As with most ‘strange events’ that occur on Dartmoor there is normally some kind of explanation as to their happening but every now and again there is one where logic does not apply just like this in 2010:
It was a cold Christmas even by Dartmoor standards and especially so if like Colin and Holly you came from the temperate climbs of Jersey. After spending a cosy three days in their rustic holiday home and having certainly indulged far too liberally on Christmas Day they decided to lose some of their excess calories and take a Boxing Day stroll on the moor. Before coming to Dartmoor Colin had spent ages pouring over the OS map to see what might be worth a visit when he suddenly spotted a place called ‘Petre’s Pit’. This soon brought a deep frown to his face along with thumping of his heart, his surname was Petre and as far as he had been concerned all his family hailed from Jersey. After finding a website called ‘Legendary Dartmoor’ (sorry, had to get a plug in somewhere) he enquired with the owner about Petre and soon discovered that not only was there the pit but in fact there were ‘pits’ along with a cross, boundstone, mount, pool and bottom. He was a bit confused as to the ‘bottom’ one but either way sometime over their stay a visit was in order, afterall how many people have such landscape features named after them? Oh, one other thing, at home amongst his friends he was known as ‘Cautious Colin’ an accolade that had taken years of practice to earn. Therefore, true to form he had spent hours studying the route that should get them safely to their destination and more importantly back again. Actually it all looked straight forward, park at somewhere called Shipley Bridge, pick up the dismantled tramway and then simply follow it up to a White Barrow upon which will stand Petre’s Cross. On the way they should pass the ‘pits’ but sadly the other places were a bit too far for his liking, afterall best to err on the side of caution.
All over Christmas Colin had been watching the weather forecast with interest and it was predicted that Boxing Day would be dry but cold which was ideal and for once they were right. Colin and Holly awoke to a crisp coating of frost and azure skies, the kind of day when you can say,” God’s in his heaven and all is well with the world”. Little did ‘Cautious Colin’ know that later that day God would be needed more than he could imagine.
Having checked and re-checked their walking gear Colin was happy that they were prepared for all eventualities, plenty of warm clothing, stout walking boots, first aid kit, compass, map, mobile phone and enough food to last for at least three days. Having carefully stowed all the kit in his rucksack Colin was a trifle surprised at the combined weight and fleetingly he did consider lightening the load but what could he take out? Nothing, he would just have to like it and lump it across the moor.
The satnav did a splendid job of guiding the couple to Shipley Bridge although to Colin the roads did seem a tad on the narrow side. On arrival several other couples were ‘booting up’ and heading off onto the moor with the customary “good mornings”. Despite having totally memorised every foot of the route Colin just checked his map to be sure that their first navigational point was the Hunter’s Stone, after all it’s better to be safe than sorry. Having surfed the web on numerous waves Colin knew exactly what the stone looked like and the fact once there they needed to take the left track which would then lead them all the way to Petre’s Cross – easy peasy.
In a short while the couple had found the stone and began their expedition onto the open moor drinking in the vast expanses of Dartmoor scenery as they went. Having made numerous stops to eat and drink on the way up Colin suddenly spotted a large pile of stones which could only be a barrow and so smugly he led Holly across to it. But on reaching the ancient and sacred pile he could see no cross, merely a tombstone-like slab sticking up at a rather tipsy angle. The reason for Colin’s bewilderment was that when doing his research he had for once thrown caution to the wind and purposefully not looked for a picture of the cross, his reasoning being he didn’t want to spoil the fete of finding it, he wanted a surprise – well now he got one.
Now there was a dilemma, was this Petre’s Cross or not? This was a once in a lifetime chance of photographing what could be part of his heritage and he did not want to get it wrong. He could remember seeing another large pile of stones on the way up but this was on the wrong side of the track and maybe the OS map had got it wrong, now doubt began to dissolve logic. Maybe if he photographed this one and then detoured back to the other barrow, that way he would have covered both options and so throwing caution to the wind, he and Holly set off back down the track.
As the wandered back Holly remarked how the scenery seemed to have shrunk, the wide rolling landscape appeared to be less than on the way up. Colin was too intent on finding the other pile of rocks which he was sure he had previously spotted but now had disappeared from sight. Out came the map and after an in depth study Colin decided that one they reached the head of a small brook which ran beside the track a south westerly course should take them straight to the pile. So they left the track and headed off very cautiously into the moor with Colin mentally taking note of every feature on the way. However, as time ticked by Colin noticed that the choice of features was becoming less and less as what was once a distant bank of mist began to slowly engulf them, where it came from he knew not. The shroud of mist slowly got thicker and an eerie silence descended over the moor, it was as if they had walked into another world and to make matters worse it was also beginning to get dark.
Suddenly a series of low banks loomed out of the mist and on climbing up a dark, dank expanse of water spread out below them, Colin’s heart leapt for joy, this must be Petre’s Pits. He decided to stop, gather his thoughts and check the map and maybe even finish the flask of hot coffee. The couple flopped down on the bank and Colin took off his rucksack and began to delve deep for map and flask. Yes, surely this was the ‘pits’ in more than one sense and looking over to a very ashen Holly he went to pass over the last of the coffee. As he did so his foot slipped on a small rock and slid onto his rucksack which immediately began to speed down the bank, unfortunately there was nothing to stop its descent which was followed by the gut wrenching sound of a loud splash. Colin sped down the bank and lurched for the pack which was slowly submerging like a submarine going into stealth mode. Fortunately he managed to rescue it before it sank which was small consolation as all its contents were sodden. A quick glance at the terrified Holly soon summed up their predicament, they were virtually lost, they were freezing cold, all the extra clothing was now soaked along with the remainder of their food, the mist appeared to be getting thicker and night was fast approaching. On the plus side he still had his map and an empty flask, whoopee do, things could only get better or could they? Time for some rational thought, Colin peered at the map in what little light was left, yes that’s right, the only thing ‘Cautious Colin’ forgot to pack was a torch. His problem was actually deciding which expanse of water they had found, was it that of Petre’s Pit or the unnamed one to the south (which incidentally is Petre’s Pits Pond)? It seemed to Colin that they had walked quite a way from the track and so he plumped for the option of the unnamed pond in which case it they walked due south they would pick up the head of the Middle Brook which if followed down would take them to the enclosures around the filtration works and then back to their car, job sorted.
He explained to Holly what was going to happen which did provide a small modicum of comfort but deep down she knew they were in for a cold, wet slog in pitch darkness across what was rapidly becoming a very scary place. This fact was not helped in the slightest by what at the time was a convivial Christmas Eve spent down the local inn being regaled by the locals with numerous stories of ghosts, monsters and a whole assortment of evil beings that stalk the moors at night. At that very moment a ghastly white beast the size of a horse loomed out of the mist and just stood staring at them. Holly screamed, the monster bleated and sped off in the opposite direction, possible more afraid of her than she was of it. Welcome to Dartmoor and the strange ability a thick mist has of enlarging such things as a sheep.
The couple trudged on into the impenetrable night surrounded by the most blood curdling and unearthly sounds, it was as if the Devil had opened the gates of hell and unleashed a hoard of unspeakable fiends. By now what had seemed a logical plan of escape was quickly turning into a nightmare, they had been walking for ages and had still not reached that brook. Finally Colin decided enough was enough and despite the huge dent to his pride he was going to have to call for help except having dragged the mobile from the sodden rucksack he found that icy Dartmoor water and Nokia electronics are not a good combination – the phone was dead. Oh dear, what to do next, both were exhausted not to mention cold and those two things can only spell one thing, the danger of hypothermia. It was not even as if there was anywhere to take shelter as the landscape was featureless.
By now Holly was in tears and sobbing uncontrollably and Colin was at his wits end, suddenly Holly peered into the thick wall of mist, her head cocked to one side. She could hear the soft whinnying of horses, a fact that did little to raise Colin’s spirits as Dartmoor is full of ponies, a fact he immediately pointed out. However, Holly was adamant that she could also hear the jingle jangle of harnesses which the wild ponies certainly never wore. Without a thought Holly darted off in the direction of the sounds and was closely followed by Colin. The warm, summer smell of fresh hay began to waft towards them and as they got closer to it a large, stark two storey building sprang from the mists. Candles were burning brightly a thick plume of peaty smoke drifted from a chimney and an elderly man wearing a tatty black suit and cloth cap was lugging two pails of water across the yard. Holly’s yelp of joy must have startled the old man because as he spun about he dropped his buckets which clattered across the cobbles, this in turn set the horses snorting and all in all it was panic all around. Trying to restore some order to the situation Colin walked over to the man and explained their predicament whilst Holly stood and carefully observed the proceedings. Colin returned with a huge smile on his face, the old man was called Uncle Ab and he looked after the horses used to pull the carts loaded with China Clay. It also transpired that he had to go down to South Brent later that night and would guide them back to Shipley Bridge which was on his route. There was also the very welcomed offer of a hot cup of tea and a warm by the glowing peat fire before departing.
It must have been about 9.00pm when Ab lead them through the car park and despite of an offer to drive him down to South Brent the old boy politely refused and with the wave of his hand simply vanished into the mist. The following night Holly and Colin were enjoying the local cider down at the inn where they related their experience to a hushed audience of locals. Having gone into every detail of the previous day their story was met with a wall of blank faces and mouths agape. At first Colin thought he had said something drastically wrong, was it the fact they got lost, didn’t have the right gear or were simply stupid. The landlord soon answered Colin’s question, Uncle Ab along with his horses had been dead for years and his stables are now but a ruin with merely one portion of wall standing.
‘Follow the track S. W., we soon reach the head of the combe down which Middle Brook runs, and which is known as Petre’s Pits Bottom. In this are the ruins of a building in which it used to be said that the horses employed by the Red Lake Peat Works were stabled. It now goes by the name of Petre’s Pits House, and sometimes as Uncle Ab’s House‘, Crossing, p.377.
‘This is Uncle Ab’s House, where the horses used on the Zeal Tor Tramroad were stabled under Uncle Ab’s resident care‘, Hemery, p.86.
Crossing, W. 1990. Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Robert Hale.