History of Heathercombe


The following extract is taken from The Book of Manaton: Portrait of a Dartmoor Parish (Published by Halsgrove, 1999)
Heathercombe is a small valley which lies in the Western part of the parish up against Hameldown. It separates two parts of Manaton parish: to the west the open moor of Hameldown and the isolated settlements of Challacombe and Soussons beyond it; to the East the farms centred on Manaton village. Being on the margin of the cultivatable land in the parish, Heathercombe has seen farming activity wax and wane over the centuries.

Map of Heathercombe Valley
Map of Heathercombe Valley showing the location of adjoining farms and properties, and the area of the arboretum. (From Heathercombe by Claude Pike)

That farming has always been a struggle at Heathercombe is only too evident from the observations in the early eighteenth century survey of the estate of the Earl of Devon. Commenting about the tenements in the ‘West Lands’ of the parish from Soussons in the west to Torhill in the east, it states:
This part is very poor, cold and hungry grounds, full of rocks, and naturally heathy but by the extraordinary pains and costs of its owners, produces good rye, some wheat, but more oats and barley. Here are some meadows between the hills, not sufficient to maintain their cattle in Winter were it not for the help of clover grass. Their Commons in this part are Heathy Downs… Hamble [Hamel] Downe is in common to all his Gracis tenements in this part as well as Tutebarro where the said tenements cut turf for their present supply.

Heathercombe had been inhabited during the late Bronze Age, when the but circles on Heatree and Vogwell Downs were occupied and the associated Heathercombe reave built, but the settlement was almost certainly abandoned when the climate subsequently deteriorated, and habitation was probably not resumed until after the arrival of the Saxons in the seventh century. From then onwards the area of the valley under cultivation was progressively extended from the more easily cultivated lower slopes up on to the adjacent `heathy’ land.

Heathercombe was from an early date divided between two farming tenements called South and North Heathercombe. Both tenements were included in the list of rates levied in 1613 for the repair of Manaton Church, and it would appear that these tenements — like those in the rest of the parish — were relatively stable until the nineteenth century. The Rate levied on each of the Heathercombe tenements at only ls.6d was next to the lowest in the parish – and compared with 6s.3d for Hound Tor, 3s.3d for Langstone and 2s.4d for fforde – indicating that these were some of the poorest tenements in the parish.

However in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the sale in the Chagford Stannary of tin ingots derived from tin streaming activity in the Heathercombe Burn – of which much evidence remains in the form of mounds of stones near to the Burn – had probably made a significant contribution to the income of the inhabitants, and it was during this time that they built North and South Heathercombe, longhouses typical of the fringes of Dartmoor.

Both were built into the side of the hill so that the higher part, the hall, could be occupied by the farmer and his family and the lower part, the shippon, by his animals. Each longhouse had a cross passage giving common access to both hall and shippon.

North Heathercombe LonghouseNorth Heathercombe Longhouse. (Photo courtesy Stephen Woods)

It is evident from the smoke-blackened timbers in the roof of Heathercombe North that at first there was an open fire in the centre of the hall, that there was no upper floor, and that the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof.

The late sixteenth and late seventeenth centuries – the Elizabethan and Restoration periods were relatively prosperous times for farmers in the South West, and like others in the area the Heathercombe longhouses were substantially upgraded, although they still retained their typical longhouse layout. Chimneys were constructed with fine dressed granite fireplaces, having ashlar’d fire backs which formed walls of the cross passages. Stone staircases were inserted in the hall walls to allow access to an upper floor over the hall, and the roofs were raised, in several stages, to give adequate headroom upstairs.
South Heathercombe Longhouse

South Heathercombe Longhouse showing 15th century walls (dark coloured) and 17th century fireplace (hatched). The drawing is based on a plan in the excellent publication Some Widecombe Longhouses, by Jenny Sanders and Elizabeth Gawne

Then, or later, the existing outbuildings were built, including, at Heathercombe North, piggeries with fine granite troughs; a bank barn and a stone-roofed ash house. Bee boles were built into the garden walls to house the skeps which were used before the advent of bee hives.

Apart from the longhouses there was also at this time a corn (or ‘grist’) mill in Heathercombe powered by water from the Burn – which may earlier have served as a tin blowing-mill, and which probably served other tenements in the West Land of the parish.

The early eighteenth century survey of the estate of the Earl of Devon shows that the Heathercombe tenements, along with nineteen other tenements in the West Land of Manaton parish, then lay within the Manor of Little Manaton and formed part of the ‘Kenton Manor’ estate of the Courtenay Earls of Devon. The Survey recorded that, apart from tenements at Challacombe and Soussons, the rents paid by the copy- and lease-holders of the Heathercombe tenements, at 5s.6d and 5s. respectively, were at the lowest level of Manaton’s West Land tenements.

Nevertheless, during this period, farming in the valley sustained the two farms, and the large fields which had been formed as the cultivated area extending up the sides of the valley were subdivided, indicating rather intensive use of the land. Indeed the high point in the expansion of the farms into the ‘heathy’ land was reached at the end of the eighteenth century when the impressive wall enclosing the large Newtake was constructed. This was however followed by the steady decline of farming in the valley.

By the time of the Tithe Apportionment in 1842, both farms were in common ownership, namely that of John Pethybridge, and several of the fields had been incorporated into the adjoining Vogwell Farm, which was then farmed by another member of the Pethybridge family. Heathercombe’s corn mill was by now in ruins.

During the next quarter century ownership of the Heathercombe farmhouses and adjacent fields passed to James Bryant of Plymouth, as mentioned elsewhere in this book. However in 1868 Mr Bryant, who had moved into Hedge Barton, sold his Heathercombe property to John and Robert Kitson, sons of William Kitson who had developed a substantial part of Torquay and founded the Torquay law firm of W. & C. Kitson (now known simply as Kitsons).

The Kitsons brought great change to the part of the parish around Heathercombe, evidently with a view to establishing a splendid estate. Besides Heathercombe, they bought up a number of other farms nearby, including Heatree, Vogwell, Kendon, Ford, Canna and Easdon, and at Heatree they built a mansion, Heatree House, where they resided.
Activity on the farms which the Kitsons bought was rationalised and based primarily at Heatree, Vogwell and Ford. At Heathercombe a cottage, Burn Cottage, was built to house a farm labourer for the estate farms. However the struggle to farm the upper slopes and other poor-yielding areas of the Heathercombe valley was abandoned during the 1880s and 90s. The change to a new – and no doubt less unproductive – use was accomplished by the establishment of extensive plantations of mixed conifer and broadleaf trees in all but the most fertile parts of the valley. The so-called Jubilee Wood was planted in the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee – 1887.

Clearly, however, the Kitsons – and particularly John Kitson, as Robert died in 1885 – also wanted to create an attractive amenity estate. At Heatree the stream below Heatree House was dammed to create four large lakes. Similarly, over the hill in Heathercombe, not only was the Burn dammed to create several lakes and ponds with attractive waterfalls, but also paths and bridges were built to make walks through the woodlands and beside the streams, and relatively-newly introduced specimen trees such as Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir were planted, together with shrubs such as Rhododendron and cherry laurel.

With farming continuing only in a diminished state Heathercombe in this period of high Victorian prosperity took on a new role as part of a woodland and amenity estate. However on the death of John Kitson in 1911, his estate passed to his cousin and godson the Reverend John Archibald Kitson, Clerk in Holy Orders.
Evidently the new occupant of Heatree House who was Rector of Manaton from c.1927-31, had either fewer means or less interest in the amenity of the Estate than his predecessor, as it became neglected.

Burn Cottage was occupied in the 1920s by Mr Hill who was employed as ploughman on the estate. His daughter, Mrs Tuckwell, well remembers the long daily walk from Heathercombe to Manaton school, and subsequently to Wingstone where she worked as a domestic servant.

During the 1920s a bungalow, Heathercombe Brake, was built high up on the western slope of the valley and was let to Messrs Whitehead and Tindale who started a silver fox farm there, catering for the fashion popular at that time. Their customers included Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent.

North and South Heathercombe ceased to function as farms. Heathercombe North was let during the 1920s and early 30s as a holiday home to a publisher, Christopher Sandford, who published some sixteen books under the imprint ‘At the Sign of the Boar’s Head in Heathercombe.’ Jeremy Sandford, his son, later achieved fame as the author of the television play Cathy Come Home.
In the late 1930s Heathercombe North was let to a Commander Gibbons and his wife, the former Miss Ellery Hull (whose brother Field Marshal Sir Richard Hull KG, GCB, DSO, was later to become commander of NATO forces in Europe). After the couple divorced, Mrs Ellery Gibbons married Alec Kitson, son of the Reverend John Kitson, and they moved into South Heathercombe. During and immediately after the Second World War, Captain Evans, who commanded HMS Repulse, rented first Burn Cottage and then Heathercombe North for his wife and three sons to live in whilst he was at sea.

In 1947 the Reverend John Archibald Kitson died and the Heatree Estate was broken up.

Heathercombe North was bequeathed to Alec Kitson who moved into the house with his wife, Ellery. South Heathercombe farmhouse and Burn Cottage were bought by Ellery Kitson herself, and Heathercombe Brake, where fox farming had stopped during the war, was bought by two ladies who wanted to run a nursing home there.

Most of the woodland and farmland was bought by the Devon & Courtenay Clay Company of Newton Abbot as a source of timber for its underground ball clay mines in the Bovey Basin. During the war some of the plantations of the 1880s and 90s had been felled, and following its purchase the clay company felled most of what remained – including many fine Douglas Fir trees. However the permission for the felling given by the Forestry Commission stipulated that all the company’s land be dedicated to forestry. A 25-year programme of re-planting was begun in 1952, initially mainly with Japanese Larch whose timber would best meet the company’s expected need for pit props.

Nursing home and other plans for Heathercombe Brake having come to nothing, the property was bought in 1956 by Miss Quantick, a member of the Plymouth Brethren. She proceeded to establish the Heathercombe Brake Trust, an educational charity to provide accommodation for deprived children sent to her mainly by inner city local authorities. Under Miss Quantick’s dynamic leadership the charity expanded very considerably, acquiring a number of substantial properties in Manaton parish including, in particular, Heatree House which became the headquarters of the Trust – as well as premises in Teignmouth. Many who spent several months or years of their childhood at Heathercombe return to see it with their families.

Ray Hugo, while at Langstone, recalls some of these children who were accommodated at Clapperway:
I would watch them walking up the hill to Langstone on their long trek to Heatree each day. Thin and blue with cold in winter, and hardly looking as though they would survive the walk. In a few weeks, however, they were transformed into strapping youngsters, with colour in their cheeks, striding out up Langstone Hill.

During the 1950s and early 1960s Mrs Kitson let Burn Cottage to members of the Hearn [Hem] family. Sam Hern, together with Arthur Raymont who lived at Vogwell Cottage, were employed on the woodland estate. Mrs Kitson also let South Heathercombe until it was sold in 1960 to Mr and Mrs Turner, who in turn sold it on in 1962 to Fountain Forestry who rented it to Mr Rushton, one of their forestry managers.

Claude and Margaret PikeIn 1964 The Devon & Courtenay Clay Company merged with Watts, Blake, Bearne & Co. Because of the long-term liability inherent in the re-planting obligation, the Heathercombe property was put up for sale and was purchased at Jacksons, Stops and Staffs valuation by Claude Pike, the then Chairman and Managing Director of Watts, Blake, Bearne. This marked the beginning of a new era for Heathercombe which, to a great extent, involved a reversion to the aims of John Kitson at the end of the nineteenth century in developing the valley as a woodland and amenity estate.

In 1965 Claude Pike bought Burn Cottage from Mrs Kitson. It was then in very poor condition. He rebuilt it in a mountain chalet style and thereafter spent practically all his weekends at Heathercombe with his wife Margaret. He worked to restore the ponds and paths which had become completely lost in a jungle of over-grown vegetation, and, having a great interest in trees for many years, he established an arboretum and planted many interesting species of both trees and shrubs around the estate. The story of this work is included in his book Heathercombe — The History of a Dartmoor Valley, published in 1993.
South Heathercombe was bought by Mr and Mrs Chapman in 1966. In the same year Alec Kitson died. Mrs Kitson’s son, Christopher, having emigrated to Australia, she decided in the following year to sell Heathercombe North to Claude Pike. More recently the house has become the home of John and Svetlana Pike and their children. In 1979 Mr Chapman died and his widow sold South Heathercombe to Miss Diana Blount, one of whose forebears was created Earl of Devon in 1603.

Following his purchase of the woodlands in 1964, Claude Pike engaged Fountain Forestry to manage the woodlands. A number of local people were employed over the years to complete the forestry replanting programme with a variety of coniferous species including Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock, to construct new forest rides and fences and to progressively thin the plantations.

Now, at the beginning of the new millennium, whilst a few of the trees planted at the end of the nineteenth century still survive as fine specimen trees, the forest planting of the 1950s is approaching maturity and a new cycle of felling and replanting is beginning.

Historical Addendum 2019
In the twenty years since 1999, when the chapter on the history of Heathercombe was written for the Book of Manaton, there have been many changes in Heathercombe.
In 2000 the Heathercombe Brake Trust decided to sell Heathercombe Brake. It was purchased by the Claude & Margaret Pike Woodlands Trust with the aim of continuing the use of the property for charitable purposes. The Trust had been endowed by Claude and Margaret Pike with the object of it eventually owning and managing the woodlands and other properties in Heathercombe. The hostel buildings were modernised as a residential centre and renamed ‘High Heathercombe’. A separate not for profit company called ‘High Heathercombe Trust’ (subsequently ‘High Heathercombe Community Interest Company’) was set up to manage it on a charitable basis, offering accommodation to groups running courses and retreats that benefit from being held in Heathercombe’s special environment.

Following the death of Claude Pike in 2002, Heathercombe woodlands were transferred to the Claude & Margaret Pike Woodlands Trust. On the death in 2004 of the owner of South Heathercombe, Miss Blount, the Trust also acquired this property, a Dartmoor longhouse, in order to accommodate the senior estate worker Duncan Holden and his wife who, for several years, ran a bed and breakfast business in the property. The outbuildings were converted into tea rooms for visitors to Heathercombe gardens.

Having taken over responsibility for Heathercombe from Claude Pike, the Trustees of the Claude & Margaret Pike Woodlands Trust, John and Svetlana Pike and Penelope Holland, set about the clearance of many hectares of Rhododendron ponticum from the conifer woodlands and the grounds of High Heathercombe and considerably extended and landscaped ‘garden’ areas such as Heathercombe North orchard and wild flower meadow, the Lower Lake, Burn Wood, Oak Park and the former Sitka Wood. A number of improvements were carried out, including the construction of the Wayside workshop and garage adjoining South Heathercombe as a base for estate workers, Duncan Holden (who constructed the Wayside), Peter Nicholls and Andrew Fowler.
Since 2003 the gardens in Heathercombe have been opened to the public each year under the auspices of the National Gardens Scheme in aid of the National Gardens Scheme charities and Rowcroft Hospice in Torquay, for which a total of almost £60,000 was raised up to 2019. During a number of those garden open periods the manager of the High Heathercombe Residential Centre, Mel Lamb, has staged ‘EDGE’ sculpture trails exhibiting up to 60 sculptures in the grounds and smaller works in the Wayside – temporarily converted into a gallery.

Owing to the very low prices for timber, the cycle of felling and replanting the woodlands, that was anticipated in 1999, did not commence until 2010 when it was forced on the Trust by the disaster of the extensive larch plantations – about 40% of the total – becoming infected by the disease Phytophthora Ramorum. All the larch plantations had to be felled immediately and over the following eight years almost all of the conifer plantations in the valley had to be clear felled due to their exposure to wind throw. This dramatically changed the appearance and ecology of the valley. The woodlands were partly replanted with native broadleaved trees and partly with a wide range of conifer species, which were soon growing strongly.

A further disaster occurred in 2014 when Manwood house was destroyed by fire. Subsequently however the property was rebuilt by Penelope Holland and her husband, in as close to “Passivhaus” principles as the initial footprint allowed: very high insulation combined with mechanical ventilation and heat recovery and energy provision from a ground source heat pump and photovoltaic panels.

After a difficult period Heathercombe is in a happy state, optimistic for the future.