Sometime in the 18th century a large estate on the edge of the moor was bought by a mysterious nobleman. Nobody knew where he came from, but the local ‘newsin’ had it that he had made his fortune from the slave trade. Just like the nobility of the time he had a passion for horses and hunting, and so he built a magnificent kennel, engaged a huntsman, and bought himself the best pack of hounds that money could buy. As soon as his dogs were in tip top condition he sent invites to all the neighbouring squires and hunting worthies offering them places on his weekly hunts. In a short time his reputation grew and he became regarded as one of the most generous of hosts amongst the hunting fraternity of Dartmoor.
Now although the estate the newcomer had bought was large there was one thing that intensely annoyed him, that was a small cott nestled in a valley high up on the moors. The reason this humble dwelling irked so much was that it was the only building on the estate which he did not own outright. Every time he saw the ‘hovel’ the landowner would bristle with indignation, he just could not accept that there are some things money can’t buy.
In the cott lived an old woman who kept a few bullocks and sheep and made a meagre living from the smallholding. As with any old woman who lived on their own, stories and rumours about her were rife, some of the moorfolk spoke of how she was the granddaughter of an infamous highwayman who used to prey on travellers along the Okehampton road. Others whispered how her grandfather had given her the smallholding which he had bought with his ill-gotten gains. What was certain is that she had a good knowledge of herbs and potions and many of the locals sought her healing powers. Everybody agreed that although the old woman was a bit ‘mazed’ she was harmless enough and that was all that mattered.
At first the greedy landowner tried to buy the old woman’s smallholding but as he offered a pittance she was having nothing to do with it. He upped his offer until finally he would have paid a fair price for the land but still the old woman refused to sell. The landowner became totally obsessed with the tiny farm and every night he would lay in his bed trying to devise a way of getting the old woman’s property.
Haymaking time came and in return for bottles of cattle drench a few local farmers cut the old woman’s hay. It was a good crop and the small tallet was soon filled with sweet smelling fodder. She was quite content in the knowledge that her small numbers of livestock would be well fed through the fast approaching winter. Then late one night a passing moorman noticed a thick pall of smoke coming from the old woman’s farm. He hurried across to the cott but by the time the man reached the yard the building was ablaze. The following morning the old woman’s charred body was found amongst the smouldering timbers. Nobody ever found out what had happened, some said she must have tipped a lantern over in the hay filled tallet but others said nothing and looked suspiciously towards the large manor house. Her funeral was a quiet one with but a few mourners, there certainly was no grieving family and she was put to rest under a large yew tree. There was no headstone or anything to mark her passing just a small pitiful mound of freshly dug earth.
Shortly after the tragic incident people started to notice that every night a large fox with a black brush would come and lay across the old woman’s grave. Now although moorland foxes were no unusual sight a ‘Dartmoor Hector‘ with a black brush was a rarity, there were those who believed that it was the Devil’s spy come to find some souls for its master. Those unfortunate to meet the fox would urgently cross themselves and scurry off home to the safety of their hearths. The fox then began appearing at the large estate where it would skulk around the kennels. Late one moonlit night the huntsman was woken by the sound of his hounds baying frantically. When he looked out of his window he saw the big, black brushed fox pacing up and down the line of cages. It was as if it was taunting the dogs, safe in the knowledge that they were securely locked behind the heavy metal bars. The huntsman dragged on his clothes and dashed down to the yard where to his amazement the fox just stood looking at him.. In the ivory moonlight he could see the moor fox was calmly staring directly at him, it was as if the eyes were boring deep through his soul. For some reason the huntsman quickly turned away and went back inside, firmly latching the door behind him, it was as if something was telling him to keep well away from the animal. All night the fox padded up and down the line of kennels and it was not until dawn that the dogs stopped howling.
A week later saw the start of the fox hunting season and this coincided with a cold spell gripping the moor in its icy embrace. By the time the weak winter’s sun appeared in the sky the eager moorland nobility had gathered for the first hunt. It was a splendid turnout and the hunting pink contrasted sharply with the translucent clouds of the horses breath. The stirrup cup was handed around and eventually the huntsmen and his hounds appeared to a rapturous applause.
The field cantered up onto the moor and the hounds were sent to draw a large clitter which was renown as a foxes harbour. Within seconds a large ‘Hector’ darted from the rocks and sped off across the common with the hounds in full cry behind it. The chase was on, across stream and tor they ran until after about six miles the fox slipped into a small copse and went to ground. The huntsman sent the dogs into the wood where they flushed the fox out and once again the hunt was on. This happened several times but on each occasion the fox evaded the hounds and led them a merry chase across the moor. By late afternoon the fox had led the field to the very edge of the estate and many of the riders had noticed the dark clouds looming in the north. They also knew that a splendid meal awaited back at the manor house so one or two suggested to the huntsman that he should call it a day and that the fox had earned its freedom.
The rich landowner was having none of it, he was adamant that they would not return home until they had killed a fox and in a fit of temper he snatched the huntsman’s horn and called the dogs. As soon as the pack had gathered around his horse he took them across the moor to a distant copse where they were sent in to draw its tangled mass of brash. Almost immediately they gave voice and the huntsman saw the large fox with the black tail break cover. The sight of the animal sent a cold shiver down his spine and as the dogs hurtled after the fox he yelled for his master to call them off. The landowner just sneered, blew the horn and thundered off after the hounds. The huntsman was in fear for his job and so all he could do was follow his dogs and master. As with everything the landowner possessed it had to be the best and the horse he was riding was no exception. This meant the poor huntsman could hardly keep pace with the magnificent steed and it did not take long before the master and hounds were well in the distance. As he chased across the wastes the sky blackened and the promised storm hit the moor but still the landowner relentlessly charged on. As the huntsman rode down into a small valley he could see the hounds speeding past the burnout ruins of the old woman’s house and then they crested a ridge and along with his master disappeared from view. By the time the huntsman reached the ridge he could only hear the baying of the dogs somewhere in the distance. At that moment there was a loud crack of thunder and a livid sheet of lightening flashed across the heavens and to his horror he briefly saw silhouetted against the black sky the figure of the large fox. The beast slowly turned around and stood up on its hind legs, as it did so the vulpine form briefly turned to that of an old woman. The sudden appearance of the fox startled the huntsman’s horse and it too reared on its back legs, tossing its rider to the ground. The huntsman landed with a heavy thud and his head smacked against a granite boulder sending him senseless. As he lay there drifting slowly into unconsciousness he heard a blood curdling shriek and the baying of his hounds.
The following day the search party found the huntsman laying barely alive on the moor but despite a thorough search they could not find the landowners and his hounds. To this day they were never seen again, some say they were led into a mire and sunk in its stinking depths. But on dark nights others reported hearing the baying of a pack of hounds, one or two swore an oath that they even saw the hounds being led by the ghost of the landowner. The strangest thing was that the tor on top of the ridge where the huntsman saw the fox took on the shape of a leaping horse, rider and hounds. It was as if the hunt had been petrified for eternity and banished to watch over the burn out ruins of the old woman’s farm in the valley below.