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Exmoor National Park National Mapping Programme project

Exmoor was designated a National Park in 1954 and falls within the counties of Devon and Somerset - 21% in Devon and 79% in Somerset. The landscape of the National Park includes woodland, moorland and agricultural land, plus 55 kilometres (34 miles) of coastline, all contributing to its varied character. Economic pressure for increased diversification is resulting in changes to traditional farming practices are placing mounting demands upon the historic environment of the park potentially putting both known and unrecorded historic sites at risk.

Colour aerial photograph showing a hilltop with pasture fields and heather moorland beyond.
Iron Age enclosure and possible field system of Furzebury Brake photographed on 02-NOV-2006. © Rob Wilson-North

The project

The NMP survey set out to record and assess the archaeological remains within the National Park contributing to the discovery of new sites and the management of known monuments. The survey was carried out by two members of ENPA staff based in Exeter using National Mapping Programme (NMP) standards. It confirmed the effectiveness of NMP in enhancing our understanding of upland landscapes in the south-west previously demonstrated by surveys of the Mendip Hills and Quantock Hills and hinted at for Exmoor by the previous project on the Brendon Hills and the Severn Estuary Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey (RCZAS).

The National Park

The National Park is administered by a free-standing local government body, the Exmoor National Park Authority (ENPA), which has the usual range of statutory duties including responsibility for the historic environment, the conservation of which forms one of the National Park’s purposes, formalised under the Environment Act 1995.  However, Exmoor is facing a period of change and mounting demands are being placed upon the historic environment from a variety of directions.

Economic pressure for increased diversification is resulting in changes to traditional farming practices, providing an array of new challenges to the management of the historic environment. These include, for example, the growth of commercial shoots and the planting of associated cover crops, spreading scrub growth on the moors and the break up of traditional family ownership and land management due to rising property speculation.

The earliest monuments: changing perceptions

This survey has added to our knowledge of prehistoric settlement and farming on Exmoor with examples of typical Iron Age or Romano-British farmstead from lowland areas of Britain being identified for the first time in Exmoor in upland locations. One such example, a rectangular multiple-ditched settlement enclosure was identified on Stoneditch Hill, just to the west of Combe Martin. This site was seen as a cropmark on one RAF photograph taken in 1954.

Nearby, a second new discovery of a type not previously recorded on Exmoor and possibly of national significance was found perched above the precipitous coastal cliffs of Combe Martin, enclosing the summit known as Little Hangman. It is also visible only on a single aerial photograph as an earthwork. The site is reminiscent of a Tor Cairn, as found on Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, but is significantly different in construction and setting – neither Dartmoor nor Bodmin have a coastline! Its precarious location perched at the top of a 1000ft cliff seems to have held special significance and is a good example of how the work of NMP is changing perceptions about Exmoor's past.

Black and white aerial photograph showing a steep cliff dropping into the sea with pasture fields beyond
The Little Hangman enclosure perched on top of the cliffs photographed by the Ordnance Survey on 04-MAY-1989. Was Little Hangman a focus for Neolithic ritual or religious activity? (OS/89114 653). © Crown copyright. Ordnance Survey OS 89114 653

Reclamation and farming

Many of Exmoor’s fields have medieval origins, but it is evident that many field boundaries have been lost only since the Second World War. Traces of the medieval strip fields on which many modern boundaries are based could be seen using a range of sources including recent infra-red photographs.

The expansion and contraction of farming is clear on the margins of many former commons, where abandoned medieval field systems are clearly visible. However, it is possible that some field systems have even older origins. Flint scatters have been found within the area of this abandoned medieval field system on Southern Ball, to the east of Malmsmead, and it may have origins in the prehistoric period.
Many of Exmoor’s fields have medieval origins and the expansion and contraction of farming is clear on the margins of many former commons, where abandoned medieval field systems are clearly visible.  However it is possible that some field systems have even older origins.

Black and white aerial photograph showing a number of fields with curving edges; some are divided by small lanes or tracks
Curved fields near West Lyn photographed by the RAF on 11-APR-1947 (RAF CPE/UK/1980 F20 4050). Historic England RAF Photography

Following the Knight's acquisition of the Royal Forest, innovative farming methods and techniques, such as model farms became more widespread. One of the most frequently recorded during the NMP survey are water meadows or field gutter systems. During the 'hungry gap' between March and April when fodder for livestock was scarce, water diverted from streams or springs was made to overflow from leats or 'gutters', flooding valley slopes with fresh water. This prevented the ground from freezing, allowing an early flush of grass for livestock to graze upon. Such water meadows are widespread on Exmoor and complex systems can cover many hectares. Many remained in use until the early 20th century and, at a time when organic and sustainable farming is becoming increasingly popular, it may be that a few will make resurgence in coming years.

Black and white aerial photograph showing pasture fields surrounding a farm just south of a narrow river valley
Catch-meadow irrigation on Exmoor photographed on 15-APR-1972 © Crown copyright. Ordnance Survey OS 72065 191

War on the moor

The Second World War triangular concrete roads of the tank firing ranges near Minehead are well known and have been recorded as part of the Severn Estuary Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey (RCZAS), but aerial photographs can shed light on more ephemeral evidence of Exmoor’s role this conflict. For instance, practice trenches on The Warren at Watermouth Cove are indications of training in the construction of field defences.

On the north of Brendon Common at Slocomslade, prefabricated structures provided accommodation perhaps for the very troops enduring this training.

Black and white aerial photograph showing a number of structures arranged around a clear area encircled by tracks
Slocomslade military camp photographed by the RAF on 11-APR-1947 with huts, circular water tank and the outlines left by a tented encampment (centre). (RAF CPE/UK/1980 F20 3044). Historic England RAF Photography.

Numerous tracks lead from this camp to a firing range on Brendon Common, which was developing rocket technology for the delivery of chemical weapons. Although never employed for this purpose, these weapons proved invaluable during D-day. The intensity of the testing is illustrated by thousands of small craters, and although the full extent of the range has not yet been ascertained, it clearly extended over great swathes of Exmoor.

Black and white aerial photograph showing an area of rough moorland with tracks leading down to a stream crossing
Artillery craters around Lankombe Ford photographed on 13-MAY-1946 (RAF CPE/106G/UK/1501 F20 3323). Historic England RAF Photography

The key findings from the project can be found in the report:

Exmoor National Park National Mapping Programme: Management and Summary Report

Exmoor National Park National Mapping Programme: Management and Summary Report

Published 1 July 2009

NMP report from the Exmoor National Park Project

The Archaeology of Hill Farming on Exmoor

The Archaeology of Hill Farming on Exmoor

Published 15 October 2014

Tells the story of hill farming on Exmoor through newly revealed archaeological evidence, illustrated with examples from the medieval period onwards.

£20.00

The images used on this page are copyright Historic England unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project, please contact the Historic England Archive.

For further information on a project or any other aspect of the work of the Remote Sensing Team please contact us via email using the link below.

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