‘Recognisably regional, not harshly alien’

The first Dartmoor building guide was published in January 1956 but its foreword, by Lord Strang (then chairman of the National Parks Commission), was written 60 years ago today, 3 February 1955.  It must have taken some time to produce the book.

The book, Dartmoor: Building in the National Park, was inspired (and possibly partly written) by the then chairman of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, Sylvia Sayer.  She wrote in the DPA newsletter, December 1955:

img386In January, the Architectural Press are publishing (for the Dartmoor National Park Committee) a little illustrated book which briefly and clearly sets out the principles of siting, the types of design and the kinds of building materials that are suitable for new buildings in the Dartmoor National park so that these shall ‘express themselves politely in accents that are recognisably regional, and not harshly alien to an ancient and honourable tradition’ [she was quoting the architect Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis].  There is a crying need for such a book. 

Houses and bungalows of sadly ‘subtopian’ design, and utterly lacking in Dartmoor character or identity, have invaded the border areas of the national parks in the last two or three decades, and have crept even into the moorland villages and hamlets of the uplands.  Many of the designs and plans sent up to the Dartmoor National Park Committee for planning approval show little sign of respect for the building tradition of the region; indeed, their senders do not seem to know that Dartmoor had a building tradition at all (‘I want to put a house here and I want it to look like this; and the landscape can take care of itself’).

The drawing is of the Dewerstone Rock, at the meeting of the Rivers Meavy and plym on south-west Dartmoor, taken from the frontispiece of Amid Devonia's Alps by William Crossing

The drawing is of the Dewerstone Rock, at the meeting of the Rivers Meavy and Plym on south-west Dartmoor, taken from the frontispiece of Amid Devonia’s Alps by William Crossing

I love the eloquence of Lord Strang’s foreword: ‘Man must build, even in in national parks; and the beauty of Dartmoor, the space and silence of its uplands and the charm of its villages and border towns, have made it not only a favourite resort for holidays but also a place where people want to make their homes.’  The precepts are ‘set forth so simply and persuasively, and in such a friendly way’ in the booklet: houses should respect the local tradition, they should be inspired by and contribute to the individual character of the region, and ‘while drawing upon local tradition they need not slavishly copy it; there is room for experiment’.

The line-drawings and clear monotone photographs add to the attractiveness of the book, it does not need full colour to make its points.

Sylvia Sayer's house, Old Middle Cator,a traditional Dartmoor longhouse which features in the book

Sylvia Sayer’s house, Old Middle Cator,a traditional Dartmoor longhouse which features in the book

The book advocates simplicity: The design of the old Dartmoor farmhouses, outbuildings, cottages and inns was as simple, as straightforward and uncomplicated as Dartmoor itself; there is no ornamentation, no fussiness, no striving for effect.  They have a quality of massiveness and ruggedness, of enduring strength, solidity and shelter, which is both delightful and comforting.

It ends with a useful summary of dos and don’ts.

Some don'ts

Some don’ts

At that time, Sylvia was doing battle with the Devon County Council director of planning Geoffrey Clarke, who was responsible for planning in the Dartmoor National Park (it did not then have its own staff).  They locked horns over the exploitation of Dartmoor for china clay extraction.

Recommended colours

Recommended colours

The little 64-page booklet sets out very clearly the way to go about considering what should and should not happen in the national park, with its neat drawings,  photos and recommended-colour palettes.  It is written in straightforward, jargon-free language.

img391It holds its head high alongside today’s detailed and colourful Dartmoor National Park Design Guide (November 2011).  This too is written well, but the emphasis is different: phrases like ‘sustainability’ and ‘climate change’, ‘low carbon’ and ‘embodied energy’ were not in use in the 1950s.  It also has to tackle innovations such as solar photovoltaic panels.

It’s a more complicated world today, but I feel sure that the original Dartmoor building guide provided a secure foundation for the many guides which followed—for Dartmoor and other protected landscapes.


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
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