Back in the early history of Dartmoor there were several monasteries around the edges of Dartmoor. The largest and most powerful was at Tavistock with Buckfast Abbey coming a close second. Another settlement of monks was also to be found at Plymstock. The monks of these abbeys were on friendly terms and would often visit each other which involved long treks across the moor. Their journeys took them over vast tracts of bleak moorland with deep dark bogs, high tors and fast flowing streams with the ever present threat of storms and mists. Over time the tramp of holy feet wore a visible track which wound between the high tors, forded the streams and skirted the bogs. This was an easy path to follow unless the mists or snows descended then it came hard to navigate.
For some reason that has become lost in the mists of time, a bitter dispute developed between the Tavistock and Plymstock monks. It probably involved lands or inheritances that the greedy men of God thought should be theirs. In an effort to settle matters the Abbot of Tavistock decided to visit Plymstock in person and so set off across the moor. No sooner had his pony disappeared from sight, four of his monks decided that this was going to be a case of ‘when the cats away the mice do play’. For a long time these brothers had resented the Abbot’s strict rule and insistence on austere living. They decided that whilst he was gone they were going to ‘party’ and so wasted no time in tucking into the food and wine that was normally reserved for guests. It took a few days but eventually, much to their despair the Abbot’s wine cellar was drunk dry. The brothers knew that they still had plenty of drinking to do before the Abbot returned and so sent some novices to Buckfast to buy more wine. This was duely done and the celebrations continued throughout the following days and nights..
A few days later a traveller brought news that the Abbot had settled the dispute at Plymstock and had decided to visit some of the Abbey’s lands on the Isle of Scilly. The four brothers were delighted, this meant they could carry on with their new-found lifestyle. Among the group of four was a brother called Milbrosa and one day whilst reeling and rocking form excess wine he went into the abbey and took the valuable communion cups and plate and sold them to a passing band of gypsies. The idea was to buy more stocks of food and wine with the coin he got from the deal. Again a group of novices was dispatched with the money to buy even more wine and food. When he eventually sobered up Milbrosa realised what he had done and so fearing the consequences he went in search of the gypsies to get back what he had stolen. Unfortunately they had long gone because the travellers knew that the deal was a very profitable one and had decided to move on as quickly as possible. Milbrosa was distraught, fearing divine retribution he confessed his crime to his three companions and begged their help. One of the three suggested that they went to a rich old Jew that owned a nearby tin blowing house (a place where tin was smelted) and ask him to lend them the money, then they could all go in search of the gypsies and retrieve the communion vessels.
The brothers left for the old blowing house and as they walked down to the small hut they spotted the old Jew loading some heavy sacks onto his pony. Milbrosa realised that the sacks would contain tin or gold, either way they would be rich pickings indeed. A brief discussion ensued and it was decided to go back up the moor and hide in a mining gully and then ambush the old tinner and relieve him of his wealth. As the Jew passed they leapt out of their place of concealment and knocked the old man to the floor. On opening the bags, to their delight, they saw that both were stuffed with gold. This was enough wealth to buy all the Buckfast wine and a new set of communion plate.
The only problem facing the monks was that the old Jew had seen their faces and would be able to identify them, so without further ado they slaughtered both him and his pony. The corpses were then dragged over to a nearby bog and tossed in for eternity. The theory being that people would think the old Jew and his pony had strayed off the path and got sucked into its gurgling depths.
With four of the monks searching it did not take long to find the gypsies and the communion vessels were recovered, albeit at an extortionate profit for the travellers. That evening they all returned to the abbey and replaced everything back on the altar. Having dined on an excellent meal of beef, pork and lamb they retired to their cells. In the morning the monks awoke to find that the whole moor was covered with snow, this was even better because the white blanket would further help to conceal their murderous deed.
Later that evening when the four brothers were sat down to their sumptuous feast a traveller arrived at the abbey gates with a message from the Abbot of Buckfast. It appeared that due to his profitable trade in wine he had bought a new holy relic and a feast was to be held in its honour. Without hesitation they set off with the messenger across the snowy moors. The stranger set a blistering pace and the monks found it hard to keep up, the dark gloom of the night did not help the cause. Suddenly the man reigned in his horse and at that moment the skies cleared and the moon shone through, illuminating the moor in an eerie yellow glow. To their horror the monks realised that this was the very spot where they had murdered the old Jew. The messenger slowly turned to face them, he removed his cowl and under it the monks saw the deathly white face of their murder victim. As they stared in terror the face slowly disintegrated leaving an hideous skull smiling and leering at them. There were still bits of bloodied flesh hanging from his cheeks and tufts of hair limply clung to his head. Slowly a bony hand came out of his cloak and pointed firstly at Milbrosa and then at every other monk in turn, a finger slowly beckoned them forward. The brothers were transfixed and trancelike they slowly followed the ghostly figure out into the bog. At first the winter ice supported them but cracking inch by groaning inch it began to break and they were gradually lowered into the black, stinking, peaty depths of the mire. The ooze sucked and bubbled as both monks and mounts were dragged to their deaths.
When the Abbot returned to Tavistock he soon realised what kind of irreverent lifestyle the four monks had been leading and putting two and two together he came up with five. Clearly he did not know of the murder of the old Jew and just assumed that the brothers had fled the abbey for fear of the abbot and had got lost somewhere on the moor and perished on the frozen wastes.
To prevent any other tragedies the Abbot decreed that a number of granite crosses should be erected to mark the track between the various monasteries. By doing this travellers had guide stones that would safely lead them across the moor. He also ordained that every monk that trod the path must stop and pray at each cross for the souls of their missing brothers. The track became known as the Abbot’s Way and today some of the old granite crosses can be seen pointing the way across the wastes of Dartmoor.