Every year a party of us try to rent a weekend cottage on Dartmoor, preferably in the quieter times of the year but still allowing for some decent weather. Hmm, taking into consideration the vagaries of the Dartmoor climate predicting some decent weather is something akin to picking the winning lotto numbers. So having booked a superb, secluded cottage, held the vital pre-visit logistical meeting we were all set for the 2015 Dartmoor pilgrimage. When I say we I mean the merry band consisted of Angela, Louise, Rhys, Holly and myself, the ‘Legendary Dartmoor Crew’.
June 12th 2015
It was around 4.30am when I was awoken by the daily serenading of two Collared Doves outside the bedroom window, which reminds me I must buy some airgun pellets. Normally this is the cue that there are still a couple of hours left before it’s rise and shine time. However this was the morn of the 2015 Dartmoor Pilgrimage which meant busy, busy time. The first job was to check the online weather forecast, well I say forecast but because the initial one was so dire I ended up checking about 50 of them. Big mistake, I was confronted with a selection that ranged from nigh on tropical to just about Arctic tundra conditions. This did not help with the choice of what clothing to pack so it was a case of pack for all eventualities.
The second problem was my car, unfortunately I am the proud owner (well actually I’m not the proud owner my company is and I’m not proud of it) of a Vauxhall Insignia Elite. Since November 2014 I have had big problems, you are happily driving along when random warning messages flash up on the dashboard. These are then immediately followed by the safety controller cutting in which then reduces the speed down to a rapidly decreasing 10mph. This is no fun when you are in the outside lane of a busy motorway doing about 90 mph as has happened on many occasions. So, as you can imagine there was some doubt as to whether or not to risk the 114 mile journey down to Dartmoor.
As the saying goes; “he who dares wins,” so it was decided to take the risk and the car so later that day we were Dartmoor bound. Sadly not everyone who dares wins, a few miles down the M4 the dashboard proudly announced that I must ‘Service Vehicle Soon’ and the car slowly reduced itself to a 50 mph crawl. After pulling onto the hard shoulder, switching the engine off and on a few times it was back up and running. Basically this was the routine for the rest of the journey and I have never been so glad to reach a destination in my life, especially one on Dartmoor.
On the plus side the cottage we had rented was fabulous, wide ranging vistas over West Devon and Cornwall, secluded and well furnished. Normally the routine on these pilgrimages is that on the first night we have a barbeque, some beers all rounded off with cheese and port, all very civilised. However, one slight problem, the wide ranging vistas were hidden behind a thick shroud of mist and the temperature was something akin to Arctic tundra, definitely not barbeque conditions. Time for plan B, a quick drive down to the Peter Tavy Inn for some dinner and a few beers. They had a beer on tap called ‘Some of That’ so who could resist ordering a pint of ‘Some of That’. This beer is brewed by the Branscombe Vale Brewery who also do another called ‘Some of This’, not sure if they brew one called ‘Some of the Other’? Rhys and Louise are cider drinkers and there was a good selection of those for them to sample. I must say that the food was excellent, the staff very friendly and the blazing log fire very warming (despite the fact it was mid June it was needed) – I can thoroughly recommend the place. The night was superbly rounded off back at the cottage with another blazing log fire, (yes there was even a log supply), a few more beers, (yes we did come well equipped) and everyone updating Facebook and emails (yes there was even a brilliant WiFi connection provided). Then having checked the next day’s weather (which was a bit more promising) everyone retired for the night. Oh I forgot, the main reason for visiting the Peter Tavy Inn was that I had received some emails from the landlord who said to pop in next time I was in the area. Unfortunately it was not the Peter Tavy Inn and so must have been the Mary Tavy Inn, easy mistake to make. So it was decided to pop in to the Mary Tavy Inn the following day.
June 13th 2015
As promised by the weathermen we awoke to a greyish sky that held the promise of a few pocket handkerchief sized patches of blue. The goal for the day was to have a wander across to Pew Tor and its surrounds, not a proper Dartmoor Xcursion but a safe one as far as the weather went. There were also a few pieces of landscape furniture I wanted to locate and photograph. It did not take long to drive down to the car park under Cox Tor, kit up and head off along the eastern flank of Barn Hill. The first oddity I wanted to find was a inscription carved into the small launder that carries the Grimstone and Sortridge leat across the Beckamoor Combe. Hard as I make look I could not find the blessed thing, then Louise sauntered along and asked what I was looking for. I explained what it was and immediately received a puzzled look; “you mean that what you are virtually stood on,” she replied. Yes, exactly that what I was stood on the wording; “JOHN WILLS 1953 – 1987.” roughly carved into the edge of the wooden launder. Maybe this was some kind of memorial to a man whose favourite spot this was?
It was then time to pick up the leat and following it on its gently meandering course around the edge of Barn Hill. The next item on the agenda were the ruins of what was thought to have been a blacksmith’s shop located just a bit further along the leat. It was here that the blacksmith would sharpen the stone cutters tools which were used on Steeple tor, Roos Tor and Pew Tor setts. In addition he also shoed the horses which were used to haul the granite wagons. Finally any of the wooden wagon wheels which needed the iron rims sealed onto them would also be done there. Just outside the ruins sits a beautifully fashioned wheelwright’s stone laying testimony to its use for sealing the iron rims. It is thought that the Blacksmith’s Shop was built by John Greenwood, the lessee of the granite setts sometime in the early 1870s. However, it is just possible that there was an earlier building on the site prior to the above shop. Mike Brown notes how he discovered a report of an escaped prisoner taking refuge in an, “unoccupied house on Barn Hill.” In his opinion there never has been another ‘house’ on Barn Hill so it could well have been an earlier building erected on the same site. p. 9.
As we all thudded along the footpath everyone screeched to a halt at the site of a hairy caterpillar inching its way to safety. What sort was it? A flood of suggestions came in but none were definitive, yes it was hairy, probably a moth of some descript and we’ll look it up on Google. That’s proven harder than originally thought but maybe it was ****
The really nice thing about following the leat around its curve is the ever changing aspect of Vixen Tor, the infamous lair of Vixiana the Witch but today being more infamous as being the ‘Forbidden Tor‘. Despite there being several interesting landscape features located within the tor’s enclosure it is ‘Private Land’ with no access. With every step a rock image of the old hag’s face slowly transforms into a hideous leer and one can quite see how the legend of the witch grew up around this tor.
A bit further along the leat we came across a snowflake-like mass of Cotton Grass with its fluffy heads waving around in the wind. If you want to be technically correct the plant is not a grass at all as it’s a member of the Sedge family. One cannot help thinking that with a name like Cotton Grass the heads could be used to product a textile of some sort. In fact this has been tried but the fibres proved to be too brittle to make them of any use. There are suggestions that the heads have been used to stuff pillows which seems plausible. Another odd fact is that the Cotton Grass plant was adopted as the County Flower of Greater Manchester? For anybody into bushcraft the white Cotton Grass seed heads make excellent tinder when dry and also act as ‘coal extender’ when using friction lighting.
Soon the old Windy Post cross with its unmistakable drunken tilt came into view and it did not take a genius to see how it got its name. The wind was gusting across the moor so much so hats and coats were hurriedly put on. There can be no doubt that this time-worn relic of a distant age holds a certain mystique of its own with its lichen crusted head testifying to its great age. Some lines of V. L. Phillips’ poem always come to mind when standing at the cross; “A little old cross on the windy heather, Roughly hewn out of granite gray, Fretted and worn by the wind and the weather,Carved by the monks of a bygone day.” The Windy Post is said to date back to medieval times when it was a waymarker on the old monastic track which connected the abbeys of Buckfast and Tavistock.
Just beside the old cross is where the Grimstone and Sortridge leats donates some of its waters to a branch leat via a Bullseye Stone. It is at this junction when our path briefly follows the branch leat before going across to Feather Tor. Whilst on the tor we came across what a first I took to be a crushed up fluorescent clay pigeon which on closer inspection turned out to be a fungus of some sort. The photograph below is slightly misleading as its actual colour was more of a darker orange. Being no expert on fungi the nearest similarity that I can find is that of the Orange Peel Fungus?
Shortly after encountering the mystery fungus we came across a herd of ponies, I hesitate to call them Dartmoor Ponies as they were far from being what is now termed Dartmoor Heritage Ponies, in other words pure-breds. But regardless of their breeding they were enough to send horse-mad Holly into raptures especially as she was able to get so close to the foals she took a picture of one with its nose on the camera lens. I can’t say too much about Feather Tor as its pretty unspectacular and so once we had dragged Holly kicking and screaming away from the ponies we tramped across to nearby Heckwood Tor. Again not a lot here except a well weathered outcrop which had a distinct haggard face-like appearance. No matter whereabouts on Dartmoor you are if you stare at the various rock formations long enough they will take on some form or another albeit a face, animal etc. These ‘Rock Idols‘ were supposedly fashioned by the ancient Druids if some of the early antiquarians are to be believed. But sorry to burst the bubble its all down to the fault of the wind, rain and ice and I’m afraid even if this one looks like the Witch of Vixen Tor has migrated.
Having explored Heckwood it was time to move on to Pew Tor which was the prime objective. Now, Pew Tor is a magical place, it was thought to have been an early Druid temple with seats of judgement and their ritual rock basins. Not only that, some will say that deep under the tor is the fabulous palace of the Piskie King. In addition it was in more recent times the place where seven sheep were supposedly ritually killed for either some cult ceremony or an experiment carried out by aliens. So as you can see one should tread carefully when visiting this place. Well, after much scrambling and scrabbling up and down the various outcrops we found the ritual basins of the Druids. I will leave this to your judgement but we were even lucky enough to find the doorway into the Piskie King’s palace. Not only that we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of a piskie stood by it as can be seen from the photograph below. What we could not find were the various boundary markers for the old quarry limits despite a fairly intensive search. My lesson for the day (well every visit to Dartmoor) – always bring the GPS co-ordinates for what one is looking for.
Also on the tor were a party of children busily poking around the tor in search of letterboxes. Now at onetime I was big into letterboxing but over the past years have concentrated my efforts in writing this website instead. However, the fact that Holly was also enthusiastically poking around under the rocks and finding several letterboxes herself hinted that I may have to start ‘boxing’ again. The thing with letterboxing, especially with youngsters in tow is that it’s a healthy outdoors pursuit, it’s free and it gives the kids some interest as opposed to slogging mile after mile. Even though we had decided to have lunch on the tor the lure of food was not enough to distract Holly from her boxing adventures such was her enthusiasm.
After lunch was eaten we decided to head back to the car and pay a visit to Princetown as we needed firelighters for that night’s barbeque, also as the Plume of Feathers was there it would be rude not to pay a visit. So we bade farewell to the Druids and the piskies and headed off back down the slopes of the tor towards the old quarry. Keeping on the mysterious theme, we spotted just beside the edge of the quarry a black rabbit. Clearly this was not of wild descent and so was either a pet somebody had released or a hybrid rabbit who had descended from a liaison with a pet and a wild rabbit. Either way despite Holly’s frantic efforts she could not catch it to take it home for a pet – thank God.
Having got back to the car we drove on to Princetown where we bought a few supplies for that evening’s meal. Then having parked the cars at the Plume of Feathers it was only polite to call in for a pint. Now for at least 30 odd years I had frequented the ‘Plume’ whenever passing. Back in the days when James Langton was the landlord it was deemed as the best pub on the moor. Since his departure to sunnier climbs it has never quite been the same. Nevertheless it holds fond memories and so I still visit when passing and this occasion was no exception. In we traipsed and ordered our drinks, us men on the Jail Ale and the ladies on cider. My wife Angela fancied trying some raspberry cider but after tasting it decided it was not to her liking, especially as it was as flat as a ‘Witches Tit’. So she went to the bar and asked if she could change it for a half of ordinary cider. One of the barmen thought it clever to point out that if she wanted American style beer she should go to America. The other barman then proceeded to be even cleverer and tell her this joke; “What’s the difference between American beer and a canoe? Both are fucking close to water.” Having been unforgivably rude, actually swearing and laughing the barman then charged for the replacement drink. Now there would have been a time not that long ago when I would have had a ‘little chat’ with those ignorant pigs. But with the dawning age of social media I find that the ‘keyboard is mightier than the sword’. So once I could get a mobile signal I posted on my Legendary Dartmoor Facebook page the following; “At the Plume of Feathers – been going there for years – shame it’s turned into a shit hole with pig ignorant bar staff.” As you can see from the screenshot below that post has reached 604 people, received 12 likes, and 8 comments all agreeing to one degree or another. Potentially this means that there are 604 people who just may think twice before visiting the Plume of Feathers, all for the sake of some decent courtesy and replacing a half of cider. I know for a fact I shall never step foot over its grubby door again!
On a more lighter note, we decided to pay a visit to the Mary Tavy Inn to see if I could catch up with the correct landlord this time. Oh dear, the landlord was there but it was not even him who had been contacting me. Now I was stumped, I was sure whatever pub it was had ‘Tavy’ in its name, but it wasn’t Peter Tavy or Mary Tavy and I couldn’t think of no other ‘Tavy’ inn? Anyway, there was some decent beer and cider to be had and a vacant dartboard which when combined made for an enjoyable hour or so.
By the time we returned to the cottage the rain had started to come down again which meant no barbeque, well, outdoor barbeque anyway. However there was nothing to stop us having an indoor barbeque which meant cooking all the burgers etc in the oven as opposed to on a charcoal fire. As you can see below, the poor dejected barbeque stands forlornly amidst the fog and rain but we did make the best of a bad job and had a sumptuous feast in front of the log fire. Oh by the way, two things, if you are wondering why there are scallop shells on the thumb backgrounds that’s because there were a sign of a pilgrim and we were Dartmoor pilgrims. Secondly, if you are wondering where the cottage is – I’m not saying in case we want to book again and find out it’s all booked up.
Oh yes finally, having returned home and looked up my past emails I now know that the elusive landlord can be found at the Royal Standard in Mary Tavy, the one we drove past on four occasions. At least I got the ‘Tavy’ bit correct? Day 3 of the pilgrimage will appear on a separate webpage.
Brown, M. 1998. Mike Brown’s Filed Guides – Vol. 6. Plymouth: Dartmoor Press.