Here is another step back in time, or rather numerous steps back in time and are the reminisces of a couple of adventurers who strode forth on a trek from Princetown to Ivybridge way back in 1874. I make no excuses for the author’s exact wording of their wanderings as they paint a picture of that journey and experiences along with the diction of the time. Yes, in other words a nostalgic peek into the past with sights and sounds long lost in the murky mists of time just like these intrepid explorers were.
“Having made common cause with a companion whom chance had thrown in my way during a sojourn in Tavistock, he and I planned a series of moorland excursions, of which the first was to be across the southern portion of the Royal Forest. A third person, in the form of a nervous dyspeptic, was introduced as an element of caution to temper the ardour of our too adventurous spirits. Thus organised the party sallied forth on its first expedition while the inhabitants of early rising Tavistock were still comfortably snoozing, and before the September sun had risen far above the cold grey crest of Great Mis Tor we are striding across the neighbouring downs in the direction of Prince Town. Once clear of enclosed land we strike off to the right, and soon gain the crest where, Sphinx-like Vixen Tor raises its curiously human head amid wreaths of mist, “with folded arms and melancholy head.” In the valley lies a cluster of cottages, with a disconnected barn or two, straggling down the road to Merrivale bridge, under which the lusty Walcomb (Walkham) brawls amongst it boulders. On the farther steep are seen the fantastic forms of Celtic monuments, made more weird and fantastic still by the morning mists, which creeping up the hill, is caught by the breeze and broken into a hundred strange shapes, that go eddying round the sacred circles and along the ruined avenues like ghostly dancers.
From the valley up to Prince town it is collar work with vengeance, and the pedestrian will be prepared to rest when he has manfully covered the seven miles and finds himself beneath the hospitable roof of the Duchy Inn. A savoury odour of ham and eggs, too, will probably remind him that the keen Dartmoor air has an appetising effect suggestive of a substantial supplement to that hurried meal at Tavistock. A wise man will not disregard the warning; a double breakfast is no bad preparation for the work yet to be done, and mine host is communicative on all points touching Dartmoor, about which the pedestrians had better gain information while he can. Let him see, too, that he has a good map and compass, for he is here on the boundary line of civilisation; beyond is a region of few paths and fewer landmarks, and a time may come when he will stand sorely in need of such guides. If our dyspeptic lose heart at this hint and refuses to run the risk implied in it there is enough here in Prince Town itself and the immediate neighbourhood to interest him and compensate for the walk hither, if, indeed, such toil needs any other reward than the healthful glow that the bracing air send quivering through every fibre of ones frame. Here is the prison close at hand, where he may study types of fallen humanity to his heart’s content, and there an acre of nameless graves over which to moralise, among them those of French and American prisoners condemned to pass their captivity in this “sterile Siberia” during the wars of the half century. Should he care to wander a bit further a field he may stroll northward to the famous well of Fritz, (Fice’s Well) the astrologer (?), and taking a draught of its cool waters may probably render himself proof against the evil influences of mischievous pixies; or, changing direction he will find an object of picturesque and archaeological interest in the moss-covered British bridge that spans the Blackabrook and still defies the torrent.
At Two Bridges we quit the beaten track again, keeping still, however, in the presence of comparative civilisation, until we wend our way round the foot of Crockern Tor, and, following the banks of the Western Dart, we find ourselves, as we crest a sudden granite steep, overlooking what appears to be a glen of giant brambles. A nearer acquaintance, however, declares this to be the place of which we are in search – Wistman’s Wood, the only remaining portion of a once vast forest. The gnarled and sinewy limbs of these stunted oaks seem to twist and trail on the ground, and in the midst grey granite boulders tower many feet above the highest branches. Though there is still enough of sombre shadow beneath the closely-twined boughs, the imagination must indeed run riot that could people the grove once more with its ancient host of bards and Druids, those wise men from whom the wood apparently takes it name (Wood of the Wisemen =Wistman’s Wood), and for whose mystic rites the desolate weird region around is no unfitting scene. But instead of the cry of sacrificed victims we hear only the hollow boom of the bittern, and the harp of the bard is replaced by the sorrowful music of the wind sighing among the branches. The place is, however, wild and romantic enough in its strange novelty, and Dante himself might find profitable study in the fantastic forms of the grasping roots that twist all manners of strange shapes to get firm foothold of the rocks, and take what moisture they may from the shallow stony soil.
Leaving Wistman’s Wood and the river we went up a rugged steep to Crockern Tor, familiar to lawyers and antiquarians as the ancient seat of the Stannary Courts, which are known to have been held on this inclement height as long ago as the time of Edward I, but, in deference to the prejudices of an effete civilisation, many years since removed to more comfortable, and I am bound to say, more convenient quarters in Tavistock. Some rude stone benches, used by the judges and jury, still remain to give a tangible interest to the place, and define the local habitation of the once Parliament of Mines. Crockern Tor is the very centre of Dartmoor Forest (not quite, it’s nearby Bellever Tor), whence one looks northward and southwards over the rolling billows of that vast watershed, in which half a hundred rivers take their rise (?) and flow by many devious courses to the sea.
But we have hardly yet commenced the serious business of the day, and it is noticed not without some misgivings that while we have incautiously lingered here, the sun has passed its meridian, and is sloping slowly towards the west. In addition to this there are ominous cloud wreaths swirling round the distant tors, a sign of which a practised moorman knows too well the meaning. At the foot of the hill we meet an aged native whose bent form and weather-worn visage are suggestive of long years passed in these solitudes. Fully prepared to answer in a tongue unknown to us whose Celtic education has been somewhat neglected, I ask “Is it possible to get across from here to Ivybridge before dark?” To which question we got the following reply “Ivybridge, gin’l’men; where be that!” Of course how could we expect to get information about a modern village, the church of which, even, cannot be more than a couple of hundred years old, – but we make an attempt, and answer vaguely pointing southwards stated “Oh, somewhere in that direction.” “Ay! ay! t’other zide o’ Voxtar Moirr!” says the old man, with a Burliegh-like nod. “Well, gin’l’men, if you hean’t darned fules, you’ll stay where you be.” We hardly care to prove ourselves fools, and we have still less inclination to lose our character of courage. The nervous man hesitates no longer, and when we reach Two Bridges he takes the direct road to Prince Town wishing us a cheery goodbye and a pleasant journey. “This “of course you” go on” assumption settles us. Committed from the first to the boulder course, we dare not hesitate now, for our reputation’s sake, and there was an ironical ring in the nervous man’s voice which said as plainly as possible. “I shall expect ee to dinner at the Duchy, six sharrp!” and made retreat for us impossible. We shouted back, “Good-bye!” bravely, and leaping the little stone wall, stepped boldly across the heath, until we were out of the nervous man’s sight. Then we sat down and silently took out maps and compasses to fix our bearings. After a long pause my companion asked “What did that fellow mean by Voxtar Moirr?” “Oh some ridiculous Dartmoor superstition,” I answered, and getting up quickly, but with more reluctance than I cared to show, walked forward in the direction which we seemed tacitly to have agreed upon.
Once on the opposite hill, with the fresh moorland breeze blowing in our faces, and the sun shining brightly, and casting long shadows across the expanse of golden gorse and purple heather, we forget our misgivings, and thought no more of the old man’s warning or of the ominous mists that had by this time rolled away. With spirits heightened we welcomed as a seasonal spice of danger the chance that certainly existed of our failing to sight Ivybridge before night set in, a chance that became more and more a probability as we went onward. The map showed that we had still nearly ten miles to travels as the crow flies, and in spite of every effort we covered the ground but slowly, for the springs were swollen with recent rains and there was a rush of water in every hollow that necessitated our making frequent wide detours. At length, however, we had placed one range of hills and the wide valley in which Tyrwhit introduced the first patch of cultivation between ourselves and Prince Town, and stood looking down from a huge rock tor on the tableland, in the depressions of which there ran three tiny streams (Royal Hill). One of these we know must be the source of the Erme, and if we could only follow that we must in time reach Ivybridge, past which it flows. Another reference to the fisherman’s map soon settled this point, but it told us something more not quite so pleasant. Was it possible that Fox Tor, on which we stood could have any connection with the place mysteriously referred to by our ancient native? If, so however, there is little reason for fear while we have that long stretch of heather-clad plain before us, and enough of daylight to take us over many miles. But the table land was not so level as it had looked from our point of observation. Before we had gone very far we found ourselves surrounded by sudden dips and furrows each one uncomfortably full of water that oozed out of the spongy moss-covered peat, and saturated boots and leggings, as if we had been wading in a river. Gradually it grew worse and worse. What had seemed at a distance like a vast field of pleasant verdant sward proved but a deceptive covering of the most brilliantly green moss and rushes, cutting through which in all directions we could now see dark seams of the underlying bog. The truth dawned when it was too late. Fox Tor Mire was nothing less than one of the dreaded Dartmoor morasses, and we, in the midst of it were likely to test the truth of the stories which we had hitherto treated as fables. With the recklessness if ignorance we decided that it was as well to go forward as to turn back. The last leap across the wide peat ditch had been a stiff one, and neither cared to recross for we found on attempting to probe it, that out sticks sank down easily as if they had been thrust into water. So we hastened forward, leaping from tuft to tuft of rushes, and making as straight as possible for the highest ground, we suddenly we came upon the margin of a wide pool of black slush, in the middle of which we could just be seen the skeleton back of a horse that had sunk and died their leaving its flesh to the ravens and its bleached bones as a warning to all who might essay crossing the bog (which is why such places are sometimes known as ‘Dartmoor Stables‘). We had heard strange tales of benighted travellers sinking suddenly in these treacherous morasses and being seen no more. Here was sufficient evidence of the possibility of a horrible fate which we confessed with an unpleasant shudder might still be ours. As we turned from the contemplation of this shocking suggestion our horror was not lessened when we saw a cold white mist sweeping over the hill and threatening to envelop us. There was just time to skirt the black pool and gain somewhat firmer ground before we were surrounded by a curtain denser and less penetrable than a London fog. What we we to do? There was no use to stopping, for the fog might last all night, and the sodden ground on which we stood did not arouse pleasant emotions when one contemplated making it his couch under the ‘broad canopy of heaven,’ with this Dartmoor mist for a coverlid. Evidently there was nothing for it but to keep wandering on trusting fate and the pedestrian’s luck for finding a track somewhere. For an hour or more we plodded in what we supposed to be the direction of Ivybridge, now on tolerably firm ground, then plunging once more into the mire, and still seeming to get no nearer the head of it until became a veritable ‘slough of despond,’ for us. We had lost the sound of the river, and every effort to get back to its bank was unavailing. All this time neither had thought of having recourse to his compass as a guide for direction, and when the idea did occur we were less surprised than mortified to discover that our path had been in a circle, and that instead of going due south our steps were actually tending towards Prince Town again. How much of the ground we had retraced it was impossible to say, and, therefore, hoping for the best, we turned southward once more, and after another half-hour of weary toil, when an ominous darkness was stealing into the white mist, we saw before us a fallen granite stone, resting on what seemed to be a raised ridge between two bogs. A little further on there was another, but upright this time. A few yards more, and the stones were in pairs, with a pathway of some three feet between them, and here and there traces of flat stones, with which the path apparently had been paved. There was no longer room to doubt that this was one of the many Celtic avenues that traverse Dartmoor in all directions and as they are said always to lead to a safe track across the innumerable bogs our fears were at an end. As the mist lifted and gradually drifted away there were seen for at least two miles in front traces of the avenue disappearing in the numerous depressions to appear again outlined against the twilight sky on the dark grey crest of the further hill, broken at one place by the falling pillars and at another widening into circles of some fifty or seventy feet in diameter. These circles had all the characteristics of ordinary Druidical temples except that the pillars were never more than three or four feet in height and the horizontal stones had disappeared – (Staldon Stone Row and Circle).
Though the chief cause for anxiety had thus passed we were still a long way from the end of our journey, and it was a ‘far gait’ to Ivybridge, following as nearly as possible the tortuous winding of the Erme, which once regained we took care not to lose again.
Only those who have been in a similar plight can imagine the delight that rewarded our toil, when, after two more hours of marching, with no light but that of the stars, no path, and so no guide but the sound of the river, we looked from the brow of a lofty hill into the beautiful valley, where the lights of Ivybridge were seen shining brightly through dense foliage. To come on such a scene after hours spent in the dark and desolate waste, where no sign of life was to be seen or heard, except when the shrill cry of a peewit startled the still air, or by the waters we heard ‘the curlew call,’ or saw a long-winged falcon sailing in slowly narrowing circles above the spot where perchance a brace of Black Grouse crouched amid the heather, and nothing broke the monotonous succession of swelling hills save one solitary oak tree that grew beside a little stream – to pass from that great uncultivated, untonated waste suddenly into the presence of human life and the evidence of man’s industry was like one of the rapid transitions of a dream,. The harvest moon was just rising over Combeshead Beacon; (Western Beacon?)on one side was the village of Harford nestling among its trees, the pinnacles of the old church steeple just touched with the moonlight that was reflected in the gleam of the river rushing under a dark bridge; to the right was the still more lovely valley of the Yealm; the dusky bulkage of the hillside veiled under white mist; in front Ivybridge with its background of undulating fields; and beyond that a silver cord of sea stretching from Start Point to Rame Head. Not to tired to note the beauties of this scene we were, nevertheless, in no mood for lingering over them, and plunging at once into the valley, half-an-hour’s brisk walking brought us to the bridge made famous by one of Turner’s sketches, crossing which we were soon tasting the delights of civilisation in one of the most charming of Devonshire hotels and making solemn vows never again to essay crossing –Voxtar Moirr. – The Exeter Flying Post, September 23rd, 1874.