A pleasing characteristic of the village is the arrangement and
construction of the houses which are varied in style and choice of
materials; modest cottages with roofs of thatch or slate are
juxtaposed at diverse angles to detached residences of some grandeur.
Eden Phillpotts' novel The Secret Woman published in 1905 is set in
Belstone and its surroundings. This passage draws attention to the
diversity of the village's houses when viewed from Watchet Hill,
reached by a short climb towards the moor from the south-west exit:
..viewed from its rounded summit, Belstone village appeared in a snug
and clustered congeries of little dwellings that faced all ways and
exhibited every beauty of whitewash and rosy-wash, old thatch and
venerable slate. Its roofs were crusted with moss cushions and
stonecrops, or lichens of orange and grey. Blue smoke drifted along
and mellowed every line.
The year 1905 was towards the end of a period from 1890 during which
the centre of the village expanded from a collection of 9 farms and a
similar number of cottages by the construction of 21 new houses,
thereby beginning the transformation from an agricultural settlement
to the more residential community that we see today. Not every
commentator was happy with this change. Dora James' book on Belstone
from 1911 contains this rebuke against Dartmoor House that was
completed in 1896:
Not so very long ago a group of really picturesque thatched cottages
faced down [Little Green]; now they have disappeared, and have been
replaced by - well, one of the buildings which the coming of visitors
to Belstone has brought in its train, to the destruction of
This carping seems misplaced to the present-day visitor, as the house
looks most attractive with its newly refurbished slate roof. But we
weren't around to make the comparison, so maybe Dora should be given
the benefit of the doubt. What became of those unfortunates who lived
in the disappearing cottages, I wonder?
Despite the demise of those mentioned above, several thatched
properties from earlier times remain to this day, including
Dagworthy, part of which was built in the early 1700s, and Andrews
Cottage which dates from the 17th century. John Andrew who died in
1676 may have been an early occupant of the latter. One William Ellis
who lived there all his adult life until his death in 1936, was
apparently a jack-of-all-trades on an epic scale. The Book of
Belstone puts it this way:
Described by one writer in 1902 as "the most versatile of living
Englishmen", Mr Ellis's skills included photographer, Dartmoor guide,
repairer of watches and clocks, chemical manure and seed merchant,
dog breeder (red setters a speciality), dealer in game, Knight of
Honour and Warden of the Primose League, postman, organist,
chuchwarden, bell-ringer, lay reader, boot and shoe maker, bicycle
repairer, gardener, wireless operator and portreeve.
The Dartmoor guiding took up most of his time, according to his
granddaughter; a round trip to Cranmere Pool and back would take a
fair slice of the day. The portreeve is a locally elected official, a
roll dating from Saxon times, whose job today is to oversee the
protection of the common lands within the parish; for example, to
ensure that outsiders are not taking commoners' rights such as
cutting peat, and that no-one is trying to enclose the commons
adjacent to their property.
Another somewhat surprising put-down for the village comes in Devon
by W.G. Hoskins, written in 1954:
Belstone is a straggling village spoilt by some atrocious modern
building since it was "discovered" fifty years ago.
I can barely imagine what Hoskins would have made of the truly
appalling modern housing developments that have blighted nearby
Okehampton, had he lived to see them go up. Fortunately for Belstone,
it has been spared this fate.
With the change in character of the village over the last century or
so, the residents have become accustomed, perhaps reluctantly, to the
ever increasing influx of tourists using Belstone as the northern
gateway to Dartmoor. Nevertheless there has been a firm resolve by
the locals to retain the spirit of a working community, rather than
have the village turned into a pretty-postcard tourist magnet.
Initiatives at various times since the 1970s, including designation
as a Honeypot site, acquiring Conservation Area Status, and entering
Best Kept Village competitions, have been roundly rejected by the
parish council, sometimes after wider consultation.
The village Post Office is something of an endangered species in
these parts. Belstone is no exception, and the all that remains of
the service in 2007 is a Post Office counter opening on Tuesday and
Thursday mornings in the Village Hall.
The white-fronted cottage named "Old Post Office" opened as a butcher
at the time of the Great War, before being converted to a Post Office
in 1920, its home until 1928. The business then passed to Ivan and
May Westaway who operated it from their own residence, Hillside, up
to 1937 when it transferred to the Zion Chapel, built by the
non-conformist Calvinistic Independent Dissenters in 1841. Here it
remained until it was closed in 2002, leaving only the red telephone
kiosk, letter box, and the Telegraph Office sign as reminders of its
Belstone is without a village shop of any kind today, but is blessed
with a popular free house inn, The Tors, noted for its extensive
range of single malts. It also provides good quality food and offers
limited B & B accommodation.
Historically the Belstone Manor Pound was used to contain stray or
illegally pastured livestock. The fines paid for their release would
go into the coffers of the Lord of the Manor.
The Book of Belstone gives us this anecdote related by William Brock,
poundkeeper for many years up to his death in 1913:
Constable get me up early one morning. "What's the job?" I asked.
"Poundage case" he said. So I came down and by the light of my
lantern I saw he had my white-faced cow. "That's not poundable" I
said. All the same the justices had me up and I had to pay five
shillings for "estraying".
The pound gradually fell into disrepair after Brock's tenure as
poundkeeper, and it eventually became a village rubbish tip. In 1988
it was renovated and converted to a walled garden for quiet
contemplation. Seats were added at some point, but they are nowhere
to be seen in 2007.
The Book of Belstone by Chris and Marion Walpole, private
Belstone: Some Account of the Parish Past and Present by Dora James,
Devon by W.G. Hoskins, Collins 1954; new ed., Phillimore, 2003.