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ABOUT THE SKYLARK INN AND THE DARTMOOR PONIES

Take a step back in time in your imagination - 370 million years back, to be precise - and just think what it must have been like on Dartmoor at the time of its origins. A lot has happened on the prehistoric moors in its time: dinosaurs once roamed its vast expanses, and giant redwoods grew majestically where Dartmoor Prison in Princetown now stands.

Then, there were the years of turbulence - of volcanoes, earthquakes and ice-ages, and we know that Dartmoor has been beneath the sea - not once but twice - and possibly on even more occasions. In fact, the moors have only been inhabited by us for a relatively short time. But, for much of the last 10,000 years, Dartmoor people have depended on materials from Dartmoor rocks - such as granite and tin - for their livelihoods and sustenance.

Clearbrook is described by the Ordnance Survey (Government map agency) as a 'scattered hamlet', an apt description for it at any stage of its history. It lies on the South Western fringe of Dartmoor and as the air photograph shows, is in the midst of a number of industrial ventures.

The road junction to the left of the centre of the photograph includes a bridge over the Plymouth leat, (the dark line running right to left and as a bushy arc at the top of the fields on the right) built in 1591 to take water from the Moor to Plymouth. Sir Francis Drake is reputed to have ridden a horse along the leat ahead of the released water! The later Devonport leat (c.1796) is visible to the right of the bridge as a dark line in the pale green patches of the moor.

The horse-drawn Tramway which ran from Plymouth to Princetown and was completed fn 1837, crosses the road just beyond the bridge. This was one of the many, largely unsuccessful, attempts to 'develop' the Moor. Finally, the South Devon and Tavistock Railway, completed by 1859, ran right to left immediately below the houses in the foreground.

As I.K.Brunel was involved in some of its engineering it is not surprising that the track was originally broad gauge, and for a while between about 1873 and 1890, carried LSWR trains as well as GWR. Despite the wealth of transport and industrial activity mainly passing through this area, Clearbrook seems to have been almost completely unaffected by it all.


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Clearbrook Dartmoor Devon

In view of this, the first two questions invariably asked about Clearbrook are:

  • How did it get its name

  • What caused the settlement to appear?

The answer to the first question is superficially easy, The earliest houses were built on part of a field which is referred to in the deeds as 'Clearbrook Field formerly Parsons Field'. Clearbrook is possibly a reference to the intermittent stream that forms the Northern boundary of the field; 'clear' perhaps because it is not contaminated with China clay as are other Dartmoor streams not too far away. For that matter 'Parsons field' is also inexplicable; it is not glebe land, nor does there appear to be any person of that name in the vicinity. Another variation 'Millbrooks field' which appears in some documents is even worse, since anything less like a mill brook than this normally feeble rivulet would be hard to imagine.

Clearbrook Yelverton Devon

With regard to the second question, we are again on uncertain ground, though it is worthwhile investigating some possibilities, It is noticeable that one of the syndicate originally buying the land was a man called George Frean, (who is an interesting man). Originally he is noted as a baker (and sometimes miller) supplying the Royal Navy with biscuits. He is also one of the men, like Thomas Tyrwhitt, who were interested in developing Dartmoor to its full potential and making some money in the process. Accordingly, he is responsible for Powdermills, (the gunpowder factory) between Two Bridges and Postbridge, deep in the Moor. The gunpowder incidentally, was not intended for the Royal Navy, but to help farmers with land clearance. Possibly he saw the Clearbrook area as fitting into some 'Improver's' plan, though what he had in mind is unknown. He appears to sell the land on and is not involved in any building but he may have had some thoughts about mining, for two of this colleagues in the syndicate were miners.

Clearbrook Dartmoor Devon

The 1851 census, some five years after the probable date of the first houses, shows these two - John Fezzey and John Jeffrey - living in Clearbrook together with nine other Tin miners and one mine labourer out of a total male population of 17, (at least half of whom appear to be relatives of the original two). Ten years later, none of these are living in Clearbrook, but there are six Copper miners and one Tin miner in a total male population of 34. There is a similar pattern for agricultural labourers. Their numbers peak at nine in 1861 and 1891 and then decline to 2, so it is impossible to identify Clearbrook as an hamlet devoted to any particular trade.

 SkylarkInn  pub sign

The idea is sometimes expressed that the Skylark Inn was originally opened to meet the needs of thirsty miners and farm labourers, but this seems unlikely. The Inn as such does not appear on the census returns until 1861, though it is possible that the actual building was one of the empty houses noted in the previous census. By this time George Frean had joined forces with Peake and had established the famous biscuit factory in Bermondsey and eleven years after that was dead.

Clearbrook village Dartmoor Devon

Clearbrook continued to grow slowly, in the sense that one or two houses were built in each decade, but at the same time probably contracted because many of the original houses contained two small houses (one up, one down) which were later merged, so that although the number of buildings remained about the same, the number of households declined, There continued to be no distinct reason for people to live here, there was no railway station at Clearbrook until 1929 for example, by which time it had become a recognised residential and recreational area for Plymouth. It is possible that about this time one of the houses was occupied by friends of Lawrence of Arabia, who visited them during his time as Aircraftsman Shaw at RAF Mount Batten, using his famous motor bike. Most of the houses were let and at least two were boarding houses.

The Dartmoor Ponies

Dartmoor ponies

Hoof-prints found on Dartmoor during an archaeological excavation in the 1970s showed that domesticated ponies were to be found here around 3,500 years ago. The first written record of ponies on Dartmoor occurs in AD 1012, with a reference to the ‘wild horses’ of Ashburton, owned by the Bishop of Crediton. Early manorial records indicate that, as today, many ponies were not broken in, but all were branded and usually ear-marked. Many of these ear-markings are still in use today.

The pure-bred Dartmoor can claim a Royal connection. Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) visited Dartmoor frequently in the 1920s. He kept and bred Dartmoor ponies near Princetown, where he crossed them with Arab ponies to try and produce a finer polo pony.

In 1950 there were approximately 30,000 ponies on the moor. Today there are fewer than 3,000. This decline is due to a combination of factors:

  • A reduction in the demand for pit ponies and ponies for meat.

  • A large part of a Dartmoor farmer’s income comes from Government and European subsidies for keeping cattle and sheep on the uplands. There are no Government or European subsidies for ponies. The price received at market is very low and ponies graze land that could be utilised by more profitable stock.

When Dartmoor was designated a National Park, in 1951, the pony was chosen to be its logo. Ponies help to give Dartmoor its unique character and are one of the attractions for visitors to the area. They are an integral part of the moorland landscape and are a part of the area’s cultural heritage. Ponies are also important for conservation grazing particularly on certain habitats such as wet permanent pasture.

Dartmoor National Park is home to the native breed Dartmoor pony but, not all the ponies on Dartmoor look the same. Importing other breeds has created various colours and shapes of the animal.

Dartmoor pony

The three most common types and breeds of pony to be found on Dartmoor

  • The ‘native’ pony: This is the type of Dartmoor pony that you are most likely to see on the moor. They often run with mixed breed ponies and stallions on the moor and so it is impossible to prove their parentage.

  • The pure-bred or ‘registered’ Dartmoor: This breed is similar to the ‘native’ Dartmoor pony. However, the ‘registered’ pony has a known pedigree because the stallion is chosen for its good breeding and is introduced to the mare in a controlled environment. The pure-bred pony also tends to be more refined than the native breed and is often to be seen at pony breed shows. The pure- bred Dartmoor is seldom seen on the commons beacuse they are too valuable to be left out and to prevent uncontrolled breeding with non-registered animals.

  • The Shetland pony:This is not a local breed. It was introduced to Dartmoor early in the 20th century to produce small, strong, cross bred animals capable of working down the coal mines of northern England and Wales. Coming from the Shetland Isles, these ponies were well suited to survive the harsh conditions on Dartmoor.

The ponies on the moor are not wild animals. They all have owners. Certain farms on Dartmoor have rights to graze a specific number of cattle, sheep and ponies on particular moorland areas (the commons). Farmers mark their ponies to indicate the animal’s owner. They do this by branding the coat.

The ponies live out on the moor all year round. They spend most of the time in small herds of mares with one adult stallion and young ponies. Most foals are born between May and August. Local farmers who keep ponies get together to clear ponies off their particular common. These round ups are called “drifts” and are held in late September and early October. People on horseback, four wheeled bikes, and running on foot, herd the ponies towards a convenient small field or yard. The ponies are then separated into groups according to ownership. The health of all the animals is checked, and treatment is given where appropriate. The sick, old and infirm, or those to be sold, are separated from those which will be returned to the moor.

Dartmoor ponies in the snow

After the drifts pony keepers decide which ponies to sell. The rest are returned to the moor until the following year. The market for ponies has declined in recent times and new markets as conservation grazers and riding ponies are being actively promoted.

Dartmoor ponies

Historically, the markets for ponies were very buoyant. Before modern transport and agricultural machinery the ponies were sold as work ponies, for example pulling carts, carrying loads, or for milk and post deliveries. Some ponies were cross bred with Shetlands to produce strong short legged ponies for pit ponies in the coal mines. With the advent of technology that market disappeared and a new market was found in Europe – as meat for human consumption. There was also a small demand for meat for zoos and pet food.

Markets in Europe disappeared when an export ban was imposed on the export of live animals. The export ban is presently being reviewed by the Government. There are concerns being raised that the Government might amend the present legislation to allow live export again. Some pony owners believe it is vital to open up this market again to ensure that there is a market that will keep ponies on Dartmoor. However, there are doubts as to whether this is likely to happen, as other bigger ponies/horses from Poland have filled the vacuum that was created when the export ban was imposed.

The Dartmoor pony has a very good temperament making it an excellent child’s pony. Ponies are also used in the increasingly popular sport of carriage driving. Part-bred Dartmoor ponies make excellent all-rounders. They are used in show jumping, cross country, one day events, as working hunter ponies, carriage driving and, of course, as popular family ponies.

Dartmoor ponies

The Dartmoor Pony Moorland Scheme was introduced in 1998, by the Duchy of Cornwall and the Dartmoor Pony Society. The aim is to improve the bloodline of ponies living on the commons of Dartmoor and thereby ensuring their suitability to the Dartmoor environment. The Dartmoor National Park Authority supports the Scheme. The Scheme invites owners of suitable mares living on the Dartmoor commons to put them into a newtake (moorland enclosure) with a pure-bred Dartmoor stallion, between 1 May and 1 October. All the mares are inspected by the Dartmoor Pony Society and an incentive payment is made to their owners. Any foals born are inspected and, if approved, are registered with the Dartmoor Pony Society.

Dartmoor foal

The public awareness campaign helps inform visitors and local residents of how they can protect the ponies on Dartmoor. The main elements of this include discouraging the public feeding the ponies, asking them to keep well away, to take all their litter home, and to keep to the 40 mile per hour speed limit on moorland roads.

Clearbrook today

Nowadays, the majority of houses in the village of Clearbrook are owned by their occupiers, and the total population is probably only a fifth larger that the previous maximum achieved in 1861. Clearbrook is still a quiet residential hamlet, beautifully placed for walking, cycling or riding in the valley of the River Meavy, or on Dartmoor. Its pub, the Skylark, has always supplied alcoholic beverage but has recently added to that a growing reputation for fabulous food! It does not offer accommodation but two houses in Clearbrook still do and the Moorland Links hotel is about a mile away. 

Recently, the old, decrepit Village Hall was demolished and completely rebuilt, thanks to generous grants from the Lottery Fund and County, District and Parish Councils - plus of course strenuous efforts from the local inhabitants.

 Clearbrook Village Hall Dartmoor Devon

This funny poem was found in The Skylark Inn sometime ago...

The Horse and Mule live thirty years
And nothing know of wines or beers.
The Goat and sheep at twenty die,
But never tasted Scotch or Rye.
The Cow drinks water by the ton
And at eighteen is almost done.
The Dog at fifteen cashes in,
Without the aid of Rum or Gin.
The Cat in Milk and Water soaks,
And then in twelve short years it croaks.
The useful, sober, bone-dry hen,
Lays eggs for Nogs and dies at Ten.
All animals are strictly dry,
Teetotal live and quickly die.
But sinful Plymouth Gin-full men,
Survive for three score years and ten.
And some of us (though mighty few),
Stay pickled till we’re ninety-two!
cartoon

So.., come and see for yourself, the charm - old and new - that has attracted people to Clearbrook for one and an half Centuries....


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