What is a Tor?

Combestone Tor

Dartmoor is a magnificent landscape that is rooted in complex history from different eras, yet inspite of this it is most renowned for its spectacular rock masses that are called tors, and on this page I will try my very best to define what exactly that is because it is not as simple as you may think. Tors are not confined to the South-West but Dartmoor is perhaps the most famous moorland where they are found.

Many people ask the question, 'What is the definition of a tor?' Well, everyone has their own opinion on this rather ambiguous question and all are subjective, but the one I tend to favour is Eric Hemery’s (1983) definition in High Dartmoor (pp.89-90) as being, “
Celtic: twr: a tower. A prominent outcrop of rock that can occur at any point between valley-floor and hilltop: e.g. Looka Tor (D. Dart riverside; Shadyback Tor (Plym riverside); Hen Tor (three hundred feet below Shavercombe Head, Plym); Hey Tor (summit of Heytor Down).” For me, the word 'tor' doesn't need to exist in the name for an outcrop to be considered a tor by definition, and also, the definition defines what it is, not the name(s) it is assigned, such as Frenchbere Tor which is now marked as Frenchbeer Rock but described using the former title back in William Crossing’s day. Other tors never used to be called ‘tor’ but are now in modern-day, such as Mary Tavy Rock now being known as Longtimber Tor. I will endeavour to include as many alternative names for tors as possible in my blog posts as a curiosity, but some, such as Blakey Tor, have so many that it is difficult to document them all and spelling and general interpretation of the Dartmoor dialect has led to many, many variations of the same name! Brat Tor, Brai Tor, Brae Tor, Bray Tor, Brattor, Broad Tor, the list goes on!

Shadyback Tor

Another question asked frequently, and in particular by tourists, is ‘How many tors are there on Dartmoor?’ And this is another difficult question to answer since it really does depend on what constitutes a tor for you. Some people who use Eric Hemery’s definition may come up to almost 900 whereas others use the 365 number as referenced in Ken Ringwood’s (2013) book 'Dartmoor's Tors and Rocks'; others, such as and perhaps most notably the DNPA (Dartmoor National Park Authority) themselves, are stricter and include the 160 number, and the 155 number may be used when referring to Josephine Collingwood’s (2017) book 'Dartmoor Tors Compendium', although by omitting High Willhays that would be 154. In Emily Woodhouse’s (2018) ‘All the Tors Challenge’, Emily visited the 119 named tors within the connected open access land of Dartmoor, but this left out Haytor, Vixen Tor and Rippon Tor so cannot possibly be that small a figure. Lesser-Known Tors, those that are unnamed on modern OS Maps and often abbreviated to LKTs, are not always accounted for despite many featuring in books by the aforementioned Crossing and Hemery, so ought to be included in my opinion - but whatever number you subscribe to, there are a lot!

I encourage you to visit the Tors of Dartmoor website that documents more named tors and significant rocks than any other resource (excluding Dartefacts which utilises this information); the website is run by myself as well as Paul Buck and Tim Jenkinson whose invaluable knowledge and passion has made the site the success that it is today. I understand and sympathise with those who do not agree/have issues with us Dartmoor explorers seemingly slapping a name onto any old outcrop, but a lot of thought actually goes into the process of naming a tor before a new tor location is publicised with its name. Yes, I know I'm going off on a tangent but it's relevant so I'll include it here... The search for new tors and outcrops is perhaps a niche pursuit but it has opened up so many new areas of the moor for me that had I only used the freely available Ordnance Survey Maps I wouldn't have known about. If someone finds an outcrop that is believed to be a new discovery (i.e. no mention can be traced in magazines, books or websites), the first thing that will happen is the Tors of Dartmoor team will visit the site, preferably as the three of us (obviously COVID-19 has had other ideas!) and take photos, record an accurate NGR and take into account its proximity to other tors. As Tim told me on one of our first walks together, if not the first, his preferred distance is to be at least 200 metres for a tor to be distinct enough to warrant its own identity. Then, once we get home, we will consult old maps, most notably historic 19th Century Tithe Maps, to see if the outcrop is mentioned (Great Stone is a great example!), and if no name comes to light we will check the plot name on Tithe and use this to conjure up an appropriate name. Some plots are simply named 'Copse' which is not very useful but others, such as Homer Cold Moor, have given rise to the likes of Cold Moor Tor. I should stress that should an already documented name come to light after we have named a new tor, we will always favour that, and the same goes for outcrops named by locals but I must stress how difficult it is to find these names since locals have known some outcrops by different appellations over millennia. The Cob Loaf is my favourite example where I had an encounter with the next door neighbour who provided me with invaluable information, but that I think was more pure luck than anything. 

The bouldering community have spent a great deal of time documenting the many boulders and outcrops on Dartmoor, but my attention is particularly drawn to Shaptor Wood. They have been likely the first to document many of the places in there in James Clapham's (2017) book entitled 'Dartmoor: A Climbers' Club Guide', however, many of the names are nicknames and do not fulfil our criteria as to naming an outcrop, which is using geographical features within the vicinity. Caravan Tor is a good example which is a name given to just one of the outcrops of what we have termed Long Close Tor after locating the plot name on Tithe Maps.

'Are there any more tors to find?' The short answer is yes, but the long answer is yes although after Tim's many years of documenting those tors that are dotted throughout the hidden landscape of East Dartmoor and beyond we confidently believe that most have been accounted for. I direct you to Tim's fabulous piece about this subject here.

The process of finding and then naming a new tor provides a source of enjoyment and sense of achievement for many walkers, and by trying to reintroduce lost or forgotten names it is our hope (speaking on behalf of other fellow tor baggers) that in doing this we will fuel a greater passion and sense of understanding of this beautiful landscape and that it has so much more to reveal. I cannot get enough of Dartmoor's rock masses and long may that continue for other, future generations to seek the same passion that I do.

Wray Barton Tor as first described by me in Dartmoor News Issue 173 March/April 2020

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