The Dartmoor Longhouse
The earliest known examples of longhouses on Dartmoor survive as archaeological ruins; excavations in the 1960s at three sites, Houndtor, Hutholes and Dinna Clerks, revealed buildings whose essential character was that they sheltered both people and cattle under a single roof. These single storey stone-built houses were, as their name suggests, long rectangular structures, built into a hill slope and essentially divided into two by opposing doors about half way down their long sides, thus creating a passage across the width of the building. On the lower side of this cross passage was the area given over to the shelter of cattle, known as a shippon; the excavations revealed a drain running down the centre of the shippon, exiting through a hole in the end wall - and the location of wooden posts just inside the long, side walls. The cattle would thus have been tethered with their faces to the long walls and their rear ends over the drain. The higher end of the longhouse, that occupied by people, was usually divided into two unequal halves; the larger room, next to the cross passage, contained a hearthstone on which an open fire would have burned; the smaller room, buried into the hillside and known as the inner room, was unheated and its purpose remains unclear. The construction of these longhouses has been dated to about AD1250 and they probably went out of use around AD1400.
Dartmoor also boasts about 130 standing longhouses, buildings which remain in use to this day, some as farm buildings, but most still as houses. The earliest examples are probably some 650 years old, but the tradition of building longhouses on Dartmoor continued – unusually – through to the 18th century. The general rareity of this resource means that the Dartmoor longhouse is regarded as having international importance.
These longhouses exhibit the same characteristics as the archaeological examples: - cross passage, shippon and domestic accommodation of hall (the main living room) and inner room. The early standing longhouses would also have been built as single storey houses; in a number survive roof timbers (and occasionally the underside of the thatch covering) blackened by the smoke from the fire which burned on the hearthstone in the floor of the hall.
Nowadays, only a handful of longhouses survive on Dartmoor with the shippon in its original state; most shippons have been converted into domestic use.
In 1979, the National Park Authority bought Higher Uppacott, a longhouse, not only with a shippon unaltered since medieval times, but also with medieval smoke-blackened thatch. Visit Higher Uppacott.