There has been considerable interest, not only in Devon, in the announcement this year of a recently discovered stone circle high on Dartmoor. It was actually discovered back in 2007 by Alan Endacott, but the hard work of unearthing the stones (by the Dartmoor Preservation Association volunteers) was carried out in April 2015. I haven’t seen many decent photographs of the site, probably for three reasons: not many photographers have visited so far; the stones are all lying flat, making photography of the circle an interesting (and possibly thankless) challenge; and in order to show some detail in the stones in the endless tussock grass around Sittaford Tor, low angled, rather than overhead, sunlight is needed, so an early morning or late evening visit is pretty much essential.
Early in June I set the alarm for 3am so I could see in the dawn, and drove to Postbridge to take a favourite route to Sittaford Tor by way of the East Dart River and the double stone circle of Grey Wethers. I arrived at the visitor centre car park at around 4:15 and it was already lighter than expected, so I lost no time heading to the bridge and down to the infant river. I needed the sunlight to be at the lowest angle possible when I reached the ‘new’ circle, so had to limit myself to just a few images as I skirted around Hartland Tor. When I gained a little height over the Dart the first traces of dawn light appeared above, not yet hitting the land, but I knew that wouldn’t take long. Cotton grass swayed gently in the breeze (as it did throughout the walk) and birds struck up their dawn chorus. I would not see another human being for the next 5 hours.
Sunlight touched the top of Broad Down and the flanks of Sittaford Tor just as I reached the high point of the track west of Hartland Tor. This is a favourite part of the moor for me: the young river below, cairns and settlements opposite, and an easy track to follow ahead. I dropped down a few feet to capture some nice tangly gorse detail!
You can view another two of the photographs I took from here via this link. Back on the path, and within just a few minutes there was more light on the hills and a blue sky. The path ahead is impossible to resist, and I continued on, without stopping for more photographs, for another mile and a half. I felt this might develop into a blue sky day (and I don’t mean that in a good way!) but there would be plenty of clouds rolling in and out before my walk ended.
Just over half a mile south of the Grey Wethers stone circles the OS map details some hut circles. I’d never previously taken much notice of these (the pull of Grey Wethers being that bit stronger!) but the early morning light was modelling some of the stones rather well, and I wanted to record some detail of the route I’d just taken from Postbridge, so I stopped to make an image. I say ‘an’ image, but in fact the sun was veiled by thick cloud behind me every few moments, so I recorded several photographs within 15 minutes, and they all look quite different, this being the most effective.
The Grey Wethers stone circles lie uphill directly north of this, and as I approached I was reminded of the legend of a drunken farmer in the 19th century, new to the area, who it is said saw the stones from a distance in the mist, and bought them, convinced they were a flock of sheep! On my walk in June there was no mist, but I thought I would test the credibility of this with a long lens. Even allowing for the stones lying flat on the grass back in the 19th century, I wondered how drunk would you have to be…
The clouds kept rolling in as I reached the stones, standing just the way Robert Burnard arranged them in 1909 among the tussock grass. They may not quite be placed as they stood around 5000 years ago, but they are still a striking sight at the foot of Sittaford Tor, with the Fernworthy Forest to the east. This photograph shows just one of the circles; the two are best viewed from the flanks of the tor itself, about which, more later!
I began the long trudge from Grey Wethers up to Sittaford Tor, which always seems to take longer than expected (usually because I’m always looking back down the hill to view the double stone circles!). On this walk, though, at perhaps the half way point, I stopped when I saw a strikingly beautiful white pony standing still a little distance ahead of me, staring right back. It was quite the most captivating moment, and I have already written about it, and shared another image here. I couldn’t take my eyes off the creature (I can’t explain why), as it began to skirt from west to east around me. At the mid point I took another photograph:
My last view of the pony was directly above Grey Wethers, facing East, and in the large view you will be able to see the double stone circle beyond it (click twice on the image below):
From the top of Sittaford Tor I followed the wall leading south west for a few hundred metres looking for the marker stone I’d seen mentioned by others online. It is large enough not to miss, and the circle of (very flat) stones lies on the other side of the wall alongside it. Although the morning was by now bright and the visibility good to the hills over to the south, the cloud cover by this point was heavy and rather threatening. Quite a view though.
A few minutes later the clouds had really dropped, so the light wasn’t terribly attractive as I took this photograph to show the relationship of some of the stones to Sittaford Tor (top left). I’ve seen on YouTube at least a couple of videos of “Sittaford Stone Circle” which are clearly just taken from the top of the tor; I can assure you that these recumbent stones are not visible from there!
I felt an image showing some stone detail might be interesting, and the sliced grass around the large foreground stone here demonstrates how recently these great chunks of granite were unearthed. Note the Cotton grass all around in this and the next couple of photographs. Perhaps a century earlier the Grey Wethers stones were lying on the grass much like this before they were re-erected. The marker stone, standing by the wall outside of the circle, is visible at the top right of this image.
It is difficult to include many flat-lying stones in the circle in a single photograph, because they are tricky to highlight in this grassland, and the circumference of the circle is so large that the lens would have to be very wide, making the stones appear far too small. The panoramic image at the top of this blog piece, stitched from 9 vertical images, needs to be viewed very large indeed for full effect, so below is a smaller selection of stones, looking South and East from around the outside of the circle. Again the marker stone is visible to help give a sense of scale.
The view below facing north west shows 11 of the stones (there are 30 in total, excluding the marker stone) looking toward one of the wildest parts of Dartmoor. The circle has now been confirmed as the highest in Southern England at 1722 feet (525 metres) above sea level, is 112 feet (34 metres) in diameter, and is a similar age to that at Grey Wethers: between 4000 and 5000 years old. How wonderful it would be to see these stones erected again – and how much more visually arresting. I do hope this will happen.
I returned the way I’d set out, needing to get back home for early afternoon, but I did pause to admire the terrific prospect to the South East (toward Bellever Tor and Hamel Down) from the summit of Sittaford Tor. This photograph is worth exploring at the large size: please click on it to view.
The walk back down from the tor was in much better light than the ascent, and I couldn’t resist a couple of images of the Grey Wethers stone circles below. The first is from the higher vantage point:
The second, from a little lower (and with a slightly wider lens) shows some of the dreaded tussock grass that covers much of this part of the moor. There are thankfully ways around it for most of this walk, but places like Cut Hill (further over to the west from here) are, to say the least, a bit of a trial!
A final image of Grey Wethers shows one of the largest stones up close and also how the two circles relate to each other at ground level:
I took only a few photographs after Grey Wethers, because time was very much against me, having spent so long at the higher circle. I did stop for one more image by the wall under Hartland Tor. This wall feels to me like a kind of threshold between the gentler Postbridge aspect of the moor and the raw, rugged landscape that follows the East Dart back up to its source. In the late morning (it was around 11:30 at this point, I think) cloud shadows were flashing quickly across this hillside amphitheatre and it was time to turn my back on the wall, drop back down to the river and head back to the car. I met two more walkers on the stretch to Hartyland, and at least another dozen between there and the roadside bridge, partly explained by the coaches in the car park. I assume they wouldn’t have had time to explore very far.
It would take far less time to walk to the Sittaford Stone Circle via Fernworthy Forest, by parking near the wall at the end of the forest road, walking up west through the trees to the open moor, then heading due south to Grey Wethers and on up to the Tor. I’ve walked this route to Sittaford Tor several times, but where time allows my preference is always to spend a little time looking down at the East Dart from that enchanting path under Hartland Tor.