Long ago when walking the moor near Two Bridges, I had seen a wooden sign pointing to Wistman’s Wood and noticed some walkers following that path. As was my practice when ‘discovering’ the moor, I made a note of this for future reference. It was later, in January 2008, that I watched the first broadcast of “Earth Pilgrim” in BBC2’s “Natural World” series, presented by former monk, writer, conservationist, peace activist and Dartmoor resident, Satish Kumar. After seeing Wistman’s Wood featured in that programme, I resolved to visit the site when next walking that area. Even so, in my first two attempts to walk the path, I was beaten back by extremely harsh weather conditions. When I first managed to visit the wood, my friend and I were joined on the path by two Canadians who had learned of the wood from Satish Kumar’s writing.
The photographs were taken in varying conditions in October 2009, January/July/September/October 2010 and August 2013. They are presented in the sequence of my typical walk to the wood and back.
Wistman’s Wood is one of the highest oakwoods in Britain and, as an outstanding example of native, upland oak woodland, was selected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1964. It also forms part of the Wistman’s Wood National Nature Reserve. Wistman’s Wood is one of only three remote, high-altitude oakwoods on Dartmoor (Devon, England) that are remnants of an oak forest that once covered the moor. The moor is named after the River Dart which begins as two separate branches, the East Dart and West Dart rivers. The name ‘Dart’ is presumed to be British Celtic meaning either ‘oak’ or ‘river where oaks grow’. For example, the Cornish word for oak is ‘derow’ whereas the word for water is ‘dowr’. Writing in 1832, Anna Bray noted that the name was sometimes spelt ‘Darant’ and it may therefore have the same origin as the placename ‘Derwent’.
The first Mesolithic hunter gatherers to settle in the area after the last Ice age would have found the moor almost entirely covered in trees. The climate was warmer then than it is today. Land was cleared of trees for farming in about 5000BC beginning with the river valleys. Most of the prehistoric remains found on Dartmoor belong to the Neolithic and early Bronze age (c.4000BC – 1000BC). In fact, Dartmoor contains the largest concentration of Bronze Age remains in the United Kingdom and it is likely that a larger population moved onto the moor in this period. It is also likely that the higher slopes of the valleys were cleared of trees during the same period. Clusters of Bronze Age hut circles can be found throughout the area and reaves (linear features from ploughing that mark out Bronze Age field boundaries) can be seen on sloping hillsides. Standing stones and kistvaens (Neolithic stone, box-like tombs) are also found. From about 1000BC, the moorland climate became wetter and cooler over about 1000 years and the higher areas of Dartmoor were largely abandoned by their early inhabitants. Settlers began to return to the moor when the weather became warmer in the early Medieval period.
The abundance of granite boulders in the immediate area have protected the wood from agriculture and the damaging effects of livestock grazing. Wistman’s Wood has survived several periods of climate change and the oldest trees in the wood today are about 400 – 500 years old.
The name ‘Wistman’ may, as many believe, be derived from ‘wise man’ but could also originate from the dialect word ‘wisht’ meaning ‘eerie/uncanny’, or ‘pixie-led/haunted’. ‘Pixies’ (or’Piskies’) are strongly associated with Dartmoor and this particular area through folklore legend. They were believed to inhabit ancient ancestor sites such as stone circles, barrows, and standing stones. The word ‘pixie’ and its variants have origins in Cornwall and Devon. Both the belief and name are therefore likely to have a Celtic origin.
1. Wistman’s Wood at Wikipedia
2. Satish Kumar at Wikipedia
3. The BBC2 documentary “Earth Pilgrim” at Vimeo
1. Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names ISBN 0-19-852758-6
2. A Description of the Part of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy – Mrs. Bray (Anna Eliza) – Google Books
3. Wilson, Matthew (19 June 2015). “Twisted oaks and tales on the trail of Devon’s pygmy forest”. Financial Times
4. Westwood, Jennifer (1985), Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain. Pub. Grafton Books, London. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. P. 32
5. Eric Hemery (1983). High Dartmoor. London: Robert Hale. pp. 454–455. ISBN 0-7091-8859-5
6. Imagined Landscapes:Archaeology, Perception and Folklore in the Study of Medieval Devon, Lucy Franklin , 2006
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