Dartmoor is criss-crossed by many ancient tracks and paths which have been used by various travellers for centuries, these varied from a couple of miles to long slogs of twenty plus miles. One such track was the ‘Mariner’s Way‘ which ran from Bideford in north Devon to Dartmouth in south Devon. As the name suggests the track was used by sailors who landed at either port and needed to change ships so those landing at Bideford would then travel down to Dartmouth and visa versa. This was a seventy odd mile journey of which twenty miles crossed Dartmoor, as can be imagined in winter this was a perilous trek through snow covered wastes and swollen moorland streams.
There is one old tale which tells of a moorland shepherd who whilst out tending his flock came across a corpse of a man lying on the moor. His body was so emaciated that it was assumed it had laid there for a good five or six weeks, the man’s head was laid upon a small bundle of linen and at his feet lay what was presumed to be the remains of his faithful dog. People remarked at the time how despite such an awful death the face of the man was serene and peaceful. The famous Dartmoor poet, N. T. Carrington was so moved by this story that he put pen to paper and wrote the following account of the tale:
The Sailor’s Fate.
He perish’d on the moor ! The pitying swain
Found him outstretch’d upon the wide, wild plain ;
There lay the wanderer by the quiv’ring bog,
And, at his foot his patient, faithful dog.
Thrice gallant brute ! that through the weary day
Shared all the perils of the lonely way,
Faced the fierce storm, and by his master’s side,
In the cold midnight, laid him down and died !
Thrice gallant brute ! to thee the local bard
Shall sweep his lyre, fidelity’s reward ;
Thy fate shall wake the frequent sigh, and Fame
At least in moorland annals, grave thy name !
Was it for this (so Fancy sings) the Tar
Consumed his vigorous youth in climes afar,
And nobly dared, in danger’s every form,
The ocean battle and the ocean storm ;
Undaunted stood where on the blood-red wave
The death-shot peal’s among the English brave ;
Or scaled the slipp’ry yard, where, poised on high,
As the dread lightning burn’d along the sky,
He fearless hung, though, yielding to the blast,
Beneath him groan’d the rent and trembling mast ?
Ah ! haply fired by home’s enchanting name,
From tropic shores the enthusiast sailor came ;
To the fleet gales his bounding vessel gave,
And reach’d, at last, the fresh, wild western wave ;
Till, soon described, upon eager view
Dark from the surge the old Bolerium grew :
Then, as he heard the shoreward billows roll,
High glow’d the local fire within his soul ;
And now he raptured cried, “All dangers o’er
My native land ! we meet to part no more”.
While England, England on the foam-swept lee
Uprose, proud peering o’er the subject sea,
Disclosed at once to him her matchless charms,
And woo’d the wearied exile to her arms.
Where the swift Torridge, Tamar’s sister, flows
Through northern fields, perhaps his cot arose ;
And stout of heart, and strong of foot, he pass’d
With rapid course along the lessening waste.
‘Twas a wild path, by e’en the peasant shunn’d
But then his beckoning Canaan lay beyond.
Already, fancy-fired, he saw each scene
Well known and loved – the church, the village green –
Saw the hills sweetly rise, his native dells
Soft sink, and heard the music of the bells –
Delightful melodies, that still engage
The love of youth and joy the heart of age.
Illusions all ! down rush’d the moorland night ;
He met the mountain tempest in its might.
No guide to point the way, no friend to cheer ;
Gloom on his path, the fateful snow-storm near !
Alone ! – ah, when the ocean conflict grew
More loud, more fierce, and swift the death-shot flew
Or round his nark the infuriate billows raged,
‘Twas sympathy that all his toils assuaged ;
With dauntless hearts, with friends and comrades dear
He shared the danger, and smiled at fear.
But now – man far away – an exile poor,
He wander’d cheerless on the untrodden moor !
Swift from the cloud the arrowy lightening flash’d,
Fierce o’er the waste the impetuous waters dash’d,
Deep was the howl of torrents ; and when broke,
Drowning the torrent’s voice, the thunder-stroke,
Wide horror reign’d : again the deathful flash
Hiss’d on his track – again the mighty crash
Startled, but conquer’d not, the brave ! He stood
Amid the storm, in that great solitude,
With all a seaman’s high, enduring soul,
Eyed the keen fires, and heard the fate-peal roll ;
And though the warring elements had power
To crush him in that dark and trying hour,
They shook not that true spirit firm and fast,
Which sways a British seaman to the last !
He perished on the moor ! No shelt’ring grave
Oped for the hapless hero of the wave ;
Tell, rescued from the winter gale’s dread wing,
Waked the lone desert at the touch of Spring.
The feet came o’er the wild ; – by hill and rock
Sought the rude swain the wanderers of his flock.
There on the silent waste the victim lay,
The sport of winds through many a brumal day !
And, rough though highland swain, a generous sigh
Burst at the lot of poor mortality :
So, cold, so pale, so shrunk that manly brow,
That lip so mute, that eye so rayless now ;
That livid form which seem’d so rudely cast
From man, and whitening in the boreal blast !
He saw and felt, and, mourning at the doom
Of the poor stranger, bore him to his tomb
In the moorland church-yard : – yet no stone
Records his name – his home, his race, unknown ;
And nought remains of him in village lore
But this sad truth – He perish’d on the moor !
Noel Thomas Carrington – My Native Village: and Other Poems – 1830