Today as you travel on the narrow moorland road between Holne and Hexworthy you will pass but probably not notice a small, overgrown maze of tinner’s gullies. They are located on a bend on the right hand side of the road below some wooden railings. If you stop and walk into the gully you will see a boggy, dank hollow. This is now the home to a large family of badgers, their bedding lying in fly blown heaps outside the setts. In spring the banks are decked with clumps of sweet smelling Devon violets. Despite this you could be forgiven for thinking this a dreary and depressing spot and you wouldn’t be far wrong for this is Hangman’s Pit and it hides a sad secret.
Back in the days of forgotten times there lived a farmer who along with his wife scratched a frugal living from the unforgiving Dartmoor soil. They farmed a small flock of sheep and ran a tiny herd of South Devon Cattle. At the end of what was a good grazing summer when the grass was sweet and lush the farmer decided it was time to take his steers to market. So one Wednesday morning he got up early, ate his breakfast of thick, fatty bacon and bread, and gulped down a mug of tea. He was a bit apprehensive as to what price his cattle would make but never the less excited and looking forward to a day at the market. Being a poor farmer hid did not have the luxury of a pony on which he could ride to Ashburton so it meant a 10 mile tramp. For many years he had longed for a pony that would enable him to get around moor in style, just like some of his richer neighbours, but he could only just afford to feed his family never mind find the money for a ‘pawny’.
The farmer donned his best smock, whistled his dog and trudged out to the shippen where the cattle that had been selected for market were lowing and snorting. It was a chill morning and as he open the cattle shed door the steam from their backs hung like a blanket of mist. He sent in the dog and before long the small drove was heading along the small, gorse walled lane. It took about 3 hours to reach the market, the cattle had slowly meandered down the moorland roads, occasionally stopping to browse on a clump of grass but at least they not lost any condition.
Ashburton was a busy and bustling place and on market days the streets were thronged with people, sheep, cattle, ponies and grunting pigs. Soon the farmer’s small herd was penned up and he was deep in conversation with fellow farmers whom he had not seen since the Michaelmas sale. Talk was of tups, sires and bulls, of hay crops and turf ties of gorse, bracken and swaling. Everyone agreed that the beasts the farmer had brought for auction were prime beasts which should fetch a handsome price. As it happened a large grazier from the ‘in country’ was at the market in search of some good stock and he had already noted the farmers beasts. Before long the sale started and all the moormen were eager to see what price the farmers cattle would make. Bidding was fierce and the auctioneer had no problem getting a good price, in fact the farmers steers made ‘top price’ for the day. Having seen the buyer and exchanged the traditional ‘luck money’ the farmers, as was the norm, retired to the inn. After a hearty lunch of roast beef followed by whortleberry pie the farmers settled down to a few games of ‘spoof fur whisky’. The farmers luck even held out in the spoofing and he never lost a game. This meant he had partaken of ‘a gud vew’ tots and was in a happy, carefree mood. By about 3.00pm he decided it was time to be heading home and again wished he had a pony because with a 10 mile trip carrying at least a whisky tot for every mile he was in no fit state. As he left the inn he bumped into a gypsy horse dealer who was not slow to watch the purposeful but unsteady gait of the farmer. Seizing his chance the gypsy collared the moorman and lead him over to a nearby tethered pony. He spun his yarn about how nobody would give him a fair price for his animal and how rather than let it go for a loss was taking it home. He explained to the farmer that he could see he was a master judge of horse flesh and this noble beast would give him many years of service. He would even throw in the head collar and reigns as part of the deal. Through the fug of whisky haze the farmer did see a noble animal and one that would serve him ‘proper’. Luck comes in three’s the farmer thought, he had got top price, he had won at spoof and now here was an equine bargain. After all if need be he could always re-sell the pony should and it meant he could ride home. So the deal was done and the farmer paid the gypsy all the money he had made from the sale of his cattle. Proudly he mounted his pony and set off back to the moor.
As he rode down West Street he though he saw a few people laughing and nodding in his direction but thought nothing of it. Slowly the pony clopped up the lane off onto the moor, over New Bridge and up the hill towards Holne. By the time they had reached the top of Holne hill the pony was broken winded and could hardly walk a step further. The farmer had by now sobered up and the awful truth was dawning that in ‘his cups’ he had bought a ‘cauch pawny’ (worthless pony). More to the point he had spent all the money that was meant to see the family through the coming winter. To say he was distraught would be an understatement. He dismounted the pony and slowly led it along the lane, all the time wondering how he was going to explain all this to his wife. Five hours ago he was as rich as a king and now he was as poor as a pauper. He had rent to pay, feed to buy, and many other expenses to keep the farm going. Step by step he slowly ‘traipsed’ homeward, fretting more and more. By the time he had reached the tinners gully below ‘Cumston tor’ he knew that he just didn’t have the courage to face his wife. He’d thought over all the options, sell some more animals, but he had none fit to sell, borrow the money, he knew nobody well enough to ask, he couldn’t even sell some land as it was all rented. Slowly he took the head collar off the pony and unclipped the reigns. Giving the poor animal a final pitiful stroke he smacked it on the rump and sent if off into the moor, maybe it had a chance running with the other moor ponies, he then sent his old dog on the familiar trip back to the farm.
The following morning a gang of tinners found his body hanging from a tree in the gully. He had tied one end of the reigns around a sturdy branch and the other end around his neck, then he had jumped out of the tree. By the time they had cut down the stiff dew covered corpse his wife who had been out searching since first light came by. Well, you can imagine the scene, the tinners covered the body with their coats, the wife was sobbing and wailing and the dog kept licking the cold hand of his master. It was a tragic day. Ever since, those tinners workings have been known as ‘Hangman’s Pit’ and it is said on dark, still, windy nights you can hear the creaking of the corpse blowing in the wind.