Moreton[hampstead] Parish covers 7,656 acres. Leaving aside the largest moor (Mardon) and the extensive woodlands along the steep south side of the Teign Gorge, 5,400 farming acres are left (of which about 20% is ‘rough’). The land is hilly and relatively high (500-1000 ft above sea level) and so is more favourable for small livestock farms than large-scale arable farming.
We have no written records for Moretonhampstead and its parish before 1086 and can only speculate with circumstantial evidence when settlement and farming first began here.
Almost everyone in Britain from about 4000 BC to the Norman Conquest of 1066 lived on a farm or in a small farming village; even so-called ‘warriors’ and ‘craftspeople’ still had to help grow much of their own food. A typical farm might contain one or more round houses inside a farmyard surrounded by a hedge and ditch. Wheat and barley were grown in adjacent small fields along with some beans and brassicas. Timber was an important ‘crop’ for fuel and making houses, sledges (not much wheeled transport here before 1815), furniture and tools. Cattle, sheep and pigs were kept for meat, leather, milk, wool and pulling ploughs. Chickens date from the late Iron Age (200 BC-43 AD).
The largest forms of prehistoric evidence locally are the archaeological remains on Mardon Down, just outside the town, which include the largest stone circle (38m in diameter) on Dartmoor, a pillar circle and a number of cairns. These date from approximately the middle Bronze Age of 2000-1500 BC. Unfortunately, they have suffered from the ravages of farmers, road builders, grave robbers and even early archaeologists. They were excavated as early as 1762 and Polwhele’s History of Devonshire referred in 1797 to a Mardon cairn ‘opened a few years since’ in which had been found ‘ashes, burnt wood and pieces of earthen vessels’. Other references talk of copper spearheads, British glass beads and an amulet of soft stone. None of these, unfortunately, have so far been rediscovered.
The stone remains that we can see today on Mardon were probably ceremonial sites and it is difficult to ascertain without an extensive excavation if they were contemporary with any settlement sites of early farmers. There is some possible evidence of ancient earth-covered stone banks called reeves, that acted as field or settlement boundaries, on and near Mardon but the most prominent that cuts across the south-west side of Mardon’s large circle, is not as straight as they usually are and so is probably from a much later period. The absence of a natural water supply probably restricted any permanent settlement. On nearby Butterdon Down two cairns were found as recently as 1977 and a nearby standing stone is probably prehistoric but the surrounding field system can be dated no earlier than medieval.
By about 1000 BC Dartmoor’s climate had turned wetter and cooler with a further considerable worsening around 600 BC. This caused the soil to be depleted and a growth in peat deposits leading to a gradual abandonment of settlement on the higher slopes although some still scratched a living in a small number of sites on the stony slopes of the fringes in places like Moretonhampstead.
In the north east corner of Mardon Down, there are banks with the appearance of parallel reeves running north east – south west and finishing at a terminal reeve. The eastern half of Mardon Down contains the remains of a probable prehistoric field system consisting of irregular fields exceeding 5 acres in area. The system obviously extended eastwards and is to some extent fossilized in the still enclosed land adjoining the common by Smallridge Farm. The system is difficult to trace on the ground, because of bracken and it is overlaid with the remains of strip fields incorporating ‘rig and furrow’ (dug by a spade rather than a plough as in ‘ridge and furrow’) of medieval or later origin.
To the south east of Mardon an area of 37 acres around Hingston Rocks also has traces of a field system, partly overlaid and partly adopted by modern boundaries. Mostly the fields are rectilinear, 5 acres or more in extent and possibly of prehistoric origin. A 5.5 acres pasture field contains traces of low rubble banks or lynchets, some 1.5m wide and 0.3m high, indicating field strips 20m by 40m which might be prehistoric.
Evidence of late prehistoric occupation around the moorland fringe of the parish is also seen by a number of hillforts with earth or stone rampart and deep ditches rather misleadingly called ‘castles’. Cranbrook Castle lies on a hill 1100 feet above sea level and overlooks the Teign Gorge, to the north. An outer univallate (i.e. with one bank or ditch) enclosure of 18.5 acres has been dated by the Bronze Age decorated Glastonbury pottery found in 1900 in hut circle no 2. An inner univallate hill fort, of Iron Age ‘B’ period (600-400 BC), with massive ramparts, over 2.0 metres high in places, with external stone revetment, encloses an area of 13 acres. 6 possible cairns were located in the interior and 4 hut circles were located by excavation within the inner rampart south of the east entrance, and finds included pottery, charcoal and sling-stones.
About 79 acres of rectilinear fields around the Cranbrook hillfort are visible on aerial photos but mostly unlocatable on the ground because of dense furze and bracken. The fields form a fan pattern around the contours, often about 40m by 200m in size, with very slight boundary banks which were visible and seldom exceed 1.2m in width and 0.2m in height. At two points, the banks are cut by the hillfort ramparts. A mark on the aerial photos of a possible former path across the fort suggests that it followed a reeve, since it links 2 external banks. Within and to the north of the fort the system has been superimposed upon in later, probably post-medieval times. Plough strips are clear on the aerial photos, and the score of clearance mounds in the fort are likely to be associated with this ploughing. The prehistoric system is clearly earlier than the fort. The vast amount of clearance stone in modern hedges to the south of the area suggests that the system, and associated settlement, extended well beyond the surviving boundaries.
Nearby Wooston Castle has also earthwork remains of an Iron Age multivallate hillfort dated to 2nd-1st century BC by comparison with similar earthworks excavated elsewhere. No evidence of farming has been found there but a little further away at Willingstone Rock the fragmentary remains of a field system are of probable prehistoric origin.