Digital Detoxification on Dartmoor

We spent the bank holiday weekend hiding in a remote valley on Dartmoor with a fabulous group of like minded people escaping computers, the internet, mobile telephones and the complexities of modern day living, including electricity and running water.

We were absolutely delighted to be invited to participate in this Deep Family Time retreat organised by Change In Nature and to deliver our immersive and multi sensory history and astronomy as part of the overall experience.

The organisers, Chloe and Andy have spent time living amongst Namibian tribesmen and were inspired by the experience to share this with us on Dartmoor. The main theme of the event was time. Time to relax, time to engage, time to contemplate, time to cooperate and probably the most important and recurring theme, time to appreciate. Time was indeed deep, very deep, taking us back to the very origins of our Solar System.

Arriving early and with the History Machine parked up safely in the woods we set out exploring the extensive woodland and clearings that would be our space and place for the long weekend.

With everybody gathered the rhythm of the camp was soon established. We were living as a tribe, sharing the jobs; collecting water from the river, organising firewood, keeping the fire alight and a constant supply of hot water from the kettle atop the flames - our only source of hot water. There was cooking to be done, washing up and keeping the camp in order. As a family event there were plenty of children who soon realised that they were free to independently explore, to experiment and experience the landscape in a way that is often impractical in the towns and cities.

There was a perfect balance of (entirely optional) activities and space to spend time alone, or with others. Of the many highlights for us was the time machine in which we drifted back 4.6 billion years to the origins of our Solar System.

Blindfolded we experienced nothingness, just space, silence and anticipation. Slowly matter coalesced and the sun popped into life, then Earth and, after the "big splat" the Moon. We took an amazing journey through the world of primordial soup, bacteria and one particularly important bacteria - the one that decided to photosynthesise. Others followed suit, the red world of carbon dioxide turned into the oxygen fuelled blue and green world we recognise today. We explored the subsequent watery world of the forest with our "goggles" that bore a distinct similarity to magnifying glasses as we studied the evolving life forms on the woodland floor.

We have to say this was genius and an idea we are unashamedly going to steal for future Travelling History events.

The afternoon saw den building and firelighting for the younger members of the tribe and some relaxation for the elders.

After a fantastic supper over the fire it was our turn and as luck would have it we had remembered to pack some clear skies in the back of the History Machine.

Our observatory was in a clearing by the White Deer Lodge with a nice break in the trees due south in which Saturn obligingly dangled. We had two telescopes, an 8 inch Celestron C8 Schmidt Cassegrain that bizarrely is the very same telescope that Chloe gazed through about 25 years ago when I used to do astronomy outreach to school children in Southern Spain. Thankfully this time around we didn't have to conduct the discussions in Spanish!

We also had a 4 inch custom made refracting telescope. In keeping with the nature of the camp, both were manually operated - there was to be no clever electric or computer intervention - just our knowledge of the night sky and star hopping - astronomy in its purest form and one that our ancestors were doubtless absolute experts.

Saturn, and just below it, Titan, was a bit of a hit with the tribe. On cue, Mars then emerged from behind the trees, just past opposition (closest to us), a fantastic blood red orb.

But in the spirit of the deep time theme it was time to head out of the Solar System and into the galaxy. Albireo (image below through the C8 telescope) was our first stop, a wonderful gold and blue double star some 430 light years away. If somebody was looking at us from a planet orbiting Albireo right now, they would be seeing us in 1588 - with a really big telescope they could be watching the Spanish Armada - live!

From Albireo we headed to the very edges of our galaxy, to a something called a globular star cluster. This faint, quite fuzzy blob was infact a ball of hundreds of thousands of ancient stars 26,000 light years away. Known as M13 from the catalogue of French astronomer Charles Messier, again, if somebody there was looking at us, they would be witnessing our Upper Palaeolithic, an amazing place that we were to visit the following day.

In 1974 NASA sent a message to M13 from the huge Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The message will take 26,000 years to arrive. If there is somebody there to receive it and understand it, we might expect a reply in the year 53,974!

Finally it was time to cross intergalactic space and make the journey to the great Andromeda galaxy, M31, home to an estimated 1.2 trillion stars. Surely somebody is looking at us from there and if they are, they will be seeing our Australopithecine ancestors. The most famous of all the Australopithecines, Lucy, would already have been almost a million years old by this time, had she not fallen out of a tree (well, one theory) in what is now Ethiopia.

We really enjoyed the discussions, questions and enthusiasm that greeted our celestial targets that were to continue around the camp fire. Oh, and Saturn at the precise time we were observing it, was 1,411,700,000 km away, in light years, about 70 minutes (a Saturn person watching us would be been seeing us enjoying the fabulous dinner around the campfire!).

Sunday was wet - the perfect weather for archaeology. Breakfast and water gathering were followed by some games involving a lot of hiding, stalking and hunting. This was excellent, you could really imagine Mesolithic children learning the crucial skills required for Mesolithic life through this kind of play. Mesolithic children's footprints have been discovered in the Severn Estuary - maybe this is exactly what they were doing.

Before lunch it was our turn again to run the activities as we set our time line down the hill to the river, the idea being to illustrate stratigraphy. Stuff at the bottom of a trench is likely to be older than the stuff at the top. Using a scale of 1 cm to a year we headed once again back in time. We stopped briefly in 1588 just to again ponder our friends from Albireo watching the Spanish Armada unfolding.

We headed into Roman times, 2000 centimetres ago, stopping at the bucket to look at some Roman pottery. Just 700 cm or so further down the hill we encountered the Iron Age in the form of a small coin of Tasciovanus. Then we arrived at the Bronze Age (around 3000 years ago) and excavated a fabulous bronze axe.

By the river we stumbled across the Neolithic and, a little bizarrely, a Chinese Neolithic axe (of the Yang Shao culture) appeared. A little out of place on Dartmoor perhaps, but a good demonstration of the global adoption of this type of technology. The Chinese adopted a pastural way of life long before the idea arrived in Britain, but nevertheless, our axe, at around 5000 years old, was broadly contemporary with the British Neolithic. A reminder perhaps that we are really are a bit of a global village.

Further along the river we arrived at the Mesolithic and small flint microliths, perfect tools for the hunter gatherers of the 5th-9th ish millennium BP. Red deer was the meal of choice, with plenty of fruit, berries and nuts to accompany it.

But it also became apparent that navigating the Mesolithic woodland landscape was not easy and we decided to jump directly into the Lower Palaeolithic for our final excavation. A Palaeolithic axe, fashioned somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago in Somerset, perfect for chopping up large fauna - a woolly mammoth perhaps. Here admirably demonstrated by a young archaeologist.

A young archaeologists with a Palaeolithic hand axe.

Along our route back in time we encountered a "time tangle" - we do tend to have a rather linear perception of time and space.

But is this the best way to approach history? The chronological approach certainly has a place on our bookshelves for reference purposes but it does tend to alienate us from our past. Science tells us that we all have about 2% Neanderthal DNA and who we are today must surely be a concoction of this and subsequent cultures, instincts, emotions, experiences and technologies that we almost subconsciously place into these little chronological boxes. And as our journey to the origins of the Solar System yesterday demonstrated, human life on Earth is a very recent occurrence, we are not really that distant from Lucy at all. What a great discussion to be having whilst sitting in deep prehistoric like woodland.

This was as far, for this trip, that we could go and we headed back to the White Deer Lodge (replete with mesolithic esq antlers above the entrance) to study the artefacts in a little more detail and to try to defog the camera - apologies for the quality of the pictures. The important point about all this was that:

  • The artefacts we explored were genuine, they were there at the time, they have biographies and stories to tell and are a integral part of our history and prehistory. They played a part in making us what we are today.

  • We were studying artefacts in their natural habitat, the big wide world and not within the confines of a dusty museum case. This brings them to life and of course enables everybody to hold and experience them as our ancestors may have.

  • Experiential outdoor history is much more fun that sitting in a classroom being tested on dates.

Archaeology finished we headed back for lunch and another afternoon of activities and relaxation before an evening banquet and entertainment.

From a gymnastics display, a little slapstick, to stories, music and an amazing blackberry inspired quiz, (big prize if you know why blackberry bushes have thorns) we concluded with a Chinese song resonant of both emotion and politics - a song from across the oceans with baggage! Brilliant.

Day three brought with it a return of the sunshine and relaxed activities, packing and clearing up.

The final gathering around the camp fire presented the opportunity to reflect and reiterate the main topic of the weekend - appreciation.

We are probably all negligent in our expression of appreciation, whether of people, of the landscape, the weather or even that rebel bacteria that photosynthesised and made it all happen. This was the message that our friends at Change in Nature had craftily and surreptitiously sent us all home with - and I am sure we are all the better for it.

An image to sum up the weekend

An image to sum up a weekend of warmth, friendship, community, exploration, inspiration and of course, appreciation.

A short slide show:

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