Many years ago there was a headmaster named Jeremiah Toope who was in charge of Ashburton Grammar School. Now, local legend gives no explanation as to why but for some reason he was suddenly dismissed from his post. As can be imagined, this was a devastating thing to happen and poor Mr Toope was distraught to say the least. Once the initial shock had worn off the ex-headmaster sat down and took stock of his options and eventually came to the conclusion that the best course of action was to move on to pastures new.
Accordingly the following morning he packed his meagre possessions and headed off up across the moor to Tavistock where he hoped he could find employment at the large college there. It was a fine, bracing morning and Jeremiah found his flagging spirits lifted by the moor air and the song of the skylark. Indeed, after a few miles the man was positively bouncing along towards what he was sure was an exciting and prosperous future in Tavistock. Ironically Mr Toope was oblivious as to exactly how prosperous he was to become.
His route took him along what is now known as the Dartmoor Way which winds up from the River Swincombe and over the flank of Royal Hill. As he neared the old ancient grave known as The Crock of Gold he could have sworn that somewhere nearby he could hear the sound of gentle sobbing. However, to him this meant nothing for time had not served him well, as the years had ticked by so his hearing along with his eyesight became weaker and weaker. So, the headmaster stolidly marched on down the track, he had gone but a few paces when he heard the sound again and this time he left the dusty track in search of its origin. More by luck than judgement he found himself heading for a huge, granite boulder and when he peered over the top Jeremiah got the shock of his life. For there sat beside the rock was only what could be described as a miniature royal family, he cleaned his thick, bottle-rim glasses just to be sure of what he saw. No, there was no mistake, there sat a king, his wife and their princess, all decked in fine clothes and not a one over a foot tall. For some reason the queen was sobbing uncontrollably and the king and princes where doing their best to console her. For a moment Mr Toope was mesmerised and simply stood and stared. He had heard the local children talk of the piskies and on one occasion he caned one boy for blatantly lying about seeing them but now he began to feel somewhat guilty. Now he was but a few feet away from what he had always described as, ‘stuff and nonsense’ and, ‘but mere figments of imagination’.
The old headmaster, despite his fierce reputation had always had a soft spot when it came to children in distress and although these piskies were hardly children they were small and vulnerable. He leant over the boulder and asked to no one in particular what was the cause of the queen’s sadness. The king looked up and explained how her pet hedgehog had recently died and that the loss was too much to bare. Having lost several pets of his own the old man knew exactly what pain she was going through and so he went around to the piskies and sat down beside them. Jeremiah then began to tell the queen some of the funny stories he once told to his class and before long her tears began to dry and a smile came across her tiny face. Within the hour he had managed to get the royal assemblage giggling and tittering and all thoughts of the tortoise has vanished. The concerned look on the king’s face had gone along with the deep furrows created by his frown, so grateful was the king that as a reward he gave Jeremiah a crock of gold coins that the little folk had found buried in the ancient grave or kistvaen which lay nearby. As an added bonus the queen muttered a few magical words and the old man found that his failing eyesight and hearing had been restored to what it was thirty years ago. As the sun began to set the piskies bade farewell to the old headmaster and scuttled off under the huge boulder to prepare for that nights banquet.
Jeremiah Toope moved into a small house in Tavistock and lived off his piskie gold for several months but despite his wealth he never appeared a happy soul, in fact quite the opposite. As day after day passed he slowly became more morose and all his neighbours remarked how sullen he had become. Then one day the old headmaster simply vanished, nobody saw him leave but an old shepherd reported seeing a lone figure walking towards the Crock of Gold. That was the last sighting of Jeremiah Toope, many moor folk will say that he went to live with the piskies where he spent his time telling his stories to all that needed cheering up.
My thanks to Jan Palmer for pointing me in the direction of this story.
Starkey, F. H. 1984. Odds and Ends from Dartmoor. Privately published. (pp. 108 -109)