There is evidence of occupation of the area by people from Mesolithic times onward. In the Neolithic period, people started to manage animals and grow crops on farms cleared from the woodland. It is also likely that extraction and smelting of mineral ores to make metal tools, weapons, containers and ornaments started in the late Neolithic, and continued into the bronze and Iron Ages. However there is little evidence of Roman occupation apart from two small forts on the coast.
Holwell Castle, at Parracombe, was a Norman motte and bailey castle built to guard the junction of the east–west and north–south trade routes. During the Middle Ages, sheep farming for the wool trade came to dominate the economy. The land started to be enclosed and from the 17th century onwards larger estates developed, leading to areas of large regular shaped fields. During this period a royal forest and hunting ground was established, administered by a warden, so that King Charles I could benefit from the fines and rents.
In the mid-19th century a mine was developed alongside the River Barle. It was a copper mine from 1845–54 and then an iron mine until 1857, although the first mining activity on the site may be from 1552.