Just over 1.8 kilometres south-south-west of Moretonhampstead along a road known as Pound Street is a small crossroads known as Bovey Cross. This narrow road takes its name from the old North Bovey livestock pound some 640 metres further down the road.
Besides the crossroads sits an ancient wayside cross, now very much shorter than it once was. Generally this cross is known as Horsepit, or if you want the Dartmoor vernacular, Hospit Cross. As the ancient stone crosses of Dartmoor goes this one is not one to write home about. However, the actual name of the cross certainly is one that could fire up the imagination as to its origin. It certainly demonstrates how hard it is to establish exactly why a location or landscape feature acquired its name.
Normally the term ‘pit’ refers to a mine or quarry. In other places where Horsepit occurs the ‘horse’ element can refer to the number of horses working at a pit. Unfortunately I can find no evidence of a quarry anywhere near the location of the cross so that would seem to rule that theory out.
There could be another possibility and that alludes to another name for the cross; Horse Pit. A ‘Horse Pit’ was somewhere that the game of tossing horse shoes at a metal stake took place, the idea being to actually hook the shoe around the stake. Could it be that the field was where some locals played this game???
Starkey offers another suggestion, namely that the name comes from there once being a wayside hospice located along one of the four roads leading off from the junction. If so the the cross’s name would have mutated from ‘Hospice Cross’ to Hospit Cross, p.72.
But thanks to good, old William Crossing the most plausible explanation of the name is that it was the name of a nearby field. The reason the field was so called was that at one time the farmer buried one of his horses there, p.51. Crossing gives no mention of this explanation in his ‘The Ancient Stones Crosses of Dartmoor’ book which was first published in 1892. It was not until 1914 that it appeared in his ‘Folklore and Legends of Dartmoor‘ book which was published that year. This would suggest that this nugget of information was discovered post-publication of his crosses book. That’s the beauty of anything written and posted on the internet, it can always be easily updated or amended.
Hopefully this demonstrates the complexity of place-names and their origins, I certainly would not have come to Crossing’s conclusion but having now read it everything seems to fit.
Just to confuse things a little more, the other name that the cross sometimes goes under is the ‘Stumpy Cross’ which I would suggest is for obvious reasons; the cross is basically a stump of its former self.
Finally just as you thought you had things straight there is one final name under which the old cross can go; Bovey Cross. Personally I would suggest that this name applies to the crossroads as opposed to the actual cross.
The vital statistics of this cross are that it strains to reach a height of 99 centimetres and has an arm span of 55 centimetres and is aligned in a NNE – SSE direction, Sandles, p.52.
At some point in the past the cross was utilised by the Ordnance Surveyors and was incised with their famous inverted arrow (located near the top of the head) as can be seen from the old map opposite. Additionally the cross also served as a routemarker and had the letters ‘O’ (Okehampton), ‘M’ (Moretonhampstead), ‘N’ (Newton Abbot) and ‘B’ (North Bovey) cut into each respective face. It is possible that these letters were added around 1696 at the dictate of a parliamentary act.
On the 22nd of February 1955 the cross was listed as a Grade II listed building (although why a building I know not). The reason being; “Hospit Cross consists of the upper portion of a massive medieval wayside cross, and still forms a striking feature at a crossroads. The cross is also of interest for having been used as a routemarker, with direction letters craved on i,.” – Historic England.
There once was a tradition in the Moretonhampstead area that when the church bells chime the twelfth stroke of midnight the old stone cross turns around three times in its socket, TDA – p.135.
I’m not sure if it’s my imagination or what but if you look at the old postcard of Horsepit Cross above and then compare it with a photograph I took in the late 1990s – has the signpost changed sides of the road?
Amery, P. F. S. (Ed). 1903. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. Plymouth: W. Brendon & Son.
Crossing, W. 1997. Folklore and Legends of Dartmoor. Liverton: Forest Publishing.
Sandles, T. 1997. A Pilgrimage to Dartmoor’s Crosses. Liverton: Forest Publishing.
Starkey, F. H. 1989. Dartmoor Crosses and Some Ancient Tracks. Exeter: A. Wheaton & Co. Ltd.