Brief history of use
As the climate warmed after the last ice edge (ca. 11,000 years ago), the area we now know as the Pebblebed heaths would have been an open landscape, perhaps not dissimilar to Arctic tundra today. As the climate continued to improve over the following centuries, the area quickly became colonised by trees, resulting in a largely forested landscape.
Finds of flints fashioned into tools indicates that the Woodbury area was occupied from at least 9,000 years ago, with clear evidence of forest clearance within the landscape from about 5,000 YA. These earliest farmers began the process of cutting down the trees with flint and subsequently bronze axes, beginning the process of creating the open heathland habitats we recognise today. Iron age man inhabitants left a wealth of archaeological remains including the hill fort at Woodbury Castle, built around 300 B.C. and numerous burial grounds or tumuli.
In latter centuries Saxon farmers would have grazed ‘Woodbury Down’, which was probably much grassier than today as the peat had dried out and the warm, dry climate of the time was unsuitable for heather growth. The Domesday Book mentions grazing of 60 sheep on Woodbury Common in 1086.
The Pebblebed heaths have been linked with the Clinton and Rolle families for many centuries, with ownership of Woodbury and adjacent Commons from the 17th centuries. The Barony of Clinton was created after John de Clinton’s victory in 1298 over the Scots at Falkirk. Nearly 250 years later the family link to Devon was established by the 9th Baron (Edward) in 1550 with the acquisition of land around Exeter with land holdings subsequently increased. In the 17th century the Clintons became linked by marriage to the Rolle family, another large landowner. We are now up to the 22nd Baron with being Gerard Fane Trefusis.
Although estates in general are not universally credited with supporting Commons and protecting Commoner’s rights, Clinton Devon Estates in particular has a proud history of doing just that. One of the early stewards, Robert Hartley Lipscomb, served on the estate between 1865 and 1892.Much of his time was spent on ‘Commons business’. The Estate archives contain many letters and documents concerning the management of common land, and Lipscombe was passionate about preserving the herbage and turf of the Commons for the benefit of the Commoners and their children. In 1888 he was instrumental in setting up a ‘Commoners Rights Protection Committee’, and in ensuring that further land was added to the Commons. The present Lord Clinton and Clinton Devon Estates continue to steward the land to good effect for wildlife and public access, with the Pebblebed heaths Conservation Trust established in 2006 to manage the Commons for these objectives.
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