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Childe the Hunter

Childe the Hunter

Childe was a wealthy man and a keen hunter, his vast estate was at Plymstock a small village to the south of the moors. Childe was happiest riding the moor alone, come rain or shine he would roam the wastes in search of game. One winters day he had been hunting on the southern moors when suddenly the sky turned as grey as a goose, the air was cold and still and silence fell all around. The first flakes of snow lazily floated down from the laden heavens and the wind gathered in strength. Before long the hunter was caught in a bitter blizzard, the wind sweeping across the bare tussocks blasting the snow horizontally before it. Childe could hardly see any further that his horses head and the cold was tearing through his clothing. Gradually as each hoof print was obliterated by the snow he realised it was useless the struggle against the storm. He decided to take shelter until the tempest had blown over and so he pulled his horse to the frozen ground and huddled against it for warmth. Time ticked by but still the relentless snow howled across the wastes, the hunter became colder and colder and he knew he would surely perish unless his did something. After a few moments considering his options it was with a sad heart that he decided that the only means of salvation was to slay his faithful horse. Childe drew his dagger and quickly slit its throat, as he did so his rolling tears froze to his face like miniature glaciers. Once the poor animal was dead the hunter slit its belly and dragged out the steaming innards then he clambered inside the bloody cavernous skeleton for shelter.

A few weeks later a travelling moorman found a frozen heap amongst the snowy tussocks. It was the remains of the hunter and his horse, apparently the fresh blood inside the animals had frozen solid, encapsulating Childe in a gory ice tomb for eternity. News soon reached Plymstock that the lord had perished in a blizzard high on Dartmoor. It did not take long for his will and testament to become common knowledge, in it Childe had stated that wheresoever he was buried, the local church would be granted his estates.

The monks of Tavistock Abbey were delighted, as the man had died on their lands then it was only fitting that he be interred at their monastery. However, the people of Plymstock had other ideas. Surely he was from Plymstock so therefore his estates belonged to them, or at least that was their belief. Both parties saw the urgency in recovering the mortal remains of Childe the Hunter and men were sent from both Tavistock Abbey and Plymstock. Now the distance from Tavistock to where the body of Childe lay was about nine miles, but it was thirteen from Plymstock so there is no guessing as to who would arrive first. The men from Plymstock also realised this and decided it was futile to run an un-winnable race therefore they would waylay the Tavistock party on their way back to the Abbey. An ambush was set up beside a crossing place on the River Tavy and the Plymstock men concealed themselves from view.

Somehow the party of Tavistock monks got to hear of the trap that was awaiting and so returned by a less obvious route. The dilemma that now faced them was that there was only one crossing on that particular reach of the Tavy. The waters were too deep and fast to even think about wading across and so the monks constructed a temporary bridge over the river, and so by guile they had foiled the Plymstock ambush and safely got Childe’s remains back to the abbey. Here they were buried and the monks of Tavistock inherited all the rich estates of Plymstock. The spot where the temporary bridge was placed has always been known as Guile Bridge and a mighty tomb was erected at the spot where the body of Childe the Hunter perished. It was said that on the tomb the following words were inscribed:

Childe the Hunter

One of the first written records of this legend comes from Tristram Risdon in his book of 1600s entitled ‘A Survey of Devon’:

It is left us by tradition that one Childe of Plimstoke, a man of fair possessions, having no issue, ordained, by his will, that wheresoever he should happen to be buried, to that church his lands should belong. It so fortuned, that he riding to hunt in the forest of Dartmore, being in pursuit of his game, casually lost his company, and his way likewise. The season then being so cold, and he so benumed therewith, as he was enforced to kill his horse, and embowelled him, to creep into his belly to get heat; which not able to preserve him, was there frozen to death; and so found, was carried by Tavistoke men to be buried in the church of that abbey; which was so secretly done but the inhabitants of Plymstoke had knowledge thereof; which to prevent, they resorted to defend the carriage of the corpse over the bridge, where, they conceived, necessity compelled them to pass. But they were deceived by guile; for the Tavistoke men forthwith built a slight bridge, and passed over at another place without resistance, buried the body, and enjoyed the lands; in memory whereof the bridge beareth the name of Guilebridge to this day.’, pp.198 -199.

Over the centuries this famous tale has been told in various forms, some related around a fireside at night and others put in verse. One of the more famous versions is the poem written by N. T. Carrington:, pp. 246 – 254.

Childe the Hunter

 

 

Few roam the heath, e’en when the sun –

The golden sun is high;

And the leaping, laughing streams are bright,

And the lark is in the sky.

 

But when upon the ancient hills

Descends the giant cloud,

And the lightening leaps from Tor to Tor,

And the thunder peal is loud.

 

Heaven aid that hapless traveller then

Who o’er the Wild may stray

For bitter is the moorland storm,

And man is far away.

 

Yet blithe the highland hunter leaves

His cot at early morn,

And on the ear of Winter pours

The music of his horn:-

 

The eye of highland hunter sees

No terror in the cloud;

His heart quakes not at the lightening flash,

Nor the thunder long and loud.

 

Yet oft the shuddering peasant tells

Of him in days of yore,

Who in the sudden snow-storm fell –

The nimrod of the moor.

 

And when the Christmas tale goes round

By many a peat fireside,

The children list, shrink to hear

How Childe of Plymstoke died!

 

The lord of manors fair and broad –

Of gentle blood was he –

Who lov’d full well the mountain chace

And mountain liberty.

 

Slow broke the cheerless morn – the cloud

Wreath’d every moorland hill;

And the thousand brooks that cheer’d the heath,

In sunny hours were still.

 

For Winter’s wizard had check’d

Their all-rejoicing haste;

And flung a fearful silence o’er

The solitary waste.

 

When Childe resolv’d with hound and horn,

To range the forest wide;

And seek the noble red-deer where

The Plym dark waters glide.

 

Of sportsmen brave who hunted then

The leader bold was he,

And full in the teeth of the dread north wind

He led that company.

 

They rous’d the red-deer from his lair

Where those dark waters glide;-

And swifter than the gale he fled

Across the forest wide.

 

With cheer and with shout, the jovial rout

The old Tor hurried by;-

And they startled the morn with merry horn

And the staunch hound’s echoing cry.

 

The moorland eagle left his cliff –

The hawk soared far away –

And with that shout and cheer they scar’d

The raven from his prey.

 

They follow’d through the rock-strew’d glen ;-

They plung’d through the river’s bed :-

And scal’d the hill top where the Tor

Uplifts his hoary head.

But gallantly that noble deer

Defies the eager throng,

And still through wood and brake, and fen

He leads the chace along.

 

Now through the flashing stream he darts

The wave aside he flings;

Now o’er the cataract’s bright arch

With fearless leap he springs.

 

And many a chasm yawning wide

With a desperate bound he clears ;-

Anon like shadow he glances by

The rock of six thousand years.

 

But now swift sailing on the wind

The bursting cloud drew near;

And there were sounds upon the gale

Might fill the heart with fear!

 

And one by one, as fast the clouds

The face of heav’n deform,

Desert the chase, and wisely shun

The onset of the storm.

 

And some there were who deem’d they heard

Strange voices on the blast;-

And some – that on the shudd’ring view

A form mysterious pass’d:-

 

Who rode a shadowy courser, that

A mortal steed might seem –

But left no hoof-nark on the ground,

No foam upon the stream.

 

‘Twas fancy all ;- yet from his side,

The jovial crew are gone;

And Childe across the dark’ning heath

Pursues his way – alone.

 

He threaded many a mazy bog –

He dashed through many a stream ;-

But spent – bewilder’d – check’d his steed,

At evening’s latest gleam.

 

For far and wide the highland lay

One pathless waste of snow ;-

He paus’d ! – the angry heav’n above,

The faithless bog below.

 

He paus’d ! – and soon through all his veins

Life’s current feebly ran;

And – heavily – a mortal sleep

Came oe’r the dying man:

 

The dying man – yet love of life

In this his hour of need,

Uprais’d the master’s hand to spill

The heart-blood of his steed.

 

And on the ensanguin’d snow that steed

Soon stretch’d his noble form ;-

And shelter from the biting blast –

A bulwark to the storm :-

 

In vain – for swift the bleak wind piled

The snow – drift round the corse;

And Death his victim struck within

The disembowell’d horse.

 

Yet one dear wish – one tender thought

Came o’er that hunter brave ;-

To sleep at last in hallow’d ground,

And find a Christian grave –

 

And ere he breath’d his latest sigh

And day’s last gleam was spent,

He with unfaltering finger wrote

His bloody testament ;-

 

The fyrst that fyndes & brings me to my grave,

The lands of Plymstoke he shal have.

But how much truth is in the tale? It is thought that Childe was of Saxon decent, he shows up in the Domesday book as Ordulph, a wealthy landowner with 22 manors to his name. He too was a passionate hunter who died on Dartmoor whilst out on a hunt although nothing is known about the circumstances. It was his wish that he be buried at an abbey in Dorset and as was the custom of the day left his Cornish manor of Anthony as a ‘soul scot’ to the church where he eventually got interred. However, his body was taken to Tavistock Abbey where it was buried alongside his ancestors and it was these monks who ended up inheriting the manor of Anthony, Finberg, pp 4 – 5. She also mentions, p.226 that on the obit of Ordulf’s death a great bell was tolled at the abbey and the monks partook of wheaten bread and wine.

Now we come back to the realms of legend for it is said on Dartmoor that the spot where the hunter died is marked with a stone cross that stands upon a pedestal and is known as Childe’s Tomb. In fact the cross was placed over a prehistoric kist and may well have been an attempt to Christianise the spot.

Even in the 21st century the story of Childe the Hunter is being retold but now it is in song form thanks to the efforts of Seth Lakeman the Dartmoor singer. Below is his version of the tragic events:

Come and listen, brave and tall,

The greatest tale I have to tell you,

It was a bleak and barren moor.

In ancient days he fell.

There rode a man of high renown

His name it came as hunter Childe.

Every day he chased heath and waste

On a moor so black and wild.

 

The wind blew in and that hunter

Fell upon a bed of snow.

The night drew in and that thunder

Stuck him in a steady hole.

He looked up high and he begged her

“Let me see my lover home”.,

The moon called out to the hunter

“Come into the shadows”.

 

He drew a knife from off his back,

Upon the ground his horse was lying.

He cut a measure, just full size

To rest there for the night.

With his finger dipped in blood

He scrabbled words along the stones,

“Upon my will, God fulfil,

Rest these heavy bones”.

 

The wind blew in and that hunter

Fell upon a bed of snow.

The night drew in and that thunder

Stuck him in a steady hole.

He looked up high and he begged her

“Let me see my lover home”.,

The moon called out to the hunter

“Come into the shadows”.

 

Take a warning when you’re in the wild,

Against the skyline, off the high road.

For the memory of hunter Childe

Should rest you on your way.

He was a man of high renown,

His name it came, then blew away.

Upon his will the moon to steal,

In the shadows he will lay.

 

The wind blew in and that hunter

Fell upon a bed of snow.

The night drew in and that thunder

Stuck him in a steady hole.

He looked up high and he begged her

“Let me see my lover home”.,

The moon called out to the hunter

“Come into the shadows”.

Seth Lakeman (2006) – Childe the Hunter.

Childe the Hunter

Carrington, H. E. 1834. The Collected Poems of the Late N. T. Carrington, London: Longman Press.

Finberg, H. P. R. 1969. Tavistock Abbey, Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Risdon, T. 1970. A Survey of Devon, Barnstaple: Porcupine Publishing.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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