Cranmere Pool or as one suggestion for the place name has it – ‘The Lake of Cranes‘, does that not conjure up an idyllic picture of a tranquil lake situated on the high moors with herons darting the fish as they swim by? Well actually what you need to imagine is a wet, boggy tract of land with possibly a pathetic muddy pond or a dried up peaty mess, depending on the rainfall. You then need to picture an ugly stone box dumped on a base of granite boulders and forget about the herons – that is Cranmere Pool. Therefore is it not surprising that such a place should have its very own miserable, moaning ghost
Back in the times when sailing ships and ruthless pirates ruled the seas a wealthy ship owner and merchant called Benjamin Gayer lived at Okehampton. He was a well known and respected business man of the area and held several seats of local power. About this time the problem of piracy on the high seas was getting serious. Not content with plundering the ships for their cargoes the pirates began taking the crews prisoners and then demanding huge ransoms for their release. To this end it was decided to start a fund from which the ransoms could be paid. In the Okehampton area the collection of money to form the fund was the responsibility of Benjamin Gayer. With his contacts it was not long before a substantial amount had been raised all of which was entrusted to Gayer. Then one day news reached him that several of his large ships had fallen prey to the pirates, both the ships and their valuable cargoes had been lost which meant he was virtually penniless. Poor Benjamin was beside himself, all his wealth had disappeared overnight. The only way he could recover his losses was to buy new cargoes and that needed money, something he no longer had. Over the following days he contacted many of his trading partners to see if they would loan him the funds but sadly they were not prepared to risk large sums in light of the growing piracy dangers. Then he remembered he had the ‘ransom fund’ at his disposal and reluctantly decided to ‘borrow’ it. He had every intention of repaying the money and even interest on top, of that there was no question. So merchant Gayer bought new cargoes and hired new ships to collect them. Sadly these too fell victim to the pirates and he lost the whole lot, this meant he was unable to repay his loan to the ransom fund. The knowledge of what he had done weighed heavy on his mind especially as it meant many seamen would now be doomed because there was no money to pay their ransoms. Gradually his health got worse and worse and his guilt slowly dragged him onto his deathbed and eventually he died a troubled soul.
It was not long after his funeral that locals reported seeing his ghost around the town, the restless spirit would wail and weep and moan and mumble all through the night. Although the locals tried to ignore the restless spirit it became that they could not get a full nights sleep. Weeks passed, months passed and still the ghost of Benjamin Gayer haunted the town. In the end the locals decided enough was enough and decided to take action. They asked the Archdeacon for divine intervention and so reluctantly he summoned all the clergy from the surrounding parishes in an effort to tackle the ghost. One by one, with bell, book and candle they confronted the spirit, they demanded he returned to his grave and lie in peace until the great day of judgment. One by one they failed in their task for although when confronted the spectre would disappear it always re-appeared the following night. The Archdeacon was at his wits end he had tasked all the available clergy and all had failed. He then suddenly remembered that there was a very learned priest living in a remote part of the moor. A messenger was dispatched with a plea for assistance. Two days later he returned with the priest and that very night the ghost was confronted. The priest took no bell or book but instead took with him a new bridle and bit and the best horseman from that side of the moor. This time the learned holy man spoke to the spectre in Arabic and said “Benjamin Gayer, the time has come for you to be gone from Okehampton and the mortal world, you must return to the grave and await your final call, the Lord shall decide the weight of your sins”. To this the ghost replied “now you have spoken in holy tongue I must depart your world” and with that immediately turned into a jet black colt. As previously instructed the horseman put the bridle on the colt and leapt onto its back. He whipped the horse and sped off onto the moor holding the reins as tight as he could to ensure that the colt could not turn its head in the direction of Okehampton. Up over stream and tor they sped until they came near Cranmere pool, here the horseman whipped the colt even harder until they were hurtling towards the murky waters. Just before the colt hit the pool the rider removed the bridle, leapt off and left his mount to dive into the cold, murky waters. The priest then appeared and condemned the ghost of Benjamin Gayer to remain banished to the pool until the time when he could empty its waters using only a sieve. For several years the ghost tried to empty the pool – all to no avail which meant the folk of Okehampton finally were left in peace. That is until the day that the ghost found a dead sheep’s carcass. This he skinned and lined the sieve with the hide which meant he could now empty the pool. This task he set to with great relish and so effective was he that the waters cascaded down the hillside and into the river Okement. The deluge rushed off the moor and flooded the whole of Okehampton which as you can imagine did not best please the townsfolk. Once again the learned priest was summonsed and dispatched off to Cranmere Pool to once again confront the spirit of Benjamin Gayer. This time the priest demanded that the ghost should make trusses of grit and that they should be bound with plaits made of sand and this task was to last until judgement day.
To this day the ghost now known as ‘Cranmere Benjie’ plats and weaves his trusses and every time he picks them up they crumble back to sand. On still nights many people have heard him wailing and weeping at his misfortune. Occasionally night walkers have also reported seeing the ghost of a black colt thundering across the moor in the Cranmere area.
As previously mentioned, the marshy hollow known as Cranmere Pool does exist. It is located in a triangle formed by the heads of three rivers; the West Okement, the Taw and the East Dart. For the past 150 years or so this place has become a ‘Mecca’ for Dartmoor Walkers and God only knows why. It is said that in a good year it will rain 200 out of the 365 days in the Cranmere area and so you can imagine the terrain, it is one mass of peat hags, bogs and tussocks. In really wet conditions the only way to cross it is to ‘bog hop’ from tussock to tussock and if you get it wrong expect a good, stinking soaking. I recall one October night having to cross from the end of Blackhill peat pass to Hangingstone Hill in the dark, which is only about 2 miles. It was lashing with rain and the whole area was sodden. The walk actually took 3 hours and believe me if that was not enough to put one off Dartmoor for life I do not know what is. The actual ‘pool’ is located at a height of 1,837ft (560m) in a very well hidden hollow. I have known people that have been unable to find it when in fact they had walked within 20 yards of it. If you ever go to the pool, read the visitors book and see how many people have “finally found it” after varying numbers of attempts. I also recall being there on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral and there was not a soul to be seen, very strange feeling that day.
Cranmere Pool was once filled with water, as mentioned early the name Cranmere was thought to have come from the Crane Mere as Crane was the Dartmoor term for a heron and mere is pool. However, Gover et al, 1992, p.193., suggest that the name actually derives from the 1695 Britannia which calls it Crau Meer or Cran Meer indicating ‘Crow Mere‘. Hemery considers that as there was once water in the pool there may have been fish and therefore it was possible that herons would hunt here. Cran Mere Pool is show on Donn’s map of Devon drawn in 1765. Many early topographical writers note that from the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s the pool was full of water. Hemery, 1983 pp 893-5, says how Mrs Bray in 1832 considers the pool to have been about 6ft in depth. Other estimates vary from 5 – 6ft and covering about 200 yards. It is possible that the pool was partly drained in 1789 when the writer John Andrews visited and was certainly empty by 1844 when Samuel Rowe was there. Some sources say an old moorland shepherd drained the pool because it was a danger to his sheep, another theory is that a local hunt breached the bank when digging a fox out. It has always been said that it is impossible to ride a horse right up to the pool, the nearest anybody has come to it was George Collier who in a very dry year got to within 100 yards of it. In 1936 the Western Morning News published the following report; “Sir – Yesterday I saw four horses at Cranmere Pool, which must be a rare occurrence, though formerly it was said that the spirit of an Okehampton mayor haunted the place in the shape of a black colt. One horse was actually standing by the post box though its rider had considerable difficulty in getting the animal over the gullies of soft black peat at the head of West Okement. The adventurous party of men and girls has ridden by way of Cocks Tor, Walkham Head, Fur Tor and Phillpotts Cutting through Black Ridge. – Moorover, St. Marychurch, Torquay.”
So, what can you see at Cranmere Pool? Well the first thing you will see is the largish granite box that contains one of the three officially recognised Dartmoor Letterboxes, the other being Duck’s Pool. By that I mean it is actually marked on Ordnance Survey maps. Many of the early topographical writers were none to impressed with the place, for instance Samuel Rowe considered that; “We shall find nothing to detain us in the Cranmere morasses…“, p.94. Baring Gould paints the following picture; “Cranmere Pool may be reached, but is only so far worth the visit that the walk to and from it gives a good insight into the nature of the central bogs. The pool is hardly more than a puddle.“, p.149. Such is the desolation of Cranmere that St. Ledger-Gordon recounted a time when he took a man from Nairobi to the pool. Whilst crossing nearby Tavy Head the man announced that he had never experienced such solitude, even in the jungles of Africa. There at least he would have eventually come across a goat herder or a small village – at Cranmere there was nothing or nobody which would suggest human activity or life, p.241.
Cranmere Pool is also the birthplace of Dartmoor Letterboxing, in a nutshell, letterboxing was originally a Dartmoor phenomenon whereby a rubber stamp with some sort of design on it and a visitors book are placed in a container and hidden. Triangulation bearings are then taken for the spot where the box is hidden these then form the clue along with a few more helpful pointers such as; under a lone boulder, 5 paces from a upright rock. The clues are then circulated amongst other letterboxers who then go out and try to find the hidden box. Once found a copy of the rubber stamp is taken and the visitors book duly signed to verify the fact that they had indeed been there.
So why should this all begin at Cranmere Pool? Well, in the 1850’s it would have been about an 16 mile walk to get there and back so visitors would get to walk into the heart of the moor and thus experience the true landscape. It soon became the ‘in thing’ to do when visiting the moor. As mentioned, Cranmere can be a difficult place to find and a boggy place to reach so in this light a few enterprising moormen took to guiding people to it. Hemery gives record of an unknown visitor to Cranmere in 1789 who hired the services of a local guide to take him there for the princely sum of 6d, p.895. As proof of making this intrepid journey the Rambler Association at one time issued certificates stating from where the journey started and its time and date, again see such an example below.
In the mid 1800s another local providing such guiding services was James Perrott of Chagford. He would take anyone on the 16 mile round trip from Chagford to Cranmere ensuring the safest and driest route. It soon became an accomplishment akin to the modern day Snowdon or Ben Nevis experience. In later years, on the return journey they would call into Teignhead Farm for a well earned Devon tea which was provided by the formidable Mrs Brock. In 1854, Perrott decided to leave a large stone jar on top of a cairn at the pool so visitors could leave their calling cards in recognition of their visit. The original stone jar had a cover on it which was inscribed with some names and the words; “United Ages 420 – 1891.”, it is thought this originally came from a burial ground – see picture below. Future visitors could then see who else had been there previous to them. This idea evolved to include a proper visitors book where people could leave comments of their visits and so in 1903 a tin box containing a visitors book replaced the stone jar. This soon rusted out and in 1905 a zinc box was used. In 1912 a Mr. J. W. F. Rowe constructed the first solid ‘postbox’ which had to be transported on a sled to Cranmere as it was so heavy, this being the forerunner of the modern structure, Hemery, p.895. In 1935 the Western Morning News carried an article written by the Rev. J. P. Baker which read: “… I was concerned at getting to Cranmere the other day to find the box provided by our old friend H. P. Hearder, in 1905, was breaking up, and that the bank in which it had reposed in its casing for so long was almost washed away. I was very glad to see that The Western Morning News still very generously provides a visitors book, but the pad for the postmark has long ceased to function. The best I could do was to moisten the stamper from a fountain pen.! I noticed a few coppers and stamps in the box, which I gathered from remarks in the book had been left as a first contribution towards an new box.” According to St. Ledger Gordon another ‘permanent’ post box which was made from granite was sited at Cranmere under the auspices of the Western Morning News in 1937. This version was constructed by one Aubrey Tucker and an official ceremony took place when St. Ledger Gordon’s wife unveiled the postbox in front of various guests, p.241. The Cranmere postbox also suffered a great deal of damage during training exercises during the Second World War when it was actually hit by shellfire. Over the years the post box has undergone many stages of refurbishment, the latest being in 2014 when the door was repaired by applying several layers of paint in the hope that it can withstand the vagaries of the Dartmoor weather for a few more years.
Records taken from the early visitors book show that in 609 people signed the book in 1905, 962 in 1906, 1,352 in 1907 and 1,741 in 1908. In either 1910 or 1912 a more weatherproof ‘post box’ was installed. This had to be transported on a sled due to its weight. The pool received a royal visitor in the form of Prince Edward, he visited here in 1921 and signed the book, which incidentally got stolen a few days later. On Saturday 8th May 1937 a new robust box was officially opened. This box was built by an ex tin miner called Aubrey Tucker, it was constructed of granite with an oak door. The money was raised by an appeal made by the Western Morning News. It was sometime in the 1960’s that the first letterbox stamp appeared at the pool.
An early Cranmere Pool letterbox stamp.
Due to possible souvenir hunters, the Dartmoor weather and other variables it can be hit or miss as to whether the stamp and or the visitors book are in-situ. In 1938 the Western Morning News reported that they had supplied a ‘new’ stamp for Cranmere Poll which was taken out there by Mr. R. Harry of Okehampton. At the same time the Post Office renewed the inking pad and ink at the letterbox. It appears that this one did not last long for back in the the August of 1940 the Western Morning News published the following plea for help: “An anonymous correspondent having discovered that the rubber stamp at the Cranmere post-box is damaged, has sent from Birmingham a new stamp with ink pad. Would any of the Cranmere trekkers care to complete the good work by taking the rubber stamp to the pool?”
Another tradition that has grown up is that if a self addressed and stamped letter or postcard is left in the letter box the next visitor will usually take it home and post it. I have always had every one returned that I left there, some postmarked Scotland and even one Belgium. The visitor book collection is housed at the Plymouth museum and makes for interesting reading. As but one example of this practice and its popularity, MooRoaMan writes in 1933; “Accompanied by a quintet – two hikers, three hikresses – clock round circular tour was made via Lydford Junction to Okehampton and back to the former by way of Great Kneeset., through Hare Tor rock field, past Willsworthy Butts, leaving Henscott Plantation to the right. At the pool was the champion Cranmerean on his 219th visit! Fifty four names in the visitors’ book made up the Bank holiday’s total, several being Tottenhamites. The weather and going conditions were as favourable as I have known in my twelve years of Cranmering and what a Mecca the elusive and delusive pool unaccountably remains, one ‘mail’ totalling over six score postables! bearing the more or less erratic ‘Cranmere’ postmark.” In 1929 a man from Plymouth visited Cranmere Pool and left a postcard addressed to the Dartmoor authoress Beatrice Chase (AKA Katherine Parr) and strangely enough the next visitor to the postbox was Beatrice Chase herself. As per the custom she wrote a reply on the card which was then delivered to her home from Plymouth a few days later.
Today there are many routes into Cranmere Pool, there are the original 8 milers or by using the military road this can be shortened to about a mile and a quarter. A newspaper article from 1933 relates an early morning visit to Cranmere Pool by the legendary MooRoaMan alias Fredrick Symes: “MooRoaMan of Launceston, the well-known letter writer to The Western Morning News on Dartmoor subjects has just paid an early morning visit to Cranmere Pool. From a postcard sent from Cranmere, the editor learns that MooRoaMan was at Okehampton Camp at 1.30 a.m., reaching Yes Tor half an hour later, when the cap of High Willhays was shrouded in mist. By 4.30 a.m. he had reached No. 15 splinterproof (OP 15), on the artillery ranges. The moon was visible at 3.50 a.m. , as was a fine stellar display, including the Pleiades and Orion. The sky, however, was overclouded, and mist was collected in the banks across the moor. East Okement farm was reached at 6.30 a.m. MooRoaMan reports that there had been 15 visitors at Cranmere including five Launcestonians, one of whom had not been there for thirty years. Among the signatures in the book were those of six Bristolians.”
To take the shorter route simply follow the military road out to Observation Post 15 (SX 6113 8733) then head down the track to Ockerton Court. At the end strike south west until you meet the West Okement river and then follow that up to Cranmere Pool. As with any moor walk it is important to have the correct walking kit including map and compass. This area is also in the Okehampton Firing Range so it is vital to check the firing times before setting out. A sobering article from 1893 highlighted the once very real dangers of entering the firing ranges at Cranmere Pool; “From 12 to 1 o’clock we had observed shells throwing up dust on the crest of a somewhat distant hill, in consequences of which we took a careful course to the pool. At one o’clock the firing ceased when we sat down in the neighbourhood of the pool to eat our lunch. At 1.30 we were astounded to hear the whizzing of shells in close proximity, the terrible noise – a combination of a twang of metal and the hiss of a serpent – rapidly increased, the shells falling all around us, sometimes as near as ten yards, and constantly at twenty and fifty yards, others passing immediately over our heads. The firing increased in intensity up to two o’clock, when it ceased. Nothing in the shape of signals or notice boards of any kind had been put up to warn the public.”
PLEASE NOTE: The above route is no longer possible thanks to the closure of the military road. I have left it on this page for old time’s sake.
Such is the fame of Cranmere pool that there is now a variety of Garden Pink called ‘Cranmere Pool’, it’s described as, “A creamy white double with a deep magenta centre, producing neat bushy plants and sturdy short stemmed flowers”.
Barber, C. 1994 Cranmere Pool, Obelisk Publications, Exeter.
Baring Gould, S. 1982. A Book of Dartmoor. London: Wildwood House Ltd.
Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A., & Stenton, F. M. 1992 The Place-Names of Devon, English Place Name Society, Nottingham.
Hemery, E. 1983, High Dartmoor, Hale Publishing, London.
Rowe, S. 1985. A Perambulation of Dartmoor. Exeter; Devon Books.
St. Ledger-Gordon. D. 1950. Devonshire. London: Robert Hale Ltd.