Ditsworthy Warren House sits alone and deserted in one of the most beautiful yet remote rural locations you can imagine, where dark skies are a stargazer’s paradise on a clear night. If you could find the middle of nowhere, this might just be it.
Today it is best known as one of the locations on Dartmoor where Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film War Horse was filmed. The long-abandoned stone building has been transformed into the Narracotts’ farm, home of hero Albert, his family and his beloved horse, Joey, in the moving First World War blockbuster.
But Ditsworthy Warren House has a fascinating history of its own, rooted in a long-lost farming tradition. Guarded by a handful of windswept trees, the solitary abode is surrounded by crumbling outbuildings and wild acres of moorland stretching as far as the eye can see. Its windows and doors are lined with planks and its roughly hewn granite walls are well weathered.
Read more: Spielberg’s blockbuster War Horse inspired by ‘cat in Devon pub’
No one has lived in this secluded Dartmoor spot, by the River Plym and an invigorating walk on rugged tracks from the village of Sheepstor, for over 70 years, but all around there is evidence of human settlement dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as clues that reveal why a house was ever built here.
Hidden underground are the remains of the ‘warren’ – a maze of small man-made stone and earthen tunnels or ‘pillow mounds’ that once housed several thousand rabbits, raised and fed for their meat and fur. At one time Ditsworthy Warren was considered the largest commercial terrier in England at 1,100 acres. The Dartmoor landscape certainly lent itself to the task, providing plenty of room for rabbits to burrow, while keeping them away from farmers who viewed them as vermin.
Now preserved by a Grade II list, the foundations of the house are believed to date back to the 16th century or earlier. It has served as the home of generations of rabbit keepers and their families over the centuries, and in the paddock at the back of the house you can still see some of the old stone kennels where the dogs used to live. were working on the warren. The last caretaker moved in 1947.
Rabbit meat, originally a delicacy reserved for the privileged, became a reasonably priced staple of the British diet, particularly during and after World War II, so now was not the obvious time to stop. But some might say Ditsworthy’s bunny keepers came out just in time; six years later, the European epidemic of myxomatosis killed millions of British rabbits, wild and farmed.
Today, the lonely old house is a welcoming and picturesque landmark for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. The moorland surrounding it is free to roam, but note that the property itself is strictly prohibited. It stands on private land belonging to the Maristow Estate and is leased by the Admiralty for the training of the Armed Forces.
Do you like nostalgia? Receive the best articles by email for free with our new weekly nostalgia newsletter. Click here to view all Devon Live newsletters.