If you are planning to study the history of your home, village, town or indeed any of Devon’s landscapes, there is no better place to begin your research than the Devon Rural Archive (DRA). Whether historic or modern, humble or grand the archive’s unique collection and its expert team will help you unlock the secrets of your home or village.
The archive is based in the grounds of Shilstone House near Modbury in South Devon and is dedicated to the study of Devon’s building and landscapes. A growing reference library of historic documents, maps, images, books, journals, and periodicals as well as a special collection of artefacts, and unpublished material makes the DRA an invaluable resource for Devon’s historians.
The library is also the sole repository for the ongoing research project into the history, significance and development of Devon’s manor houses, and their associated landscapes, by the DRA’s archaeological team. ‘Project Donn’, as it is known, was launched in 2006 and uses the 1765 map of Devon by Benjamin Donn to identify sites for inclusion in the study. More than six hundred and fifty gentry’ seats were represented by Donn, and to date the DRA team has visited, surveyed and recorded over one hundred and fifty of these.
The premise of the project is that by the latter half of the eighteenth century these high-status houses were unlikely to have been constructed on greenfield sites. Instead they occupied long established dwelling sites which could hold evidence from the later medieval period, but possibly even pre-conquest data as well. By studying these sites, the standing structures and their environs, the DRA can reveal the evolution of architecture in Devon through the last millennia, and ensure the information is preserved for future generations.
Shilstone, the home of the DRA, is a prime example of the project’s success as here there is evidence of occupation from later prehistory to the present day. The earliest known dwelling on the site was an Iron Age farmstead, within an ovoid enclosure, in use from approximately the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. A high-status stone hall house, of 3-room cross-passage plan, was at the centre of the site by the 14th century and, along with 16th and 17th century additions, was the structure recorded by Benjamin Donn. This house was demolished in the early nineteenth century and replaced by a courtyard mansion that was heavily truncated only a few decades later. In the last sixteen years the current owners have sympathetically restored the house using the findings of the DRA research project.
Open to the public three days a week on a Monday, Tuesday and Thursday between 11am and 3pm the archive is used by both amateur and professional historians, archaeologists and genealogists alike. Entry is free and there is no booking required, just drop in during opening hours when our expert team are on hand to guide you through the resources as you unlock the secrets of your home.
Furthermore, the DRA boasts a thriving events programme and regularly hosts exhibitions in its large display gallery all on historic / architectural themes. There is also a permanent exhibition of old photographs, historic documents and archaeological artefacts that together guide visitors through 6000 years in the Shilstone landscape from the Neolithic to the present day. Visitors intrigued by the story can book onto pre-arranged tours of the present house and garden led by the resident archaeologist, Abi Gray. There is something for everyone at the DRA whether you are a seasoned researcher or just want to know a little more about your area.
For more information on the work of the Devon Rural Archive and its collection please contact them in the following ways: