“River of Dart, oh, River of Dart !
Every year thou claimest a heart.”
It is a well known fact that sadly over the years the River Dart has taken many lives in one way or another and there are plenty of stories that relate such tragedies. Some such as that of Jan Coo live in the realms of Dartmoor legend whilst others in more modern times make the newspaper headlines. There is one tale that today lives on in the form of a place-name and that is the ‘Lover’s Leap’ which can be found in Holne Chase. William Crossing describes the location thus:
“This fine rock projects itself from the steep hillside, and the Dart makes a bold sweep around it. It rises almost perpendicularly from the water to a considerable height (about 10 metres by my estimation). In places its sides are covered with creeping plants, and small trees and bushed grow from the clefts.”, p.342.
Today this section of the river Dart is a popular place for canoeists as there several sets of rapids, the whole 3 mile section is known as ‘The Loop’ due to the large bending loop the river makes. The actual part of the river under Lover’s Leap is regarded as a level 3 rapid, (there are 6 skill based levels) 100m long which in places is studded with rocks. Clearly with the rapids and rocks this is not somewhere you would want to go for a swim.
As can be deduced by the place-name at some point in the dim and distant past it was the scene of a suicide pact between two lovers. Nearly all the acclaimed Dartmoor books allude to this event but hardly any delve into the story behind the tragedy. Anyone that is familiar with old Dartmoor postcards will know that there was one produced in 1913 depicting the ‘Lover’s Leap’. Believe it or not you can actually buy either a mug, a dartboard, a pair of flip flops showing this same postcard image?
Anyway, I digress, for ages the elusive story behind the rock has been alluding me until today whilst looking for something else I came across the only version of events ever written and it dates back to the early 1900s. It’s a tale of lost love, murder, deceit and unearthly events. The much shortened version goes like this…
As with most tragedies this tale involves a woman called Rosine Trafford and two estranged brothers; Sir William Kingdon and Ronald Brandram. After a brief encounter many years previous Ronald Brandram fell in love with the fair Rosine but they were soon parted as she was sent to a convent in France. The reason for her exile was that her father strongly disapproved of an attachment she had made to a nameless youth. Time went by and Rosine’s father died and his will decreed that Sir William Kingdon should be her legal guardian. Also in the will there was a wish that some land owned by the Trafford’s near Buckfast should be gifted to Buckfast Abbey.
All the wishes of the old man were set down in a letter which William Kingdon was to deliver to the Abbot of Buckfast. Around about the same time Rosine was recalled back from France and to arrive by a ship which was to dock at Dartmouth. As there was no great distance between Buckfast Abby and Dartmouth William Kingdon decided to kill two birds with once stone; deliver the letter and meet Rosine.
However, on his journey to Buckfast he ventured past the old hillfort called Hembury Camp where unexpectedly he met with his long lost brother, Ronald Brandram. Somehow Ronald knew that his brother had been appointed Rosine’s guardian and his mission was to persuade Sir William to grant him her hand in marriage. Sir William knew only too well the nature of his brother, he was a spendthrift, gambler and toper thus making him a totally unsuitable match for his new ward. Having realised that there was no way he was to sway his brother’s mind Brandram drew his sword and launched a vicious attack on William. After a long and bloody fight Brandram finally managed to strike the fatal blow and his brother fell to the floor dead as a doornail. He decided to bury the body in the rampart ditch of the old hillfort but as he went to drag the corpse over the rampart a small leather case fell out. Inside the villainous Brandram found the letter that was being delivered to the Abbot of Buckfast and upon reading it a dastardly plot was born. The Abbot had never actually met Sir William therefore if he was to pretend he was the deceased man then he could become the ward of Rosine and then compel her to marry him.
The plan went exactly as Brandram had planned, he met the Abbot, gave him the lands which Trafford had promised, then met Rosine at Dartmouth and they both returned to live in a small grange close to Buckfast. At first Brandram tried gentle persuasion in order for her to agree to their marriage but she was having none of it. Then he tried threats and when they failed he resorted to blackmail, if she would not marry him then he would make damned sure she married no other.
One day the Abbot of Buckfast came to visit along with another monk called Wilfred, the purpose of their visit was to enquire as to exactly where the gift of a small croft was that had been promised by Brandram. Having been shown the document that had been drawn up regarding the gift the Abbot then asked about the wellbeing of Rosine. She was immediately summonsed but on entering the room she took one look at the young monk and fell into a faint. Wilfred the monk was as equally startled when he set his eyes upon Rosine. Both the Abbot and Brandram were somewhat taken aback at these proceedings, so much so that the Abbot immediately sent Wilfred off to Holne on some errand.
That same night a very disturbed Brother Wilfred went for a walkabouts to clear his head, he sought the tranquility of Buckland Woods and the River Dart. Deep in thought he wandered along the shady path when suddenly he came across Rosine who was also wandering aimlessly through the woods. Immediately their reactions to each other when they met back at the grange became obvious, Wilfred was the young nameless youth that Rosine’s father had sent her into exile for. All their old emotions flooded to the fore amidst torrents of tears. It appeared that when she had been sent away Wilfred thought it was for good and after a few years of mending his broken heart he became a Cistercian monk. Rosine implored the monk to honour the promise of marriage he first made her those many years ago. Regretfully he explained that he was now a son of the church and the vows he had taken forbade any such action. Rosine burst into floods of tears and as the girl sobbed she told him of the plans that Brandram had for her. Having heard of her plight the monk then confessed that he still loved her deeply and that despite his vows he would leave the Abbey and they would both elope to safety. A wave of relief and rekindled love swept over Rosine and she flew into his arms where their lips met in a passionate kiss.
Unbeknown to Rosine Brandram had followed her, all the time keeping a discrete distance behind but when he saw the couple in their passionate embrace he charged forward to confront them. Rosine screamed and clung onto Wilfred even tighter, she begged the monk to save her from the evil Brandram who by then was beside the couple. Brandram was having none of this and demanded that the girl immediately returned back to the grange. Brandram calmed down a trifle and suggested in a threatening voice that if the monk did not release the girl immediately he would have no choice but to inform the Abbot how Wilfred had seriously broken his vows. It was forbidden for any Cistercian monk to have feelings or licentious thoughts towards a woman and Wilfred knew only too well the dire consequences
This threat fell on deaf and uncaring ears and without further a thought Wilfred grabbed Rosine and sped her off along the narrow path that led up to the heights overlooking the river Dart. Brandram gave chase and soon caught them up as they had ended up on the edge of a steep crag which basically was a dead end. With nowhere else to run and with Brandram, dagger drawn, facing down upon them, Wilfred picked up a huge rock that laid at his feet. There was then a stand off, Brandram with his dagger and Wilfred holding the rock above his head, ready to heave it at Brandram. Realising that the monk only had the one chance of killing him which could easily be dodged Brandram advanced. As he did Wilfred swung him arms backward and took aim, at the same time Rosine panicked and grabbed for Wilfred just as he released the rock. Needless to say it sailed wide of its mark and after a few seconds could be heard splashing into the river below.
Enough was enough and Brandram was clearly going to end the life of this truculent monk, so with dagger poised he slowly moved in for the kill. Rosine could clearly see that the monks fate would be a dagger to the heart and hers to be carted off back to the grange with the prospect of an unhappy marriage. In her eyes there was one other option, if they could not be together on this mortal earth then they would be so in the life after. She motioned to Wilfred to step nearer the edge of the precipice and then pointed to the swirling river below. A look of horror fell over the monk’s face but he too realised what their fate must hold. So facing the oncoming menace Wilfred slowly placed his wooden crucifix to his lips, kissed it, took Rosine’s hand and jumped over the cliff face. The couple dropped into the bubbling waters of the river Dart and were swept away to eternity where they could live happily ever after.
But, the story does not end there, having seen his beloved Rosine drop like a stone into the river Brandram was beside himself with a mixture of grief and guilt. He charged off back off down the path and fled into the woods, on and on he ran until he came to the old hillfort which once was home to the men of iron. It was here that he realised he had reached the spot where he had buried the body of the murdered Sir William Kingdon. The memory of that crime seemed to jolt him back to his senses and with a shudder he quickly moved off in the direction of his grange. As he swiftly moved through the dense woods a mighty thunderstorm crashed overhead and as it is never a good idea to be around woods in such conditions he moved even faster. This journey was one he never finished for the next day his charred body was found by an old charcoal burner who was working in the woods. It was assumed that a bolt of lightening had struck him down whilst out for a walk. His body was carried down to Buckfast Abbey and as in the eyes of the brotherhood he had been a kind benefactor to the abbey it was decided to bury him in a tomb near their great altar.
However, that was not the last the monks ever saw of Ronald Brandram for every year on the eve of the anniversary of his death his spectre was seen rising from his tomb. It did not take long for the monks to realise that maybe he was not such a pious man and for such a haunting to take place he must have hidden a dark secret. Neither bell, book and candle or any kind of exorcism could rid the abbey of this hideous annual apparition.
Should you not be convinced of this story try visiting the Abbey at the darkest time of the night of July the 3rd when you will surely meet the ghost of Ronald Brandram.
Crossing, W. 1990. Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.