Exmoor was designated a National Park in 1954 and falls within the counties of Devon and Somerset - 21% of the National Park is in Devon and 79% in Somerset. The landscape of the National Park includes woodland, moorland and agricultural land, plus 55 kilometres (34 miles) of coastline, all contributing to its varied character.
The National Park is administered by a free-standing local government body, the Exmoor National Park Authority (ENPA), which has the usual range of statutory duties including responsibility for the historic environment, the conservation of which forms one of the National Park’s purposes, formalised under the Environment Act 1995. However, Exmoor is facing a period of change and mounting demands are being placed upon the historic environment from a variety of directions.
Economic pressure for increased diversification is resulting in changes to traditional farming practices, providing an array of new challenges to the management of the historic environment. These include, for example, the growth of commercial shoots and the planting of associated cover crops, spreading scrub growth on the moors and the break up traditional family ownership and land management due to rising property speculation.
Carried out by two members of ENPA staff based in Exeter, the Exmoor National Park NMP survey being carried out as part of English Heritage's National Mapping Programme (NMP). It is confirming the effectiveness of NMP in enhancing our understanding of upland landscapes in the south-west previously demonstrated by recent surveys of the Mendip Hills and Quantock Hills and hinted at for Exmoor by the previous project on the Brendon Hills and the recent Severn Estuary Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey (RCZAS).
The earliest monuments: Changing perceptions
NMP is adding to our knowledge of prehistoric settlement and farming on Exmoor. For instance, a previously unrecognised rectangular hillside enclosure was recorded on Stoneditch Hill, just to the west of Combe Martin. Typical of Iron Age or Romano-British farmsteads from lowland areas of Britain, its uplands location is unusual for the environs of Exmoor.
More Exmoor enigmas
Exmoor NMP has identified a previously unrecognised monument of a type not previously recorded on Exmoor and possibly of national significance. This enigmatic site, perched above the precipitous coastal cliffs of Combe Martin, encloses the summit of Little Hangman. It is also visible only on a single air photograph. The site is reminiscent of a Tor Cairn, as found on Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, but is significantly different in construction and setting – neither Dartmoor nor Bodmin have a coastline! Its precarious location perched at the top of a 1000ft cliff seems to have held special significance and is a good example of how the work of NMP is changing perceptions about Exmoor’s past.
Reclamation and farming
Many of Exmoor’s fields have medieval origins, but our survey has shown how many field boundaries have been lost only since the Second World War. Using a range of sources, such as the recent infra-red photographs (see image gallery on the right), NMP has recorded evidence for the medieval strip fields on which many modern boundaries are based.
The expansion and contraction of farming is clear on the margins of many former commons, where abandoned medieval field systems are clearly visible. However it is possible that some field systems have even older origins. Flint scatters have been found within the area of this abandoned medieval field system on Southern Ball, to the east of Malmsmead, and it may have origins in the prehistoric period.
Many of Exmoor’s fields have medieval origins and the expansion and contraction of farming is clear on the margins of many former commons, where abandoned medieval field systems are clearly visible. However it is possible that some field systems have even older origins.
Following the Knight’s acquisition of the Royal Forest, innovative farming methods and techniques, such as model farms became more widespread. One of the most frequently recorded during the NMP survey are water meadows or field gutter systems. During the ‘hungry gap‘ between March and April when fodder for livestock was scarce, water diverted from streams or springs was made to overflow from leats or ‘gutters’, flooding valley slopes with fresh water. This prevented the ground from freezing, allowing an early flush of grass for livestock to graze upon. Such water meadows are widespread on Exmoor and complex systems can cover many hectares. Many remained in use until the early 20th century and, at a time when organic and sustainable farming is becoming increasingly popular, it may be that a few will make resurgence in coming years.
War on the moor
The Second World War triangular concrete roads of the tank firing ranges near Minehead are well known and have been recorded as part of the Severn Estuary Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey (RCZAS), but aerial photographs can shed light on more ephemeral evidence of Exmoor’s role this conflict. For instance, practice trenches on The Warren at Watermouth Cove are indications of training in the construction of field defences.
On the north of Brendon Common at Slocomslade (below), prefabricated structures provided accommodation perhaps for the very troops enduring this training.
Numerous tracks lead from this camp to a firing range on Brendon Common, which was developing rocket technology for the delivery of chemical weapons. Although never employed for this purpose, these weapons proved invaluable during D-day. The intensity of the testing is illustrated by thousands of small craters, and although the full extent of the range has not yet been ascertained, it clearly extended over great swathes of Exmoor.
The images used on this page are copyright English Heritage unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project please contact the English Heritage Archive.
For further information on a project or any other aspect of the work of the Aerial Survey team please contact us via email using the link above.