- Writing for the VCH
- VCH Explore
England's Past for Everyone Exmoor
The Exmoor project focused on 11 upland parishes in the area adjacent and to the south of the former royal forest of Exmoor. These parishes, Exmoor, Exford, Withypool, Hawkridge, Winsford, Dulverton, Brushford, West Ansty, East Ansty, Molland and Twitchen, formed a coherent study area, nominally called ‘Southern Exmoor’, which represented a unique research venture for the VCH as it crossed the county boundary between Somerset and Devon and focused on the area’s unifying topography rather than on its administrative divisions. Proposed as a short term research project by the Somerset County Editor, Robert Dunning in 2001, a two year Exmoor project finally formed part the England’s Past for Everyone HLF application (granted in 2005).
Although Somerset was a well established VCH county, with a full-time County Editor and Assistant Editor regularly producing ‘Red Volumes’, the Exmoor project represented the VCH’s first foray into Devon since the beginning of the 20th century. The research and writing tasks were therefore to be divided between Somerset County Editor Robert Dunning (in his last role as County Editor before retirement) and a team researcher, who would work on the Devon material. The post was filled by Dr Spencer Dimmock, who began working on the project on 5 July 2005. As Robert Dunning would be working as author on a part-time basis, the role of project Team Leader was filled by Exmoor National Park Authority (ENPA) Historic Environment Manager, Rob Wilson-North. Based at the ENPA offices in Dulverton, Rob coordinated all other aspects of the project.
In advance of the official start of the EPE project, Robert Dunning had compiled a gazetteer of over 200 farmstead sites in 10 parishes which would form the basis of the research – which would investigate settlement in this area of Exmoor from earliest pre-history through to the present day. Robert Dunning and Hillary Binding had also conceived an education project focused on the theme of ‘arming and Tourism’, to be aimed at Key Stage 2 and 3 pupils of Dulverton Middle School. The Exmoor project was projected to be complete in two years, delivering the three EPE outputs of a paperback book, an interactive website and a school project.
Although the content and organisation of this volume evolved through the life of the project, the question ‘why do people decide to live on Exmoor’ remained central and resulted in the paperback publication Exmoor: The Making of an English Upland (ISBN: 978-1-86077-597-0). The paperback was launched at Dulverton town hall on Wednesday 3 June 2009. The book was described by Exmoor resident Sir Ranulph Fiennes as:
‘A fascinating exploration of the difficult, but ultimately beautiful landscape I am proud to call home.’
Exmoor: The Making of an English Upland became volume number eight in the England’s Past for Everyone series and continued the high research standards set by the landmark English Heritage publication The Field Archaeology of Exmoor (2001).
The published paperback represented the result of a multi-disciplinary study in which the rigorously researched topographical history written to VCH guidelines by Robert Dunning and his successor as County Editor, Mary Siraut, was combined with field archaeology, standing buildings analysis, oral history testimony and landscape recording. Much of this additional work was undertaken by a dedicated volunteer group, whose work surveying 19th century farmsteads, paved the way for John Thorp and Jo Cox of Keystone Historic Buildings Consultants to be commissioned to produced full interpretive surveys of four of Exmoor’s post-enclosure farmsteads.
One visually striking aspect of the Exmoor paperback is the use of archaeological reconstruction drawings. Local artist Ann Lever was commissioned to produce four reconstruction paintings of life on Exmoor during the Palaeolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British period. The presence of a staff photographer at the ENPA, allowed the allocation of English Heritage photographs to be exchanged for four further reconstruction drawings, this time bringing to life the survey data collected by Keystone. Both sets of drawings are an extremely successful addition to the narrative and where available are forms of illustration likely to be used in future VCH publications.
Exmoor is a popular holiday destination and is a region reliant on tourism, as such the paperback has a reasonably wide appeal, succeeding in both charting the history of settlement in southern Exmoor but also in contributing to wider academic debate on the development of English upland regions.
The Exmoor project, entitled ‘Within Living Memory’, was produced in partnership with Dulverton Middle School, and investigated the changes in farming and farming life on Exmoor from 1940 to 2006. The educational material was designed to form part of the 2007 Exmoor Key Stage 2/3 History and Geography curriculum, with activities based in the classroom and at Cloggs Farm. The project encompassed the study of a range of primary and secondary sources including landscape, buildings, maps, documents and artefacts.
The material was written in the 2006 autumn term and the project was piloted with 40 Year 4 – 7 pupils (ages 8 – 11) at Dulverton Middle School (with Dulverton Primary School acting as a feeder school) during the spring term. All of the resources created are available on our Schools Learning Zone (www.englandspastforeveryone.org.uk/schools)