South Devon Coast to Dartmoor Aerial Investigation and Mapping Survey

Area 1, Haldon Ridge to Dart Valley

Between 2018 and 2019 an archaeological aerial investigation was undertaken by a project team of staff from AC archaeology. It was funded by Historic England and hosted by Devon County Council within the Historic Environment Team.

Read more about similar aerial investigation and mapping projects in Devon (formerly called ‘National Mapping Programme’ or ‘NMP’).

Maps showing the location of the survey area in the south of Devon, centred on Newton Abbot.
South Devon Coast to Dartmoor aerial survey area 1: Haldon Ridge to Dart Valley.

The survey covers 290.5 square kilometres from Haldon Ridge to the Dart Valley. This area contains a high proportion of buried archaeological sites which are visible as cropmarks, as well as good survival of nationally significant earthworks. The historic environment here is under pressure from potential impacts as diverse as initiatives to reduce diffuse water pollution, to housing and commercial development.

The project examined almost 5000 thousand aerial photographs loaned from the Historic England Archive, as well as collections held by Devon County Council and modern digital datasets of vertical aerial photographs. Use of airborne laser scanning imagery allowed otherwise hard-to-detect earthworks and structures to be mapped and recorded.

In total, just under 1700 archaeological or historic sites were identified from the aerial imagery and recorded on the Devon and Dartmoor Historic Environment Records (HERs). 1260 archaeological sites were new to the record, an increase of 21%.

A number of different themes became apparent as the project progressed. These are summarised below but are covered in greater detail in the survey report, which will soon be available to download from the HE website. Individual monument records are available online via Heritage Gateway and are mapped on the Devon Environment Viewer.

Field Systems and Farming

A colour ground photograph with irregular earthwork banks in the foreground, and a wooded hilltop in the distance.
Denbury Hillfort on the horizon, with low irregular earthworks of Orley Common field system (MDV19187) in the foreground. Photograph: C Hegarty, May 2019.

In a predominantly rural county such as Devon, it is unsurprising that evidence of field boundaries and field systems were a major theme to emerge from this survey. However, with the exception of the Dartmoor reaves, evidence of pre-medieval land management is relatively rare across the county. So the remains found in the project area are particularly exciting, comprising widespread and well-preserved earthwork remains of Bronze Age to Romano-British field systems on the limestone plateaux.

A black and white aerial photograph of prehistoric field boundary bank earthworks.
Oblique aerial photograph of Stallage Common field system (MDV8616). Devon County Council DAP/HI 01 21-DEC-1986. © Devon County Council.

Evidence of these field systems was first recorded at Dainton during the post-war period, but it was not until the late-1970s to early-1980s that a comprehensive survey recognised their exceptional and extensive nature. Seventeen field systems were identified within the project area, including examples at Tornewton, Torbryan Hill, Deer Park, Clennon Fields and Stallage Common.

Although many were visible on aerial photographs, use of lidar visualisations provided significant new information. Lidar was instrumental in recognising a number of previously unknown field systems, such as at Home Park, Kiln Orchard, Dyer’s Wood and Fairfield Farm.

As well as providing greater clarity and definition, the survey has in most instances significantly increased the known area of previously identified field systems; the area mapped on Torbyran Hill, for example, has increased threefold.

A lidar visualisation showing low field boundary banks on a plateau of higher ground.
Field system at Torbryan Hill (MDV8615) Lidar visualisation showing surviving earthworks. LIDAR SX8166, SX8266, SX8167 & SX8267 Environment Agency DTM 01-JAN-1998 to 31-MAY-2017, © Devon County Council, source Environment Agency.
A map with overlying transcriptions in red showing the layout of former field boundaries on Torbryan Hill.
Field system at Torbryan Hill (MDV8615). AI&M transcriptions © Historic England.

The location of all the field systems on marginal land on the limestone plateaux, and their proximity to each other, suggest they may once have been part of a more extensive, and probably integrated, network of fields.

This could perhaps have served a group of communities engaged in contiguous land management. The survey recorded over 40 enclosures associated with these field systems, suggesting that communities lived as well as farmed here.

Many of the current field boundaries are on similar alignments to the disused boundary banks, an indication perhaps that the prehistoric field systems were previously larger, and have influenced (or been incorporated into) later field patterns.

A map showing the location and extent of several prehistoric or Roman field systems, with banks, enclosures and clearance cairns mapped in different colours.
Enclosures (blue) suggesting possible settlement within field systems (red). AI&M transcriptions © Historic England.
A black and white lidar visualisation of curvilinear earthwork lynchets on the north, east and south sides of a hill.
Medieval strip lynchets on the slopes east of Greatoak Cross (MDV125205). LIDAR SX8667 & SX8668 Environment Agency DTM 01-JAN-1998 to 31-MAY-2017, © Devon County Council, source Environment Agency.

The remains of later fields were very frequently seen all across the project area, and in terms of numbers the most common monuments recorded were medieval and post-medieval field boundaries.

Their buried remains were often visible as cropmarks, but they were more commonly noted as earthworks on lidar images.  Only the field boundaries not depicted on the available historic maps were recorded during the survey, so the high number of field boundary records demonstrates considerable field boundary loss prior to the Tithe map of the mid-19th century. This was particularly evident in the south of the project area.

Some striking and extensive examples of medieval field systems were visible as strip lynchets on the slopes of  Kerswell Hill and east of Greatoak Cross. Examples of ridge and furrow, generally rare in Devon, were recorded at West Ogwell and Bickington.

Buried Enclosures revealed as cropmarks

The dry summer of 2018, combined with the free draining soils in parts of the project area, created ideal conditions for the detection of buried archaeological sites visible as cropmarks. Historic England aerial reconnaissance made some exciting discoveries in the project area, such as the possible late prehistoric and Romano-British settlements at Ambrook Farm and east of Penn Bungalow.

Over 90 enclosures were recorded during the survey, around 20% of which were newly recorded, and their distribution shows a strong correlation with slate and breccia geologies. Until recently, it was thought that these lowland enclosures were isolated settlements. However, geophysical survey and excavation at Dainton Elms Cross, Ipplepen, demonstrates that apparently isolated Iron Age and Roman enclosures may in fact be associated with field systems.

Streams of Tin

A black and white aerial photograph of a valley with sinuous earthwork ditches along the valley sides.
18th/19th century tin workings at Swincombe Head (MDV26062), Dartmoor. Devon County Council DAP/JW 5 21-JAN-1988 © Devon County Council.

Devon’s tin industry was fundamental to the county’s economy between the medieval and early post-medieval period. It was synonymous with the granite uplands of Dartmoor, where the massive scale of workings left few valleys unscathed, for example at Swincombe Head. The only other sources of tin in the UK are found in Cornwall, such as on Bodmin Moor.

The most common and easiest way to extract the tin was a technique known as tin streaming, exploiting the ‘tin streams’ that had formed when tin ore eroded from the parent lode was deposited along river valleys or on hillslopes or dry valleys. Although most of the project area lies beyond the rich tin-bearing Dartmoor granite, large quantities of tin ore eroded from the parent lode over thousands of years were deposited by alluvial action along the Bovey valley, which bisects the project area.

A colour ground photograph of a water-filled hollow in woodland.
Remains of streamworks at Heathfield, Bovey Tracey (MDV69787). Photograph: S Knight, May 2019.

Evidence of tin streaming dominates the results of the survey in the north-west corner of the project area around Bovey Tracey and Heathfield. The extensive nature of these earthworks suggests that the tin industry in this lowland zone was carried out on a much greater scale than previously thought, and this area perhaps deserves greater academic attention, having until now been somewhat sidelined in preference to Dartmoor.

Lidar was particularly useful in the identification and recording of tin working sites, since most of these former workings have long since been covered by woodland or almost levelled through ploughing, making the earthworks virtually undetectable on aerial photographs. In total 25 monuments interpreted as streamworks or tin working complexes were recorded by the survey, of which 20 were new to the HER.

A colour aerial photograph of a wooded area.
Dense woodland in 1999-2000 obscuring earthworks of medieval and early post-medieval tinworkings at Pitt’s Plantation (MDV61846). Millennium Map extract, copyright Getmapping plc.
A black and white lidar visualisation of a complex of irregular earthwork mounds and ditches.
Tinworking earthworks within Pitt’s Plantation (MDV61846) and oval earthworks of ornamental tree mounds in the red box (MDV115216). LIDAR SX8274, SX8374, SX8275 & SX8375 Environment Agency DTM 01-JAN-1998 to 31-MAY-2017 © Devon County Council, source Environment Agency

The water channels, pits and spoil heaps of a possible streamworks were recorded at Pitt’s Plantation; much of this area was converted to forestry in the 19th century, but the ‘Pitt’ element of its name must surely reflect the survival of extensive earthworks relating to the earlier industry.

A different type of land reuse can be inferred in the adjacent parkland at Stover, where two 17th or 18th century ornamental tree mounds may have utilised the loose spoil of former tin workings. The workings here might have once extended further to the south, but if so would have been levelled by the subsequent Second World War United States Army hospital and later Polish resettlement facility.

The amorphous and seemingly random form of the earthworks recorded at Pitts Plantation and at other lowland sites such as Staplehill Copse, Bovey Heath, Parke Wood and Wifford are in contrast to the more systematic workings found across Dartmoor. This could suggest that the tin deposits in these two geographic areas were worked in different ways, probably as a result of differences in topography and geology.

Fortification and Control

In contrast to the neighbouring South Devon Coast RCZA project, we identified relatively few sites that could be described as defensive or military in origin.

For some of the earliest defended sites visible on aerial imagery, the Iron Age hillforts of Milber Down, Denbury, Berry’s Wood and Castle Dyke, the use of various lidar visualisations has greatly assisted in mapping earthworks that are partly, or wholly, covered by woodland. The survey has added greater detail or new elements to some records, for example the earthwork ditch and banked ramparts which define two outer circuits within the northeast corner of Milber Down.

A newly recorded possible hillfort was visible as earthworks south of Coppa Dolla Farm, located approximately 1.5km to the south-west of Denbury hillfort. This oval enclosure occupies a prominent ridge-top position, which offers commanding views across the surrounding countryside. At 1.3 hectares, it is much smaller and less well-defended than other hillforts in the project area, and may therefore have fulfilled a different function. Further work, such as analytical earthwork survey or geophysical survey, could help to clarify the original purpose of this monument.

Two particularly notable Roman defended sites were identified from cropmarks. A possible Roman fort or camp north of Dainton Elms Cross was first recorded as a double-ditched enclosure during aerial reconnaissance in the 1990’s, but more extensive cropmarks photographed in the dry summer of 2018 provided further detail and enabled reinterpretation. A possible fortification at Old Walls Hill is similar in style to the Roman signal station at Stoke Hill, Exeter.

The intriguing remains at Round Covert, Hennock have been subject to various different readings, although reassessment of the evidence during this survey supports an interpretation as a temporary Civil War emplacement. Other interesting earthworks likely to be of this date include the possible breastwork on Bovey Heath thought to be associated with the ‘Battle of Bovey Heath’ fought in 1645.

Black and white aerial imagery of crenelated earthwork ditches on open ground. They are much more clearly defined on the aerial photographs taken in 1946 than on the modern lidar visualisations.
First World War practice trenches on Teignmouth Golf Course (MDV42251): Left in 1946 RAF/CPE/UK/1824 RP 3083 04-NOV-1946 Historic England Archive (RAF Photography); right on lidar-derived images LIDAR SX9175 Environment Agency DTM 01-JAN-1998 to 31-MAY-2017, © Devon County Council, source Environment Agency.

Wartime and immediate post-war aerial photographs are excellent for identifying sites dating to the two World Wars. The impact of the First World War can still just be traced on the landscape at Teignmouth golf course, where the crenelated pattern of practice trenches were recorded from 1940s aerial photographs. Lidar data shows that they survive as subtle earthwork banks and ditches.

A black and white aerial photograph of the school and playing fields. Two complexes of low structures are visible to the south-west and north-west of the school.
Hutted offices (MDV125255) for Prudential staff and two circular structures of Emergency Water Supply reservoirs (MDV125179), off Shiphay Avenue. United States Army camp (MDV125256) with bell-tents, Nissen huts and possible perimeter fence to the south. US/7PH/GP/LOC147 V 5015 20-JAN-1944 Historic England Archive (USAAF Photography).

A far greater variety of Second World War sites were recorded. We can see evidence for  construction of facilities for civilian defence, especially in the built-up areas of Torquay, dating to the early stages of the war when the airborne threat was at its greatest. Emergency Water Supply reservoirs were located in areas where water supply was at risk of disruption due to air raids, and a number of examples were recorded including at Main Avenue, Plainmoor Stadium, St. Mary’s Church and Shiphay Avenue. Air raid shelters for civilians were recognised at Newton Abbot, Teignmouth and Torquay. The risk from enemy bombing raids in the southwest was, however, still considered to be lower than in London, and Prudential Insurance temporarily moved their staff from the City into purpose-built offices, visible on 1940s aerial photographs in Shiphay, on the outskirts of Torquay.

Later in the war, as Allied forces were preparing for the invasion of Europe, the emphasis shifted towards construction of temporary infrastructure such as army camps at Denbury and Stover Park, naval stores depots on Knighton Heath and Heathfield and a hospital at Ilford Park, later reused as a Polish resettlement facility. Camps recorded in the grounds of two Torbay schools at Audley Park and Torquay Girls’ Grammar were new to the HER.

Religion and Ceremony

A black and white aerial photograph of a cultivated field, within which is a pale oblong cropmark.
Possible long barrow at Sandy Mount (MDV122439), visible as a pale elongated oval cropmark in the centre of the image. RAF/541/520 RP 3015-3016 13-MAY-1950 Historic England Archive (RAF Photography).

Neolithic ceremonial or funerary monuments are rare, so it was interesting to see the remains of a possible long barrow west of Sandy Mount, which was visible as an elongated cropmark on aerial photographs taken in 1950. Sadly this area has since been subsumed by a modern housing development, making any positive identification of this feature unlikely.

Monuments interpreted as Bronze Age round burial mounds were more frequently encountered, including newly recorded examples at Little Haldon and Ideford Common which seem to form part of wider barrow cemeteries that were already documented, and a newly recorded group of four mounds at Luscombe Castle (MDV124754, MDV124755, MDV124756 and MDV124758).

Some of the earliest aerial photographs available to the survey team included images of the medieval (and later) site of Buckfast Abbey. As well as documenting the evolution of the formal landscape in the 20th century (MDV123371; MDV123375) these early aerial photographs give us a visual insight into the changing recreational and working lives of the monks in the immediate pre- and post-war period (MDV7808; MDV20064).

A black and white aerial photograph centred on the church, which is surrounded by monastic buildings and landscaped grounds.
Buckfast Abbey in 1930. The works compound and partially completed roof of St Mary’s Abbey Church (centre-left), tennis courts (top-top left) and what appear to be monks enjoying a cricket match near the river (top right). AFL 60713/EPW033240 01-JUL-1930 © Historic England Archive (Aerofilms Collection).

Further Reading

The results of the survey will be found in the project highlight report, which will be accessible and downloadable from the Historic England website.

Information on other NMP projects in Devon is also available.

Gallant, L, Luxton, N, & Collman, M. 1986 ‘Ancient Fields on the South Devon Limestone Plateau’. Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society 43, 1985: 23-37

Gerrard, S. 2000 The Early British Tin Industry. Stroud: Tempus

Griffith, F. 1988 Devon’s Past, an Aerial View. Exeter: Devon Books

Hegarty, C, Knight, S, and Sims, R. 2014 Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey for South-West England – South Coast Devon: Component One National Mapping Programme. AC Archaeology Document Number ACD618/2/1

Hegarty, C, Knight, S, and Sims, R. Forthcoming The South Devon Coast to Dartmoor Aerial Investigation and Mapping Survey Area 1, Haldon Ridge to Dart Valley. Historic England Research Department Report

Historic England 2015 Using Aerial Photographs

Newman, P. 1998 The Dartmoor Tin Industry A Field Guide. Newton Abbot: Chercombe Press

Silvester, R J. 1980 ‘The Prehistoric Open Settlement at Dainton, South Devon’. Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society 38, 17-48

Wilson, D. 1982. Air Photo Interpretation for Archaeologists. London: Batsford.

Your comments

Would you like to share additional information on any of the sites we recorded from aerial photographs, or do you have a different interpretation? Let us know! We read all submissions but unfortunately due to the volume of responses we are unable to respond personally to every comment.