‘The Stone Row is a row of upright stones starting from a kistvaen or cairn, and is therefore of sepulchral origin…They are no doubt memorial stones.’ The Rev H Hugh Breton, Beautiful Dartmoor and its Interesting Antiquities, 1911
‘While the rows are undoubtedly sepulchral monuments, the underlying idea which gave them value in the minds of their builders remains unknown; no study of detail has afforded a clue.’ R. Hansford Worth, Worth’s Dartmoor, 1967
It’s a freezing February day on Dartmoor, in fact it’s one of the coldest days of the year so far, with a bitter easterly wind. We are trudging along the old Puffing Billy track, a former tramway which was created in the early twentieth century to carry miners and equipment to the china clay works at Red Lake, a remote spot in the middle of the moor. Ice is forming on the wind-exposed side of my jacket, which is a first. Quite why we thought this was a good day to go and see one of the longest stone rows on Dartmoor I’m not sure, but here we are.
We turn off the track and head up to Western Beacon where there is a huge cairn – an ancient burial place. As we get higher the wind cruelly whips our faces, tiny daggers of ice pricking our skin. Then it starts to hail, each tiny stone individually stinging our cheeks. From here we drop down, finding temporary relief from the wind, and up again to Butterdon Hill, which is surmounted by not one, but three cairns or barrows, graves which are thousands of years old.
As we stand on top of the ridge, looking at the vast expanse of moorland before us, I think of a very different expedition to see the old stones of Dartmoor. It was a few years ago, on one of those early spring days when you finally feel a sense of hope after the long winter. We climbed up Down Tor in the sunshine, scrambling over the boulders and clitter, and stood on the top, the four of us, Alex, my husband and our two teenage sons Felix and Lucian, enjoying the views down to Plymouth Sound. I asked a fellow walker to take a photo of us.
We stand there in the sun, looking happy and relaxed. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of the last family walks we would ever do. Less than a year later, Felix was dead. He died suddenly and unexpectedly while he was away at university. He was just 20 years old. Suddenly our lives were changed forever, and, in a heartbeat, ordinary snapshots became precious mementos of a time when perhaps we took our family completeness for granted.
Four years later, shivering in the marrow-tingling cold on the top of Butterdon Hill, looking at these monumental cairns, I think about the remains of the people who have lain here for the last three and a half thousand years, and the body of my son, lying about twenty miles away in a shallow, stony grave. His resting place is marked by a simple slate tablet, bearing his name and his dates, another rock placed in the ground to remember someone.
Felix died from SUDEP – sudden unexpected death in epilepsy. He had his first seizure when he was thirteen. The seizures continued through his teenage years and were tough for him to deal with though he never complained. They affected his confidence and he became quite withdrawn. What was so heart breaking about his death was that, aged twenty, he was finally starting to come out of his shell, and was making friends and enjoying life at university. After a tough few years, life was getting better.
We all live every day with the knowledge of death, but usually it is in the background. Since Felix died, this impossible issue of our mortality has dominated my mental and emotional landscape. The enormity of his sudden loss has forced me to engage with it. It’s not something I wish for but it is just there, it has taken over. I cannot help thinking about it and yet, it is a fruitless activity where I end up going round in circles.
It’s about finding ways of living with it. The Bronze Age monuments near my home are companions in my strange new life, somehow expressing and containing the loss and grief. Their solidity is comforting. While we may never know their true purpose, they speak to me of our mortality and shared humanity, and our desire to create something lasting when a loved one dies. And they trace back to our shared history and ancestry. They are about the dead. And the dead are always with us. They form us.
Dartmoor has the highest concentration of Bronze Age relics in Western Europe, with over 1500 burial cairns, more than 5000 hut circles (the stone remains of thatched round houses), 75 stone rows and eighteen stone circles. Over twenty years of living here I’ve got to know them like old friends. And since Felix died, they’ve taken on greater significance.
Here at Butterdon Hill, the large cairns occupy a commanding position. The setting of this trio of barrows is particularly spectacular. Spaced out along a long ridge, they dominate the landscape in a line north to south. They truly are grave markers on a grand scale.
Many of the cairns on Dartmoor contain the remains of human burial, often in a kist, a stone casket in which the ashes of the person were placed. A fascinating excavation in 2011 uncovered one of these kists at Whitehorse Hill, a remote spot near Cranmere Pool, and found a treasure trove which no one was expecting (most have been robbed over the years). The grave contained the cremated remains of a young woman put there in the Early Bronze Age between 1730 BC and 1600 BC. Her ashes were wrapped in a brown bear pelt, fastened with a copper pin. Various other things were found which would have accompanied her into the afterlife, including beads of clay, shale, amber and tin, wooden ear studs and a bracelet of cow hair. There is an exhibition containing replicas of these items that can be seen at the National Visitor Centre at Postbridge.
This practice of placing precious objects with the dead person echoes across the millennia of human experience. As a child in the 1970s I remember being fascinated by the Treasures of Tutankhamum exhibition at the British Museum. And, two and a half thousand years on from those ancient burials on Dartmoor and in Egypt, this is just what we did when we said goodbye to Felix. On a hillside overlooking the River Dart, we lowered his body into his grave. He was wrapped in an old linen sheet that used to belong to my grandmother. With him were thirteen cowrie shells, one for each member of the family, a birthday card, and a ring with “one ring that binds us” inscribed on it. The ring was one of a set of four that my sister-in-law Kate had bought for Felix, Lucian, Alex and me, especially for the funeral and burial. Finally, we threw irises on top of him, and earth, before saying goodbye for the last time.
We continue to walk along the ridge, looking out for the stone row which is just past the cairns. It’s actually quite hard to spot. Despite being the second longest stone row on Dartmoor, stretching over two kilometres of moorland in a north-south alignment, the stones are small, the tallest being only a metre high. Forget towering menhirs, this is a diminutive monument. And yet, once we take it in, and the sheer length of it, spreading ahead of us along the ridge, it makes us feel something. There is grandeur, ceremony, in these hundreds of stones, stretching into the distance.
This place feels like a receptacle of memory. A sanctum. I think it’s why these sites draw me, and why I need to visit them regularly. As we descend from the high Moor back down the Puffing Billy track, stamping on the iron ground to try and restore feeling to our feet, we look down at the South Devon countryside as it spreads down to the sea. I think of faraway lands and ancient people, and those who have gone. I feel as though I have made some sort of contact with the dead, even with my son. Like the natural granite tors which are everywhere on Dartmoor, the old stones have a reassuring sense of permanence. Even if we don’t exactly ‘know the underlying idea that gave them value in the minds of their builders’ as R. Hansford Worth puts it in Worth’s Dartmoor, it doesn’t really matter. They are a memorial to all the people that have walked this landscape that are no longer with us. For thousands of years people just like me have drawn comfort from their presence – and that is enough.
Sophie Pierce is a writer and broadcaster based in Devon. Her memoir about the death of her son Felix is crowdfunding with Unbound . She is also co-author, with Matt Newbury, of three wild swimming guides. The latest, Wild Swimming Walks Cornwall, is just out.
Photographs by the author.