Widecombe History Group Talk on the Abbot and Lych Ways


The guest speaker at the September meeting was Len Copley who gave a very interesting illustrated talk on "The Abbots Way and the Lych Way". He then offered a guided walk on the north moor starting at High Down Carpark Ref:- 5220 8466 near Widgery Cross and Doe Tor Brook on Saturday 4th September at 12 noon, bring a picnic.

His address as well as being very factual, also gave an insight into the legends that have built up around the area that was discussed and the places illustrated.

In fact there are more than 20 ancient trackways on the moor but Len concentrated on these two. The first one the Abbots Way, was created due to the fact that there were three very important religious settlements on the boarders of Dartmoor. Tavistock Abbey, Buckland Abbey and Buckfast Abbey. These Abbeys were very powerful and were used by the Kings of the times to run the Local Government. This included care of the sick, overseeing the welfare of the poor and possibly most important the control and management of the agriculture in the area. This resulted in these establishments becoming very rich and very powerful. The Abbey at Tavistock appeared to be the most powerful of the trio and there is a folklore story that when The Abbot had to go on a pilgrimage to Plympton Priory to sort out a problem and then on to Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, a tour that would have taken several months, some of the brethren took advantage of the situation and sold the silver and drank a lot of the wine in store there. They realised that they would get into trouble when the Abbot returned and they turned to crime to get money to replace the wine and buy back the silver.

The present Buckfast Abbey was built on the site of the old Abbey and it took about 32 years to complete. Len’s talk took us on a journey from there to Buckland and Tavistock. From Buckfast to Cross Furzes across a small clapper bridge and on to the Avon Dam which was built in the 1950’s. There are ruins of a monastic settlement, used by the farming staff connected to the Abbey, under the water there. Huntington Warren was the next port of call, if hikers keep their eyes open many stones that has been cut by ‘feathers & tares’ therefore done since the 1800’s, can been seen nearby and in fact in many places on Dartmoor. Past several prehistoric sites kistveans, circles, etc. on past Redlake where the pipes that used to carry the china clay to Bittaford are still visible. Across the river Erme and Erme pound, the pound in which stray animals were impounded by the local commoners. Farmers who were commoners could use stone for building, peat for fuel, and graze livestock (historically they could graze on the commons in summer, the amount of stock that they could keep on their farm during the winter months). Anyone caught with cattle or sheep on the moors without grazing rights would have their stock impounded and to get them released they would have to pay a fine to cover the cost of food and time. Nearby is Broad Rock, with BB engraved on it, B.B.= Blatchford Boundary and it is the junction of the paths from the three Abbeys. One route goes from here to Eylesbarrow, Meavy and thence to Buckland Abbey. This Abbey originally built for about £300 then some time after bought by Sir Francis Drake for £3000, remaining in the family till 1950’s and is now owned by The National Trust. The other continues to Childe’s Tomb, another legend connected to that, Fox Tor Mire, Seward’s Cross, past the present site of Princetown, which in those days did not exist, Foggingtor, Long Ash Common, Merrivale, Windy Post and so to Tavistock. At Windy Post on the Grimstone Leat there is a ‘bullseye stone’, a slab of granite with an inch and a quarter hole cut at the right height in it, to permit a certain quantity of water to be drawn off the leat to supply a farm or cottage and there are four such stones on that leat supplying places near to Pew Tor. In the 1750’s a row of T&A stones were erected marking the route from Tavistock to Ashburton , from one stone you could see the next and so on, photographs of some of these were shown. Vixen Tor was shown and its legend related, the witch sat on the Tor and led many to their death, until she met her match. On whatever journey you take across Dartmoor you can find many stones partly worked, or near complete, the remains of hours of work by the stone masons of that time. Through Whitchurch and on to Tavistock. At the honour oak tree there is an example of the one mile restriction stones - the limit of where in the early 1800’s, prisoner of war officers, were permitted to walk from the centre of the town or place of billet. We must not forget the Widecombe "1 Miol" stone on the Natsworthy Road. The study of the history of Tavistock Abbey and the church is a project of its own, in the church grounds is a tree that is reputed to be grown from a cutting from the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury.

In October of each year there is held the Annual Abbots Way Walk, when many people take part to help raise money for charity. Walking all the way from Buckfast to Tavistock

The plant life and vegetation can tell walkers a great deal about the land they are walking through and what lies ahead. Sundew, grows in moist areas and it lives off insects that it captures on its sticky leaves, bog asphodel, eyebright, tormentil, and the most important of all to look out for is the sphagnum moss which inhabits the wettest of the bogs, many of these areas will shake when you place your feet on or near the surface. Many animals and some humans have met their death in places like this, all good fodder for legends and folklore stories. Mention was made of the uses of sphagnum moss particularly in WWI when it was collected and used for dressings for wounds in the battle field, the 15 inch shell outside Widecombe Church House is a reminder of this, given to the parish to pay tribute to those that collected moss for that purpose.

The Lych Way was then mentioned, the way of the dead, a route from Babeny and Pizwell across five little rivers, eight miles minimum often up to twelve miles in poor weather, this was the route used to carry the dead to Lydford. The Lych Way was also used to go to Lydford because of its importance as a legal centre. From Pizwell via Laughter Tor, passing near Powdermills where gunpowder was made, to test the power of the powder a 60 pound cannon ball, was placed in the ‘mortar’ which is still there, and fired and the distance it travelled calculated the strength. Crossing the Dart and on to ‘coffin wood’ where the body, which was often carried in a bag across the moors was placed into a coffin prior to getting to Lydford for burial. Lydford Castle, the Prison, the Mint that once provided coins, the court and then The Stannary Courts were brought into the discussion. Many Lydford pennies are found in Scandinavian Museums, this must relate to the Vikings visiting the area. However in the 1800’s Bishop Branscombe, the Bishop of Exeter agreed that the people of Babeny, Pizwell and Hexworthy could bury their dead at Widecombe. The Lych Way then ceased to be used for its original purpose. The coffin stone on Dartmeet Hill came into use as a resting place for bodies being carried from Hexworthy to Widecombe, the Church Ways were used to bring the dead from the Postbridge areas.

So ended yet another interesting and factual talk about our lovely Dartmoor and its history.

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