Last Updated on March 5, 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Not far from Princetown, on one of the highest points of Dartmoor, is the vast prehistoric site of Merrivale. It’s located on a vast desolate part of the high moors where the wind blows wildly and the whole area is often shrouded in mist. But, if you’re lucky enough to visit on a fine day, the rugged moorland scenery is simply breathtaking.
Merrivale and Surrounding Area
Merrivale is a small hamlet situated by the River Walkham just three miles north-west of Princetown. It’s totally overshadowed by an enormous spoil tip from the now-defunct Merrivale Quarry (formerly known as Tor Quarry) that started operating in 1876 and finally closed in 1997. The granite from Merrivale was used to pave Trafalgar Square and also the Falkland Memorial.
Just a couple of miles to the south-east is Foggintor Quarry (formerly known as Royal Oak Quarry) that commenced operations during the 1840s and supplied the granite for Nelson’s Column, Dartmoor Prison and many of the buildings in Princetown itself. It ceased operations in 1906.
The massive quarry that can be seen in the distance is all that’s left of what was once a large rocky outcrop known as Foggin Tor. Around the site are numerous industrial ruins and close to the road, within approximately 1/2 kilometre from the Merrivale prehistoric settlement, are a number of ruined cottages known as the red cottages. So-called, because their roofs were made of corrugated iron and painted with a rustproof primer paint, lead oxide, which was bright red in colour.
Merrivale Prehistoric Settlement
The Merrivale settlement is one of the largest and most impressive prehistoric sites on the moor and yet it remains relatively unknown. Unlike the more well-visited tourist destinations of Haytor or Hound Tor, the site is unlikely to be heaving with people, even on a beautiful summer’s day.
Close to the road are a large number of hut circles that form part of the Bronze Age settlement.
To the south of these hut circles are two double rows (or avenues) of low lying stones, over 4000 years old, that run in an east-west direction, with the Long Ash Leat constructed during the 19th century running between them.
It’s presumed that these rows and the small stone circle to the west formed part of a ceremonial or ritualistic area. There have been many theories put forward as to their purpose including that the rows functioned as a calendar to mark the summer and winter solstice.
The northern row of stones is just under 600 feet long and the southern row is over 860 feet. The width of both ‘avenues’ is approximately 3 feet and each row/avenue is made up of more than 150 stones.
To the west of the stone, avenues is a small stone circle, of 11 very low but chunky granite stones, that has a diameter of approximately 60 foot.
And very close to this circle is a Menhir (ie. tall stone) that is by far the largest piece of granite in all of the settlement standing at over 10 feet in height.
There are also numerous other features within the Merrivale monument including a number of cairns and a Kistvaen.
The whole area needs to be viewed first hand to really appreciate how vast it is, and consequently, just how important this place must have been to our distant ancestors. We can, sadly, only hypothesise as to why it was constructed in the first place and for what purpose.
Princetown – described by Cherry and Pevsner as – ‘Unquestionably the bleakest place in Devon – not only because of the jail. Princetown lies 1,430 ft high and exposed from all sides.’
Tavistock – One of the ancient Devonian stannary towns along with Ashburton, Chagford, and Plympton and situated on the River Tavy. Don’t miss the historic Pannier Market that houses an eclectic range of artists, various craftsmen and antique dealers all under one roof.
Buckland Abbey – A National Trust property that was the home to one of the greatest, or perhaps most notorious of Elizabethan privateers – Sir Francis Drake.