Early days and how the cottage got its name

There has been human occupation in and around the Hoar Oak valley from prehistoric times and for millennia it has been the home to the native Exmoor Horn sheep.  Man and sheep have left their marks on the landscape and all three have influenced how Hoar Oak Cottage got its name.  The native breed is the Exmoor Horn sheep valued for their hardiness and ability to survive.

The sheep farming traditionally practiced on Exmoor involved the annual movement of sheep from farms on the lower ground at the edges of Exmoor up onto the higher moor for summer pasturing – grazing rights established under Anglo-Saxon kings and formalised when the Royal Forest of Exmoor was established after the Norman Conquest.  The terms ‘forest’ and ‘afforestation’ referred to fact that the King had sole rights  to the designated area – sometimes for the game, the hunting or trees for building ships for the Royal Navy.   In fact, Exmoor was, to all intents and purposes, treeless and it is generally recorded that no Monarch ever visited Exmoor to hunt or for any other purpose.

 A Royal Warden was appointed and ‘telling houses’ built at strategic entry points to the Royal Forest where farmers would have their sheep counted on and off the moor each summer and a charge levied for the pasturing.  In 1736, over 30,000 sheep were pastured on the moor and we know that Hoar Oak was playing its part.  The 1722 Royal Forest Books record that a total of 400 sheep were sent for summer pasturing onto the Hoar Oak herding by Farmers James Ward from Brendon, John and Samuel Gore from Landkey, John Marchent from Horstock and Joseph Skinner and William White from Goodleigh. 

 It seems highly likely that the shepherd responsible for the flocks taken onto the hills for summer pasturing would have had some form of shelter and recent archaeological surveys of Hoar Oak Cottage have suggested the south western corner of the cottage may well be of a medieval date sitting, as it does, within evidence of a medieval field system around the cottage. Perhaps Hoar Oak Cottage started life as one of the telling houses referred to earlier.   Its geographical location is near to the Royal Forest boundary and close to the Hoar Oak Tree – one of the boundary markers and shown in the photo below by David Delbridge – but its ultimate ownership probably fell into something of a ‘twilight zone’ in the far north west corner of Exmoor.

On the Benjamin Doon Map of 1765, ‘Ore Oke’ is marked where Sherwell Hundred meets the Exmoor Forest Boundary.   Although the spelling is not quite how we would recognise it, nor is its location on the map entirely accurate, the site of Hoar Oak and the tree is, nonetheless recorded from this era.  The images below show, on the left, the relevant section of the Benjamin Doon Map where the Sherwell Hundred meets the Exmoor Forest Boundary and on the right, a close up of the symbol marked on the boundary line named ‘Ore Oke’.  Thanks to the Devon Rural Archive for permission to use these images.

“The Place-Names of Devon” (1931) by Gover, Mawer and Stenton includes a listing for Hoar Oak, near Lynton and references the likely derivation of the words used to describe Hoar Oak dating from the 1600s. 

  •         Whore which means boundary or boundary marker
  •         Tarr, Torre, and Ball which are all variants meaning hill
  •         Combe meaning river valley
  •         Oak referring to an oak tree

Whore Oake Ball, for example, is a place name found in a 1651 reference and which, over hundreds of years, changed to Hoaroak and Hoaroak Hill. As there seems to be evidence for a dwelling for hundreds of years near to this boundary – marked by a tree, in the combe and below the nearby hill – it is easy to see how Hoar Oak Cottage, as we now know it, got its name.  Much easier and quicker to say than “the cottage by the boundary tree in the combe at the foot of the hill”.

It is also possible that the name owes to the grey and hoary lichen growing on the old boundary tree or may even derive from the Norse word haugr or hoh which is linked to landscape features such as a hill, fell, burial mound or the entrance to the world of the departed.

The name Hoar Oak regularly gets mixed up with the name Oare – which is the nearby village of Lorna Doone fame.  Although it is absolutely clear that the two are different places it has caused confusion as, in the past, Hoar Oak has sometimes been written as Oar Oak, Oare Oak, Oareoak Hoaroak, Horeoak – to name just a few options – and it presents a real challenge for researchers using maps, census, BMD records etc. to constantly ensure they have got the ‘right’ Hoar Oak.  

As the 18th century drew to a close there were changes afoot on Exmoor which would influence the little building at Hoar Oak and see it change from a temporary shepherd’s cott to a substantial farmstead – home for a permanent shepherd and his family up in the Hoar Oak hills. More on this link.