Any regular Dartmoor walker knows Nun’s Cross Farm. Depending on your perspective and direction of travel, it’s the target for a good leg-stretch before settling down to a pint in the Plume, a crossroads on a longer exploration, a checkpoint on your mountain bike route or, for those heading up from the south, the first sign that Princetown will soon be in view. It’s a really clear and obvious navigation point in what can be a squelchy, featureless landscape and our Ten Tors teams always got to know it well.
The farm itself has a relatively short and uninteresting history. It was built in 1870, fell out of use around 1930 and since about 1960 onwards it has had occasional use as an outdoor pursuits base. It’s now owned by Mount Kelly Boarding School and available for hire. Personally, I can’t imagine a situation when I would be that close to Princetown without wanting to push on and go for a pint, but if you’re interested in booking the details are here.
Much more interesting is the cross, which is also known as Siward’s Cross. It was named as such (crucem Sywardi) as long ago as 1240, when the boundaries of Dartmoor Forest were drawn. It’s likely that the cross has been in place since Edward the Confessor’s reign, when Siward, the Saxon Earl of Northumberland, owned the nearby manors of Willsworthy and Mary Tavy and land around Tavistock. Siward died in 1055; the cross that was probably used to mark the boundary of his land has therefore been here for almost 1000 years. It has only been removed from its socket stone once, when in the 1846 a couple of young local farmers pushed it over and broke it in half. Iron bands were used to repair it and it was swiftly re-erected. For more detailed information on the cross and its history, see the Historic England citation for Siward’s Cross.
The cross has been an important navigation aid for centuries, and lies on the old route from Buckland Abbey to Tavistock Abbey, a route popularly known as the Abbots Way. It is also on the Monk’s Way which goes more east-to-west, and the Two Moors Way which is the modern walking route from Ivybridge to Princetown. Elements of all the above made up the Jobbers (or Joblers) Path which was used by peat-cutters and shepherds. In reality, I suspect that there was not one single unchanging route that connected any of these places nor tied them to any particular use: the routes probably pre-date the abbeys, and a event such as the opening of a new mine or quarry would have had a profound impact on the way people got around. Any navigator with tell you that there are always key points on any route, and Siward’s Cross would have been an important place to pass through in order to avoid the worst mires. The river Swincombe rises a few hundred metres to the east then passes through Fox Tor mires, while Childe the Hunter’s tomb overlooks the valley from the south. This is a place to be sure of your route.
Incidentally, nobody knows where the name ‘Nun’s Cross’ came from, although the farm has always had that name. There have never been large numbers of nuns nearby, and the links with old Saxon words seem etymologically obtuse. Perhaps there is an old legend of an angry Mother Superior who passed through here once. It seems correct to call the cross after Siward, and the farm after the imaginary nuns.
We visited on a very cold and blustery winters day, the photos above not really doing justice to the conditions. North of the B3212, snow persisted on the highest tors, and there were some small patches on north-facing slopes on our way in to Princetown. Before we even left the car we endured a sleet storm, and although it wasn’t too bad on the way down the boys were tested on their way back with the wind on their faces. It was pretty brutal and took a lot of hot chocolate to fix.
We stopped off on the way home in Bellever Forest and strolled down to the stream for a bite to eat. There aren’t many better combinations than German Bratwurst and Dunkel, and with the stream and setting sun close to hand they tasted better than ever.
On the way home, we saw the moon rise above various tors, if you’re interested you might like to check out the shots on the Moonrise and Sunset blog post I made earlier today.