Many, many years ago, in fact it was so long ago this story nearly became lost in the pages of Dartmoor’s folklore, there was a small moorland farm. This farm had just been taken over by the last living moorman of his family. He was a young man with a pretty young wife and they were about to set out on life’s journey. He was a hard worker and only wanted the best for his lady and hopefully for their future family. It was with such a thought that one day he stood and looked at the old dilapidated farmhouse. Sadly over the years the moorland wind, rain and ice had eaten away at the ramshackle house. Even the sparrows and mice had chewed away the thatch leaving huge holes that dripped rain. Mind you, his wife had not uttered one word of complaint and every time the rain splashed through she had cheerfully got a bucket to catch the drops. So he decided he would build the grandest of farmhouses the moor had ever seen. For weeks he traipsed the granite outcrops to find the smartest, hardest rock to use on the house. Eventually he found an outcrop of pinky granite full of black and white crystals. This would make for splendid blocks to build the walls he thought, and when the sun shone it’s light would bounce off the many crystal pieces. The next day he gathered his jumper, lump hammer, tares and feathers and loaded them onto the pony sled and set off with his workers for the outcrop. How those men toiled, it may have been excellent granite but it was the Devil’s own job to split. All day they hammered and smashed at the rock and by sundown the first sled of blocks had been split. All in all it took about a week to get enough granite to build the walls of his new house. After the walls had been put up the rest was relatively easy going and within the month the new house was finished. The farmer was as proud as could be and knew finally he had built a veritable castle for his ‘princess’, she was pretty chuffed as well.
However, what the farmer did not know was that deep inside the hillside below the outcrop from whence he had taken his granite, lived a tribe of earth gnomes. These creatures of the underworld are distant relations to the piskies but that is where any similarity ends. Compared to earth gnomes piskies are saintly angels, these denizens of the deep are vicious, vengeful devils and it surely does not do to upset them. Never mind being piskie led, that is a Sunday picnic in comparison to the reprisals earth gnomes take. Obviously they were none to happy to have an ‘moorling’ (an earthling that lives on Dartmoor) come along and smash their mighty granite hill to pieces. Deep down in the growan (decomposing granite) caves they bayed and howled for vengeance and if the farmer had heard this he would have been in constant fear for his life.
After a few prematurely happy months of living in their new home, the farmer’s wife proudly announced that she was expecting their first child and a few moths later a bouncing baby boy was born. The farmer was elated, he now was no longer the last of his family line as he had a son and heir to hand the farm onto. The glad tidings soon spread over the moor and all his neighbours were delighted to hear of the new addition at Fernworthy Farm. Unfortunately the glad tidings also spread under the moor and the earth gnomes got to hear of the farmer’s new son. This was the exact moment they had been waiting for, vengeance was going to swift and sweet.
One late winter’s evening the farmer was returning from his cutting peat at his turf tie up by Quinter’s Man. Although a fair way out from Fernworthy the tie produced good quality peat and so was worth travelling the distance. Meanwhile back at the farm his wife was sat by the kitchen hearth with the baby in its cradle infront of the peat fire. She had left the door slightly ajar so as to hear her husband and his pony return from the moor. In the hearth the peat glowed toasty warm and gave off a sweet earthy scent. A mixture of the heat and the heady smell slowly rocked the woman into a contented evening slumber. Suddenly she was awoken from her dreams by a loud flapping sound, at first she thought it was the pony sled returning but then out of the corner of her eye she noticed the flutter of a grey cloak and a small wizened figure dart through the half opened door. Whatever it was it gave a wicked, chuckle as it sped off across the farmyard. She eventually came to her senses and went to check if the baby was still asleep. Her heart leapt into her mouth when she saw an empty cradle and then the girl recalled seeing the grey figure carrying a small bundle. Imagine the couples grief as day after day they waited for news of their baby and month after year they heard nothing, the baby was never seen again. The old folk of the moor secretly said that because the farmhouse had been built from granite stolen from an enchanted hill the earth gnomes had vengefully exacted the price of the firstborn as payment.
An Old Postcard Showing Fernworthy Farm.
Clearly the vengeance of the earth gnomes did not stop at stealing the baby as it could be said the whole area was cursed. For a long time the Torquay Corporation had a water intake on the river Teign, in 1928 a lease was signed with the Duchy which enabled the Corporation to construct a weir and pipeline which would carry water to the Frenchford and Hennock reservoirs. In 1934 an Act of Parliament empowered the Corporation to build a new reservoir at Fernworthy and work eventually started in 1936. On the 4th of August 1938 a violent storm lashed across eastern Dartmoor and so fierce were its floodwaters that it washed a crane from the valley side into the river. After it had passed over 2,000,000 gallons of water and 500 cubic yards of silt had to be cleared from the work site. However despite this the dam was completed on the 22nd June 1942. The reservoir covers 76 acres of land and holds about 380 million gallons of water. It is 63 feet deep, 1,400 yards long, and 1,125 yards wide.
The old farm of Fernworthy wasn’t submerged but was demolished during the dams construction. It is thought that the farm was of Saxon origin and it has a documented history going back 735 years. In 1558 a property account states that the farm was owned by Edward Whiddon, in 1690 the farmhouse was demolished and replaced by one with casement windows and by now was owned by Farmer Lightfoot. The early 1800’s were the time of the ‘Dartmoor Improvers’ and the Duchy were leasing off large area of common land for enclosure. Fernworthy was no exception and in 1802, 278 acres were enclosed by the Ferguson – Davie family of Crediton. In the 1843 Tithes Apportionment Sir Humphrey Davie appears as the owner with Richard Born as the occupier. The tenancy then passed on down through the Endacott family and later taken over by the Mortimores. In 1917 the Davie family sold Fernworthy to the Duchy of Cornwall. The old farmhouse was last occupied in 1928 and demolished shortly after, Hemery, 1990 pp 753-6.
Hemery, E. 1990 High Dartmoor, Hale, London.
1888 O.S. map showing the Fernworthy Farm and Enclosures