History and the Evolution of the Landscape
The early settlers
As time went on we know that particular places on Dartmoor, like the valley slopes of the River Plym, became very popular with settlers. The Bronze Age people were pastoral farmers who arrived in this area over 3,000 years ago. They lived in small round huts built of granite boulders and wood with thatched or turfed roofs. On the Western slopes of Dartmoor many of the settlers grouped together inside large pounds where they could grow a few crops and bring their animals at night for protection.
What attracted these people to this area? The weather was warmer and dryer than it is today (some people claim it was more like the Mediterranean) and this allowed some trees to grow on the slopes of the valleys and even on Dartmoor. However, these trees were not too hard to cut or burn down to clear a place for a settlement. Above the valley slopes was the rich grassland which was needed to feed the animals; below the slopes was the forest which provided timber for building but also posed a threat from wild animals and even other tribes. Small streams and springs dotted along the hillsides provided a good source of water for the settlers. In the eyes of the Bronze Age people, these places were ideal sites to settle. The remains of these settlements are still visible in Shaugh parish near Trowlesworthy Warren and in more remote places such as Hentor and near Plym Steps.
Why did the descendants of these residents abandon the moorland farms? Perhaps the worsening climate (this was a period of global cooling!) meant that it became too cold and wet for comfort; or the excessive grazing of the animals over generations led to poor soils and therefore less grazing land. It is certainly known that the poor peaty soils and the upland bogs of Dartmoor date back to the time when these first settlers decided to abandon the moor. And so, Shaugh Prior parish had experienced its first big population boom. The moorlands were abandoned for nearly 2,000 years but new settlers joined the descendants of the Bronze Age people and together they cleared the forests and settled in the lower areas ....the farmed 'incountry' of the South Hams.....
The clearing of the woodland by farmers
The neatly laid out farms and fields of the southern part of the parish suggest a long history of people at work cultivating the landscape. When did the dense woodlands which once covered the lowland areas get cleared? Who laid out the neat pattern of hedges and walls? Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived in England around 450 AD and gradually pushed West reaching Devon in about 700 AD A few groups settled in the area which is now Shaugh parish. They would have cleared the land by burning and cutting down the forests to make large communal fields. These large open fields were often divided into strips which were allocated to individual families. Some evidence of these strips can still be seen in the shapes of the fields on some of farms. For example, the maps show the fields between Nethershaugh and Purps (grid reference 537626) as long narrow and slightly curved in shape. This is good evidence that these fields were once part of large open plan fields which were later subdivided with hedges. The farmers who had shared ploughs, pooled their oxen and agreed on what to grow in the open fields each year came to see the advantages of controlling their own land . They started to exchange strips and to hedge their fields. This process was usually completed by about 1400 in Devon. On the edge of the moorland independently minded farmers may have 'gone it alone' from the beginning. They cleared tiny fields from the woods, often leaving areas of woodland as thick, high hedges. The Tithe Survey map (1841) shows that some of the fields South of Shaugh Prior and Wotter villages were small, irregular squares which are typical of this type of early clearance.