, this man of legend was possibly a much more factual figure, and one who influenced their lives greatly.

Artorius, the leader of the Romano-British armies, defender of Britain against the Saxons, was perhaps the inspiration for our modern-day stories of the great King. But why does he feature in Whitehorse Hill?

THE CHAIR AND OVEN OF KING ARTHUR

It is documented that, conscious of the need to impress their visitors, local escorts for a group of French monks travelling between Bodmin and Exeter in the year 1113 showed them the ‘chair and oven’ of King Arthur, which can be found north-west of the Warren House Inn. It is thought that the oven may be an ancient smelting site, in use possibly since the Roman times. 

TIN IN POSTBRIDGE

In the Romano-British episode in Whitehorse Hill , Artorius is crossing Dartmoor to Exeter, or ‘Isca’ as it was then known. It is implied that he is crossing the moor en route to meet with the miners at an old Roman mine, wishing to strike a deal with them and ensure that all tin is making its way to his armourers to make greaves. 

Tin was, as we know, very important to South West England’s economy for many centuries, and Postbridge in particular has a rich history of tin-mining. It is very likely that over the many years of tin use in armour, Dartmoor miners provided a good amount of the required tin.

CHAW GULLY

Chaw Gully, situated just under Challacombe Ridge, has always been known to the tinners as the ‘Roman Mine’ and according to legend it is guarded by an ancient raven. Over the centuries many greedy people are supposed to have perished in their quest to find the elusive treasure hidden inside the mine. On numerous occasions, intrepid adventurers have been lowered down into the shaft, but as soon as they started their ascent the old raven would croak and caw a warning from his lookout, and those stood around above would see a gnarled hand appear holding a knife. It would slowly start cutting through the fibres of the rope until it broke and the unfortunate soul suspended below would be sent plummeting to his or her death. In the morning the remains of the body would be found laid out on the heather beside the shaft, with the old raven looking menacingly down.

THE BUTTERGIRLS

In Anglo-Saxon Britain the audiences of Whitehorse Hill meet the Buttergirls, a group of young women who spent their summers on the high moor, pasturing their cattle in order to make the vital commodity of butter from their milk. It was common for our ancestors to spend vast amounts of time on high lands with their cattle in order to ensure grazing was prosperous.  

During this episode we also hear talk of the Vikings, who raided the Saxon villages of Britain as far inland as Lydford. 

BISHOP BRONESCOMBE AND THE LYCH WAY

The ruined clapper bridge over the River Dart in Bellever is part of the old Lych Way, the funeral path from the outlying settlements within the Forest of Dartmoor, known as the Ancient Tenements, to their distant parish church in the village of Lydford. In medieval times, the family and friends of the deceased would have carried their loved ones bodies to the parish church for burial. This was sometimes a lot further than you might expect, with it being eight miles from Pizwell to Lydford in fair weather (and fifteen in foul!) 

Walter Bronescombe was Bishop of Exeter between 1258 and 1280, and it was his decree in 1260 which  allowed the inhabitants of  Babeny and Pizwell to bury their dead in the much nearer church of Widecombe, rather than having to cross the highest and most remote part of the moor in order to reach Lydford. A story told about Bishop Bronescombe may have some bearing on the granting of this privilege. One day he was visiting the Dartmoor area of his diocese, and had decided to ride over the moor from
Widecombe to Sourton. He and his retinue had been caught in the mist, had laboured through bogs, and almost despaired of ever finding their way off the wilderness. The Bishop was overcome with tiredness and hunger. He turned to his chaplain and said, “Our Master in the wilderness was offered bread made
of stones by Satan. If he were now to make the same offer to me, I doubt if I should be able to refuse.” Just at that moment a moorman appeared and began to approach; he had a wallet on his back. The Bishop asked him if he had any food on him, at which the stranger produced from the wallet a loaf and some
cheese. “You are welcome to these,” he said to the Bishop, “provided that you first bow down and worship me as your master.” This is exactly what the Bishop was about to do, driven on by starvation, when his chaplain noticed horns poking from the stranger’s hood, and saw that underneath his cloak a pair of
hooves protruded. He elbowed the Bishop violently in the ribs, and pointed. The Bishop suddenly realised the danger he was in, and made the sign of the cross. At which the moorman vanished in a puff of cloud, and the loaf was transformed to stone. The mist cleared, and the Bishop and his followers were finally able to find their way down to Sourton. But to this day, Bronescombe’s or Branscombe’s Loaf can be found marked on the Ordnance Survey map on Amicombe Hill.

Sir Walter Raleigh on the Moor

Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as being an Elizabethan explorer and infamous for being executed in the Tower of London, was Lord Warden of the Stannaries. In this role he presided over the Tinners’ Great Court at Crockern Tor, not far from Bellever, on October 27th 1600. 

FIERY DRAGONS ON DARTMOOR

Our character in Whitehorse Hill, Mary, an Elizabethan tinners’ wife, tells Sir Walter Raleigh of the visions she and other women have of ‘fiery dragons’.

In the most active era of tin mining, stories began to circulate of women who  could predict accurately the presence of large tin lodes  underground. But what was extraordinary was how the women claimed they knew where to dig for the tin – they said they were led there by visions of ‘fiery dragons’. Though most prominently recorded in Cornwall, there were also cases reported of women seeing these dragons in Devon. An old map of Dartmoor indicates that a Fiery Dragon was seen at Evil Coombe in the Plym Valley.

THE DARTMOOR EXPLORATION COMMITTEE

The Dartmoor Exploration Committee was a group of Victorian gentlemen antiquaries and archaeologists formed to carry out the investigation and in some cases restoration of Dartmoor’s prehistoric monuments. It included Robert Burnard, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Richard Nicholls Worth, Hansford Worth and J Brooking Rowe. Robert Burnard was a chemist, and was one of a breed of Victorians who championed the scientific approach to Dartmoor.