Below the majestic granite outcrop known as Sharp tor and overlooking the Dart Valley sits a lonely farm called Rowbrook. It has always known that during the dark and dismal winter days the River Dart can be heard sighing and moaning as it tumbles down through the rocky gorge. Some folk even say that when the wind is in the right direction the river sounds just like a human voice, softy murmuring.
Many years ago a young lad lived at Rowbrook, it was his job to tend to the cattle on the farm. Late one winter’s evening the family and workers were all gathered around the kitchen table, they had just finished dinner and were ‘newsin’ about the events of the day. All of a sudden the young cowman burst into the kitchen, he was clearly agitated about something. “There be summon a calling down by the Dart,” he yelled, “Better way come quick as ‘hey might be in mortal peril.” Begrudgingly the labourers dragged themselves away from the glowing fire and trudged off after the lad into the cold night. Slowly the party picked their way through the gloom until they were all stood on the banks of the river where the boy had heard the voice. All that could be heard was the rushing waters and the screech of a Tawny Owl. “Ee must ‘a bin mistook,” said the ploughman. “Es there be nought out there but an ol’ owl,” said the shepherd. “I knaw fur sartin that I ‘eard a voice'” the lad exclaimed, “t’was a pitiful cry fur ‘elp.” They all strained their ears in an effort to hear the supposed cries. Suddenly a faint voice could be heard calling “Jan Coo! Jan Coo!” The men desperately peered into the darkness trying to see where the voice was coming from. “Where be ee tu? What can us do?” called the men. The voice stopped its feeble calling and all that could be heard was the river and the owl. “Fernley, ee go an get sum lantarns and maybe us ‘ull see what’s a gawin’ on,” the shepherd yelled. The ploughman scurried off back to the farm and soon returned with several glowing horn lanterns. For a good hour the men searched every inch of that cold, damp river bank but found nothing.
The following night the same thing happened, the men had just finished their dinner and the young cowman charged into the kitchen with the exact same story as before. It was a bitterly cold night and the men decided they were not going off on a wild goose chase and so the party just went outside to the yard. This time all could plainly hear the pathetic voice calling from the river below, “Jan Coo! Jan Coo! Jan Cooooo,” the voice wailed upon the still wintry evening air. “What du ee want,” the men called out, again no reply was forthcoming and all went quite. “Aw ’tis the piskies a messin’ about,” the shepherd mumbled. “mind I ‘ave nivver knawed um to be abroad on such a mortal bad night as this.” “If ’tis the piskies us had better leave um be,” the ploughman nervously exclaimed, “naught gud a comes from meddlin’ wi’ the piskies fur sartin.” With that they all shuffled back to the warmth of the fireplace, the ploughman firmly locking the kitchen door behind him.
The bitter winter had begun to slowly release its icy grip on the moor and the first primroses were peeking through the hedgebanks. It was a fresh spring evening which saw the young cowman and his friend Abel coming back across the moor. He had just come down by Sharp tor when the young lad froze in his tracks. Below he could plainly hear the plaintive cries, “Jan Coo! Jan Coo! Jan COO!” This time they seemed to be insistent and urgent and coming from Langamarsh Pit. “Jan Coo, Jan Coo,” the boy replied fully expecting the voice to be silent, only this time it wasn’t, “Jan Coo! Jan Coo,” came the reply. The young lad looked at his friend, “’tis me they be a calling,” he nervously said, “I ‘ull go an’ see want ’tis ‘um want, you get on back to the farm and I ‘ull see ee there directly.” With that the cowman scurried off down towards the river, his friend watched him weave his way around the huge, moss covered boulders and then start to pick his way across the river, hopping from stepping stone to stepping stone. Still the voice continued to cry out from Langamarsh Pit, “Jan Coo! Jan Coo!” By now the combination of the trees and the failing light meant that the young lad could no longer be seen by his friend so he decided to make his way back to Rowbrook. All the while Abel could hear the voice calling, demanding, inviting, its cries ringing out across the valley bottom. On reaching the farmhouse the boy had no sooner lifted the latch than the cries abruptly stopped, he remained on the doorstep, head cocked, straining to hear the haunting sound – nothing. With a shiver the lad went into the kitchen where the labourers were assembled court-like around the kitchen table. The shepherd offered him a mug of steaming tea which he gladly accepted and cupping his hands around it the boy then related his story. “Well may be us ‘ull knaw the truth of the matter when ee du come ‘ome,” the ploughman said. The shepherd slowly nodded his head, “ess an’ maybe us ‘ull knaw if ’tis piskie mischief or no.”
The kitchen clock chimed hour after hour and there was no sign of the young cowman. The shepherd looked at the ploughman who in turn looked at the stable lad who searchingly looked at the farmer. “Best get the lanterns, rope and the pony,” the farmer ordered. The party then took off towards Langamarsh Pit, each desperately hoping the rope and pony would not be needed. There was not an inch of the river bank that was not searched nor a pool that was not dragged but all was in vain the young lad had vanished. The shepherd wagged a knowing finger, “’tis the piskies, I knaw ’tis the piskies, Langamarsh Pit be their favourit’ haunt an they ‘ull keep that lad fur a year and a day fur sartin,” he muttered. “Will you shut up about the blimmin’ piskies,” the ploughman yelled, “if it be anything of the sort it will be the call of the river callin’ un and that means us shall nivver see ee agin.” Prophetic words, the young cowman was never seen again and the mysterious voice remained as silent as the grave.
River of Dart, O River of Dart,
Every year thou claimest a heart!