Below the Holnicote Peat

Most of the area I work in is soft undulating country but Holnicote Estate on Exmoor, at the west edge of Somerset, has wilderness.

I prefer the route in via Tiverton.

Beyond Knightshayes, the countryside closes into a narrow erratic road, wooded, following a river torrent on one side and a steep, tree-covered slope on the other. Encountering a tractor here requires patience, there are no passing places.

At the Exmoor National Park Office, Dulverton, I meet Phil and Shirley. I pull out wellingtons, fleece and coat, put some lunch and water in my backpack and transfer into Phil’s car.

A journey of several miles past grazing ponies, zig-zagging up to the high moorland until we find Alderman’s Barrow.

This is where the South West Peatland project has been blocking drainage channels, cut in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Back in the day, the idea was to convert the rugged moor into farmland. Now it has been realised that the peatland must be conserved. The climate emergency has created the need for the carbon absorbing qualities of the peat to be fully utilised. The water must be contained and slowed so that the peat begins to increase again.

The car stops in a remote place with wide sweeping views across soggy tussock grass.

Another car is there and our guide Holly emerges, we join her on the exposed open road.

We step out of shelter, the beautiful blue sky day is modified by a cutting winter wind. I think of my protective over-trousers in the boot of the car at Dulverton, find a wooly hat in my pocket, zip up the fleece and shove my hands into coat pockets.

The outgrown beech hedge between the road and the moorland of Alderman’s Barrow. Dunkery Beacon in the far distance

We set off to a gate through a leafless outgrown beech hedge, squelch through the rough grassy peat and find a vantage point with a view to distant Dunkery Beacon. There’s a faint circular ridge here about 6m across. ‘Round House’ Phil says ‘built with its door facing Dunkery.’

We wondered whether there was some kind of sacred element to the orientation of the house.

We concluded, as we stood there, staggering slightly as the prevailing SW wind hit our backs… that the Bronze Age locals probably weren’t so stupid circa 4000 years ago.

It made sense to put the entrance on the sheltered east side so that the rising sun would shine through the doorway in the morning…..most roundhouses face east … the view to the moorland peak on the ridge was good though… it would have been more sensible to put it downslope a bit. Perhaps there were others there, though now hidden under the peat.

Standing on the site of the round house. Its entrance facing east towards Dunkery Beacon

Phil said that there was a another round house on the opposite side of the valley, just above the stone circle.

I thought of the reason I was here.

‘Where was the wood found?’

‘ Just down in the valley there, preserved about 2m under the peat’

We wove our way around pools and soggy areas balancing on tussocks. I noted a leak in my right wellington.

Just before Christmas, a cutting was made to block a ‘peat pipe’ (a water channel that develops under the peat… which is a bad thing as it takes away water). The project has been set up to create dams and pools to collect and slow water. In December, while some peat was being shifted to block the ‘pipe’, the digger bucket pulled up a mat of branches, twigs and leaves.

The preserved woodland found deep under the peat in December 2022, branches and leaf litter clearly visible in the digger bucket. Photo copyright Philip Wright

Perfectly preserved and probably contemporary with the round house we had just visited.

Detail of preserved wood Photo copyright Philip Wright

Wessex Archaeology have been commissioned to take the wood samples back to the lab and create a palaeoenvironmental assessment. The species of plants and trees would be identified along with any evidence of animal life.. including insects. This rich organic material will also provide samples for radiocarbon analysis.

The valley would once have been covered in trees. For warmth and cooking, the locals foraged for branches to feed the hearth of the round house. Then, in the later Bronze Age, there was climate change and the area became inhospitable. Intense rainfall and colder seasons made the ground waterlogged and the woodland died, buried by a developing blanket of peat.

Photo showing the depth of peat above the wood debris outcropping below peat. The wood fragments can be seen jutting out half way up the white section of the ranging rode. Each section pf the ranging rod 0.5m long. The bedrock is the lighter material at the bottom of the trench. Photo copyright Philip Wright

This period forced the upland people to migrate down to the lowlands. It’s a time of linear banks and ditches. Communities marked out boundaries, to show what belonged to them, keeping out the newcomers, the refugees.

A section across the 2.5m deep, Late Bronze Age ‘v’-shaped ditch at Kingston Lacy which runs from Badbury Rings across the Beech Avenue almost to Crab Farm and then turns east towards Bishops Court Farm a distance over 2km. It is a mystery why so much effort went into creating this huge boundary but movements of people caused by climate change is likely to have been part of the answer. We dug this section beside the Beech Avenue in March 1989 and it matches what we found beside Badbury Rings in March 2022.

I thought of the deep ditch and bank I’d excavated at Badbury last March. Lorraine sent the ceramics report back a few weeks ago. The fragments of pot in the bank and near the bottom of the ditch dated to this period of climate change, about 3000 years ago.

We got back in the car. Calm: that sense of relief to be in a sheltered place.

In the afternoon, Mansley Coombe, one of the five upland deserted medieval settlements on Holnicote. The Peatland Project is paying for a survey by Hazel to locate archaeology so that the peat creation work doesn’t damage it.

One of the house platforms (the moss covers, stones that once supported walls) beside the stream at Mansley Coombe deserted medieval settlement.

At Mansley, amongst some gnarled trees. A group of 7 or 8 small rectangular stone and earthwork building platforms. They lie beside a stream above a group of abandoned strip lynchets and clearance cairns. Never an easy place to farm.

Once again, a warmer 13th century made it worthwhile to make a living on this marginal land.. but the climate became colder and wetter.. and then came the Black Death in the 1340s. The farming families left and never returned.

Exmoor’s a raw, beautiful and exhilarating place but not a soft option. It was time to drive home to my easy, curving Wiltshire downlands.

3 thoughts on “Below the Holnicote Peat

  1. Loved this. We live not far from the south western edge of Exmoor and you reminded me that it’s time to visit again. It also reminds me of one of the reasons why I support the National Trust, as I have been interested in archaeology all my life. Thank you!

    • I’m glad you liked it Don. Archaeology is full of surprises and this discovery of woodland below the peat was an aspect of the subject that I’d never had the chance to experience before. It will be exciting to discover what the specialists make of this rare survival.

  2. Always fascinating professor and beautifully written. Glad you were discovering, rather than me-sounds rather inhospitable tho imagining how people lived their lives there, eye-opening! Thank you.

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