Post image for Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor

Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor

February 7, 2011

in Devon landscapes

Wistman’s Wood lends itself to mystery. It isn’t just the otherwordly feel of stunted, twisted oaks amongst a tangle of mossy boulders hanging with ferns and lichens. It isn’t just the puzzle over its name, variously linked to tales of druids, spirit hounds and devils. It’s also the mystery of why it exists at all.

Anyone who has enjoyed walks on Dartmoor knows that the high moor is a wide landscape of grass, heather and gorse punctuated by tors and peat bogs. But it wasn’t always this treeless. When the last ice age retreated much of Dartmoor was woodland, but 7,000 years ago hunters began burning the forest to encourage grazing animals. By the Bronze Age, most of the trees had been cleared for crops and livestock. Oddly, Wistman’s Wood remained, despite a sizeable settlement with 18 enclosures and 80 huts next to it.

Some have seen this preservation as evidence that Wistman’s Wood has been held in special regard since the most ancient of times. A rich legendary culture has built up, to the point where the wood has been described as the most haunted place on Dartmoor. It sits beneath Crockern Tor, the home of the pre-Christian spirit of Dartmoor who was said to ride a skeletal horse with a pack of phantom dogs. These were the Wisht Hounds, huge black dogs with flaming eyes that hunted the moors at night for the flesh and souls of travellers. Wistman’s Wood was said to be their kennel. As the word ‘wisht’ is Devon dialect for ‘uncanny’ or ‘haunted’ it is seen as a possible origin of the name. It may simply derive from the Saxon name for the native Britons, ‘wealas’, as it was still referred to as Welshmans Wood in the 1800’s. Some guess the name Wistman’s Wood to be a derivation of ‘wis’, meaning wise, and so speculate on the presence of druids.

Whatever the source of the name, as soon as you enter the woods you can guess why it remains uncleared: neither grazing animals or plough could penetrate. It’s densely strewn with granite boulders from the remains of a fallen tor, making it leg-breakingly difficult to move through but providing ideal protection for the pedunculate oaks to establish. The oaks remain stunted and twisted by climate and poor soil, hanging with lichen and moss and draped with epiphytic plants. In winter the bare trunks show all their strange shapes, and in summer it becomes a deeply green and lush fairy grotto. It is a remarkable remnant of ancient upland woodland and is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

I took this shot from a clearing, just where the last patch of grass gives way to moss and fern. The dappled light makes the greens glow richly against the dark oak trunks. Even though the wood itself is quite small, it gives the impression that once you step out of the light you could be easily lost.

Miles May 5, 2011 at 7:57 am

Very informative and well presented – you have a lovely website Lou, plus it’s nice to “meet” another local photographer on the web. Keep up the good work 🙂

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