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Washer Woman’s Surprise

Washer Woman's Surprise

What happened was, there once was a schoolmaster who lived in Widdecombe, he went by the name of Jan Abel. Now although by title he regarded himself as a school master his knowledge was a trifle lacking compared to proper teachers. Accordingly this was reflected in the standard of tuition his children got and the low fees he charged. This meant that being a poor area, his classes were full. Similarly his wages were pitifully low, in fact so low that Jan and his wife found it hard to make ends meet. After much debate it was mutually agreed that Mabel, his wife would have to go out to work. It must be said that she was a powerful woman both strong in arm and determination, there are those who say she was “afraid of naught and no man,” especially Jan. So it came to pass that whilst Jan was teaching his pupils Mabel Abel would be stomping the moors on her washing round. She would visit many of the wealthier farms and do their laundry, it certainly involved a lot of stomping but as we have said; she was a mighty powerful woman. This way the couple managed to survive and even put meat on the table once a week.

Not only was Mabel a powerful woman she was thorough and hard working, it could be said that she took a great deal of pride with her laundering, a fact that her customers became to appreciate. Many was the time that she would stolidly scrub and mangle, refusing to stop until all the washing was draped over the furze bushes to dry. Sometimes this would mean a late dark hike home across the lonely moors with the only guiding light being the dancing moon beams. But she was a powerful woman and so this did not particularly bother her. During the winter months it would be normal for the odd moorman to meet her striding out through the heather and gorse of a gloomy night. Depending on which farm she was at, some would even offer her dinner before she went home which meant on those nights she would be even later. On one such occasion Mabel had been invited to dine with the Cleeve family, at first she was in two minds but the sight of a steaming beef pie soon settled the matter. During the meal Mrs Cleeve asked the washerwoman whether the long dark walks bothered her, after all there was a good chance of being piskie led. Mabel threw back her head and laughed, “Piskies, ‘pon my soul,” she chuckled, “I dawn’t fret about they because there is naw such creature.” Every night when Jan finally heard the door latch lift he would sigh with relief, “Glad be I tu see ee home,” he would say, “I was afeared the little folk had piskie led ee.” Mabel would huff and puff and scornfully reply, “little folk, little folk! have ee ever seen any little folk? Naw, an if ever any soul would see the little folk it would be me with all the miles I trudge at all hours. So dawn’t talk sich twaddle, I be not afeared of the little folk so fret not Jan Abel.”

The following week after scrubbing and mangling Mabel had a lovely dinner at the Coakers farm, Moor Barton, by the time she came to leave the night was a black as bog oak. Mrs Coaker took a lantern and lit the way down the garden path. “Now make sure ee be well rugged up,” she called after Mabel, “an’ make sartin the piskies dawn’t cause ee mischief.” With a backward wave of her hand the washerwoman cheerfully dismissed the idea, “thank ee Mrs Coaker, she called out, “’tis my mind that the piskies have died out in these parts, tis a load of old grandmother’s fancies I be sure.” The farmers wife stood at the gate sadly shaking her head, “jest ee take care is all I be saying.” Mabel pulled her coat tight around her shoulders and turned towards the lone figure dimly silhouetted at the garden gate, “when I sees a piskie with my own two eyes, then I shall start believin’ in um, and ee knaws that tis unlikely to happen,” she trilled. With that she stomped off out into the starry, crisp Dartmoor night, humming as she went.

Now it is said that the piskies have excellent hearing and there was a whole gang of them frolicking around a ring of gorse bushes not five miles down the road from Moor Barton. Sound carries easily on the still moorland air which is why the little folk heard every scornful word that Mabel had just uttered. “Died out in these parts have we?” muttered a piskie with large pointed ears. “A load of old grandmother’s fancies are we?” trilled a large piskie with warts all over his face. “Unlikely to see a piskie with her own two eyes,” shrieked an old bent up piskie. “Well let her wait a while and see what happens this very night,” hissed a spiteful looking piskie with a large pointed nose and squinty eyes.

Mabel stomped along at a fair lick, her hot breath billowed like pipe smoke on the icy night air and her strong arms pumped up and down like flat rods. She was just thinking what good time she was making when she suddenly heard a rustling and scraping noise coming from a large gorse bush. “Aw tis some ol’ ewe stuck in the furze,” she thought. Then she heard a shrill trilling and chattering sound coming from behind her. Soon the rustling and chattering could be heard to her left, her right and behind. At this moment the moon peered from behind a large white cloud and bathed the moor in a bright creamy light. There to her amazement, Mabel could see dozens of little figures darting back and forth from the furze. Next is seemed as if a whole carpet of them scurried and scampered past her, cheeping and chirping as they went. The washerwoman was forced to stop in her tracks and then with mouth agape and eyes agog she saw that the piskies were climbing on each others shoulders. Just like she had seen the acrobats do at Widecombe fair, they began to build a tower of bodies, up and up they went until the piskie wall looked over her bonnet. By now Mabel was getting worried, she had always said that a little piskie no higher than her boot straps was hardly likely to cause any harm. But directly infront of her stood a swaying skyscraper of piskies, all pointing, jeering and shrieking. Some of the ruder ones were sticking out their long pointy, wagging tongues, two even had the cheek to pull down their trousers and waggle their bare backsides at her. “Died out in these parts have we?” screeched the piskie with large pointy ears. “Grandmother’s fancies are we?” trilled the large piskie with the warts over his nose. “Unlikely to see a piskie with your own two eyes are you,” warbled the old hunched up piskie. She suddenly felt a sharp pinch on her nose and looking cross eyed saw the spiteful looking piskie with the long nose and squinty eyes swinging on the tip. “Now you’ve seen us,” he hissed through his clenched teeth, “now you can feel us,” he mocked as he pinched harder, “and now you won’t forget us,” he screamed. With that the piskie hoard simply vanished into the night leaving poor Mabel shaking and quaking down to her boot straps, the very ones she had always said a piskie would not come up to.

Slowly the washerwoman teetered her way back to Widecombe, never again would she boast that she hadn’t seen a piskie. In fact, never again would she scornfully suggest they were “grandmother’s fancies,” let alone hint at the fact she was not afraid of them. Come to that, she would even start leaving out a pitcher of milk for them every evening.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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