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Widecombe History Group Talk December 1999

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Widecombe History Group Talk on Dartmoor Treasures


Ted Fitch - Dartmoor and its Treasures

Due to the possibility of causing strain to Mr Fitch’s voice, Mrs Fitch agreed to read his prepared address, which must have taken Ted a long time to write, but the end result was very pleasing.

"Ramblings about Dartmoor"- both verbal and physical.

The first mention was of Widecombe and the "Great storm of 1638 and ‘the devil’s visitation"!!!

In the 1870’s, Dymond mentioned marks left by it were still visable on the church tower, and at the turn of the century Beatrice Cresswell, reported that they had only just disappeared.

Could these marks have been attributed to the second thunderstorm "1752" not referred to so often, but never-the-less very severe also toppling a pinnacle. The four boards inside the west door describe the 1638 events. The top two boards should be read first and then the lower two! Quoting "Devon’s Notes and Queries of 1904-5" it records many more verses and says only part are recorded in the church.

"Tinners Rabbits" - an example on one of the roof bosses in the church - Ted concludes that it is a far earlier emblem that that of the tin mining era here in Devon. A friend of his, once brought back from China a similar design dating from the 6th century, and it is still used in modern day carpet design there. He related that more recently Tom and Elizabeth Greeves have brought back further examples of the triple rabbit or hare symbols, from Germany and France. It means that Dartmoor can not claim a sole connection, and even less to tin. This connection seems to have begun in 1856 by Richard King in his "Forest of Dartmoor". He associated the rabbit boss with the hunt of Venus, and with tin. This hunt was referred to earlier by Basil Valentine in a work published c1660 which contained an engraving entitled "Venus" which showed the three rabbits encircled by hounds. The Widecombe boss lacks the hounds so lacks a connection with the hunts. In Valentine’s engraving, Venus is associated with copper and not tin, a chemical symbol in the centre of the drawing represents mercury and not tin, the symbol for tin only appears with other symbols around the circumference, and in the order of importance tin comes fourth. The Church at Widecombe is dedicated to St Pancras, which was number ten on the rood screen from the left according to old church guides. In the current guide he appears replaced by King Henry? and is not found anywhere else. Number one used to be St Agatha, recognised by the pincers clutched to her breast, now stated to be dental forceps!

Most churchyards have traditional verses on headstones. The further west one goes the better conserved the headstones, due to the stone used, having weathered less, the engravings therefore more easily read. Ted mentioned some of those that he most enjoys, Lydford has one with a trumpeting angel, Peter Tavy has one with "Full frontal nudes, Adam and Eve , the tree of knowledge between them with the serpent entwined amongst the branches". Shaugh Prior has several in verse, well over 150 poetic headstones, many obviously composed for a particular occasion. Some were to celebrate different professions like blacksmiths, singers, watchmakers and so on, some have skull and crossbones, the variety is immense. Widecombe does not seem to have any worthwhile verses on tombstones. Ted then referred to the headstones of Katherine Parr (alias Beatrice Chase), which to him was acceptable, and her mothers headstone, where she is referred to as being "the Mother of Beatrice Chase" and not her own name, Ted felt that distasteful as if she had no independent existence! She was referred to in Beatrice’s books as "The Rainbow Maker’ surely this would have been a better epitaph? Beatrice’s headstone is in the shape of a cross and is said to have been modelled on the style of Nuns Cross, but Nuns Cross is the bulkiest cross on the moor, hers is much finer. Nuns Cross is nothing to do with Nuns, it only took this name at the end of 17th century, it was known as Sywards or Seawards Cross from the 13th century. On one side is inscribed Siward/Syward, on the other side Bocklond, (book land), land granted by charter. Crossing was the first to read this correctly. The capital C was written with a bar closing the open end from the 12th to the 14th century, and this can confuse scholars when reading early writings. Childe’s Tomb was mentioned, legend has it that Childe got lost on the moor and died of cold. Monk’s Path and Abbot’s Way were mentioned, their naming could be a mistake, the most likely being the Monk’s way between the religious establishments around the moors, the Abbots Way more dubious. Most moorland crosses have either been restored or re-erected, not always on their original sites, there is a massive cross on the golf course on Whitchurch Down, and does not seem to have suffered from man or nature. As there is no historical explanation for its survival legend steps in, "A Puritan preacher set out to uproot this "Popish Symbol" but had to climb up it to escape a bull, the parishioners refused to drive the bull away until he had promised to spare the cross", now referred to as Pixies Cross. Pixies should not be confused with gnomes, in spite of what one finds in souvenir shops. Pixies have a long association with Dartmoor, gnomes were first imported from Germany in 1847. Few pixie tales are original, most are universal tales given a local habitation. One of the best known Dartmoor Tales concerns a mid-wife and a magic ointment, the origin of this traced back to the early 13th century. Pixies do not seem to be associated with prehistoric remains. Pixies have had their uses, they have been used as an excuse for accidents and pranks, and also a labour saving devise, a large boulder difficult to move would be left alone as it might harbour pixies, a patch of land difficult to cultivate would be left as a pixie garden, "One would not want to disturb them!" If a horse was used at night for smuggling and was tired next day, blame it on the pixies, and if one got home late - worse for wear - you had been pixie-led. In the old days of bad sanitation and much intermarriage and inbreeding, many imperfect babies were born, these might easily have been neglected or bullied and their mothers made to feel guilty or blamed. Everyone knew that pixies had ugly babies, and were ever on the watch to exchange them for finer human specimens. Consequently a handicapped child, would be considered a ‘changeling’ with no fault attached to the mother. Moreover these ‘changelings’ would be treated well for it was known that if they were mistreated, the pixies would take their revenge on those that they had stolen. Mrs Bray recorded several pixie tales in her books and letters in the early 1800’s. Her husband Rev Bray engraved signs and letters on many Dartmoor rocks, would it now be called ‘graffitti’? and he also recorded a lot of what he saw on Dartmoor. He described vermin traps on Sheepstor but did not know their use. Was there a Warren on Sheepstor? Were there more than one Snaily House? Folklore has it that snails were bred to feed French Prisoners of War!! High on Sheepstor is the pixie house, known as Elford’s Cave, this name is not now used. In most accounts Elford of nearby ‘Longstone Manor’, was deemed to be a cavalier hiding in this cave to escape the roundheads, this is untrue.

Returning to Widecombe, Ted referred to this Elford who had placed in the church the well known monument in memory of his third wife, but it appears that he waited until he remarried before setting it up, because it displays the family arms of all his four wives.

Ted then distributed several albums and folders containing photographs and photocopies of papers and extractions from books and leaflets that he has collected. These covered a wide variety of subjects from adders and plants, to crosses and standing stones, hut circles and stone rows, bridges, moulds, stamping stones, you name it he has photographs of it, very comprehensive.

Questions varied from :-

Could Seaward(Siward), mean the side nearest to the sea?

The dates of the stones and crosses?

Ted offered us copies of some of the details he has concerning the parish.

What is the best way he has found of keeping photographs, he replied that photocopies seem to keep better than some of the originals.

The three rabbits could have been fertility symbols having come from India many cenruries ago, and does appear on carpets.

The question of "The Trinity" is one possibility.

Rabbits came with the Norman conquest, but there were hares here long before that, so it may be connected with hares rather than rabbits.

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