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Martha Witchalse

 Martha Witchalse

High up on the moor is the small hamlet of Sherwell and it was here in the days of the ‘old ways’ lived an old woman called Martha Whitchalse. Martha’s life had not be what could be called a ‘bed of roses’, more like a ‘bed of nails’. As a young girl she had always been said to be ‘different‘, well not actually said as nobody dare say anything because she had ‘powers‘. Even so she met a young moorman and after the wedding they settled down to life in a small cott by Sherwell. Soon they were blessed with a son and life seemed normal, that is until the day that her husband suddenly died. Rumours spread about the death and there were those that muttered in low tones that dark forces had been at work.

So from an early age Martha had to bring up the young boy and earn enough to put bread on the table which was not easy in those days. As the years passed she became more and more ‘crotchety’ and people began to notice that if they offended her in anyway some bad luck would befall them. Perhaps the hens would stop laying or the milk cow stopped milking, maybe they would fall and break an arm and in one case a farmer’s whole sheep flock went down with blackleg. It did not take long for folks to say that Martha had the ‘evil eye’ and was placing evil spells upon them. Consequently the moor folk gave her a very wide berth and avoided her fixed stare at all costs. Which in a way suited Martha and her son because as the boy grew older his ways were the sort that didn’t warrant attention of any kind. People suspected for a long time that he had been poaching the rabbits at nearby Headland Warren but nobody could actually catch him doing it. Maybe folks thought it best to turn a blind eye lest they recieve the evil eye in return, who knows?  But as always little crimes turn into big ones and the son took to stealing sheep, now rabbits are one thing, but on the moor sheep stealing was a serious matter. Luckily for the son he realised that he had been caught out in time for him to make a hasty retreat from the moor.

As the years ticked by old Martha became older, grizzlier and above all missed her boy, but despite having rickety old legs she still managed to hold the neighbours in fear of her evil eye. One day she was out in the yard tending to the hens when a stranger walked up. He politely asked if she could fetch him a cup of water, which considering who he was talking to wasn’t the best thing to do. Martha bent down and picked up a bucket which duely went spinning through the air and landed with a thud at his feet.

“If ee wans watter then ee better way gaw on tu the brook and fetch it vur isself,” she croaked. “do ee hextpect an old woman tu carry water vur a strapping man like isself?” she whinged.

The stranger said nothing and calmly picked up the bucket and strolled on down to the brook where he filled it and drank his thirst away. When he finished he strode back to Martha, placed the bucket at her feet and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. The man then reached in his jacket pocket and drew out a shiny gold coin.

“Old woman,” he began, “this coin would have been yours if only you could have found an ounce of civility for me, as it was you couldn’t so I shall not waste my coin on such a crone as you.”

With that he pushed the coin back into his pocket, nodded at the old woman and walked away. Had he turned around he would have seen old Martha just glaring at him with a wrinkled frown upon her brow. She slowly wagged her talon like finger in his direction and whispered,

“you’m near the end of yer time boy, in dree days shall ee knaw my power, dree days.”

It happened that the stranger was lodging with a farmer a few miles away and by the time he got back to the farm it was getting on for dimpsey. After a hearty supper the stranger suddenly felt very tired and thinking that he had walked a fair few miles he put his lethargy down to that. As the heat from the peat fire began to radiate around the room the stranger began to doze off much to the farmer’s amusement. Gently he shook the man and told him to get off to bed which the stranger did without much persuading.

Come the next dawn the farmer found the man shaking and trembling in his bed, and nothing could coax him out of it. The fever turned to eye-watering stomach pains and hour by hour the stranger got worse. The farmer could see the way things were heading and realised he didn’t even know the lodger’s full name and so went upstairs to inquire. Feebly the man said that he had come to find his mother but their old cottage had crumbled away and there was hair nor hide of her. The farmer asked what his mother’s name was as he knew everyone in the area – “Martha Whitchalse,” came the reply.

These were the last mortal words the stranger ever uttered for the next day, the third day, he was dead. The farmer sent one of his men over to Martha with the sad news, a task that the poor fellow would have rather of landed in someone else’s lap. But, master bids and man does, and he duely told the old woman of her loss. That evening the talk in the inn was about how old Martha had crumpled to the sod when she heard the news. Apparently she wept and wailed, sobbed and shook, all the time muttering that she had wisht her own boy with the evil eye.

From that day on old Martha just literally faded away, a week later she too had gone to meet her maker and possibly her son?


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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