Devon Perspectives

Hound Tor

Dartmoor's greatest rock pile

Hound Tor near Manaton

An impressive outcrop

A modern Ordnance Survey map of Dartmoor shows us three tors with Hound in their name: two are simply called Hound Tor, while the third is Little Hound Tor. Of these, by far the most impressive is the one shown above. The two tiny human figures seen against the skyline give one a measure of the immensity of the exceptional granite rock formation that makes up the Hound Tor near Manaton on the eastern edge of the moor. The other two stand close to each other to the north of the moor.

Samuel Rowe in his Perambulation describes Hound Tor as "one of the most interesting of the tors on the moor". Impressed by the sheer scale of the outcrop, he continues:
The top of the hill is flanked by two colossal walls piled up of huge granite masses, sixty, eighty, and in some places, probably, a hundred feet high, with an open space between, forming an esplanade where Titan sentinels might have paced along, or rebel giants might have held a council of war. [1, p123]
William Crossing in Gems in a Granite Setting refers to its supposed Druidical significance to some noted 18th century antiquarians and their disciples:
In its partly fallen piles the imagination may trace the ruins of some mighty stronghold, and one can well believe that in the days when tors were thought to have been used as rock temples by the Druids, the followers of Stukely and Borlase regarded Hound Tor, which covers a very large area, and whose hoary piles rise to an immense height above the ground, as having been one of more than ordinary importance. [2, p86]
Sabine Baring-Gould gives this somewhat fanciful explanation for the naming of the tor:
Hound Tor is a noble mass of rocks. It derives its name from the shape assumed by the blocks on the summit, that have been weathered into forms resembling the heads of dogs peering over the natural battlements, and listening to hear the merry call of the horn. [3, p175]

The dubious Holmesean link

It has been suggested widely that Arthur Conan Doyle drew inspiration from Hound Tor for the plot of Sherlock Holmes' most famous adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles[4]. Not so, according to Philip Weller in his comprehensive and entertaining background analysis of the story, The Hound of the Baskervilles: Hunting the Dartmoor Legend[5]. Weller gives three plausible reasons for rejecting any association between the Hound and the Hound Tor near Manaton.

  1. There is no suitable great mire or other Houndian location in the area.
  2. This Tor was recorded on the particular Ordnance Survey map used by Conan Doyle as Hounter Tor, not Hound Tor.
  3. If Conan Doyle had shown any interest in any of the three Hound Tors on the moor, he would surely have used them in naming a Tor in the book, as he did with the real Bellever and Vixen Tors.

In the caption to the image shown below of the tor and the nearby kistvaen (see below) by Robert Burnard, the doyen of Dartmoor photographers, he chooses the prevailing name of Hounter Tor. The year he took the picture - 1889 - is the very year that the events in the novel were supposed to have occurred. Conan Doyle himself visited Dartmoor in 1901 prior to starting work on the Hound which was originally published in serial form in the Strand Magazine beginning later that year.

Burnard's photo is reproduced by kind permission of the Dartmoor Archive at www.dartmoorarchive.org; the original print is ©Dartmoor Trust.

Hound Tor and kistvaen by Robert Burnard

Lacking Weller's wise counsel, the director of more than one of the many film versions of the Hound chose this tor as a backdrop, as seen in this still from the 1983 made-for-TV production starring Ian Richardson as Holmes.

Hound Tor seen in the 1983 film of Hound of the Baskervilles

Of the other Hound Tor and Little Hound Tor, it is true that they are close to a great 'mire', Raybarrow Pool, but, argues Weller, this mire is an unsuitable candidate for the great Grimpen Mire mentioned in the book, as among other contrary factors, it is in the North Moor, there is no suitable Merripit House in the vicinity, nor are there any old tin workings within its boundary. It is now widely accepted (emphatically so by Weller) that the fictional great Grimpen Mire is based on the real Fox Tor Mires.

Hound Tor Kistvaen with retaining circle

sketch of Hound Tor kistvaen and stone circle

A Dartmoor kistvaen (from the Celtic: cist - chest, and maen - stone) is a Bronze Age burial chamber consisting (when complete) of four granite slabs standing on their edges making up the sides, plus a covering stone or capstone. It has no base. According to Hansford Worth[6, p170] there is sufficient evidence that most Dartmoor kistvaens were originally covered by barrows, or burial mounds, though these have largely disappeared. Typically the internal dimensions are about 3ft long and less than 2ft wide, allowing sufficient space for a body in a contracted position, but there is no evidence that interment was used on Dartmoor, cremation being preferred. Indeed in a some cases bone ash or burnt bone has been detected mixed with the soil, or in an urn, in the tomb[6, p191-192].

Worth's sketch shows the radius of the retaining circle and the height of a typical stone within it. It also clearly indicates the disposition of the stones remaining in the kistvaen and the circle. Considering Dartmoor kistvaens in general, the indications are that the retaining circles were usually within the bounds of the barrows:
It is difficult to be certain whether all circles around kistvaens were originally within the barrows, but it is probable that the majority were covered by the mounds. [6, p182]
Hound Tor kistvaen and ©Keith Ryan

This 2008 photo of the kistvaen and retaining circle taken from a similar position to Burnard's shows that, thankfully, the remains of this antiquity looks much as it did 120 years earlier. Crossing's Guide to Dartmoor mentions that stones from this kistvaen (and possibly the circle) were removed "...more than thirty years ago for road material". Since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1909, one can infer that this despoilment took place some time around the 1870's.

Thanks to Dartmoor CAM for giving me permission to reproduce this image, ©Keith Ryan.

OS Map showing Hound Tor

Click here to show a map centered between the other Hound Tor and Little Hound Tor in North Dartmoor. Refresh the map to show Hound Tor near Manaton by clicking here.

bibliography

1.
2.
Gems in a Granite Setting by William Crossing 2nd. Ed., Plymouth, 1905.
3.
A Book of Dartmoor by Sabine Baring-Gould, London, 1900.
4.
The Hound of the Baskervilles: Hunting the Dartmoor Legend by Philip Weller, Devon Books, 2001.
5.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, London, 1902.
6.
Worth's Dartmoor by R Hansford Worth, David & Charles, 1967.
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