I am always grateful to all of you for ideas, suggestions, inspiration and thanks, both in comments and your emails, so when Avis sent along a message asking if I knew of this..
I was delighted to say, yes indeed.
We have driven past Higher Uppacott on the road from Tavistock to Ashburton and beyond for over thirty five years now, always admired it, often wondered what it might look like inside, and now that it is completely owned by the Dartmoor National Park we have been able to visit.
The house sits in a hollow on the right hand side of a narrow and sharp left hand bend. If you are driving you daren't take your eyes off the road, if you are a passenger to be honest you can't help but be the second pair of eyes on the road too. The glimpse of the thatch and the wonderful courtyard shape is gone in a flash...
...but it has always left me with a sense of intrigue and wanting to know more, so I booked places on a tour months ago. Off we trotted last Sunday morning, though not before leaving a steak and ale casserole with dumplings in the bottom oven for our return. I am not usually that organised but we had been out to stock up on winter food and the Le Creuset beckoned....there's a connection coming.
Dartmoor, though overcast, was dry and looking gloriously autumnal...
And what makes it so special I hear you asking..
Well, Higher Uppacott is, as Dr Ian Mortimer says in his Foreword to the booklet....
'a rare chance to examine one of the rarest things: a 14th century longhouse.'
He goes on to say..
'It is a direct connection between us and the medieval past. Normally we look to ruined castles and abbeys to conjure up the middle ages - but those were the homes of the well-connected and the powerful. It is ironic: there are many more opportunities today to examine the once exclusive houses of the nobility than there are to enter those of their humble tenants.'
These rectangular dwellings, shared by people and cattle alike, were the progression from Bronze Age round houses of the first millenium and are scattered all over Devon, but most have been converted into family homes and thus lost that very unique element, the original shippon, to a fitted kitchen or a sitting room.The tradition has it that the cattle turned one way and the people turned the other as they entered the same door, all living under the one roof.
Bookhound has designed and installed many-a fitted kitchen in a barn conversion and would come home each evening tsking and muttering that they were built for animals not people as he worked his way round wonky stone walls full of breezy gaps.
Well Devon Longhouses were built for both.
Devon thatch is never removed when worn out and in need of repair, another layer is just added on top, so in places the Higher Uppacott roof is apparently three feet thick and a mine of dating and plant and pollen information too. The Park Ranger who lives there now says he has no idea when it is raining because the roof is completely silent, only when it hits the tiny windows does he know there is a gale.
Built when the Black Death was a recent memory, and 60% of the population had died, a first view of the shippon can only emphasise what it might have been like in those dark ages...
But let there be a little light and we marvelled at what we saw...
Huge complete tree trunks create cross-beams at head height above a stone floor. The cattle, much smaller then, would have been tethered to the sides facing outwards allowing that central sloping channel, leading to a gap in the wall, to deal with the obvious and thence straight out onto the vegetable garden.
...and the cattle therein a precious resource, no wonder they kept an eye on them all the time. It is easy to imagine the hardship and sheer grit that would have been needed to survive on High Dartmoor in the 1300s. Imagine the rainfall all year round, and the snow and ice through the winter, the cold, the mud, no running water but for a spring across the way. And the isolation, think of that, miles to the nearest town, miles to the church at Widecombe and, as our walk back up to car park revealed, very steep hills all around.
Thanks to what our tour guide called '20th century abominations' (because the house was a family home until very recently, now only part of it lived in by the Park Ranger) the open plan living area is now walled off from the shippon and an upper floor has been created, so we all sat in a warm and cosy sitting room to hear more details about the history of the house, before heading up the narrow staircase to see the newer bedrooms above.
The addition of this little mullioned window is dated to the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. Imagine the farmer setting off in his cart, walking back in the door that night and saying 'Guess what I found at the tip?' and then making it fit..
I can understand what his wife might have said. Bookhound is famed for coming back from the tip with more than he takes, and though I moan and groan I was as pleased with this, obviously from the dissolution of a kitchen...
...as I'll bet she was with her new window.
There, I said there would be a connection.
In these straightened financial times it is little wonder that the National Park briefly considered selling this property. Its maintenance is after all a drain on dwindling resources, but thankfully lottery funding prevents the sale for fifty years, and so Higher Uppacott lives on, and with a team of volunteers to support it. Hopefully it won't be on our watch that such a wonderful piece of history is lost, which all makes you realise how important it is to applaud such projects.
If you are down here in the Shire and nearby it is really worth the £5 for the tour, and these can be pre-booked here. Don't just turn up, admission is by pre-booked tour only and you can't get in without this..
Failing that (and I quite understand, it would be a trek for some of you) you can do the virtual tour here.
Oh yes, and when we arrived home the steak and ale casserole with dumplings was done to perfection in that as-new Le Creuset a la Tip.