Open main menu

A Book of the West/Volume 1/11

CHAPTER XI.

DARTMOOR: ITS TENANTS

Forest rights exercised by the Duchy—Rights of the parishes of Devon to Dartmoor—Encroachments—Venville—Newtakes—Importance of the moor as common land—The four quarters—Drifts—A moorman's house—Vipers in the walls—Crockern Tor and Mr. Fowler—The "Wish Hounds"—The pixies—How an Ordnance surveyor was pixy-led—The moor in fog—Story of a pixy birth—Joe Leaman and the pixies—Notice on church gate—The boys and the plaster figures—The witch of Endor—Those born on the moor do not like to leave it—Freshets on Dartmoor rivers—The Dart—Ancient tenements—The Prisons—Story of an attempted escape—A successful escape—Cost to the country of the criminal class—Some effort should be made to prevent crime—Believer Day—Trout-fishing—Dartmoor in winter—The song of the moor.

DARTMOOR consists of moorland running up to heights of over 2000 feet, a great deal of the area being enclosed, forming rough grazing farms, but much of it remains to-day what it was thousands of years ago, boulder-strewn ravines, through which rush impetuous streams, rocky heights crowned with huge blocks of granite, so weather-worn and piled up as to suggest to the stranger that some Titans had so placed them to serve as castles or to add a romantic touch to already wild scenery. Great sweeps of heather and furze-clad downs run up to these elevations, and on many of these the rude stone monuments lie scattered about in all directions.
A Book of the West - Vixen Tor.png

VIXEN TOR

The forest of Dartmoor became the property of the Princes of Wales only so far that forest rights were granted to the Black Prince and to the Princes of Wales for ever, without prejudice to such rights as had belonged from time immemorial to all Devonshire parishes with the exception of Barnstaple and Totnes. And the rights of Devonshire parishes were to take off the moor whatever was wanted save venison and vert, that is to say, not to cut down green trees. As of trees there are none, or hardly any, this exception could not be very greatly felt as a grievance, and as now there are no deer, one might have supposed that Devonshire people could exercise an unlimited right over Dartmoor. Such, however, is not the case. The Duchy of Cornwall, vested in the Princes of Wales, has claimed and exercised the power to cut away and reject the rights of every parish except such as are immediately contiguous to the moor, and to enclose and to shut out the good people of Devon from large tracts, one of which is made over to the convicts, another to the artillery, to fire across at long range. The tors also are given up to be hacked and quarried; and ponies and bullocks that have found their way on to the moors and do not belong to "Venville" parishes (that is to say, such as are contiguous to the forest) are pounded, and their owners fined for trespass. Thus the grant of forest rights, i.e., rights to hunt the red deer, have been converted to very exclusive rights to everything, and the Devonians, whose right was recognised to everything save venison and vert, has been reduced to nothing at all. But just as the Duchy encroached on the rights of all the good people of Devon, so was it also encroached upon. Before that the grant of forest rights was made to the Black Prince there were certain ancient tenements on the moor; those occupying them held under the king, and were absolutely independent otherwise. But these tenants had certain traditional rights, which they could put in force once only in their lives—on the death of the last holder the incomer might enclose ten acres of moor land, and hold it at a nominal rent. Thus these ancient tenements gradually expanded. But besides this the holders made larger enclosures, locally termed "new-takes," when the fancy came to them to do so, and they settled matters easily with the Duchy agents, to the advantage of both. Large landed proprietors managed to get slices by a little greasing of palms, and some very odd transactions took place whereby great tracts of land, and even farms, were transferred from the Duchy to other hands without the Princes of Wales being in any way benefited, or being aware that they were being robbed. But then—as the Duchy had taken from the people—had not such of the people as could contrive it a right to take back what they could?

All this is now so far a matter of the past that the Duchy is no longer robbed, it robs instead—curtailing on all sides the rights of those living in the low steamy lands to the pure air and wide wastes of that great well-head of health and life—the ancient Forest of Dartmoor.

During the abnormally dry summers of 1893 and 1897 Dartmoor proved of incalculable advantage not to the County of Devon only, but far further afield. When grass was burnt up everywhere, and water failed, then the moor was green, and was twinkling with dancing streams. From every quarter the starving cattle were driven there in thousands and tens of thousands. Drovers came from so far east as Kent, there to obtain food and drink unobtainable elsewhere.

Thousands and tens of thousands more might have been sustained there but for the enclosures that have been suffered to be made—nay, have been encouraged.

Dartmoor is divided into four regions, and over each region a moorman is placed. In every quarter of the moor a special earmark is required for the ponies that are turned out, a round hole punched in the ear, through which is passed a piece of distinguishing tape, red or blue, white or black. The ponies are much given to rambling; they pass from one quarter to another in search of pasture; but the moorman of each quarter can recognise those turned out on his region by the earmark. Sheep also and bullocks are turned out on the moor; but they have to be cared for at home in the winter, whereas the ponies brave the storms and snow. The flocks and herds are not driven on to the moor till summer, and are driven off at the approach of winter.

Although every farmer round has a right to turn out his beasts, yet the moorman expects a fee for each horse, bullock, or sheep sent out on the downs. Cattle, horses, and sheep sent upon the common lands that adjoin the forest are liable to stray on to the broader expanse, and in order to detect these and exact a fine for them certain drivings are ordered, locally called "drifts." The day when a drift is to take place is kept a profound secret till it is proclaimed early in the morning. Then a messenger on a fleet horse is sent round very early to announce it. On certain tors are holed stones, and through these horns were formerly passed and blown on such occasions. There are drifts for ponies, and drifts for bullocks. A drift is an animated and striking scene. Horsemen and dogs are out, the farmers identifying their cattle, the drivers and dogs sending the frightened beasts plunging, galloping in one direction towards the place of gathering. When all the beasts have been driven together, an officer of the Duchy mounts a stone and reads a formal document that is supposed to authorise the moormen to make their claim for fees. Then the Venville tenants carry off their cattle without objection. All others are pounded, or else their owners pay fines before being allowed to reclaim them.

Now and then the Duchy endeavours to extend its right over the commons belonging to contiguous parishes. Nothing is lost by asserting a right, and something may be gained. But when a drift is carried over such commons the farmers of the parishes rise up and repel the moormen, and battles with clubs and horsewhips ensue. Blows are given and returned; it is felt, and felt rightly, that encroachment must be resisted at all cost, lest it should serve as a stepping-stone for deprivation of further rights.

An old moorman's house was a picturesque object: built up centuries ago of granite blocks unshaped, set in earth, with no lime or cement to fix them, low-browed, with the roof thatched with rushes, the windows small, looking into a small court-yard, and this court-yard entered through a door in a high blank wall. On one side the turf stacked up, the saddles, the harness; on the other, a cow-house and stable, the well-house accessible from the kitchen without going from under cover, the well being nothing other than a limpid moor stream diverted and made to flow into a basin of scooped-out granite. The door into the house gives admission into an outer chamber, where is every description of odds and ends; where are potatoes, old barrels, infirm cart-wheels, and the poultry hopping over everything. On one side a door gives admission to the kitchen, hall, parlour, all in one, lighted by a small window looking into the court-yard. Or, again, on the one hand is the cattle-shed, on the other the kitchen, all under one roof, and beyond the kitchen the common sleeping-chamber. Rarely is there an upper storey. The object of making these ancient houses so totally enclosed was to protect the dwelling from the furious storms. They were castles, but walled up against no other enemy than the wild weather. Nowadays these ancient houses are rapidly disappearing, and new, vulgar, staring edifices are taking their places—edifices that let in wind and water at every joint and loophole.

The dry walls of these old tenements were snug places for vipers to shelter through the winter, and I have heard many an old moorman relate how, when the peat fire was glowing and the room was warm, he has seen the heads and glittering eyes of the "long cripples" shoot out from the crevices in the wall and sway, enjoying the warmth, but too sluggish to do more.

One told me that his dog was bitten by a viper, and its head was swollen shockingly. He at once got elder flowers, and put them in a caldron to boil, and held the dog's head over the steam. It cured the poor beast.

Many years ago a Manchester man with plenty of money came down to Dartmoor, and declared that it was a shame so much land should lie waste; he would show what could be done with it. So he soon came to terms with the Duchy, which allowed him to enclose thousands of acres—which means exclude the public—and to set up machine-houses for steam-engines to thrash, and for steam-ploughs to turn the soil, and so on. The whole not very far from Crockern Tor, the umbel, the centre of the moor, the seat of the ancient stannary court, sub Dio, under the open vault of heaven, on unhewn granite seats.

One day an old moorman met this new-fangled farmer, and said to him: "How do 'y, Muster Vowler? I had a dream about yü last night."

"Did you, indeed? I am flattered."

"Hear what it is afore yü say that."

"Well, tell me."

A Book of the West - LOWER TARR.png

LOWER TARR

"Well, Muster Vowler, I failed asleep, and then I saw the gurt old sperit of the moors, old Crockern himself, grey as granite, and his eyebrows hanging down over his glimmering eyes like sedge, and his eyes deep as peat water pools. Sez he to me, 'Do 'y know Muster Vowler?' 'Well, sir,' sez I, 'I thinks I have that honour.' 'Then,' sez he in turn, 'Bear him a message from me. Tell Muster Vowler if he scratches my back, I 'll tear out his pocket.'"

And sure enough old Crockern did it. After a few years Dartmoor beat the scientific farmer. He had tried to drain its bogs, it had drained his purse. He had scratched its back, and it had torn out his pocket.

There existed formerly a belief on Dartmoor that it was hunted over at night in storm by a black sportsman, with black fire-breathing hounds, called the "Wish Hounds." They could be heard in full cry, and occasionally the blast of the hunter's horn on stormy nights.

One night a moorman was riding home from Widecombe. There had been a fair there; he had made money, and had taken something to keep out the cold, for the night promised to be one of tempest. He started on his homeward way. The moon shone out occasionally between the whirling masses of thick vapour. The horse knew the way better perhaps than his master. The rider had traversed the great ridge of Hameldon, and was mounting a moor on which stands a circle of upright stones—reputedly a Druid circle, and said to dance on Christmas Eve—when he heard a sound that startled him—a horn, and then past him swept without sound of footfall a pack of black dogs.

The moorman was not frightened—he had taken in too much Dutch courage for that—and when a minute after the black hunter came up, he shouted to him, "Hey! huntsman, what sport? Give us some of your game."

"Take that," answered the hunter, and flung him something which the man caught and held in his arm. Then the mysterious rider passed on. An hour elapsed before the moorman reached his home. As he had jogged on he had wondered what sort of game he had been given. It was too large for a hare, too small for a deer. Provokingly, not once since the encounter had the moon flashed forth. Now that he was at his door he swung himself from his horse, and still carrying the game, shouted for a lantern.

The light was brought. With one hand the fellow took it, then raised it to throw a ray on that which he held in his arm—the game hunted and won by the Black Rider. It was his own baby, dead and cold. This story was told by the blacksmith at Moreton Hampstead to G. P. Bidder, the calculating boy, who as a lad was fond of playing about the old man's forge. From one of Mr. Bidder's daughters I had the tale.

It would be unjustifiable to pass over the Pixies, or Pysgies as they are generally termed, who are the little spirits supposed specially to haunt Dartmoor, although indeed they leave their traces, and perform their pranks elsewhere. To be " pysgieled" is to go astray and become so bewildered as not to be able to find the way at all. How entirely one may go wrong even with the best appliances, the following experience will show.

One morning, my friend Mr. R. Burnard, with one of the officers of the Ordnance Survey, another gentleman and myself, started from the Duchy Hotel, Princetown, with the object of visiting an unregistered stone row on Conies Down Tor, which at our request the Survey was about to include in their map. We started at 9.30 a.m., of course provided with compasses and surveying apparatus. There was a bit of fog as we left the hotel door, but as we heard the larks singing aloft we expected it to clear. Mr. Burnard and the officer got ahead of us, and disappeared in the mist before we had gone a hundred yards—and we saw them no more that day.

Beyond the Prisons there is a short cut across the enclosures made by the convicts, into the main Tavistock and Moreton road; we took that, and on reaching the road struck by Fitz's Well due north, or nearly so, for Black Dunghill (Blackadun-hill). Then I knew that by going due north we must strike the Lych Way, the track by which corpses were formerly carried from the centre and east side of the moor for interment at Lydford. This Lych Way is fairly well marked.

The mist became thicker; we walked on, hoping on reaching Conies Down Tor to find our friends there. But after a bit I got completely lost; we came on a dip or pan in which were sheep, but no stream; that I could in no way account for, so we set our faces to the wind, which I knew when we started blew from the south, and about one o'clock we reached Princetown again, drenched to the skin. But the Ordnance Survey officer and Mr. Burnard had taken another route, had arrived at Mis Tor, and then by a swerve to the right along Mis Tor pan—one ghastly, boggy tract to be avoided—essayed to strike the Lych Way and reach Conies Down Tor. But in the mist they went so absolutely astray, notwithstanding their scientific appliances, that when about one o'clock they reached a stream flowing north they supposed that they had hit on the Ockment and would come out at Okehampton. Nor was it till a brawling stream came foaming down on the right, and the river took a twist south-west, that it dawned on them that they were on the Tavy. About five o'clock they reached, sopped as sponges and utterly fagged, a little tavern at Mary Tavy, where, in their prostration, they asked for a bottle of champagne. The hostess stared. "Plaize, surs, be he sum'ut to ate? Us hav'n't got nort but eggs and a rasher."

That was a case of Pixy-leading out of pure mischief, to show how superior they were to all the last appliances of science.

Now, when the way is lost, there is one thing to be done, if possible—aim at running water and follow the stream. It may lead you out thirty miles from the spot you want to reach, but it will eventually lead to a roof, and "wittles and drink," and better still—dry clothes.

But there is another way—to make two marks and pace between them till the fog rises. This is how an old farmer's wife did, living at Sheberton. She had been to Princetown to get some groceries. On her way back in the afternoon fog enveloped her, and she lost all sense of her direction. Well, she set down her basket with the groceries on the turf, and planted her gingham umbrella at ten strides from it, and spent the night walking from one to the other, addressing each now and then, so as to keep up her spirits.

To the groceries: "Be yu lyin' comf'able there, my dears? Keep dry what iver yu du, my büties."

To the gingham: "Now old neighbour, tesn't folded yu like to be in this sort o' weather. But us can't alwez have what us likes i' this wurld, and mebbe taint giide us should."

To the groceries: "Now my purties, yu'll be better bym-by. Won't ee, shuggar, whan you 'm put into a nice warm cup o' tay? That'll be different from this drashy, dirty vog, I reckon."

To the gingham: "Never mind. It's for rain you 'm spread. It would be demeanin' of yourself to stretch out all your boans agin' drizzlin' mist, for sure."

By morning the vapour rose, and the old lady took her direction, came cheerily home, and comforted herself with a sugared cup of tea, and spread the umbrella in the kitchen to "dry hisself."

But to return to the Pysgies themselves.

What I am now about to mention is a story I have received from Mr. T. W. Whiteway, brother of Sir William Whiteway; he was brought up on the confines of the moor. The story is of the Fairies' ointment, as Nurse Warren told it.

"You have many times asked me to tell you about the Fairies' ointment. Now I don't suppose you will believe me, but I have heard Granny say that a very long time ago there were Pixies scattered all over the country. The Pixies were good and kind to some people, but to others they would play all sorts of tricks. You must never spy on a Pixy, for they would be sure to pay you out if you did. Now the story I am going to tell you was told to me by my grandmother, who died in her eighty- seventh year, and she heard it from her mother. So this all happened before there was any King George. Granny used to say that she believed it was when there was a King Henry, who had a number of wives.

"There was a wonderfully clever midwife, called Morada, who lived a little way out of Holne village, close to Dartmoor. You know in those days doctors were not so plentiful as they be now, nor so clever; so the people all around used to send for Nurse Morada. Now she was a widow woman and a foreigner. Folks did say she was a witch, and a sight of money she got, for folks was afraid to offend her.

"One night just before harvest Nurse had gone to bed early, for it was a dark, dismal evening, likely for a thunderstorm, and Nurse was much afraid of lightning.

"She had not been long asleep when she was awakened by such a clatter at the door as if it was being broken down, and it was thundering and lightning frightful. Nurse was greatly frightened, but lay still, hoping the knocking would cease, but it only got worse and worse. At last she rose and opened the window, when she saw by the lightning flashing, which almost blinded her, a little man sitting on a big horse, hammering at the door.

"'Come down, woman,' he said; 'my wife is ill, and wants you.'

"'Do you think I'm mad?' she called out. 'I would not go out for the queen herself such a night as this,' and was going to shut the window.

"'Stop!' he cried out; 'will you come with me for ten golden guineas?'

"Now this was a sight of money in those days, and Nurse was very greedy for money; so she told the man to wait, and she would be dressed as soon as possible.

"The man jumped down from his horse, and pointing to a shed said two words in a foreign language, whereupon the horse cleverly walked in out of the rain. The man entered the house, and when Nurse saw him she was that frightened she almost fainted away. He was not old at all, but a very handsome young man. He was small, to be sure, but he looked a real little gentleman, with such beautiful fine clothes, and eyes that fairly looked through you. He laughed to see how frightened the woman was.

"'Now listen to me,' he said in a voice as sweet as a thrush's, 'and be sure that if you do what I tell you, and never speak of what you may see or hear, no harm will happen to you, and I will give you ten guineas now and ten more when you return home. If you keep your promise all will be well, but if you do not I will punish you very severely. Now to show you what power I have, I tell you that although you say that you are a widow and call yourself Morada, that is not your name, for you never were married. Shall I tell you some more of your past life?'

"'No, sir, no!' she called out. 'I will do all that you tell me.'

"'That's right and sensible. Now the first thing I do is to blindfold you, and you must not try to take off the bandage from your eyes. Take these ten guineas and put them away.'

"This the woman did, and hid them behind the mantelpiece. They both left the house, the woman locking the door. He took the woman behind him on the horse, and tied her with a strap round her waist. Away went the horse like the wind across the moor; Nurse thought from the time they took they must have gone pretty near as far as Lydford. When he got off from the horse he made sure that she had not moved the handkerchief. Unlocking a door, he led her up through a long passage, and, unlocking another door, pulled her inside.

"'Now take off your handkerchief,' said he, and she found herself in a queer-looking place all lighted up with beautiful lamps. A little squint-eyed man came and said something the Nurse could not understand. The little gentleman then hurried off Nurse into another room, where, lying on a beautiful velvet bed, was the prettiest little lady anybody ever did see.

"Well, before many hours there was a sweet little dot of a boy born. Then the gentleman brought the Nurse a box of ointment and told her to rub some over the baby's eyelids. When nurse had done so she put the box in her pocket and forgot all about it. This got her into great trouble, as I'll tell you about presently. Nurse stayed some days with the little lady, and got to love her very much, she was that kind and good. The little lady liked Nurse, and told her that she herself was a princess; that her husband was a prince; that they lived in a beautiful country where there was no frost or snow, and that they were fairies, not Pixies. Her father was the king of all the fairies, and he was very angry because she ran away and married the prince, who was not of so high a rank as she was, although he was her cousin, and that to punish them he sent 'em both to Dartmoor for a year. That time was now up, and they were all going home in a few days.

"The fairy prince took Nurse to her home blind-folded on the big horse, in the same way as he brought her there, and on parting gave her the other ten guineas as he had promised. The next morning Nurse was in a great quandary when she found the box of ointment in her pocket. 'Well,' she thought, 'he will be sure to come for this ointment, as they will all be going away to-morrow or the next day.'

"Nurse stayed up all that night, but the prince did not come, and the next day and night passed without seeing him. Then Nurse felt certain that they were all gone, and had forgotten the ointment, and she could scarcely eat, drink, or sleep for thinking what virtue there might be in it

"When the fourth night had passed without his coming Nurse could wait no longer, but opened the box and rubbed in a little of the ointment on her left eye; but she only felt the eye prick and sting a bit, so the woman thought the ointment must be only good for fairy babies, and she went to bed quite satisfied.

"The next morning she thought she must have died and awakened up in another world. Everything about her looked as if it had grown ever so much. The cat, which always slept in her room, looked as large as a great dog. Then remembering the ointment, she covered her left eye, and all was as it used to be. The woman now got very frightened, and started off after breakfast to go to Ashburton to consult a friend of hers, a Mr. Stranger, who was very clever about herbs.

"As she walked along she would now and again cover up her right eye, and then everything would look so grand and beautiful; and looking up, she saw stars, although the sun was shining brightly, she could see that wonderfully far off. Now, she had not gone very far when suddenly the fairy prince, sitting on his horse, appeared before her.

"'Good morning, sir,' she said, dropping a curtsy.

"'Ah!' he cried, 'the ointment! Which eye do you see me with?'

"'The left, sir.'

"Instantly she felt something like a blow on that eye. The fairy prince vanished, and appeared again as the little man she had first seen.

"'Nurse,' said he, 'you are blinded in your left eye as a punishment for having used the ointment. I am sorry, for you were kind to my wife. Here is a present she has sent you.'

"He then gave her ten guineas, and she returned him the box. He then vanished. This is all the story that Granny told me about the fairy ointment."

A farmer on the west side of Dartmoor, having had sickness among his cattle in 1879, sacrificed a sheep and burnt it on the moor above his farm as an offering to the Pysgies. The cattle at once began to recover, and did well after, nor were there any fresh cases of sickness among them. He spoke of the matter as by no means anything to be ashamed of, or that was likely to cause surprise.

There can be little doubt that many of the Pixy stories, as well as those of ghosts, have their origin in practical jokes.

Old Joe Leaman, of Dartmeet, recently dead, had an experience with Pysgies, as he supposed.

One day, having need of fuel, he went up the Dart to cut faggots of wood in the Brimpts plantation. Whether he had leave to do so, or took it, is not recorded.

He went among the trees, cut a faggot, bound it, and carried it to a place where he purposed making a pile, which he would carry home at his leisure. But he was observed by some young fellows, and after he had deposited his faggot and had disappeared in the plantation, they went to the spot, removed and concealed the faggot, and hid themselves.

Presently Joe came from out of the wood with a second faggot on his back. On reaching the place where the first had been placed, he set down the second, looked about, rubbed his eyes, shook his head, and taking his staff drove it through the faggot, and pinned it firmly to the ground. Then he went again to the wood.

No sooner was he gone than the young fellows crept from their hiding-place and removed the second bundle, but planted his staff where he had set it.

Back came Joe Leaman bowed under a third faggot, but when he saw that the second had vanished like the first, and his stick remained, this was too much for him; down went number three, and he took to his heels, and did not halt till he reached his cottage.

Some hours later the mischievous youths came in, and saw the old fellow crouched over his peat fire.

"Well, Joe, how bee'st a?"

"A b'aint well."

"What's the matter?"

"Umph! b'aint well."

Nothing more could be got out of him.

During the night the lads brought all three faggots and his stick, and pegged them down at his door. Joe came out in the morning.

"Ah!" said he, "them Pysgies They 'm vriends wi' me again. Now I 'm all right. It ud niver do, us on the moor not to be on giide tarms wi' they. I 'm right as a trivet now."

The schools have pretty well banished superstition from Dartmoor; none now remains, and I doubt whether the old stories are any longer to be picked up there.

Education, however, is not in an advanced condition. The other day I took down for preservation the following notice I saw affixed to the church gate at Post Bridge. It was written on vermilion-red paper:—

"Mary maze hencot as been and kellad John Webb Jack daw.
and he got to pay 5s for kellad a Jack daw."

The sense is not clear. As may be noticed, Mary is a he, just as a cow is a he.

Here is a bit of conversation overheard between two Dartmoor boys:—

"I zay, Bill, 'ow many cows hev your vaither?"

"Mine—oh! dree and an oss. How many 'as yourn?"

"Mine! oh! my vaither—e 's in heaven."

"Get out! mine ha' been there scöres o' times."

This is a sceptical age. The very foundations of faith in verities and trust in authorities are shaken. How far may be instanced by this anecdote:—

Two choir boys had been to a Christmas treat. There was a cake with little plaster figures on it, and two of these were presented to the aforesaid boys, Jack and Tom, by their pastor and spiritual father, with strict injunctions not to eat them, as they would be most injurious, might kill them. They took the images home, and showed them to their mother, who at once perceived that they were of plaster of Paris and not edible.

"Byes!" said she, "doant ey niver go for to ate of thickey drashey things. They '11 kill yu for zure-cartain, right off on end."

Here, pray note it, was the same thing inculcated by the material as well as the spiritual parent. Some hours later the mother with a shock perceived that one of the plaster figures was gone from the mantelshelf on which she had placed it.

"Tom! Tom!" she cried to the only son who was then in the house, "where be the plaister man to?"

"Plaise, mother, Jack hev aiten 'n—and if Jack be alive this arternoon, I be goin' to ate the other wan."

When such a condition of mind exists among the young, can one expect to find a belief in Pixies still present?

The only very modern case of spectres or their congeners on the moor I have heard of is that of a moor farmer, who is wont to return from market at Moreton in a hilarious condition.

"T'other day," said he, "just as I corned to a little dip in the ground t' other side o' Merripit, who shu'd I meet but the witch o' Endor. 'Muster,' sez she, 'Yu've been drinkin' and got liquor o' board.' Now how cu'd a woman a' knawed that onless her'd been a sperrit herself or a witch I 'd like to knaw."

Some of those who have been brought up on the moor cannot endure to leave it. One man named
A Book of the West - TAVY CLEAVE.png

TAVY CLEAVE

John Hamlyn, who died aged eighty years, had never in all his life been off it. Another, Jacob Gorman, aged seventy-five, had been from it only two months in all his life. At a little cot near Birch Tor, it was said that the fire had not gone out for a hundred years, as the women had never for a night left the house.

Some of the old cottages on the moor were wonderful abodes, like Irish cabins. They are gradually disappearing, but a few still remain. The influx of visitors to Dartmoor, and the money brought there, tend to their effacement. A cot that could be run up between sunrise and sunset and a fire lighted by nightfall, has been held to constitute a right for ever to the place. Some of the hovels still standing have been so erected.

The rivers on the moor are liable to freshets. In the notable storm of 1890, Merivale Bridge on the Walla, and the old bridge leading from Tavistock to Peter Tavy over the Tavy river, were swept away. But the Dart is notorious for its sudden swelling. It was due to this that the old couplet ran—

"River of Dart, O river of Dart,
Every year thou claimest a heart."

The river "cries" when there is to be a change of wind. "Us shall have bad weather, maister; I hear the Broadstones a crying." The Broadstones are boulders of granite lying in the bed of the river. The cry, however, hardly comes from them, but from a piping of the wind in the twists of the glen through which the turbulent river writhes.

In Dartington churchyard there is a tombstone to the memory of John Edmonds, who was drowned in the river on August 17th, 1840. He and his intended were coming from Staverton Church, where they had been married, when a wave of water rolled down on them, and cart, horse, and bride and bridegroom were swept away. Her body was found caught in a tree a few hundred yards below, but the body of the man was not recovered for nearly three weeks afterwards; the horse and cart were carried over the weir near Totnes bridge.

About a hundred and fifty years ago there was no stone bridge at Hexworthy, only a clapper (wooden bridge). Two men were coming down the road when they heard the roar of a freshet. "Here cometh old Dart—let's run," said one. They ran, but old Dart was too quick for them; he caught them on the clapper and carried both off and drowned them; so that year he had two hearts.

A few years ago the Meavy suddenly rose and caught a man and his horse as they were crossing a ford below the village. The man was not drowned, but died of the consequences.

Up to 1702 there were on Dartmoor but thirty-five tenements in fifteen localities, some two or three being grouped together in certain places. These ancient farms are situated in the best and most favoured portions of the Forest of Dartmoor, and have been occupied from prehistoric times, as is evidenced by the quantity of flint tools that are turned up at these spots.

There is an account of the tenants of Dartmoor as early as 1344-5, from which it appears that they were then forty-four in number. In 1346 the forty-four tenants depastured no less than 4700 oxen and thirty-seven steers, a very respectable total, and one showing that the favoured spots in the forest some five and a half centuries ago carried considerable herds of cattle.

The names of the ancient tenements are: Hartland, Merripit, Runnage, and Warner; Dury, Pizwell, Believer, Reddon, and Babenay; Princehall, Dunnabridge, Brounberry, Sherberton, Hexworthy, Huccaby, and Brimpts.

Formerly all these tenements were held as customary freeholds or copyholds, but many of them have been purchased by the Duchy.[1]

Where the miners lived in the old times, when tin mining was in vigour on the moor, is not very clear, as very few ruins of quadrangular buildings remain that could have served as houses, and it is quite certain that they did not inhabit the hut circles, as they have not left their traces therein. They, in all likelihood, lodged in the farmhouses and their out-buildings during the week, and returned to their homes for the Sundays.

In 1806 the vast range of prisons was erected at Princetown, on the bleakest and one of the loftiest sites on Dartmoor, for the accommodation of French prisoners of war. From 18 16, when peace was proclaimed, the buildings stood empty till 1850, when they were converted into a convict establishment, and since then the prisoners have been employed in enclosing and reclaiming the moor.

As may well be imagined, many attempts at escape have been made. I remember one, especially daring, which was nearly successful, some forty years ago. A prisoner succeeded in creeping along one of the beams sustaining the roof of the hall in which were the warders eating their supper, without attracting their attention. He got thence over the wall, and next broke into the doctor's house. There he possessed himself of a suit of clothes, and left his convict suit behind. Next he entered the doctor's stable, and took his horse out. But he was unable to enter the harness-room, owing to the strength of the lock, and so was obliged to escape, riding the horse, indeed, but without saddle, and directing it not with a bridle, but with a halter.

He rode along at a swinging pace till he reached Two Bridges, where there is an ascent rather steep for a quarter of a mile, and then he necessarily slackened his pace. To his great annoyance, as he passed the Saracen's Head (the inn which constitutes the settlement of Two Bridges) a man emerged from the public-house and jumped on his horse. This was a moorman. The morrow was appointed for a drift, and he was going to make preparations to drive his quarter of the moor. He leaped on his horse and trotted after the convict, little knowing who he was.

That night was one of moonlight. The moorman saw a gentleman in black riding a good horse before him, and he pushed on to be abreast with him and have a little talk.

"Whom have I the honour of riding with at night?" asked the moorman.

"I'm the new curate," said the convict, "going round on my pastoral duties."

"Oh, indeed, without saddle and bridle?"

"I was called up to a dying person. My groom was away. For souls one must do much."

"Indeed, and your clothes don't seem to fit you," observed the moorman.

Now the doctor was a fat man, and the man who wore his clothes was lean.

"My duties are wearing to the carnal man," said the rider.

"And the horse. By ginger! it's the doctor's," exclaimed the moorman.

The convict kicked the flanks of his steed, and away he bounded. The hill had been surmounted. The moorman gave chase.

Then he recollected that the doctor's horse was an old charger, and he thundered out, "Halt! Right about face!"

Instantly the old charger stopped—instantly—stopped dead, and away over his head like a rocket shot the soi-disant curate.

In another moment the moorman was on him, had him fast, and said grimly, "You're a five-pounder to me, my reverend party."

Five pounds is the reward for the apprehension of an escaped convict.

The moorman got his five pounds, and the convict got something he didn't like. He forfeited all the years of his imprisonment past, and got seven in addition for the theft of the horse and clothes.

Some years ago a convict escaped and concealed himself in a mine. Impelled by hunger, he showed himself to the men there engaged. He told them that he was, like them, a toiler underground. They agreed to shelter him, and he was kept concealed in the mine till the search for him was past. Then they gave him old clothes, and each subscribed a sum of money to help him to leave the country. He got away, and some year or two after he sent back all the money he had been given, to be repaid to the men who had subscribed to get him off, and a good present into the bargain.

A very different case was this.

A man got out, escaped from the moor, and made his way to his wife's cottage. She gave him up and claimed the five pounds reward for her treachery.

A friend was spending some months at Beardown. One evening he returned late from Tavistock, and to give notice that he was arriving fired off a pistol as he crossed the little bridge over the river below. Little did he then imagine, what he learned later, that a couple of convicts who had escaped were hiding under the bridge; they would have sprung out on him and despoiled him of his clothes and money, possibly have murdered him, but were deterred by his chance firing of the pistol. They were captured a day or two later, and this was their confession.

It is not by any means easy for a convict to escape. When they are at work there are two rings of warders about them armed with rifles, and there is moreover a signal-station that commands where they are at work, from which watch is kept upon them.

Our criminal class costs the nation a prodigious sum. The prison population for England and Scotland is about 30,000, and the prison expenditure last year (1898) was £604,696, so that the cost annually to the country of each convict is about £20. But there are indirect costs. If we put down:—

Law courts at £3,757,960.
Police at 5,000,000.
Loss of property by depredation of criminals not less than 1,000,000.
Total £9,761,960.

and add to this the cost of the prisons, we reach the frightful expenditure of over ten millions. Surely the nation is penny wise and pound foolish. If instead of spending so much to get men into prison, and keep them there, it would but concern itself with keeping them out##, there would be a great reduction in cost.

The convict is not such an utter black sheep as we might be disposed to think him. That which forms the class is the sending back among their fellows men who have been in prison. They cannot get out of the association, and consequently they return again and again to their cells.

There is indeed a society for helping prisoners on leaving to get into situations, but this is a duty that should be undertaken by the nation; and very often the only way to really give a poor fellow a chance is to move him entirely away from this country. It is a difficult problem, and we could not, of course, send them to our colonies; but all social problems are difficult, yet should be faced, and there is a solution to be found somewhere.

All that the convict really requires is a certain amount of discipline, a strong hand, and a clear head in a leader or master, and he may yet be made a man of, useful to his fellows.

"You don't think I'm such a fool as to like it, do you?" said a convicted burglar to the chaplain. "I do it because I can't help myself. When I leave prison I have nowhere else to go but to my old pals and the old diggings."

If it could be contrived to give these fellows, after a first conviction, a start in a new country, nine out of ten might be reclaimed. They are like children, not wilfully given to evil, but incapable of self-restraint, and cowards among their fellows, whose opinions and persuasion they dare not oppose.

There is one institution connected with Dartmoor that must not be passed over—Believer Day.

When hare-hunting is over in the low country, then, some week or two after Easter, the packs that surround Dartmoor assemble on it, and a week is given up to hare-hunting. On the last day, Friday, there is a grand gathering on Believer Tor. All the towns and villages neighbouring on Dartmoor send out carriages, traps, carts, riders; the roads are full of men and women, ay, and children hurrying to Believer. Little girls with their baskets stuffed with saffron cake for lunch desert school and trudge to the tor. Ladies go out with champagne luncheons ready. Whether a hare be found and coursed that day matters little. It is given up to merriment in the fresh air and sparkling sun. And the roads that lead from Believer in the afternoon are careered over by riders, whose horses are so exhilarated that they race, and the riders have a difficulty in keeping their seats. Their faces are red, not those of the horses, but their riders—from the sun and air—and they are so averse to leave the moor, that they sometimes desert their saddles to roll on the soft and springy turf.

Trout-fishing on Dartmoor is to be had, and on very easy terms, but the rivers are far less stocked than they were a few years ago, as they are so persistently whipped. The trout are small and dark, but delicious eating.

There would be more birds but for the mischievous practice of "swaling" or burning the heather and gorse, which is persisted in till well into the summer, and, walking over a fresh-burned patch of moor, one may tread on roasted eggs or the burned young of some unhappy birds that fondly deemed there was protection for them in England.

The "swaling" is carried on upon the commons round the forest as well as on the forest itself, so that the blame is not wholly due to the representatives of the Duchy.

One is disposed to think that the moor must be a desolate and altogether uninhabitable region in the winter. It is not so—at no time do the mosses show in such variety of colour, and when the sun shines the sense of exhilaration is beyond restraint.

To all lovers of Dartmoor I dedicate the song with which I conclude this chapter.

THE SONG OF THE MOOR.

'T is merry in the spring time,
'Tis blithe on Dartimoor,
Where every man is equal,
For every man is poor.
I do what I 'm a minded,
And none will say me nay,
I go where I 'm inclined,
On all sides—right of way.

O the merry Dartimoor,
O the bonny Dartimoor,
I would not be where I 'm not free
As I am upon the moor.

'T is merry in the summer,
When furze be flowering sweet;
The bees about it humming,
In honey bathe their feet.
The plover and the peewit,
How cheerily they pipe,
And underfoot the whortle
Is turning blue and ripe.
O the merry Dartimoor, etc.

'T is merry in the autumn,
When snipe and cock appear,
And never see a keeper
To say, No shooting here!
We stack the peat for fuel,
We ask no better fire,
And never pay a farden
For all that we require.
O the merry Dartimoor, etc.


'T is merry in the winter,
The wind is on the moor,
For twenty miles to leeward
The people hear it roar.
'T is merry in the ingle,
Beside a moorland lass,
As watching turves a-glowing,
The brimming bumpers pass.

O the merry Dartimoor,
O the bonny Dartimoor,
I would not be where I 'm not free
As I am upon the moor.

Note.—Articles to be consulted:—
Collier (W. F.), "Dartmoor," in Transactions of the Devonshire Association for 1876.
Collier (W. F.), "Venville Rights on Dartmoor," ibid., 1887.
""Dartmoor for Devonshire,"ibid., 1894.
" "Sport on Dartmoor," ibid., 1895.

  1. For a full account of them see Burnard (R.), Dartmoor Pictorial Records. Plymouth, 1893.