Dartmoor’s Historic Landscape

The rugged and beautiful landscape of Dartmoor has not always looked as it does today. Over thousands of years, and particularly during the Bronze Age (about 2300 to 800 BC) and medieval period, people have transformed what was once a wooded landscape into largely open moorland. Taken together, the prehistoric and later remains that survive in abundance across the moor form one of England’s greatest archaeological landscapes, and provide many insights into the character, lives and rituals of the people who once lived there.

This page introduces the four sites English Heritage cares for on Dartmoor. Follow the links to find out about their history and how to visit them.

Prehistoric Dartmoor

The best-known archaeological remains on Dartmoor are those dating from prehistoric times. Foremost among them are the widespread and extremely well preserved remains of Bronze Age settlements, which can often seem hidden in the landscape. There are also extensive remains of ritual sites, including stone circles and stone rows, from the late Neolithic period.

Join properties curator Win Scutt as he visits English Heritage’s three prehistoric sites on Dartmoor – Merrivale Prehistoric Settlement, Grimspound, and the Upper Plym Valley – to discover what they reveal about life on the moor about 4,000 years ago.

Visit the prehistoric sites

  • Visit Grimspound

    The best known of many Dartmoor prehistoric settlements, Grimspound dates from the late Bronze Age. The remains of 24 stone houses survive within a massive boundary wall.

  • Visit Merrivale Prehistoric Settlement

    The group of monuments at Merrivale is one of the finest on Dartmoor: side by side here are the remains of a Bronze Age settlement and a complex of ritual sites.

  • Visit the Upper Plym Valley

    This extraordinary landscape encompasses some 300 Bronze Age and medieval sites, covering 15 square kilometres (6 square miles) of Dartmoor.

A deserted medieval village

By about 1000 BC, year-round occupation of Dartmoor had almost ceased. But during the Middle Ages favourable weather meant that crops could be grown on Dartmoor and farmers could live and work there the whole year. Dozens of small villages and hamlets developed high up on the moor, though many were abandoned during the 14th century.

In this short video, historian Nick Holder explores Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village, one of the best-known deserted villages in southern England.

Visit Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village

Listen to our audio guides

Our audio guides to the four English Heritage sites on Dartmoor are designed both to use on site and to enjoy at home. Listen to our experts Win Scutt (prehistory) and Nick Holder (Hound Tor) in conversation with Helen Allen as they explore the monuments and try to reconstruct what life was like for the people who once lived and worked here.

The links below will take you to pages where you can download the audio guides and accompanying maps that highlight the key locations at each site.


A Brief History of Dartmoor

Dartmoor in prehistory

Hound Tor
Hound Tor

Dartmoor’s granite rocks were forged about 280 million years ago, and gradually eroded to form the characteristic rocky outcrops known as tors. In the Mesolithic period (c.10,000 to 4000 BC) Dartmoor was a largely wooded landscape, in which small groups of people hunted wild animals such as deer and wild auroch cattle, and gathered berries and nuts. As agriculture gradually developed in the Neolithic period (c.4000 to 2300 BC), the early farmers began to clear the woodland in the lower parts of Dartmoor to create pasture for their animals. They also built communal tombs, such as the burial chamber at Spinsters’ Rock near Drewsteignton.

The population seems to have increased from about 2500 BC. Late Neolithic and Bronze Age farming communities continued to clear the woodland and built more elaborate monuments. At Merrivale, for example, the remains include three stone rows and a stone circle, which are part of a monumental landscape built by the living to commemorate the dead.

Bronze Age (c.2300 to 800 BC) farmers also built small villages of roundhouses, including Grimspound, one of the largest Bronze Age villages on Dartmoor. On the lower moors, these farming communities started to mark out the landscape with long stone and earth boundary walls, known as reaves, and smaller field walls.

But by clearing so much woodland for pasture, the Bronze Age farmers over-exploited the upland environment. The soils on the granite upland, cleared of woodland, were fragile, so from about 1000 BC they were becoming waterlogged. Peat bog began to blanket the depleted soils, which could no longer sustain a large year-round farming population. The settlements and fields were abandoned and Dartmoor became a summer grazing area.

Medieval hamlets

Aerial view of Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village
Aerial view of Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village

Between about AD 950 and 1250, year-round farming gradually returned to Dartmoor. The population of England was increasing and the climate was improving. Average temperatures and rainful were similar to what they had been in the Bronze Age (and to what they would be in the 20th century).

There were tin-trading and agricultural towns on the edge of Dartmoor, including Tavistock, Lydford, Okehampton and Ashburton. Up in the river valleys there were dozens of smaller villages, particularly on the more sheltered east side of Dartmoor. Farming hamlets such as Hound Tor developed higher on the moor around the 13th century, and for a century or two the residents managed to grow oats and rye there. New sheep farms were established on high Duchy of Cornwall land, a few of which survive and are known as ‘ancient tenements’.

By about 1300, however, temperatures were falling and so the summer growing season was getting shorter. Harvest failures and outbreaks of animal disease in the 1310s led to a nationwide famine. A generation later, in 1348–9, the global pandemic known as the Black Death killed around half the population of England. Many of the higher farms and hamlets on Dartmoor were abandoned, although others – particularly the sheep farms – survived.

Dartmoor’s industries

The remaining wall of one of the mine buildings at Eylesbarrow mine
The remaining wall of one of the mine buildings at Eylesbarrow mine
© Herby talk thyme, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

During the medieval period tin ore was mined on Dartmoor and then processed and sold to make pewter plates and drinking vessels. The tin mining industry subsequently declined, but revived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Industrial Revolution stimulated demand for tin and improved the technologies that made underground tin mining viable. Earthwork remains of the extensive water-powered mining and processing industry known as tin streaming can be seen in the Plym Valley. Nearby, the remains of the Eylesbarrow mine, which operated in the 1830s and 1840s, can be seen.

Several stone quarries opened on Dartmoor in the 19th century, including Haytor quarry, which supplied granite for London buildings including the British Museum. Entrepreneurs tried other industries on the moor, including the gunpowder factory at Powdermills near Postbridge in the second half of the 19th century.

Dartmoor today

Parts of the moor are used for military training and there is still some industrial activity including china clay extraction and stone quarrying.

In 1951 Dartmoor became one of the first national parks, with the land managed by a public body now called the Dartmoor National Park Authority. They have to balance the interests of farming and tourism, as well as the natural and historic environment. English Heritage works with the Park Authority to look after the sites at Merrivale, Grimspound, the Upper Plym Valley and Hound Tor.

Also of interest


    England’s prehistoric monuments span almost four millennia. Discover what they were used for, how and when they were built, and where to find them.

  • The Avebury World Heritage Site

    The area around Avebury contains an extraordinary cluster of prehistoric monuments. Find out more about this internationally important landscape.

  • Historic Sites of the Isles of Scilly

    The Isles of Scilly, off the south-west tip of Cornwall, are home to a remarkable range of historic sites, from prehistoric burial mounds to Civil War forts.


    Delve into our history pages to discover more about our sites, how they have changed over time, and who made them what they are today.

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