It was a late winter’s evening when two monks from Plympton set off to Tavistock Abbey, their mission was to deliver some letters from the prior of Plympton to the Abbot at Tavistock. The journey normally would have seen them safely at the Abbey by dimpsey but on this occasion they had gone on a latter-day ‘pub crawl. First they called into the inn at Meavy where the landlord served an excellent ale, in fact it was so good that the brothers had to partake in several measures so as not to cause offence to their host. Next they were waylaid by the parson of Sampford Spiney who insisted on plying the ‘tipsy two’ with some metheglin to keep out the bitter winter’s chill. After discussing the affairs of the church and the benefits of medicinal tinctures the pair reluctantly once again resumed their journey.
As the two brothers slowly jogged along the small lanes they noticed that the inky mantle of night was drawing itself over the moor. They would be lucky to get to the abbey for the compline service never mind vespers. However, as a result of the metheglin they could go no faster than a gentle trot for fear of falling off their horses. Being holy men pledged to a life of sobriety and godliness the monks could not admit that the over-indulgence in alcohol was the reason for their poor horsemanship.
“We are cursed,” wailed the youngest monk who by now was clinging tightly around his horse’s neck, “tis the work of Satan.”
The elder monk frantically crossed himself and to his dismay discovered that not only had Satan taken away his ability to ride a horse but he had struck him dumb. No matter how hard he tried to form his words nothing but a few grunts and hiccups came from his mouth. Being made of stern stuff the monk was determined to regain his powers of speech but sadly the spell was too strong, in frustration he finally managed a loud, incoherent “whoop.” Unfortunately the old monk was also hugging his horse’s neck at the time and the sudden noise in its ear startled the animal into a frantic gallop. The last thing the youngest brother saw was a frightened horse charging off into the darkness with his companion clinging on for dear life.
For what seemed like an age the horse sped through the night with the monk hanging onto its mane and watching as granite boulders, gorse bushes and clumps of heather flashed past. By now the old brother realised that his mount had taken them up onto the barren wastes of Dartmoor. Eventually the horse tired and slowed down to a manageable trot but by that time the holy man was completely lost amongst tors, bogs and streams. He also realised that the wind was now howling across the moor and was the precursor to a winter storm. A few moments later the first raindrop bounced off his forehead, seconds later thousands more joined it and within a couple of minutes he was sodden. The heavy habit and cowl became weighted with a water content that seemed to be equal to that of the fish pond at Plympton. Not only was the monk saturated but he was hungry and tired, on the plus side he was now stone cold sober and the Devil had removed his mute curse.
As the monk peered through the veil of horizontal rain he though he briefly saw a flickering light, this thought warmed his spirits as it probably meant there was some human habitation nearby and that would suggest a fire and food! The horse was spurred in the direction of the glow but all of a sudden it slid to a halt and refused to go any further no matter how hard the monk kicked into his flank. The brother could still see the flickering light and so slid of the horse’s back and stumbled towards it. It may have been ten, but it could have been fifteen footsteps later, either way the poor old monk found himself knee-deep in a quaking, stinking mire. So that was why the horse had refused to go any further, after all it was born and bred on the moor and knew very well the dangers of a ‘Dartmoor Stable‘. It took a good twenty minutes for the monk to extricate himself from the bog and when he had not only was he wetter, colder, and hungrier but he stank like the lavatorium at Plympton the morning after cabbage soup. The other bad news was that the horse had decided it was time to go home and had disappeared. The good news was that the light was still flickering in the distance and so in desperation the monk gingerly followed it. But for every step nearer to it the monk trod it danced another ten further away until finally the poor man wailed,
“Satan is at work again and no longer shall I be fooled by his evil spell.”
What he did not realise was that the flickering light was ‘ingnis fatuus’ or the ‘Jack O’ Lantern‘ as the less educated call it.
Still the wind howled and the rain sheeted down and still the hapless fellow stumbled aimlessly across the dark wastes of Dartmoor. Wet led to cold which led to exhaustion which led to hunger and all in all they resulted in one very sad monk. Strangely enough one of the rules of his order was that of hardship so in theory these circumstances should be nothing new. But the old monk grumbled and grizzled and prayed for deliverance, the answer from above came in the form a granite boulder which the monk banged his shin upon. Now anybody who has scraped their shin on a lump of Dartmoor granite knows how excruciatingly painful this experience can be and the monk was no exception. It was probably a combination of pain and abject misery that led to the tirade of verbal abuse that vehemently spewed from the brothers lips and I shall not repeat it here! Then out of the darkness came a voice:
“I trust that has eased your suffering; it is good for a man to give vent to his feelings.”
The monk momentarily forgot his bleeding shin and peered into the darkness to see who was administering such advice.
“Who’s there?” he demanded.
“A lost traveller like yourself,” came the reply, ” and one who has found shelter from the storm, come and share my meagre refuge.”
“Where are we?” asked the monk.
“On Dartmoor,” came the useful reply.
“I am only too well aware of that fact,” the monk said, “I have already become acquainted with many of its less desirable attributes, but pray tell on what particular part of Dartmoor are we?”
The stranger stepped out of the shadows and calmly announced that they were at Great Combe Tor which meant little to the monk. Through the gloom it just about became apparent that the stranger sported a large curled up moustache and had a three pointed goatee beard. On his head he wore a weird shaped cap with a large feather set at a jaunty angle.
“Yes, the stranger continued, ” and down in yonder valley is the village of Tavy St. Peter. I would wager that as you stand there tired, hungry and filled with water there are folks in the inn filled with a much stronger liquor that warms the very cockles of their hearts.”
“Miserable sinners.” the monk hissed.
“I beg to differ, the stranger argued, “sinners they may be, but I am sure they are nowhere near as miserable as you are at this very moment. Have you never partaken of strong waters?”
“Heaven forbid,” replied the monk.
“‘Tis a shame that,” the mystery man goaded, ” because in your present sodden state I am sure such would do you good, and in that light I was going to offer you some.”
The monk licked his lips, “well, what I mean is that I do not make a habit of drinking such stuff, but in such circumstances as this …”
“Exactly,” interrupted the stranger, and then with a flourish he produced a flask, “drink my friend, drink, I assure you that never in your life will you have tasted anything like this.”
The monk eagerly grabbed the flask and took a large swig of its contents. Whatever the flask contained was strong and fiery and after another draught he smacked his lips, belched and dragged his wet sleeve across his mouth.
“I wager you are hungry too,” the stranger announced.
The monk took another slug from the flask, “yesh am I,” he stammered, “no I mean I am yesh.”
With a smirk the stranger produced a huge venison pasty, “come friend let us sit down in the shelter and you can have this meagre morsel.”
The monk snatched the pasty and swayed into the small cave below the tor where he bit into the golden pastry crust with relish.
“You really are a food gellow,” the monk slurred as he took another gulp from what seemed to be a bottomless flask, “where do you live?”
“Oh, I usually roam around,” the stranger answered.
“Ah, a traveller,” the monk responded, ” and whersh can I come and visit you?”
“Don’t worry about that,” came the reply, “when the time is right you will visit me like a lot of people do.”
“I shall, shall look forward to that,” sighed the monk, “yes by God you are a fellow, a very, very nisht fellow.”
The stranger nodded kindly and said, ” I guarantee you will be assured of a very warm welcome.”
“Yesh, I am sure of thash,” the monk burbled, “but I really have to get to…, somewhere, ah yesh, Tavistock, can you help?”
“I truly can,” came the response, “follow me, I know the way very well.”
With that he picked up the monk and led him swaying like a mattress across the moor to where the missing horse patiently stood. With amazing ease the stranger slung his burden up onto the horse like a sack of mangols.
“Farewell my holy brother,” the stranger said.
“Yesh, wellfare,” the monk gibbered, “but whisht way to Tavistock?”
“Wisht indeed,” the stranger smirked, “your horse is pointed in the right direction.”
“Before I go,” the monk added, “you have not told me your name!”
“Nicholas,” came the reply.
The monk giggled, “not Old Nicholas by any chance.”
A short silence followed and then a sinister voice said, “exactly, Old Nicholas but you can call me ‘Old Nick’.”
“The Devil,” shrieked the alarmed monk.
“You have guessed it in one,” the stranger retorted as he smacked the horses rump.
The startled horse reared into the air, spun around and galloped off in the opposite direction with its rider lolling around in the saddle. Eventually the horse slowed to a canter and steered a direct course for the abbey. As they arrived at the gates the monk patted the horse and whispered in its ear;
“whersh would we have gone if we had taken the Devil’s path?” The horse softly snorted and pawed the cobbles.
In the morning the monk awoke with a mighty hangover and a blur of memories in his head. He asked the Tavistock monks if they had seen his travelling companion and was taken into a small bed in the infirmary where the young monk lay. The lad was in a bad way, and the older monk asked the Tavistock infirmerer what had happened.
“The poor boy spent the night on the moors,” he replied with a slow shake of the head, “ah, ’tis better to spend the night with the Devil than be stuck on those barren wastes on such a winter’s eve.”
The old monk just looked at the infirmerer.