The history of Challacombe Farm
Thousands of years of farming and mining
Although the landscape around Challacombe appears wild and natural, this quiet moorland farm has been inhabited and cultivated for thousands of years. Over time, people have changed and shaped the land; terraced the slopes, constructed boundaries to divide it up, carved out the streams, erected monuments on the hilltops and built in the valley. The landscape itself can tell the story of those who lived here.
In the context of its long history, our involvement in caring for the farm over the past few decades, is comparatively just a blip – but we want to make our own positive mark that future generations will enjoy.
Bronze Age – the First Dartmoor Farmers
Throughout Dartmoor are scattered the remains of prehistoric people; ceremonial sites, stone rows, tumuli and hut circles. Take a close look at a map of Challacombe and the surrounding area and you will see numerous ancient remains, including two stone rows. One leads to the most famous Bronze Age sites on Dartmoor; the remains of the village of Grimspound, built and occupied 3-4000 years ago.
Grimspound is a large circular enclosure containing 24 hut circles show where there were Bronze Age roundhouses. Built with a low stone wall, each had a conical roof thatched with brush or heather as the illustration shows. These people grew cereals and kept cattle and sheep on the open countryside around the village, bringing their stock into the enclosure at night to protect them from bears and wolves.
The land itself was mostly divided up by long low stone walls called reaves which ran from one hillside to another, whilst further reaves sub divided the land between the valleys. Having the power and organisation to divide up the land and to construct such extensive structures, as well as the impressive burial cairns, stone rows and other ceremonial sites, suggests that from very early times society was very organised.
You can find out more about Grimspound on the Legendary Dartmoor website.
Medieval period – Farmers and miners
The first written evidence of people living at Challacombe comes from the Domesday Book that mentions Challacombe Manor. Documents dating back to 1244 and 1303 mention Challacombe too. At this time the climate on Dartmoor was warmer and drier than today. Medieval farmers created the narrow strip fields (lynchets), which run along the west side of the valley. In a similar way to terraces, they maximised the ground available for crops, implying that during this period the land was being farmed much more intensively. Each farmer cultivated a number of scattered strips of land intermixed with those of his neighbours.
The 1505 Foresters accounts record a ‘vill' (small hamlet) at ‘Chalnecombe'. The people who lived in these ‘venville' lands were considered special tenants of the king. They had rights to graze cattle, gather stone and cut peat and in return paid a rent. It is said that people of venville lands they could have more or less what they wanted from the land except green oak and venison. They did however have to assist with duties such as the drift- collecting ponies off the open moor for sale; for which they could demand a halfpenny cake! Challacombe is still in royal hands, being owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.
Close to Challacombe's farmhouse you can see the remains of at least 7 medieval houses. The most complete incorporates many of the features of a Dartmoor longhouse, with animals and people sharing the same building.
By 1613 there were 5 tenements at Challacombe, which were in use until 1880. Some of the buildings were still in use at that time. One of the buildings became a cider house to serve thirsty miners from the nearby tin mines and it is probable that most inhabitants here combined farming with mining to make a living from the land.
Mining the land – 1200 to 1930’s
All over Dartmoor you will see evidence of tin mining . In the slopes of Challacombe Down you can see evidence of one of the earliest forms of extraction; streaming-taking alluvial tin from stream beds. Close by you will see low mounds; the spoil left over. The ore was taken to a nearby blowing house, where powered by a water wheel, it was crushed, the tin ore rinsed from the stone and then smelted down. Ingots of tin were taken to the stannary towns of Tavistock, Chagford, Ashburton or Plympton to be assayed and then sold. Evidence of streaming can be seen all over Dartmoor and the first written record of it dates back to the 12th century. It is very probable that from medieval times, Challacombe's farmers made a living by mining too.
Close by, near Bennet's Cross, are the remains of two of Dartmoor 's most productive mines; Vitifer and Golden Dagger . After streaming, deep excavations and mine pits up to 400 feet deep were dug here and at one time it employed up to 100 miners working in very harsh conditions. Golden dagger Mine (named after an ancient bronze dagger found there), closed in 1930 and was the last working tin mine on Dartmoor.
If you follow the path to Bennet's Cross you can explore the remains of the mine workings, engine house, miners' dry (a shed for drying work clothes wet from being underground), and the ruins of Dinah's House; a meeting place for miners. Carry on to the Princetown- Moretonhampstead road and you can visit the Warren House Inn once frequented by the miners. It used rabbits from the nearby warren to provide meals (and still serves a mean rabbit pie).