an enquiry into the sacred landscapes and ancient forest of dartmoor

This week I undertook a journey, with a few others*, to walk 56km. We explored some of the most significant sacred landscapes and ancient forests of Dartmoor – linking them directly back to Embercombe – thereby keying Embercombe, with its stone circle and woodland, into this same sacred and wooded lineage.

The journey took just over two days and this is what we discovered.

The high-land of the Dart has always been valued for its special qualities – today it might be for its exposed, featureless expanse of rough moorland, treacherous mires and scoured granite tors but seven thousand years ago it was revered as a thickly forested otherworld. These wooded remnants cling on in three diminutive places within the heart of the moor and still richly clothe the steep valleys that embrace it.

Neolithic then Bronze Age tribes saw this high place, above them, as a sacred land – a place to take their dead on a journey to the after-life and a place to return and seek their intercession with the spirit world. They cleared small pockets of forest to build dolmen, barrows or burial cairns with their kistvaens to hold their ancestors. Some of these cairns developed stone rows or processional walks that channelled the approach of both the dead and those wishing to commune with them. Some of these sites developed into larger ceremonial complexes that covered huge areas such as the Merrivale ceremonial complex or the Stall Moor stone row, at 3300 metres, making it the longest prehistoric stone row on Earth.

Looking at these sacred places it is hard to imagine them as they would have been – placed within a forest landscape. The forested Fernworthy stone circle and Assycombe stone row give some sense of what this may have been like, even though they are now surrounded by sombre, mirky plantation woodland. But whilst the stone rows were the runways or landing strips for the cairn gateways to the otherworld, the open stone circles were a place of ceremony that encouraged looking outward from within the circle into the landscape they were a part of. These stone circles were indivisible from the landscape around them – seen and interpreted together – even though their meaning is now long lost. Standing in the centre of Scorhill stone circle and facing the largest, most significant menhir you cannot help but notice that its point eclipses the White Moor Stone several kilometres away: a useful pointer for anyone, given that back then it was obscured by a million trees.

These high places of Dartmoor remained as forest for thousands of years. Initially as a happy hunting ground then as an ancestral burial ground and a ceremonial, sacred landscape. It was only later, towards the iron age, that this reverence for ancestral spirits started to erode and land pressure saw greater clearances of the forest. Permanent settlements started to appear – often on the edge or on these sacred sites.

The forest still remains within the folds of Dartmoor. What is left of this ancient Dartwood are just a hint as to the power and significance the forest had. And although one might point an accusing finger to those first small clearances in the forest to make way for those ceremonial sites – the increased clearance of the land pointed to the end of the Dartwood and the forgetting of sacred landscapes – their physical and spiritual memory eroded by the changing times of a more pressing humanity.

But the sacred places still exist. The landscape they sit in still exists. And the forest lives on too.

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Places visited: White Moor stone circle, White Moor Stone, Buttern Hill stone circle, Buttern Hill chambered cairn, Scorhill stone circle, Round Pound, Kestor Rock basin, Shovel Down ceremonial complex, Fernworthy stone row and circle, Grey Wethers twin stone circle, Assycombe stone row, Grimspound, Jay’s Grave, Houndtor kerb-cairn and cist, Houndtor medieval settlement, Black Hill stone row, Houndtor ridge, Houndtor Woods, Lustleigh Cleave, Casely Wood, Tottiford, Kennick and Trenchford woods and submerged ceremonial complex, Canonteign Woods, Embercombe stone circle and woodland.

*Accompanied by Rob, Alastair, Tina and Juliette.


wildcraft perspectives: just being….in nature

I spent last weekend, with Jane, a Wildcraft facilitator, immersing ourselves within nature. It will be something we will do alot of in Wildcraft.

We spent hours imagining ourselves as a deer as we picked our way slowly, with no purpose but existing, through the bluebell woods of the high valley in which I live.

We watched a buzzard quarter the rugged bluffs above us, scouring for a distracted rabbit. Its folorn cry a motif of the moorland beyond.

We stood, as one of our bronze-age ancestors may have done, on a granite promitory that jutted out into misty space hundreds of feet above the river that meandered far below on the valley floor.

In the dark shelter of the conifer woods I got down low, imagining myself as a woodmouse nibbling on a fir cone in the safety of my larder. I scampered around the bowl of a great tree.

I changed into that great fir tree, rooted deep in the peat soil then I became a squirrel, clambering, with its sappy branches in my paws.

Then, high up in the canopy, I imagined myself as an owl looking down from my lofty perch. I understood from this vantage why, as a mouse, I had taken twitchy care in my little journeys between stump and hollow.

We walked blindfolded through the woods touching and hearing the scenery around us.

We scraped the earth with our nails and breathed deep its herbal, resinous, mulchy smell.

We chased along trails and runs, tracing with our fingers, the bumps and edges of prints made by badger, deer and fox.

We made tea from spruce needles and nettles at a little camp amongst the jumbled boulders in the woods.

We got up before dawn and watched the sun pale the sky a rosie pink and light up the dew on the grass like a sea of fibre optics.

We had a front row seats for the Dawn Chorus.

I now feel, once again, very connected with the natural world around me.


wildcraft perspectives: childhood and adulthood

For more details on the Wildcraft programme then click here

Wildcraft is about many things. Foremost it is about our individual relationships with nature, our collective ancestral identity and how we can live together, today and in the future, with our tribe. It is also about strength, confidence and self-realisation.

But, importantly, it is also about childhood and adulthood.

Society has programmed us to ‘grow up’, to leave childhood behind, to leave its innocence, curiousity and playfulness: to put away the joy of now and strive for the future. When we are children we exist in the now. It is a valuable quality that the worries and vanities of the future and the regrets and dissappointments of the past seems to tarnish, over time. Dulling our lives. Wildcraft aims to celebrate the joy of being present, now. We aim to realise that we can pass into adulthood without leaving the child behind and that they can co-exist within us – one nurturing, protecting and guiding, the other full of curiousity, fun, hope, play and revelling in being fully ‘present’: here and now.

Society, in some sense, has been orphaned from its childhood. It may be some reason why, as adults, we have committed some of the most horrendous ills against each other and our planet. But those who hold Wildcraft really believe, that in some sense, keeping the child strong, clear and present within us will help it be the needle on our compass of adult life. Pointing us to make choices that hold the future of our children at their heart.

wildcraft perspectives: gathering and foraging

For more details on the Wildcraft programme then click here

Gathering fruits, flowers, foliage or fungi is part of a long tradition that links us directly with our ancestors. These men and women had a deeper, more fundamental relationship with nature and an understanding that its bounty was a cornerstone to their survival. For the Gatherer, it is the whole plant (root to branch), in every season, that tells a story of, as yet, un-tapped potential. We can walk down the hedgerows, over the hills and along the valleys: every new vista, with its plant-life, helps give us a natural sense of place: within its fecund food-chain.

We teach ‘Gathering’ on Wildcraft because it:

  • Links us with our ancestors – who had a deeper relationship with nature
  • Helps give us a sense of place within nature and its food chain
  • Gives us a sense of cycles and seasons
  • Applies science, art and story – in a naturally evolved context – bringing them to life
  • Gives nature depth and breadth and not just being seen as a ‘green blur’
  • Develops an awareness of what is edible and a ‘bewareness’ of what is not – equiping us with a healthy respect for this knowledge and the responsibility it commands
  • Reveals to us the bounty of nature
  • Increases observation skills – both in the micro (one plant) and the macro (the landscape)
  • Taps into our natural curiousity
  • Celebrates the role of the Gatherer in our society who has always held up the virtue of the Hunter.

wildcraft perspectives: ancestral craft

Through the creation of handcrafts using natural materials we seek a reconnection with the earth-based life of our ancestors. The production of craft items is the culmination of technique, tool choice, material choice, correct processing and safety…along with some creative judgement.

‘Crafts’ is a rather broad church that encompasses many of the skills and equipment to extract, process and use the raw resources around us in order to create useful or pleasing items. Being able to take seemingly un-usable raw materials and create something out of them not only helps to exist in the wilderness by helping us access and utilise our environment but it provides a creative interface with nature that is both aesthetically pleasing and spiritually rewarding. Importantly crafts embody a knowledge of how to make things of use and beauty and by mastering them means a preservation of ancient skills for the next generation and helps us continue to connect with the land around us.

We teach various crafts on Wildcraft because it re-establishes a direct link with our ancestors – placing us directly in their minds, but now, in the present.

It provides a link between the object being crafted and the resource that it is foraged from lying around us.

It teaches both an art and a science and how this comes together, with the application of skill, patience and effort to create something of use or of beauty…or both.

It inspires curiousity in the things around us and frees the imagination as to what can be made from it.

It shows us to make rather than just purchase is rewarding, giving us the confidence to make decisions as to what materials are most suitable and through what methods it can be achieved.

Best of all it helps us value nature around us: a value that which we will hold dear.

wildcraft perspectives: water

Life is made from and sustained by water. Without it we would last just days. Clean water would seem like a human right but in reality it is a luxury that over a billion people struggle to gain access to with over a quarter of the world population with inadequate sanitation: leaving them fighting for life itself. We have gone, and will go, to war over water. It quenches us and our lands. Without it there would be just a barrenness from which no seed will sprout. Water has shaped our landscape from the tallest mountains to the deepest valleys.

Knowing how to find water in the landscape, to make it drinkable and safe from pathogens and contaminants and to transport it enables us to travel further in the wilderness. Water lubricates our joints, aids our thought processes, helps our sight, keeps us cool, enables us to digest and release energy from our food to keep warm. Water not only shapes the landscape but it shapes us.

We teach ‘water’ on Wildcraft because such an important commodity should never be taken for granted – even what is hidden in the smallest drop. It is important to understand how dehydration can cut short more than just your enjoyment in hot aswell as cold climates, how unclean water can limit your ability to exist and how the animals, insects, plants and even the shape of the land can give you important clues as to the location of this precious life-giver – even underground.

For us on Wildcraft we drink water, wash with it, shelter from it, cook with it, stand among the trees that grow in it and rejoice it: we spend time listening to the rushing brook, marvelling at the primordial soup that forms a sluggish pool and give thanks to the trickle of rain that drops from leaf into cupped hand.

Wildcraft perspectives: fire

Fire is one of our most important elements in nature. It is our paradox: it is a destroyer and creator of life. But in its hearth modern humankind was forged.

We can date back the controlled use of fire over 1.5 million years through our capture and preservation of fire from natural sources (lightning, volcanic activity, forest fires etc). Its use enabled us to unlock the calorific potential of certain foods, thereby reducing the need for the evolution of large stomachs and putting our evolutionary energy into the creation of bigger brains instead. It also meant that we could make safe our water, preserve foods, ward off insects and animals, light our way, extend the productive day into night, make better tools and to inhabit colder climes.

Fire was at the centre of our societies – where people took embers from the centre-fire to their dwellings a short distance away. It was in part the use of this heat that fused society together. Communal ovens were still in evidence in very rural France as late as the middle of the 20th Century. Fire has marked our journey from the tree to the ground and has marked just about every important part of our evolution and technology in the past 10,000 years when we learned to make fire ourselves. Our love affair with fire has in turn stripped our land, sooted our atmosphere, powered our technologies and propelled our population to a tipping point.

We teach about fire in Wildcraft because on a practical level we need to be able to make and use fire safely and efficiently. We need to understand its fragility and respect its power. Mastering it enables us to recreate the interdepenence with nature and a link with our ancestors. It helps us survive. It also teaches us about preparation, patience and overcoming failure when your ember gets extinguished and you have to start over. We aim to show Wildcraft particpants that fire is not just about destruction but it is about preservation and creation. Whilst many would point to rubbing sticks together as the pinnacle of achievement, carrying an ember for a long journey and keeping it alive enough to light your fire at the end of the day is just as fundamental and was used for hundreds of thousands of years before we discovered how to make it ourselves.

For us on Wildcraft it is the fire that is a constant life at the heart of our woodland community for the week. It welcomes you in the morning and lulls you to sleep at night. It is around the fire we exchange stories, experiences and revelations. It is the fire that will be a beacon for us when we return after a long day in the wilderness – a place of gathering and joining as a single tribe.

Wildcraft perspectives: shelter

Shelter in its most basic form is just that: a shield protecting us from the extremes of nature – keeping us warm, dry, cool or safe. However, shelter is not just a physical sanctuary but a mental envelope – helping us face the challenges that these elements can throw at us; allowing us to withdraw – for a time – to a predictable place so we can regroup, recover or reflect. It is a place we might call home; a stable piece of land in a world of flux. A good shelter is one that becomes our bridgehead for pushing further into the unknown or a nest for when we have decided to stay a while longer. Sometimes this shelter might be a fallen tree or even the thin-ness of a hammock or a bivi-bag may be just enough separation from the raw elements swirling around you. It may be a more extravagant design for the longer term: it could even have a thatched roof and proper front door!

Learning how to build a shelter is an important cornerstone for Wildcraft. It teaches us about natural and man-made materials, different designs for different conditions, it teaches the practicalities of knots and lashings. It teaches us how to place and position a shelter in the landscape to ensure that it is safe, comfortable and has little impact. Best of all it shows that building it and living in it helps the bonds of the tribe become strong.

Making a shelter teaches you about your immediate environment (and much about the people who build it with you). However once you have mastered the basics of shelter building we like just sitting back and marvelling at the ingenuity of how our young Wildcraft architects set to making their own wonderful structures and show us that there are no limits to their untethered imagination.

Wildcraft perspectives: my eureka moment during Wildcraft week

When we first went down into the forest with our little troupe what struck me was the tempo. High output, high noise, high vibration – all casting a big pebble into the calm pool of the forest. The group wanted, some expected, one demanded to see deer. I kept on saying that if we make so much noise then the deer will stay on the edge of our ripples and beyond the limit of our senses. What we needed to do was to reduce the radius of our ripples and to expand the outer limit of our senses beyond the furthest ripple. Only then would we sense, see and come close to the wildlife around us. Still, we stormed on. My words largely unheard amongst the din.

I thought that society has primed us to expect things now…at the moment of want. However there is no ‘deer channel’ on TV here and even waiting gives no guarantee of getting. It is something you have to work at and only by doing so…with a modicum of patience….gift you the chance of reward.

After two days in the forest…our merry band were calmer, quieter and more sensitive to the forest that wrapped around them. They moved amazingly quietly…even as a group. Just thinking about it makes me proud.

For me, the eureka moment came upon the return up through the forest. We saw deer. Quite a few. I spoke. The kids told me to be quiet so they could see more! Being told to shut up was, to me, the greatest moment in a wonderous week of wildcraft.

Wildcraft perspectives: What is it?

Yesterday, someone asked what Wildcraft means to me. I could write books on trying to capture it essence  – and fail to trap it in text and cage it between covers. But if I was to, here and now, be asked, then this would be my answer:

To me wildcraft is many things – it is about our relationship with ourselves, the wilderness and our ancestors. It is about the bonds across time but between past and present generations. It is about preserving and enhancing this ancestral legacy (which was more attached to nature) and passing it onto the next generation -  so they can in turn pass these fast disappearing skills and understanding to their children. It is about unlocking the resources of the wilderness, to understand the riot of life and richness beyond the ‘green blur’ – so it becomes a place to feel at home rather than a place of discomfort, hunger and fear. The wilderness can be seen to have value that goes beyond its raw elemental character – a place to cherish not only for its amenity but a place to feed the soul. Wildcraft on one level is about hard skills to unlock this understanding and rekindle these relationships – but also it is about father and son, mother and daughter, grandparent and grandchild. It is about our primitive selves, it is about our primitive sense of family and community, it is about being primary. One day we might return to the forest and return to the trees – if not in body, then in soul.

Through my personal journey with the wilderness (which is still very much in progress)  I have seen that it heals, centres and levels a person. It helps us understand that all the other worries are part of a greater and more infinite perspective. The wilderness takes me out of the regrets of the past and the fears of the future and places me in the now. It has helped my mental, spiritual and physical health making me calmer, less angry, more resilient, less depressive and anxious. I see the effect on others too. I see the light shine strongly in people’s eyes when, through the wilderness experience, it has flicked that switch in their mind. Once this primitive valve has been freed again there is no switching it off. The light shines forever  – without flickering even in the strongest wind.