Lines on the Landscape: early writings

From : Valerie Belsey

Anglo-Saxon Charterlands

Who first wrote about our AONB and why did they need to?

As is so often the case the first recorded words to mention a place refer to someone claiming a legal right to the land. In 846 King Aethelwulf, then King of the West Saxons, ordered 20 hides of land between the River Erme and the River Dart to be given to the church to help the poor. In effect this meant that the occupiers of the land did not have to pay any rent or land tax but had to be available for military service and to repair bridges.

What makes this text speak to us today is that many of the landmarks described so well 1,164 years ago are still visible in the landscape today. It is our oldest example of lines on the landscape.

First into Mercecumb, (a combe which serves as a mearc or boundary) then to the green pit, (flat ground by Clyng Mill). Then to the tor at the source of Mercecumb. Then to Denewald’s stone, then to the ditch where Esne dug across the road. (SX667495).

See Tor Rock today at grid reference SX636488.

Vixen's ditch

The charter goes on to talk of other natural monuments around Aveton Gifford and Bigbury including the course of a stream from a holy well at SX665474 from whence it runs down to where the vixen’s ditch meets the brook. This is still a place where foxes are seen.

Although the text was originally in Anglo-Saxon it contains many elements of the old Celtic speaking tribe of Dumnonia. It is the first time a reference to ‘Homme’ (Ham) is made.

Medieval times

Our area seems to live more in poetry than prose as Chaucer's reference to a famous Dartmouthian records. The poet visited the town in 1373. It is believed that Chaucer based this portrait of a mariner upon John Hawley, a Dartmouth Mayor. It appeared in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales published in the late 1300s.

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Lines on the Landscape: early writings

Above: Brass rubbing of John Hawley and his two wives from St Saviour's Church, Dartmouth. Source: Devon Perspectives 

The Shipman from Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims

A shipman was ther, wonynge fer by weste: (coming from the west

For ought I woot, he was of Dertemouthe    (for all I knew)

He rood upon a rouncy as he kouthe.    (He rode a poor hack as well as he could)

With many a tempest hadde his berde been shake.

He knew all the havens as they were,

Fro Gootland to the cape of Fynestere,

At every cryke in Britaigne and in Spayne

His barge ycleleped was the Maudelayne’   (His boat was called the M-).



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