Widecombe History Group Talk on Legends and Folklore of Dartmoor


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Talk by Dave Addis - Legends and Folklore of Dartmoor. Sept 2000.

One of the first items in his address was ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and based very much in and around this area. The silhouette of Hound Tor appears in the forms of hounds, Fox Tor Mires, Grimpun Mire (Grimspound?), Squire Cabel, a landowner of Brook Manor, near Buckfastleigh, all seem to feature in the story. Cabel kept his own pack of hounds! His tomb is in Buckfastleigh Parish Churchyard. He was considered an evil man and when he died he was buried in a lead coffin, under a large stone, a building erected above with iron railings around it so that he could never get out again. The church was burnt down a few years ago and at the time stories of ‘Black Magic’ abounded.

The devil appears in so many stories and legends relating to Dartmoor. Dave then related the legend of the devil visiting Widecombe. This ties up with the actual event of the great thunderstorm of Sunday 21st October 1638. The storm is well documented but around that happening developed the story that the devil came to Widecombe in search of a gambler who had sold his soul to him. While he was playing cards in the back of the church Satan came to claim him. He had called in at The Tavistock Inn at Poundsgate to inquire the way, after he had left, the people who were in the ‘pub’ swore that the ale he had drunk sizzled as it went down his throat, some were sure he had cloven feet, and the money with which he had paid for his drink had turned to shrivelled leaves. On reaching Widecombe he tied his steed to one of the pinnacles, snatched his prey and sped away forgetting to untie the horse, this pulled the pinnacle over thus causing the devastation. As he crossed Dartmoor near The Warren House Inn/Vitifer Tin Mines area, the four aces from the pack of cards fell to the ground and turned into four small fields or ‘plats’, these fields are still to be seen today. One shaped like the ace of hearts, the ace of clubs, the ace of diamonds and the ace of spades. It is interesting how fact and folklore can be found to be connected.

The Lychway across Dartmoor to Lydford, the way the dead were carried to be buried, this was before Bishop Branscombe gave permission for the dead in Lydford Parish who had lived in the south of the parish could be buried at Widecombe. Those from Riddon, Babeny and Hexworthy and the like were then carried to Widecombe. On the right, halfway up Dartmeet Hill can still be seen the ‘coffin stone’, where the bearers rested the coffins so that they too could have a rest and refreshment, before continuing their journey to church, this stone has crosses and initials carved on it. This stone is now split into two pieces and folklore has it that a particular ‘man of ill repute’ was rested there, the devil intervened and with a shaft of lightening split the rock asunder, a puff of smoke and the body was gone!

In the 1980’s as a result of a camping stove catching fire, a fire spread from Cranmere Pool area to within 600 yards of Wistman’s Wood. Why Wistman’s? Could it be ‘wiseman’s’ going back to druid days? ‘Wisht’ a Devonshire word for, of ill omen, could it be where the devil kept his hounds? Wisht-hounds and stories about them are plentiful, they travel the moors looking for children that have not been baptised. There is a story of a farmer coming home late at night, when he met the Wisht-hounds and the devil. Farmer wished the devil good hunting and as he passed, the devil threw him a parcel. On getting home he and his wife opened the package and found in it the body of their baby son who had not been baptised.

Crocken Tor, the site of the tinners courts, 24 men from each quarter, making a total of 96, gathered there from time to time when they needed to control the tin mining activities. Some times, many years passed between courts. These were Stannary Courts and Stannary Laws appertaining to the tin industry were administered.

Brentor Church is one of the many places where the devil is supposed to have regularly removed the stones during the night after men had built part of the structure. In this case St Michael is reputed to have intervened and put a stop to his antics.

There is a story concerning "Branscombe’s Loaf" an outcrop of granite. Bishop Branscombe was travelling home across the moors when he met a man. He offered the Bishop something to eat, as he was hungry, he accepted the offer. As he was about to take a bite his manservant stopped him, the man disappeared in a puff of smoke, it was the devil trying to tempt the Bishop to eat unholy food. The discarded loaf turned into stone. It is a very interesting place to visit.

Near Belstone, there are nine stones known as the nine dancing maids. They were caught dancing on a Sunday and turned into stone! They are reputed to dance even now in certain light and atmospheric conditions. This prompted Freda Wilkinson to relate how the sun dances as it rises on Easter Sunday morning when the sunrise is viewed from Corndon Tor.

There is the remains of a wall known as ‘Irishmens Wall’ near Belstone and legend has it that a group of Irishmen built it to enclose a part of the common. The locals who all had grazing rights on that common, watched as it was erected, and on the evening when it was finally completed, went up and knocked it down, wasted labour by the incomers, but successfully maintaining their rights on part of the locals, there are other similar examples.

Cranmere Pool, the Mayor of Okehampton was accused of sheep stealing. His punishment was to empty Cranmere Pool with a sieve. He solved the problem by killing another sheep and using its skin to seal the sieve and so achieved his goal! If you go there today there is no pool to see!

The Tolmen Stone. Situated on the North Teign, reasonably easy to visit particularly since the clapper bridge nearby has been re-erected. It is possible to climb through it when the conditions are favourable. The properties of the Tolmen are considerable. It is a healing stone, depending on your ailments or complaints, you have to be passed through it a various number of times. Does having sufficient belief play its part?

Grey Wethers, another place that has a lot of stories connected to it. It is two stone circles, many say that when viewed from a distance they look like a small flock of sheep. One story is, as their name suggests a group of sheep, they were once sold to an unsuspecting person. When he went to collect them all he found were the stones!

Warren House Inn has a lot of folklore and legend attached to it. The fire that has never gone out for over 200 years. The traveller who stayed the night there in the attic, only to find there a body in a chest beside him. The traveller told the landlord of a possible murder. The Landlord assured him it was quite alright, "tis only Father, he died recently and we could not take him to Lydford to be buried so we salted him in till the spring".

A mile upstream from Postbridge there is a stone which is engraved with the name of a man who perished in a severe snowstorm. (William Donaghy)

Hairy Hands, reputed to be active near Cherrybrook. This story was first heard about 100 years ago, when someone was driving along there, when the hairy hands grabbed the wheel and pulled him off the road, (or that was his excuse - could it have been the strong cider or ale?)

Powdermills, built of large stones with a light timber roof, the theory being that if there was an explosion the roof would blow off and the walls would remain so it would be simple task to repair the roof and reuse the building. No mention was made of what would happen to those working inside!

Crazywell or Crassywell Pool, it has several names and has always had a certain mystique about it. On one occasion all the church bell ropes were joined together and they could not reach the bottom, some 200 feet, so it was considered bottomless. It was also said that when the tide comes in at Plymouth the level of the water rises in the pool.

Nearby is ‘Childe’s Tomb’, on the edge of Fox Tor Mire where originally there is thought to have been a burial chamber. Childe the hunter from Plympton got lost. It was cold and snowing and he sheltered by his horse. Still feeling cold he killed his horse, gutted it and crept inside only to freeze to death. He left a note to say whoever finds my body can have all my lands. When he was found people wanted him buried properly and a race then developed between the Monks of Plympton and the Monks of Tavistock to do the job. The Monks of Tavistock got there first and they took him to Tavistock and buried him and so they got all the lands about that area. Perhaps it is another tale of entombing him in the snow, (deep-freeze), and burying him later when the weather improved.

Snaily House was mentioned, the ruins of a small house, two ladies lived there and when they died people who went to clear the house found jars of salted down slugs and snails. This was their staple diet! There is story that tin miners on Holne Moor had a habit of appointing one of their number to act as chef each week and one was reputed to have used slugs and snails instead of meat for making stews.

Bowerman’s Nose, story has it that Bowerman the hunter was out hunting and chased through a witches coven and scattered their fire and cauldrons, the witches thought that they would get their own back on him. One witch offered to turn herself into a hare and when he next came hunting she would run across the bog and he would follow and get stuck there. The hounds crossed and Bowerman followed only to get stuck up to his waist, (it is only the top half of him that you can see there today). The hounds then turned to stone thus forming Houndtor. The witches then had an argument, one quickly cast a spell on the other two and turned them into stone, at certain angles they too can be seen on the Tor.

Kitty Jay, of Jay’s Grave fame, came from the workhouse to work on a farm in the Manaton parish. The son of the house, had his wicked way with her, then discarded her, on finding that she was pregnant, she committed suicide and, as was the custom in those days, a suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground, but buried at a crossroad on the parish boundary. Her grave is on the Widecombe to Houndtor road where the footpath to Natsworthy Gate begins. It is a fact that there are always fresh flowers on her grave. How they get there is a mystery, and sometimes small sums of money are also left there. In the 19th century the site was excavated and the bones of a young woman were found. They were re-interred and the grave has stood there ever since.

He concluded by saying that there are, of course, many more tales that could be told and should be recorded.

On the top of Cuthill there are the initials J. E. W. cut into a stone. Dave would like to know why they are there and what they represent.

Dave felt that a more recent lady should be part of Dartmoor’s folklore. Born Katherine Parr, claiming direct descendance from Catherine Parr, wife of King Henry VIII, she moved to Venton House here in the parish of Widecombe at the beginning of the 20th century. She wrote many books under the pen name of Beatrice Chase

Then there are the Pixies! People who get lost on Dartmoor are considered ‘Pixie-led’, if ever this happens to you, take off your coat and turn it inside-out and all will be well!!

At the end of Dave’s address the questions raised in the second E-mail reported in the minutes was mentioned. There has recently been a claim that Conan Doyle stole the idea for the novel from one of his friends. The implication was that Doyle persuaded his friend’s wife to give him an overdose of tablets and after his death he was free to develop the book. The name Baskerville was borrowed from the coachman who drove Conan Doyle around the district, a Mr Harry Baskerville, of West Street, Ashburton.

This information was often related by Mr Bill Baskerville, his nephew, who for several years lived at Widecombe.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:53:35.


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