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Various myths and legends concerning Dartmoor

To Dartmoor, the greatest expanse of wilderness in Southern England, and one of 15 National Parks in the UK (England has 10, Wales 3 and Scotland 2). 

A bleak but beautiful expanse of high ground in the middle of Devon, Dartmoor consists of some 368 square miles of bogs, granite outcrops (tors) and heather-grown moorland as well as lots of isolated farmsteads, a prison, various disused tin mines and granite quarries, a strong military presence (the north-eastern part of it has been an Army firing range for over 200 years), the sources of several Devon rivers (not just the Dart) and a few fine examples of clapper bridges which date back to Medieval times. 

Animals on the moor are mainly cows, sheep and ponies – those last being the descendants of the pit-ponies which were used when the moor was a centre for tin-mining.

And, of course, it is the source of many local legends.  Dartmoor is said to be haunted by (among others) pixies, a headless horseman, a few monks who got lost crossing the moor in the Middle Ages and several large black dogs – some of whom are said to go hunting with the ghost of an evil squire. The Devil crops up a few times, having visited a village in the middle of the moor during a storm in the seventeenth century and having also had at least one soul sold to him. In the twentieth century, several road accidents on the moor were attributed to the ‘hairy hands’, a pair of disembodied hands that apparently grabbed the steering-wheels of cars (or the handle-bars of motorbikes) and forced vehicles off the road; one suspects that quite a few of those accidents occurred at night, probably not long after the pubs had closed.

Quite a few of the tors are subject to various myths and legends. Hound Tor, not far from the road between Bovey Tracy and Widecombe-in-the-Moor, is said to have been created as a result of a pack of hunting-hounds being turned to stone by some witches who were upset that the dogs had knocked their cauldron over while they were chasing a hare; the huntsman accompanying them was also turned to stone – the granite stack that is Bowerman’s Nose, about a mile from Hound Tor, to be precise.

Tales of ghostly dogs are not unique to Dartmoor. Such stories abound across England (most counties have at least one), and as far as Dartmoor is concerned there’s the yeth or yell hound – a spectral dog which is supposed to be the spirit of an unbaptised child which roams the moor at night, making wailing noises. This is said to have been one of the inspirations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles which is set mainly on Dartmoor.

Conan Doyle stayed at a hotel in Princetown (the Royal Duchy Hotel, now one of three National Park Visitor Centres on Dartmoor) while he was working on The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was published in 1902 (after being serialised in The Strand Magazine); this marked Sherlock Holmes’s first re-appearance since being apparently killed off at the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ back in 1893 (the success of The Hound of the Baskervilles prompted Conan Doyle to revive Holmes on a permanent basis, with the story usually hailed as Holmes’s ‘return’, ‘The Adventure  of the Empty House’, appearing in The Strand Magazine in 1903).

As well as the yeth hound, Conan Doyle also drew inspiration from the story of Richard Cabell, a seventeenth-century squire who lived in Buckfastleigh on the south-eastern edge of Dartmoor. He loved hunting and is said to have murdered his wife and sold his soul to the Devil. When he died in 1677 and was laid to rest in the churchyard at Buckfastleigh, a pack of phantom hounds is supposed to have raced across the moor to howl at the graveside, and Cabell’s ghost has (so it is said) been seen hunting on the moor with the ghostly hounds on the anniversary of his death. In an attempt to lay his soul to rest, a heavy stone was placed over his grave and a mausoleum (known locally as ‘The Sepulchre’) was built over it. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Cabell became the dastardly Hugo Baskerville – the ancestor of the Baskervilles and the source of the family curse (the story, as told to Holmes and Doctor Watson at the start of the novel, is that Hugo sold his soul to the devil in order to abduct a young lady, only to meet his end by way of an encounter with a giant hound).

But the purchase of the soul of a member of the local gentry was not the only piece of Devil’s work on seventeenth-century Dartmoor. Over at Widecombe-in-the-Moor there’s a fine fourteenth-century granite church dedicated to St Pancras; it is somewhat on the big side for the small village it serves, which has led to it being known as the ‘cathedral of the moor’. On 21st October 1638 it was struck by lightning. During a service. The north-eastern pinnacle of the tower was dislodged and fell through the roof, killing four and injuring many others (some of whom later died of their wounds). An eyewitness report of sorts exists in the form of a poem written by the local schoolmaster, although the highly informative guide to the church (a booklet which can be purchased in the church for £1) adds to this by including an account, apparently from a pamphlet published in London a couple of weeks later, which states that the vicar tried to continue with the service, only to find that the surviving members of his flock “durst not proceed in their publick devotions, but went forth of the Church”.

According to local legend, the storm was the work of the Devil, who had come to take one of the parishoners; various reasons are given depending on where you hear or read of the story – the man in question has been described as an adulterer or a gambler (who had lost to the Devil at cards but failed to pay up), although the afore-mentioned church guide states that he was merely guilty of having “fallen asleep during the afternoon service”. The church is most definitely worth a look around, but then you tell me the English country church that is not!

Widecombe-in-the-Moor is best known for the song about a group of yokels, including Uncle Tom Cobley, all riding to that village’s fair on a grey mare (the fair still takes place, in a field just outside the village, in September). Their somewhat improbable ride is depicted on signs throughout the village. 

Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for the horse, and according to the song it too is said to haunt the moor…

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