Autumn leaves and winter comes – we along with our intrepid friends (Paul, Lizz, and their two daughters, Bethan and Laura) decided to rent a cottage on the edge of the moor for a few days. I must admit I was expecting to spend the days slopping around on a mist shrouded moor with the rain pelting horizontally into our faces. This is probably because to me the glass is always half empty and Dartmoor in late October is never a good bet for a spot of sun bathing. But for once I was pleasantly surprised, the five days turned out to be dry, warm and more or less sunny. A couple of the days were spent in putting out 11 letterboxes and another day or so doing some fieldwork for my dissertation.
We all met up at the Plume of Feathers in Princetown and started the holiday off with the traditional ploughman’s lunch and a few beers – very nice it was too. This was a small landmark as it was the first time we had taken our dog, Zeb, into a pub, it might not seem a momentous event unless you had met him. Probably the best way of describing our canine companion is to say that he’s a cross between a whirling dervisher and a friendly springbok, only he can jump higher than both and a pub table is nought to him. However, this particular day he was on his best behaviour and his shortest lead which was firmly tethered to a chair leg. I was pleased to see that the owners of the Plume had given their customers ample opportunities for spending money, they actually listed a ‘doggy sausage’ on their menu for 50p. I wonder how many they sell? Mind you, there’s an easy way to get one for free – simply loose the dog and he would soon find someone with such a delicacy on their plate. Needless to say, Zeb did not partake, well, we had already paid £20 for him to stay at the cottage, what more did he want?
The cottage we had rented was at The Watering Hole which is located about 5 miles out of Tavistock and on arrival we soon discovered it was a very rustic place – (see pic. 1). It came with a huge granite fireplace which as we were to discover later had a problem conveying the smoke in the time-honoured direction insomuch as it coughed it back into the room. As cottages go, the decor could be described as ‘interesting’ and at no extra rental cost the beams were tastefully festooned with a myriad of cobwebs. Mind you it was Halloween so maybe these were a thoughtful touch on behalf of the owners in which case they made a splendid job of it – really spooky. On the whole the cottage was well equipped, there were three sprawling settees arranged around the fireplace and which proved to be much appreciated by Zeb, not that he got on them of course. Poor thing got a bad case of the grizzles when he noticed an A4 sized picture of a Dalmatian under which was emphatically stated that dogs were not allowed upstairs. Just to make sure such an heinous crime was not committed there was the side of a child’s cot placed at the foot of the stairs which when wedged through the banister made an excellent dog barrier. As there was a ‘complimentary’ supply of sodden logs it was decided to set the rustic scene with a roaring fire which puffed out a miasma that was thicker than a Dartmoor fog. Within minutes the downstairs took on the appearance of a smoke-house and us the poor unfortunate kippers inside it. As some of us belonged to that dying breed of cigarette smokers we had originally agreed to only smoke outside but as we sat coughing and spluttering admist a pall of wood smoke that arrangement seemed rather pointless. After a battle of wills with the cooker a meal was miraculously produced and following a few beers (well, we were staying at The Watering Hole) six weary pilgrims and one knackered dog retired to bed.
The third day we wended our way up to Yar Tor in order to start siting the 11 letterboxes which were going around the old bounds of Vag Hill Warren. For centuries rabbits were an important source of food and fur, consequently down through the ages various commercial and sporting warrens were established to breed the animal – Vag Hill was one such place. The earliest documentary evidence of the warren was a lease which was drawn up on the 23rd of April 1623 between William, Earl of Bath and the two warreners, Richard Meynell and Walter Fursland of Bickington. In this document the bounds were clearly stated:
“... concerning waste ground called Spitchwick Common lying between the river Darte (Dart) on the west and south east and from thence to Heartor (Yar Tor) to Cornetor (Corndon) on the north and east to the west of Rowbrook Hedge and so to Logator (Luckey Tor) on the east and so to the river of Darte with free liberty to make a warren there for the keeping and breeding and killing of rabbits“, (Brewer, 2001, p.268) – (see pic. 2).
Our first port of call was the old prehistoric kist known as The Money Pit, the views from here are always spectacular and today was no exception, a heavy, glistening dew carpeted the moor which gave a fresh face to the surrounding rocks and boulders – (see pic.3). Just on the lower slopes of the tor we met a rather lethargic looking pony who made a splendid foreground for the view behind it which stretched across to Sharp Tor and the distant hills – (see pic.4). For anybody new to letterboxing, Yar Tor must be heaven, the boxes were everywhere, some just a few feet apart, which made finding a suitable site quite hard. From Yar Tor it was a quick hike across the road to Corndon where I needed to put another box, again the views from here are vast as they subtly draw ones eye over the edge of the moor and is into lowland Devon. It does not take long to realise that the view from Corndon has meant something special for thousands of years for dotted along the ridge are several prehistoric cairns – (see pic. 5). For some reason the ancients built a cairn onto the end of one of the three outcrops, it has been suggested in other cases that this was a ‘prehistoric shortcut’ insomuch as the tor acted as a ‘filler’ and meant that less stones would be needed to build the cairn. Today, many holiday makers that are taken on a tour of Dartmoor are driven out to the various ‘honeyspots’ for a day’s sightseeing but in the 1820’s things were slightly different. It appears that somebody organised a tour which included a ‘hands-on’ opportunity to partake in a spot of archaeological exploration on Corndon. A party of fifty odd holiday makers from Bovey Tracey were brought out to explore the cairns, probably with the promise of finding buried treasure. Much to their disgust all they found was, “an old jar or two“, which in today’s terminology probably meant grave goods that were placed alongside the burial, (Butler, 1991, p.131). If the same artefacts were discovered today they would be hailed has, “significant finds”, which would possibly help towards dating the cairn burial – how attitudes change. On the southern edge of the ridge is the southerly outcrop of the tor and here is a good example of a logan stone in the making – (see pic. 6). In time the gap between the top two stones will slowly erode thus forming a pivotal point on which the uppermost slab will rock, but don’t hold your breath as it certainly won’t happen for a few thousand years. About half a mile to the north of the southern outcrops can be seen another small pile whose name I love – Cathanger Rock, nobody seems to know how it got its name but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination.
The next batch of boxes had to be sited on the lower slopes of Yartor Down and it is from here that one can really see the Dart Valley in all its autumn glory. For a start the edge of the down is about 350 feet above the river which gives for a fantastic crow’s nest view of the wooded valley. Although not marked on the modern OS map the termination of the ridge of Yartor Down is known as Vag Hill and hidden amongst the gorse and bracken are once again remnants of prehistoric Dartmoor. On the western and southern slopes of the hill are the remains of numerous Bronze Age hut circles, enclosures, reaves, a medieval longhouse and the old warren – (see pic. 7). Apart from the lease of 1613 there is no other documentary evidence for the warren but apparently there was once a building on Vag Hill which was always known as, “Warreners House”. Linehan (1966, p.132) suggests that there are two deserted sites within the bounds of the warren that may have belonged to Meynell and Fursland. The first is situated just above the road as it sweeps around the top of Easdon Combe and this comprises of two long-houses and another ancillary building. The second site consists of a single building measuring 20 x 15ft and some enclosure walls, this is located on the south side of Vag Hill, just above Combestone Island – (see pic 8). Having said that, Hemery (1983, p.579), contends that the main warrener’s house was located slightly south-south-east of here in Warren House Pit. This house he considers stood until around the mid 1800s and the last warrener was John Hannaford who used to hold secret cock fights here. The whole hillside is peppered with the remains of the old buries or pillow mounds in which the rabbits were kept, some of which can still be seen on an aerial photograph – (see pic. 7) . From the small roadside car-park we made our way down into Easdon Combe which is the small valley between Yartor Down and Sharp Tor. At the head of this combe is Goose Pool which is the birth-place of the tiny Row Brook which almost invisibly trickles down through infant mires into the Dart. There are situated near the top of the combe the remains of two longhouses one of which, known as Easdon Cot, was the ‘lair’ of some sheep-stealers. This tale ends with the aggrieved farmers finally having a gutful of losing their sheep and so one day when the villains had gone out for the day they demolished the homestead. This sounds like a case of Dartmoor justice at its very best, don’t bother with the law they are very busy people, “us u’ll sort un ourzevles”. Halfway down the hillside the small brook enters the lands of Rowbrook Farm which necessitated an amble up the side of the down and around the enclosure walls. The top field was studded with numerous, large, succulent field mushrooms whose growth could probably be attributed to the horses grazing there. Sadly this field was surrounded by a very new and efficient looking barbed wire fence and so fried mushroom was not on the following days breakfast menu. The old Rowbrook nestles below the fields and only shyly pokes its farmhouse roof above the slope of the hill. It was at this farm that a tragic incident occurred in the early 1900s, three of the farmer’s sons were lying in bed together when a terrific thunderstorm came across the moor. A bolt of lightening struck their bed and killed the unfortunate boy who was laying in the middle, his two brothers escaped unharmed. It is also Rowbrook Farm that features in the famous Dartmoor legend which tells the tragic tale of the disappearance of young Jan Coo. Below the southern enclosure walls were some little glades of trees and one in particular seemed magical, three or so holly trees stood along with a small oak tree, their branches darkly shading some moss covered rocks. It would not take a lot of imagination to see a wizen old Druid officiating over some mystic rite below the gnarled trunks of the holly trees. Below the sound of the rushing Dart could be heard wafting up the hillside, being a calm day it sounded very much like the wind blowing through the trees, there was certainly no booming, “Cry of the Dart“, today. The last box we had to site was that pertaining to Logator, or Luckey Tor as it is now marked on the OS map, which lay at the bottom of the hillside hidden amongst the trees. If ever anywhere on Dartmoor had more aliases than this place then I should love to see it. Over the years it has been called; Logator, Logator Rocks, Lug Tor, Lucky Tor, Luckey Tor, and even Looka Tor. The latter name coming from the tradition that it was here that various nefarious characters would keep a ‘look out’ for danger whilst going about their poaching, sheep stealing or smuggling activities. Just to confuse things even more the summit of the huge outcrop was supposed to have been the home for golden eagles and in this light has earned itself the name of Eagle Rock. Whatever you wish to call the tor it was our last port of call for the day, all that remained was the haul back up the slopes of Vag Hill and make our way back to the car via Yartor Down. The ladies had decided they would like to go for a swim in Tavistock and I also wanted to call in at the visitor’s centre at Princetown which caused a few raised eyebrows. As a trade-off we called in at the Pixieland as Bethan and Laura wanted to have a look to see if there were any piskies about. I explained, much to their disgust that there was no such thing as a Dartmoor Piskie and that for many years they had been used as a way to get the holiday makers to part with their hard earned cash. Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather because they actually found a piskie sitting on a toadstool in the glade beside the shop and managed to get a photo of it, honest they did – (see pic. 9).After all that excitement I was glad to get into the somewhat less frenetic world of the Princetown visitor’s centre. In fact all I needed to do was to check if there had been any alterations to the firing notice but we ended up having a look at their current exhibition which was called, “Seeing the Wood Through the Trees“. This basically consisted of wood related poetry and photographs, some of which were selling for £35 plus. What the photographer/artist seemed to have done was to take a picture of a tree and then digitally enhance it with a kaleidoscope or reflection effect. As it happened I had brought my laptop away with me and so the following evening I tried to re-create the effect with a tree that I had photographed earlier that day – (see pic.10 & 14). Should any wish to purchase a full size copy of this photo then please send £34.99, thank you. Luckily we got back to Tavistock in time for the mermaids to go swimming whilst Paul and myself took ourselves off to the Tavistock Inn where we were regaled with stories of the Goosey Fair. By the way, if ever you’re in Tavistock pop in the Tavistock Inn and have a look at the mural on the wall of the gent’s toilet – awesome, especially if you stand on the right-hand side – scareeee or what, the eyes seem to follow you.
The following day we drove up to Combestone Tor where the day was promising to be glorious, the sky was streaked with blue and the sun was warming up nicely despite a keenish wind which was obviously getting to the two ponies – (see pic.11). This was definitely going to be one of those leisurely days when one can enjoy strolling on the moor. It was the 1st of November and I was ambling along with just a polo shirt, just to reinforce the fact a red admiral butterfly fluttered past us as if it was the 1st of August. Again the view down the Dart Valley was breathtaking, the valley sides were tinged with ginger bracken and the trees streaked with browns, russets and greens of all hues – (see pic. 12). No sooner had we convinced ourselves that this was a late Indian Summer than a flock of fieldfares swooped and dived overhead, the tradition harbinger of winter if ever there was one. It did not take long to site the two letterboxes and having done so we just found a rock and basked in the glory of the views and the sunlight. Then I noticed what appeared to be a sheep creep in the wall of one of the old Combestone enclosures, I took out the ‘bins’ and sure enough it was a splendid example. Whatever floats your boat, and such things send mine off like a tea clipper of old. Much to my wife’s amazement I shot off down the hillside, clambered a very unstable wall and trespassed over two fields to get a photo – (see pick 13). These were designed to allow sheep to move from field to field via the small gap whilst keeping the larger animals such as cattle and ponies contained. The example shown in the photo is clearly still being used by sheep as the well worn path running through it indicates.
From Combestone it was only a short trip over to Venford Reservoir and from there an amble up over Rickett’s Hill and across to where the enclosures of Stoke farm lie and then over to Bench Tor. Again, once we had reached the top of the valley side there were further stunning views of the Dart Valley. Crossing described this landscape as being, “the lands of the Forest dwellers“, which was being as fittingly dramatic as the views. Once I had sited the Whortaparke box we once again took advantage of a comfy boulder to sit and drink in the moorland air and vistas. Zeb decided to do a spot of sunbathing – (see pic.15) and we just sat and stared, we stared even harder when a Peregrine Flacon silently shot a few feet infront of where we were. The nice thing about walking along the Bench Tor ridge is that once you reach the end there has to be one of the most awesome views of the moor – (see pic 16). Once again this tor has over the years been known by several names: Benjy Tor, Benjay Tor and latterly Bench Tor. Like Luckey Tor it too has an Eagle Rock, this being one of the small outcrops but as to which one only the past knows. Hemery describes Benjy Tor, as he liked to call it, as being, “a rugged climax to Double Dart’s cleave-side tors“, and who could argue with such a statement? The times I have sat in this spot totally mesmerised by what lay infront of me, I reckon I can experience every emotion possible from here, elation at looking at the landscape, envy of the people that live in the beautiful Rowbrook House, amazement at the grandeur of the mighty granite mass of Sharp Tor and eventually sadness when it’s time to leave. But unfortunately that time arrived and we made our way back to the car, slightly cheered by the promise of a ploughman’s lunch at the Forest Inn. Now at one time I would frequent the Forest Inn several times a week but it was now a long time since my last visit. It was nice to see that nothing had changed much, my favourite old photograph of Will Mann still hung on the wall and like many places there had been the addition of a smoking tent outside the door. We ordered up a couple of beers and sat down to peruse the menu, Angela was intently reading a two page printed history of the inn when she turned to me and asked if I knew it was once a Trust House Forte Inn. I replied that I did and then she asked if I knew that William Crossing used to hold ramsammys here. Then my ears pricked up, ramsammy is not a word that normally crops up in conversation and many years ago I used to drink with a Major who served in India who would use the term for a ‘piss-up’. Apparently the phrase was one whose roots lie in the local dialect and seldom used today. I fumbled for my glasses and then snatched up a menu to read this ‘history’, it did not take long to realise that someone had literally cut and pasted nearly every word from the Forest Inn page on this website. Having enjoyed an excellent ploughmans we then went to inquire about the history pages from the landlady.
“Could you tell me who wrote this history of the inn”, I politely enquired.
“Why yes”, she said, “William Crossing wrote it”. Now bear in mind there is mention of telephone boxes and letterboxer’s meets and Crossing died in 1928.
“Are you sure William Crossing wrote it”, I quizzed with a scowl
“Yes”, she said, “William Crossing wrote it”.
I was just about to go off on one about how that was impossible and to suggest she log on to my website to compare the wording when the lady decided to come clean.
“Well it came off a website about William Crossing and it’s called Legendary Dartmoor”.
“I know”, I growled, “it’s my website, and in which case is there any chance of acknowledging the fact on ‘your history’ pages”.
I think everybody then saw the funny side and we left with promises of mutual links on each other’s website, and talking of which you can find the official Forest Inn site – HERE.
After all the trekking over Dartmoor poor old Zeb had finally had enough and the last night he had an early night crashed out with Bethan and his teddy – (see pic. 17.) And that basically brought to an end the two days spent siting the letterboxes, well apart from a rather drunken night, a roaring log fire and the story of the antique chair but best not go into that here.
Oh, I nearly forgot, there was a strange encounter on Yar Tor, whilst admiring the view we heard in the distance the melodic sounds of what seemed to be panpipes wafting on the moorland air. As we strained our ears the music began to get closer and all of a sudden a Peruvian woman appeared – (see pic. 18). She was dressed in authentic Andean clothing and from what we could understand she came from the foothills of the Himalayas in somewhere called Tredegar, I have had a look on a map of Peru but I can’t find it. Apparently a couple of months ago her alpaca was startled by some gap-year students and took off, ever since she has been desperately looking for it. For some strange reason the alpaca will only come to the sound of panpipes hence her eerie piping – sadly, despite an exhaustive search we couldn’t help her find the alpaca. We left rather suddenly as she said that food was scarce and asked if we wanted to sell Zeb.
Brewer, D. 2002 Dartmoor Boundary Markers, Halsgrove Publishing, Tiverton.
Butler, J. 1991 Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities – Vol. 1, Devon Books, Exeter.
Hemery, E. 1983 High Dartmoor, Hale Publishing, London.
Linehan, C. 1966 Deserted Sites and Rabbit-Warrens on Dartmoor, Medieval Archaeology no.10.