Sculpted by nature

WE DROVE AWAY from the sun-soaked, windswept sands on the sea front in Paignton (Devon) and headed upwards on to Dartmoor. We followed narrow roads, often barely wide enough for a single car, bounded by hedges, until we rumbled across cattle grids and entered the wide-open spaces of the moor. The roads remained narrow, but the vistas were wide open. Patches of the moor have been cultivated but most of it is not. Sheep, cattle, and occasional horses or ponies grazed here and there.

We headed up a hill topped with what looked from afar like the ruins of a temple or a small fortress. As we neared it, we saw it consisted of piles of huge flat surfaced, irregularly shaped greyish boulders piled on top of each other in what seemed like a state of precarious balance. It appeared as if a giant had collected these stones and put them together in piles, as if to tidy up the land around them, to clear the space for animals to graze. We had arrived at Combestone Tor. A ‘tor’ is defined as:

“… a large, free-standing rock outcrop that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest.”

The definition of tor includes the rocky outcrops I have seen in South Africa, where they are known as ‘koppie’ or ‘kopje’.

We walked from the car park towards the picturesque, tall piles of rocks, the tor, arranged almost artistically. Nature has done a better job aesthetically than many modern artists. A strong warm wind buffeted us as we approached them. It is weather conditions, like wind and rain, that have shaped the stones over the centuries and millennia. The formation of these geological formations began about 280 million years ago when molten rock crystallised to form granite (see: www.dartmoor.gov.uk/data/assets/pdf_file/0025/72097/lab-tors.pdf ). To cut a very long story short, rock covering the granite gradually wore away, allowing the granite to become exposed to the atmosphere. Oversimplifying a lot, the minerals between the lumps of granite became worn away by meteorological forces and, during the ice age(s), by mechanical forces generated by freezing and thawing. What has been left after all this is what we see today.  

The earliest surviving written mention of Combestone Tor was in 1333, when it was named ‘Comerston’ (see: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/combe_stone.htm).  On an 1809 map the tor is named ‘Cumstun’. Over the years its name has mutated to ‘Combestone’.

We wandered around the tor enjoying the amazingly balanced jumble of rocks of different sizes and the views of the surrounding landscape that stretches far below the summit of the hill (1168 feet above sea level) on which the weathered stones perch. Nearby brown cattle grazed, probably unaware of the strange geological formations, which we had come to enjoy. Recently, we visited the former home and gardens of the sculptor Henry Moore. His often huge sculptures dominate the landscape like the stone pillars that form the tor. Whereas Moore’s sculptures seemed to intrude on the landscape and deform one’s view of it, the rocky piles that comprise the tor feel harmoniously integrated into their surroundings.  Give me moor, rather than Moore, any day!

An old bridge on the moor

POSTBRIDGE IS A TINY SETTLEMENT in the middle of Dartmoor on the banks of the East Dart River, a tributary of the River Dart. The road that passes through the hamlet crosses the river over a venerable stone bridge (built in the 1720s). A few yards away from the bridge, there stands a far older bridge, a so-called ‘clapper bridge’.

The clapper bridge consists of four stone abutments (piers) spanned by three wide slabs of granite, each weighing about 6.5 to 8 tons. It is a simple but elegant structure, which has survived for many centuries. The bridge was most probably built to allow pack horses carrying tin to cross the stream on the way to Tavistock on the west side of Dartmoor. It was already in existence in the 13th century and is one of only 40 surviving examples of this kind of river crossing in the British Isles.

When we arrived at Postbridge during our journey from Cornwall to Somerset, the clapper bridge was crowded with camera-laden tourists who spoke German. Some of them were impolite, shouting at us rudely to get us to move off the clapper bridge so that they could get better photographs. Despite their uncultured behaviour, it was good to see that the bridge is still being used, albeit for leisure purposes. However, this is a far cry from what is depicted on a nearby pub sign: a horseman dressed in a red jacket riding his horse over the ancient bridge,