Dartmoor Legends -
You could not expect a land that has been occupied for over 4,000 years not to have any legends or folklore attached to it, and so it is with Dartmoor. There are literally 100's of stories that have been passed down through the ages. Some are unique to Dartmoor while others are variants on tales found nationwide. A few of them could be politely be termed as 'tales for the trippers' and others are less well known. Many have a deep seated religious and/or moralistic purpose to them which was pertinent to the thinking and fears from their times.
Either way, picture a dark winter's night, the wind is howling down the chimney, the rain is battering against the shuttered windows and the peat fire is glowing warmly. Granfer is sat on the huge settle by the hearth, the chillern are sat at his feet. Mother is sat at the table sewing by a flickering cannle, Feyther is out in the shippen bedding down the bullicks. An old Granfer clock slowly ticks away in the corner, every corner of the room has a warm, toasty feel to it. The old feller slowly sucks on a clay pipe and looks deep into the peat turves, "Daw ee knaw, I mind the time when the piskies lived up in the tallett," he quietly remarked. The chillern sat wide eyed with mouths a gape, "tell uz, Granfer, tell uz," they clammered. "You'm bide by, darter what says ee, shall us tell em of the piskies or no," the old man asks. "Better way, you'm started now," the mother reluctantly replies, lifting her eyes in sheer exasperation. And so the old man starts the tellin. The tale he tells seems so real to the children on this stormy winter's night that they will remember it for ever, one day tellin un to their grandchildrin and generation by generation the tradition is kept. Maybe the story gets embellished with every telling but eventually it reaches us in 2006 giving us a rich collection of stories.
Where possible, on these pages I have related the legends, stories and tales of old Dartmoor. If possible I have also tried to look at some of the facts behind them in an effort to see where and what may have inspired them. For those who may be interested in digging deeper I have also included a short bibliography of some of the sources I have used. The actual stories come from a whole host of books, each giving a slightly different version so I have tried to average them out with a consensus of opinion.
An old postcard with a Dartmoor Litany
Once you read Mrs Bray's Diary of 1822 it soon becomes clear that this source was from whence many future folklore books have gained a lot of their information. Each time the story varies slightly as that particular author adds their own mark until we end up with the modern books relating the 'amended' versions of the original. But is that not the beauty of folklore, it is constantly changing or being brought up to date either by the language used or the characters portrayed. The only sad thing is that there are not many 'new' tales entering the realms of legend or maybe the problem is that they are too recent? It could be that three hundred years from now there will be stories of the recent foot and mouth outbreak and how it got onto Dartmoor. In fact I could relate the popular version but it would be open to certain libel action. Even so you will often hear people bemoaning the fact that there aren't anymore characters like the old days, again it could be there are but people don't socialise enough to hear them. For instance, only the other day a certain moor farmer was telling me how some suited civil servant suggested that he should be trained in fire fighting skills just in case a fire broke out on the moor. His response and the ensuing saga would certainly go down in folklore.
Which brings me onto another point, if you read these stories you will notice several recurring themes. Firstly, the respect the moorfolk have always shown to their so-called betters, the church and authority. Secondly, how they usually come out on top no matter what, often making fools of said 'betters', church and authority. And finally the deep regard and respect they show towards the actual moor and nature, which has been learnt by generations through hardship and toil.
If you do read any of the tales, just imagine since dawn you have been up on the moor moving bullocks, it has been a long day and now you've ridden your pony over to the old moorland pub for a yarn and a bit of 'newsin'. It is a dark, wild night and the moor mist lays thick and murky. You are sat in a settle opposite Granfer, the fire is blazing. The baccy smoke mingled with the aroma of peat has thickened the air. You have an old dented pewter tankard of foaming ale into which every now and then you dip the hot communal poker. The beer sizzles and as you drink it you get a contrasting hot and cold sensation. The room is quiet with just a few low murmured conversations. Everybody seems to be happy with their own thoughts as they either stare vacantly into the dancing flames of the fire or peruse the local news sheet . Suddenly everybody is jolted out of their individual worlds as slowly Granfer says "I mind the time ..."
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