Take any of the Easterly roads out of the town and you will find yourself on the edge of some 425 acres of moorland. Park Road or South Street/Victoria Road will take you to the top of the main portion of the Moor, whist Higher Street leads to the Lower Moor.
Little is known of the Prehistoric nature or use of the moor. However, Bronze Age flint blades have been found on the northern slopes. At some time during the Roman period a tilery was established, close to the southern boundary. The site of at least one kiln has been identified along with a pit from which the orange clay was extracted. It is possible, given the amount of wood required to fire the kiln(s), that this once wooded area was largely felled for fuel a t this time, leading to the creation of the open moorland that we see today.
From the Late Saxon (Early Medieval) period, the Manor of Hatherleigh, including the Moor, formed one of the estates originally endowed to Tavistock Abbey in the late 10th century. From the 14th century Borough status was given by the Abbot to Hatherleigh. The boundary of the Borough land that was established encompassed the Moor, which was to be used by the Burgesses of the Borough, but was still owned by the Abbey. A popular rhyme relating to the Moor attributed to the 14th century Duke of Lancaster, appears to have no basis in fact. - “ I, John of Gaunt, Do give Hatherleigh Moor, To Hatherleigh poor, For evermore ” - Tradition should not be dismissed lightly but never did any land in Hatherleigh belong to the Duchy of Lancaster, so the Moor could not have been given by John of Gaunt and it is not known where this rhyme originated.
After the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-16th century, the Manor and Borough was eventually sold by the Crown and passed into private hands in the early 17th century. Hatherleigh didn’t escape the disruption of the mid-17th century and during the Civil War (1642-1651) there was a minor skirmish at Hatherleigh between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads which is said to have taken place on the Moor.
At the peak of the Moor, where splendid views across open countryside lead the eye towards the distant Tors of Dartmoor, there is a Monument erected in memory of one of Hatherleigh’s heroes, Lieutenant Colonel William Morris. As a young Captain in the 17th Lancers, Morris led his regiment in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Though seriously injured, he survived this conflict only to die from dysentery at the age of 38 whilst serving in Poona during the Indian uprising. Close to this magnificent edifice is a Bench placed in Memory of the Late Timothy Charles Laing, who as Lord of the Manor of Hatherleigh served the community faithfully over many years, was much l oved and held in high esteem.
Roberts’ Pond lies on the far side of the Lower Moor. This is particularly special to the town as it is a memorial to another of its heroes. Thomas Roberts was a brilliant man who, having lost both his hands in an explosion on board ship in 1781 when he was but ten years of age, invented over the years ‘hands’ which served him in almost every purpose from carving wood to shaving himself. He ran a school in the town for 50 years, during which time he had the pond excavated on the Lower Moor so that his boys could test out the model boats he taught them to make. Water for the pond comes in part from a stream flowing from St John’s Well on the main moor, now a Historic Monument. It is a water source that has never been known to run dry and in earlier times this water was used for Baptisms in the Parish Church, the Church dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
The householders with rights on the Moor are still called ‘potboilers’, the name relating simply to those who ‘boil their pots on their hearth in a property situated within the Borough Boundary’. The Commons Registration Act of 1965, when all properties having ‘a right of common’ were given the opportunity to register that right, saw almost all those eligible properties in the town, duly registered. However, any properties not so registered and those constructed since the introduction of the Registration Act - albeit being within the Borough Boundary - do not have an entitlement to the rights on Hatherleigh Moor, as previously described.
Through recent centuries the land has continued to be utilised and enjoyed by the community traditionally without ‘let or hindrance’, with one exception, that being during the Second World War when almost all the Moor was cultivated in the response to the nation’s call ‘ Dig for Victory’. In 1940 it was requisitioned by the Devon War Agricultural Executive Committee (D.W.A.E.C.) who, acting for the Government, cleared it of all scrub and subsequently brought it into cultivation growing crops of wheat, oats, rye and potatoes. When the war was over the moor was re-seeded to grass by the D.W.A.E.C. before being returned to the ‘Potboilers’ in December 1951. Certain conditions were however laid down as to the future of the moor, one being that it be managed by a committee whose task would be to ensure that it did not return to it’s previous condition of gorse and scrub. It was this requirement that led to the formation of the Hatherleigh Moor Management Committee and this grouping, a body of fifteen Potboilers elected annually, have managed the Moor from 1951 to date. Ownership of the moor is in private hands being the property of the Lord of the Manor, and has been owned by the current family since 1791.
It is indeed a most peaceful area of grassland, home of lark, buzzard, snipe and curlew, and grazed by sheep and cattle. Here and there it is divided by small, winding streams lined with alder, willow and gorse and, in the deep lush grass of spring, there are milkmaids, bog bean and orchids.
At the foot of the moor, the small, triangular strip once part of the main area is now cut off by a narrow lane. This is the Lower Moor - a piece of rare Culm Grassland. The Culm is a type of geology found in certain parts of the Atlantic Sea Board and its grasslands are those which have not been ploughed, drained, sprayed or artificially fertilised. F or centuries only traditional summer grazing took place on such land and the consequence is a rich variety of flowers and vegetation which in turn provides homes and feeding grounds for an abundance of insects, butterflies, small mammals and birds. Hatherleigh's Lower Moor is home to dragonflies, dormice, grass-snakes and field voles, whilst the varied bird life includes meadow pipits, stonechats, linnets and tiny gold crests.
To help conserve this piece of land, the Moor Management Committee manage it as a Hay Meadow with cutting and conserving carried out at separate times, ensuring that all wildlife present have a safe haven to which they may escape. Bracken, a major enemy of this habitat is controlled as far as possible by rolling, at an appropriate time in the year. By the 1950's the pond here, previously described, had become silted up, but it was re-dug in 1996 and is gradually colonising itself. During the summer, it is alive with dragonflies, a kingfisher can occasionally be spotted perching on an overhanging tree, moorhens breed on a small island, and a grass snake will sometimes slide in for a cooling swim.
The Moor is an area of open access crossed with footpaths and bridlepaths; an amenity handed down from generation to generation; an area to be treasured and hopefully respected by all who enjoy these relatively ‘idle acres.’