Now I am assured this is a true story by a kind gentleman who now lives in Australia and was told him by his grandmother whose family originally came from up on Dartmoor. It concerns an old lady who the villagers used to call, ‘Mother Pink Brolly’, she used to live in a small white cottage which lay on the very hem of the parish boundary. The reason she was known as ‘Mother Pink Brolly’ was that she always carried an umbrella that was as pink as the summer woodbine. Well, in fact that is not exactly true because on the day of a parishioners funeral the livid pink brolly was exchanged for a sombre grey one as a mark of respect. She always used to tell the villagers that she, ‘were doin’ ee a kindness by tellin’ the weather, if ’twere rainin’ then me brolly be up an’ if it twernt it be down‘. The other service she did for the small village was to act as a very efficient newspaper because her one weakness was ‘newsin’, if you wanted to know the latest gossip then just pop down old Mother Pink Brolly’s cott. Half the time you would never find her there because she was always out gathering news, just like a squirrel at autumn time. Some of the old boys down at the inn reckoned that they could get a few extra ales by not buying a newspaper and just inviting old Mother Pink Drolly down of a Friday night.
Anyway, it must have been late September when a local farmer’s wife was returning home from selling her dairy produce at the local market. It was about ‘dimpsey’ time when the glow from the setting sun tinged the moorland horizon a deep crimson, and it was in this gloaming light that she swore she saw two piskies scampering along the lane towards the old clapper bridge that spanned the village brook. It did not take long for this story to reach Mother Pink Brolly and within hours the tale had reached most of the village. Now to be fair, the old woman always used to distribute her ‘news’ in a methodical system insomuch as she would start at one end of the village and work her way to the other. To avoid the same people getting her juicy titbits first she would alternate which end she began at. In this instance it was Obadiah Maitland who lived at the last cott before the moorgate who was last to hear of the piskie sighting. By the time Mother Pink Brolly had reached him the tale had been somewhat exaggerated by the telling and it was by then a band of at least fifty piskies that the farmer’s wife had seen and in fact they had brutally attacked her en mass. As is their want, the little folk had supposedly pinched and poked the woman until her whole body was covered with plum purple bruises. Now unfortunately Obadiah was out weeding his cabbage patch when Mother Pink Brolly found him and what both people didn’t realise was that secretly sat in the nearby rhubarb clump was a piskie who took great interest in her story.
Anyone who lives on Dartmoor knows that piskies have been known to punish humans by pinching and poking them but only when deserved, they also know that piskies hate being blamed for something they didn’t do. So that night at the piskie revel the little fellow that was sat in the rhubarb clump related the tale he had heard Mother Pink Brolly telling. The matter was that serious that a meeting of the high council of piskies was immediately called to discuss the matter. The little folk chirped and chirruped with indignation and as their excitement grew one piskie noted how this was not the first time old Mother Pink Brolly had spread malicious gossip about them. The council soon came to the unanimous decision that the old woman was guilty and that it was time to teach her a lesson she wouldn’t forget. The harder conclusion to reach was how she should be punished. By the time they had come to a solution the moon had travelled from one end of the sky to the other but despite having missed their nightly frolics a plan of action had been agreed.
On the night of the next full moon a small raiding party of piskies went to Mother Pink Brolly’s little cott where silently they slipped the catch on the back door and stole into the kitchen. Four piskies scurried into the hall where they found a rather tatty elephant’s foots in which stood two umbrellas, one woodbine pink and the other sombre grey. The remainder of the little folk stayed in the kitchen looking up at the old woman’s washing that was drying on a line over the oven. When they scampered out of the cott the elephant’s foot stood empty and the washing line had a huge empty gap in which hung a small, green cap.
The following day saw the village in turmoil as by the twelfth noon chime of the church clock nobody had seen old Mother Pink Brolly. Matthew Bellamy, the oldest living person in the village, said he could not remember a single day when he had not seen the woodbine pink brolly sedately floating up the main street. A search party was soon sent out, their first port of call was the small, white cott at the end of the village but there was no answer at the door. They then spread out and scoured the barns and byres that were dotted around the neighbourhood. Two men even searched the numerous trout pools that lay along the village brook – all to no avail. By the time the waning moon came up over the far tors the village folk reluctantly decided to postpone the search until the following dawn, they all agreed to meet in the churchyard at 5.00am the next day.
No sooner had the first cock crowed than the search party were assembled and eager to resume their mission but just as they were about to leave someone spotted old Samuel Dawe rushing down a nearby stroll as fast as his knackered old knees would allow. Incidentally I am not being rude, he was known as ‘Old Knacker Knees’ because years of working in the peat cuts had given him serious rheumatics. By the time the old boy had reached the lych gate he was almost breathless but spread over his weather-beaten face was a wry, toothless grin.
‘I bet ‘er be ‘iding in er cott‘, old Samuel said, ‘an’ I bet ‘er be there becaws ‘er be tu abashed to cum out.’
The reason for this theory was simple, Old Knacker Knees’ was not only a peat cutter he was also a poacher and on returning from a foray down at the nearby rabbit warren he passed by Preacher’s Tor. This was a huge granite outcrop that loomed above the village, it was so called because it was here that the passing Methodist ministers would hold their services. In fact one such minister was due the next day in order to preach to his non-conformist brethren. Anyway, as the old chap approached the tor he noticed a strange object sticking up from the highest outcrop and as he got closer he could see that it was a large, opened, pink umbrella. Even more mysterious was that draped over it was an even larger pair of huge, pink bloomers that gently flapped in the moorland breeze. Now it did not take a genius to work out who the umbrella belonged to and therefore logic must dictate that the bloomers belonged to the same person. What was difficult to comprehend was how they got there and but one person who knew the answer to that – old Mother Pink Brolly.
Now at those times there were certain personal, female garments that were never mentioned and seldom seen, on wash days they would always be dried over the oven and never put out on the line, which is why bloomers were often referred to as ‘unmentionables’. So in light of the delicate matter and order to avoid a great deal of embarrassment a small detail was dispatched down to Mother Pink Brolly’s cott. Eventually after a good 30 minutes of determined hammering and banging at the cott door a very reluctant and shamed old woman appeared. All the time avoiding eye contact the old woman described how two days ago she awoke to find her prink brolly missing but even worse a huge gap on the drying line where her ‘unmentionables’ had been hung. She also related how in their place hung a tiny, green cap which could only have belonged to a piskie and that it was a message from the little folk to say they had stolen her brolly and bloomers. She then began to weep and wail and through all the sobbing begged the villagers to help her find her missing items.
In all reality this was the first time Mother Pink Brolly had ever been the subject of any scandalous gossip and the assembled villagers were going to make the best of it. It was Mrs Cannings, the village seamstress who assured the old woman that all was well as the location of the missing items was known. Just as a look of relied waved over Mother Pink Brolly’s face the seamstress delivered the twist of the knife:
‘ess‘ she smugly nodded, ‘un be firmly affixed ‘pon Preacher’s Tor where un be a gettin’ a praper airing draped ovver yer pink brolly’, jist by where the minister u’ll be a preachin’ on the morrow!’
With a howl and a shriek old Mother Pink Brolly charged down the street towards the tor like a lurcher slipped from the leash which for her age was truly amazing.
Needles to say that once the brolly and ‘unmentionables’ had been recovered, and not without great difficulty I might add, old Mother Pink Brolly was never ever seen scurrying around the village newsin which came as a relief to her neighbours and with great satisfaction from the little folk.
My thanks to Tom Wilks for sending me this story the memory of which had travelled with his family to Australia and has now returned to its rightful place in the annals of Dartmoor legend.
Incidentally, to the best of my knowledge there is no tor on Dartmoor called Preacher’s Tor where congregations used to meet. However just on the edge of Sticklepath is a rock known as ‘White Rock‘ which is where the Methodist minister John Wesley used to preach???