High up on a desolate part of Dartmoor, is a rocky outcrop, known as Kestor. The hilly outcrop overlooks Chagford Common and Shovel Down, an area brimming with prehistory. Here’s a quick history as well as how to visit and things to know before you go!
The rocky outcrop stands at a lofty height of 437 metres (1434ft) on Chagford Common, approximately seven miles from the ancient stannary town of Chagford. It offers wide reaching views of the northern and eastern areas of Dartmoor National Park. On a particularly clear day you might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Exmoor in the far distance.
Little is known as to how Kestor came by its name, or even why the granite outcrop has always been referred to as a rock rather than a tor – just like Blackingstone Rock. However, William Crossing in his ‘Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor’ (1909) put forward a theory as to the origin of its name as seen below:
“It has been suggested that the tor may have derived its name from the Celtic list, I.e. chest, which, indeed, is not improbable, as its square form certainly gives it a resemblance to such an object. Though not of great size Kes Tor is nevertheless striking in appearance, its situation contributing greatly to this.”
The current spelling, Kestor, seems to have originated towards the end of the 19th century and and is perhaps a misspelling of the earlier Castor Rock. This spelling was used by Samuel Rowe when he wrote his book, ‘A Perambulation of the Ancient and Royal Forest of Dartmoor and the Venville Precincts’ back in 1848.
Rock Basins and Druids
There are a number of rock basins on top of the Kestor, of which one is considered to be the largest on Dartmoor measuring, 8 ft by 6ft 8in in width and approx. 30 inches deep. These basins are a natural phenomenon and caused by erosion through weathering.
The large basin was ‘rediscovered’ by a local antiquarian, George W. Ormerod in 1856 after having been filled in to protect the livestock from falling in. In former times the basins were attributed to being created by Druids as described by Mrs Anna Eliza Bray (1790-1883) in her book – Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire: On the Borders of the Tamar and Tavy (1844). She writes:
“…Borlase, in his Antiquities of Cornwall informs us that they (the rock basins) were designed to contain rain or snow water, which is allowed to be the purest. This the Druids probably used as holy water for lustration. They preferred the highest place for these receptacles, as the rain water is purer the farther it is removed from the ground. It’s being nearer the heavens, also, may have contributed not a little to the sanctity in which it was held.”
The romanticisation of ancient history led to a huge upsurge in antiquities and prehistoric monuments in Victorian England amongst the middle and upper classes.
This interest in archaeology had started in earnest in the 17th century with antiquaries such as John Aubrey recognising the significance of ancient remains like Avebury.
In Victorian England, Chagford was the place for tourists to stay on Dartmoor and from which to take guided tours. The monuments at Shovel Down and the Kestor rock basins became some of the main attractions of the day, similar to the way Haytor has become the current honeypot of Dartmoor.
The ancient Bronze Age settlement close to a ceremonial site at Shovel Down echoes that of Merrivale,near Princetown. There are numerous remains including double stone rows, a long stone, remains of a small fourfold circle and an ancient Field System.
Less than a mile away lies, the Bronze Age, Scorhill Stone Circle which is one of the largest and most complete to be found in Devon.
CHAGFORD – One of the four historic ancient stannary towns in Devon with a number of small independent shops. It’s also the perfect place to take a break and enjoy refreshments at one of the numerous small eateries. Elsewhere in the town, there’s a number of pubs and a historic medieval church worth wandering around.
SPINSTERS’ ROCK – A Neolithic burial chamber found in an isolated field not far from Chagford. The stones collapsed in the 19th century and were reconstructed, possibly, under the supervision of George Ormerod – discoverer of the Kestor rock basin. The stones are now found in a farmer’s field which is often filled with sheep and can be visited for free.
CASTLE DROGO – The last castle to be constructed in England and designed by the eminent 20th century architect – Edwin Lutyens for the entrepreneur, Julius Drewe. Today, the castle is operated as a museum which is owned and run by the National Trust. As usual, members visit for free while everyone else can visit for a fee.