If you pass through the tiny moorland village of North Bovey today you will see a tranquil village green upon which stands an ancient granite cross, a splendid old inn and some rustic cottages nestled around a fine church. There are many descriptives that come to mind when viewing this sleepy settlement, idyllic, peaceful and even god fearing to name but a few. However, at a time which barely teeters on the edge of human memory things were not idyllic and in some quarters definitely not god fearing, in fact just the opposite. North Bovey was the home to an infamous, spiteful, old lady known as ‘The Toad Woman’ who lived in a small, tumble-down cottage on the edge of the village. I will not give her full name as there are descendants of hers living in the village today, suffice it to say she was always known as ‘Widow Ann’. Depending on how well people got on with her she was either regarded as a hedge witch or a black witch. In desperate times the villagers would seek her help but only as a last resort, their desperation would overcome the dreaded fear in which she was held.
It was a known fact that Widow Ann practiced the black arts and should the mood take her she could conjure up a cure for most ailments but always at a price. Some say that they have seen warts shrivel up and disappear at the very sight of the old woman, others will tell of how one sip of her potion will cure toothache faster than the blink of an eye. On the other hand many villagers can point the finger and relate how sudden misfortunes have blighted their lives at a time coinciding with them getting on the wrong side of Widow Ann.
In many cases of folklore the tales are verbally handed down from generation to generation and because of this a lot of the detail is lost. But in the case of The Toad Woman there is an old document that keeps a much of the detail alive thus giving us an insight to the, ‘old ways’ of Dartmoor. As mentioned above, Widow Ann knew many spells, cures and curses all of which she would use when she thought fit. But, she always needed help and that assistance could be found living in a steen which stood on her dresser and amazingly there survives to this day a photograph of that self same pot – see below:
Inside this old storage jar lived fifteen toads amongst whom were ‘Croppy’, ‘Rumbo’ and the most feared of all, ‘Krant’, it was their job to help the old woman weave her spells and curses. That old jar was known and feared by all the villagers and sometimes when people came for her help she would dare them to touch the steen, if they did then she would give them what they needed, if they didn’t the poor folk would run in terror from her cott.
In addition to the toads, Ann needed two other unlikely aids in her witchcraft, one was of all things a bible and the other being her door key. Again we are fortunate enough to know exactly how bible and toads we used in the black arts. Seemingly when a particular spell or curse needed to be cast she would first take the bible and place the door key inside the pages as if it were sitting in a lock then tightly tie a length of cord around the book. Then the old woman would lift the bible by the handle of the key and place it edgewise on the table, if the holy book remained still then she knew the powers of darkness were not strong enough to cast her spell. However, if the bible turned around this was the signal that her powers were strong enough to complete her mischief. At this point the steen was fetched from the dresser and the toads released, then the fun began, with the warty amphibians croaking and hopping over the good book the magic was made.
There is one other element to the mystical antics of the Toad Woman and it is here, for a very good reason, that the details become rather sketchy. Some of the black magic rites performed by the old woman were that diabolical that they needed some assistance from beyond the grave. So in order to get such help Ann would, along with her toads, take themselves off to the churchyard on dark, mist-shrouded nights. Nobody knows to which grave she went or what happened because the villagers were sorely afraid to get too close incase they met with the Devil himself. All that is known is that the old woman could be heard chanting along with the guttural croaking of the toads.
If ever you are in the sleepy village of North Bovey just look around and admire the tranquillity of the place but remember, many years ago things weren’t quite as idyllic as they are today. And should you meet a toad, especially one who answers to the name of Krant, be afraid, be very afraid.