It is a well known fact that moor folk, especially the farmers like a drop of the hard stuff from time to time. Which is no wonder when you consider the cold climate, any way of ‘warming your cockles’ is appreciated. It is also a well known fact that on old Dartymoor there was scant regard for rules and regulation and in particular taxes. So put the two together and you have the ideal market for illicit liquor, a fact that never passes the attention of a certain Tom Penny. With his contacts in Plymouth he soon established a source for smuggled spirits and with his contacts with the Dartmoor farming fraternity he soon built himself a thriving market as the ‘spirits man’. Tom also knew that the excise inspectors regularly travelled across the moor on their way between Exeter and Plymouth so he was always wary. One night he was delivering a consignment of spirit to the Brisworthy area. For those wanting smallish amounts of brandy or rum, Tom would pour them into a sheep’s bladder for ease of transport. As another precaution, Tom would never deliver to peoples houses, instead he would “lay it in the grave”. By this he meant that it would be hidden in a kistvaen (a Bronze Age burial cist) near Legis tor. That way he could be out of sight of prying eyes and not arouse suspicion by making regular ‘after dark’ visits to his customers homes.
On this particular night the moor was as still as a corpse and the moon bright as a button. Slowly Tom made his way down from Sheepstor and up to Legis tor, using the huge granite boulders for cover whenever he could. Suddenly he heard the barking of dogs, he stopped, they must be the old warreners dogs in the kennel court. But what could have disturbed them at this unearthly hour? Tom was now on guard, all his keen senses were working overtime and as he came to Legis tor he spotted a lone standing figure over to the east. At first Tom thought it was the moonlight silhouetting one of the old standing stones but then, sure enough, he could see that the figure was slowly moving towards Legis tor. Luckily, the ‘spirits man’ knew this part of the moor as well as he knew his own parlour and so he simply took a detour through the old buries of Legis Warren and cut across to Brisworthy.
When he got to the farmstead he could see the flicker of candle light and so crept up and gently tapped on the front door. The farmer was amazed and slightly agitated to see Tom stood under the porch clutching the ‘bladder of brandy’. He gave the farmer his ‘drap of medicinals’ and explained that from now they would have to find somewhere else to leave the brandy but in the mean time could the farmer empty the bladder and re-fill it with water. This was duely done and Tom disappeared into the night and headed back over to Legis tor.
He could still see the lone figure lurking about in the shadows so he slunk over to the old kistvaen and buried the bladder under a heap of moss. As expected it did not take long for the shadowy figure to emerge from the darkness, it was old Parnell who was one of the local excise men. “Now Tom Penny, bide where you be” he shouted. Tom froze and slowly stood up, “why Mr Parnell, whatever brings ee out this time of night?” “You do, Tom Penny, you do, I ‘ave bin watchin’ ee clammerin about these rocks for many nights, and now let’s zee what tis in the kist you be so keen to hide”. The excise man bent down and groped around in the small slab lined grave. He soon found the pile of moss and began rummaging through it. With a triumphant yell he dragged out the quivering bladder, “Ah, got ee at last Tom Petty, how du ee figure this then” he said shaking the evidence in Toms face. “Better way zee fur yerself, Mr Parnell” Tom replied. Parnell untied the string and sniffed at the bladder like a terrier at a foxhole. He sniffed even harder and then stuck a finger inside the neck and slowly sucked on the dripping digit and exclaimed “Why tis naught but water, wat trickery is this?” Tom smirked and looked him straight in the eye, “tis no trickery, tis water and ee ‘ave no reason to git agitated, tis part of what’s needed for grog, you ‘ave the water and someone else ‘as the spirit, Mr Parnell.” With this the ‘spirits man’ turned on his heels and swaggered off into the night whistling a jaunty little tune.