Let’s travel back in time – 200 years to be precise. We’ve decided we want to take a stroll on Dartmoor National Park; enjoy the autumn air and escape the technology of today.
We step outside our time machine expecting to hear little but – gosh! What’s that noise? And that smell? It’s gunpowder and horse manure and human sweat all mixed up. Where’s the the clean air, the big views and the ponies grazing?
Nineteenth Century Haytor is different to the haven of 2020.
We’re surrounded by industry: men slick with sweat armed with weighted drills bore holes into stone. Solid wooden cranes heave huge granite blocks onto flat-topped trucks. Braying horses pull trucks laden with quarried rock along tram lines. There’s got to be at least 100 men here, would you say?
We’re feeling a bit silly now, hoping for some peace and quiet by time travelling. We remember that Dartmoor’s granite is a prized commercial commodity and, right now, it’s in demand from places far away from the moor.
We wander around; everyone and everything is oblivious to us. it’s rather nice being invisible like this.
We see a man nearby, with curly hair and a high forehead. He’s definitely got an air of flamboyance to him and we realise it’s George Templer, the quarry manager and inventor of the tramway – you know, where we just saw those wagons being pulled by ponies.
His flair for dramatics and poetry is matched by his innovative thinking. Why not, he thought a little while ago, combine horse-power and gravity to move these slabs of stone? Horses can move them from the moor, barges can float on a canal to Teignmouth port and then ships laden with granite can sail to the golden streets of London.
And so he set about making it happen, throwing a huge procession and party to celebrate its opening (maybe one day we’ll come back and see the party in full flow; filling the air with laughter and fanfare and fun – and let’s remember to bring a hat to wear).
We stoop down. Look! the tramway is made from granite, not iron. How unusual. Quick, we need to get up before that horse and wagon comes our way! The horse, bay in colour with a white blaze, snorts and air billows from his nostrils. Look at that chap over there, just off to our right – he’s using a long pole against the wheels so the trunk slows down and stops.
We watch a wagon trundle down the slopes of Haytor Down. It’s destined for the capital, where it’ll be used to build London Bridge and the British Museum.
We look at our watch. We really need to get home, it’s getting late. We leave behind the shouts, the brays, the clanking, the banging. We leave behind George and the horses and the men. We leave behind those who shaped the landscape on Dartmoor and in London; etching their mark on rural and urban Britain.
As we walk back to the time machine, we learn that this did not last. Much like everything, things change. Prices and commodities ebb and flow. Technology – and people – move on. By 1858, we hear, competition for Cornish granite and rising costs brought the tramway to a standstill and quarrying ceased in 1919.
Silence fell, nature moved in. Today, the Haytor is where we find our peace. It’s where the past is pressed into the landscape and continues to bear witness to those days of inventiveness.
While our machine takes us back to 2020, let’s make a promise: let’s go visit the tramway – it’s still there today – and see where now and then join hands so seamlessly.