High on the northern side of the Deancombe Valley stands a huge rock known as the ‘Cuckoo Rock’ and this has been a point of pilgrimage for many years. There are several versions as to why it is so called, firstly there are those that consider the shape of the top-most outcrop resembles that of a bird or tradition has it that this was where a local farmer always heard the first cuckoo of spring. Whilst I have heard the cuckoo in the Deancombe valley, I have never actually seen it but that is part of the birds’ mystery – often heard seldom seen. Distant legend also says that the rock was a place where the piskies used to meet and dance and frolic in the moonlight. In days of old this was also said to be where smuggled liquor was hidden, perhaps by Tom Penny.
In folklore it is said that on first hearing the cuckoo in spring one should run in a circle three times with the sun, this will give good luck for the rest of the year. Similarly, if you hear the sound of first cuckoo to your right you will have good fortune but conversely if it is heard on the left then some bad luck is impending. There is another tradition whereby on hearing the first cuckoo of spring, one must run to the nearest gate and sit on the top bar, this will drive away the ‘spirit of laziness’. If this is not done then there will be no inclination to work until the following spring and the person will remain weak and listless all year. It is also a harbinger of misfortune to hear the cuckoo after the 31st of July. In some areas it was thought that the cuckoo steals the colour blue, and if any blue clothing faded the bird got the blame. On the lower lands of the river Teign old folks say the song of the cuckoo calls the salmon upstream. On Dartmoor, it always used to be the case that the cuckoo always came to the high moor in March and then descended to the lowlands in April hence the sayin:
“March, he sits on his perch; April he tunes his bill; May, he sings all day; June he alters his tune, and July, away he do fly.”
Another saying regarding the arrival of the cuckoo was:
“When the cuckoo comes to the bare thorn,
Sell your cow and buy your corn,
But when he comes to the full bit,
Sell your corn and buy your ship (sheep).”
Cuckoo Rock was also the site of one of the early letterboxes and since that has become a popular place for siting boxes.
In more recent times the rock has become a favourite place for ‘bouldering with several recognised routes and one website describes the challenge as being, “home to some excellent problems – at best these are just scary, at worst they are downright dangerous.”