by Matt Parkins
The current woodland character of Fingle Woods is largely a reflection of our ancestors’ endeavours over many centuries. It’s fascinating to see what can be found there that gradually reveals the full Fingle story, casting light on the lives and industries of the Teign valley.
Over the last century or so, the most dramatic changes have occurred. In the 19th century the Victorian plant hunters searched the globe for exotic species of trees and, finding them suitable for our climate, they were planted across the UK for timber crops. Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar are all commonly found covering vast areas of the Teign gorge.
Rusty fragments of felling equipment turn up from time to time, from horse shoes to steel winch cables, corroding and crumbling away into the soil. These workers who used hand and horse power needed refreshment and it’s not unusual to find an occasional glass bottle embossed with a company name. In one case Woodward Chemist of London provided a pick-me-up for the hard grafters during a long 1920s day hauling timber. Foresters from this era would also have been able to watch Castle Drogo being built as they toiled in the oak woods.
A regular hint of the earlier oak woods is given by the numerous charcoal hearths. These hand dug circular platforms are dotted about the valley and, if you are lucky, still contain small fragments of oak charcoal. Pack horse tracks weave their way between these hearths allowing you to follow in their hoof prints and imagine what effort went into a fully loaded traverse of the steep gorge. A network of local industry thrived here but the pace of life may have been slower and the woodland diversity broader.
A walk in the woods today might reveal old field boundaries and farm enclosures from medieval times. Pottery from that age may even be found in some places; it can be unearthed when a conifer root is torn up by strong winds. All of this activity over the last 500 years has left its trace but the biggest reminder of our ancestors is also the oldest. During the Iron Age a series of hill forts was built around the Teign valley and the heaving ramparts of Wooston hill fort rise up between the trees of Fingle Woods. These ghosts from the past don’t stop revealing themselves and, as the woods are explored in more depth, will continue to tell the Fingle story as it becomes a haven for Dartmoor’s wildlife.