LOWER MERRIPIT ROUNDHOUSE

We have been living and working in the middle of Dartmoor’s wild and bleak hills for over twenty years. As artists and musicians we have concentrated our work on representing many aspects of this landscape, including the hidden heritage of the ancient indigenous ancestors who once dwelled here. It was a natural extension of this creative journey to make the decision to build a traditional neolithic or bronze-age style ceremonial roundhouse on the farm, modelled on those whose remains are still found in great numbers all across the moors. Work on the project was begun during the summer of 2001 and completed in May 2002.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The farmstead on which we live dates from before the twelfth century. The darkened beams and deep stone walls have witnessed the passage of many lifetimes and every room is steeped with the richness of a history that has slowly unfolded since rural medieval times. There is, however, a more ancient presence on this land: from the end of the neolithic period and throughout the bronze age (5000-3000 years ago) the broad hills of Dartmoor were settled by clans of people who constructed the many hut communities, stone circles, stone rows and burial cistvaens that may still be seen on the moors today. Most of the hut circles are gathered in upland settlements, varying in size from a few buildings to large groups of a hundred or more. The huts vary from dwellings of 6-12 feet in diameter to a small number of structures spanning up to 30 feet across, obviously constructed for gatherings or ceremonial use. In most cases the remains of these huts consist only of the base stones and, occasionally, fire pits or timber holes. Upland communities eventually moved to lower valleys and since then the ancient settlements have been relatively undisturbed.

We have always gathered deep inspiration from walking among the whispered memories of these ancient homes. The echoes of ancestor voices have called far into the music and songs we have created; a trail of ancestor footprints has led into the paintings and sculptures on which we have worked. It felt to us a very natural next step to build a house by which to honour the ancestor spirit of this land. It was never our intention to create a historical reconstruction, architecturally faithful in every detail. Rather we wanted to make something that caught the spirit of these dwellings, that was born from the bones of this land, and that served to remind us all that we walk in ancient footsteps and that ancient songs flow through our veins.

We began to dig in early spring 2001. The structure was sited so that the door would open east towards the rising sun and moon, and away from the prevailing winds that roar down from the northern plateau of the moor. Early excavations revealed a vast unmovable granite block, around which we re-sited the hut so that the rock now runs both inside and outside of the back wall. We also found pieces of worked flint, deeply buried and last touched 5000 years ago. Work to clear and level the site moved at a steady pace and later that year, 300 people gathered with bagpipe, flute and drum to bless the foundation stones.

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We carried out the physical work of construction, assisted at each stage by skilled local craftspeople. Work on the first phase of the roundhouse gathered momentum in the autumn of 2001, with the heavy job of collecting and sorting granite, and the building of the one metre thick dry stone wall. Earth and small stones were used to fill the wall cavities. Granite of the right size and shape, a surprisingly precious commodity on this granite-strewn landscape, was begged and donated from any local hoard we could find! Two things slowed our progress during the following winter – the machinations of a planning authority at a loss as to how to define us, and the quantities of rain and mud that swamped the site! The first was overcome by sheer will power and the overwhelming support of the local Dartmoor community. The second was handled with buckets, a dogged sense of humour and many a hot brew. Before the stone ring was completed, a magnificent red deer stag visited the site, standing in the early morning light at the centre of the hut.

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Better weather in early 2002 brought us to the timber phase of construction. Eight Dartmoor oak trees were raised to support the roof of the roundhouse, with a cone created from hemlock poles pegged onto an oak ring beam and bound with hazel cross pieces. An arch of heavy oak formed the doorway and then it was time for the thatching. Since no metal was used in the structure of the roundhouse, the rye grass thatch was sewn on by a traditional method using long wooden needles. Rye grass was chosen both because it was an ancient crop and because its fine structure was well suited to the shaping of the roof. It was the only material that we were unable to source locally, being shipped from Poland. The roof cone was tapered to a fine point leaving smoke to filter out through the layers of grass. Within two days of its completion, swallows moved in and built a nest high in the apex of the cone, where they remained all summer.

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We laid a granite floor around the inside edge of the hut, and between door and hearth, leaving the centre of the floor as bare earth, which we stamped and smoothed with feet and hands. A double door was woven from willow and hazel, and large skins hung from pegs inside the doorway. The setting of the fire pit was a significant moment for us – the first fire, fuelled by heather and sweet gorse wood gathered from the hills, seemed to awaken the building, and as we sat hunched over those new flames we could feel the roundhouse begin to fill.

picsRoundhouse17 Since the roundhouse was completed we have met many times around its hearth, sometimes with groups, sometimes alone, sometimes with family and friends. During the summer of it completion several hundred visitors came once more, this time to form a river of people that flowed through the finished roundhouse to welcome and bless its fire. Since then many people, from many cultures and lands as well as local Dartmoor folk, have offered ceremonies and prayers, singing and drumming, magic and wisdom, tears and gratitude, into the flames.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

picsRoundhouse2 We want to honour the indigenous ancestor people of these lands because, by doing so, each one of us can touch into a precious hidden place, wander at the edges of our most ancient memories and hold something that perhaps we lost very long ago. All the stories and mythologies and spirit tales that we need to make sense of our own journeys are here, in the rocks and boulders, soil and sand, bark and leaf of our own land, placed there by the people who for thousands of years have trodden these paths and who drank before us from these waters. Our own pre-Celtic heritage is a rich mystery waiting to be uncovered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The filling of this ancestor house has continued. The roots of this roundhouse have stretched out and spread, reaching out long tendrils through the peat bogs and below the interlocking streams, touching and winding around other, more ancient, roots. There they have found something, vibrations from a deep ancestral core, long held within the dark earth below those old hut circles on the high hills. Something is feeding through to this place. An old magic, a strange alchemy, a shimmering possibility. Sometimes it feels very close and then the shadows thicken around the wall of this house, the mist blows across the marshes and we wait…

When the land is still even shadows pause
when the moon is cast through an open door
we are calling you, we are calling you, we are calling you.

Find this place familiar, do you find this place familiar?
now the night is opening to us, now the night is bringing,
the night is bringing you.

When a veil is spun far across the reeds
when a silence builds below the waiting trees
we are calling you, we are calling you, we are calling you.

Feel our skin is touching, do you feel our skin is touching?
now our bones are singing gently, now our bones remember
our bones remember you.

When a clear flute plays beside the river’s chill
when a dark drum beats upon an empty hill
we are calling you, we are calling you, we are calling you.

See our hands entwining, do you see our faces merging?
now our souls are overlapping and this place is blessed
this place is blessed by you.

When the land is still even shadows pause
when the moon is cast through an open door
we are calling you, we are calling you, we are calling you.

(Ancestor Song by Carolyn Hillyer from the album, Weathered Edge)

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