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Fernworthy Immigrants

Fernworthy Immigrants

Some people today would consider Dartmoor as being a remote place, after all it is described as the ‘Last Wilderness’. But centuries ago it truly was a remote place with little hamlets and farmsteads scatter across its landscape. Due to its many natural resources such as tin, granite, peat etc immigrant workers or ‘blow ins’ as the locals called them, were always coming and going. As with most rural communities any newcomers were treated with suspicion and became a focus of curiosity amongst the moorfolk.

It just so happens that a good two or three centuries ago two immigrant families appeared on Dartmoor and decided to settle in a small wooded combe to the east of Thornworthy Tor. It is here where the South Teign river tumbles down on its journey to join with its sister river – the North Teign. Despite heroic efforts none of the locals could find out who they were or where they came from, they were frustratingly – just there. It was certainly obvious that they were not Dartmoor born and bred but that was about as far as the ‘newsin’ (gossip) went.

Now oddly enough they built their tiny cotts probably best described as hovels next to each other despite it appears as being strangers to one and the other. Having built their humble abodes the next task on any settlers agenda was to start providing food and fuel for the forthcoming winter along with coin to buy the bare essentials of moorland life. So the head of one of the families soon trawled around the local farms in search of work which he eventually found. Not only that, when he was not labouring on the farms he could often be found up on the moorland heights cutting peat for fuel and ferns (bracken) which served as bedding for his few animals. It did not take long for the moor folk to form their opinions of the man and to glean some information as to his background. It seems along with his wife there were six young children living in the tiny cott all of which presented him with the mammoth task of providing for them. As the months went on it became obvious to any outsider that trying to keep his families body and soul together was becoming a struggle. The man slowly began to lose weight as did the rest of the household which included their prized pig. Their clothes became ragged and ill fitting and the children always appeared grubby. Things were not going at all well for these people and with the moorland winter just around the corner one could say that hard times were a-coming.

Now, the old saying, “as different as chalk and cheese” could not be more appropriate for these neighbours because the head of the other family was a complete contrast. He was never seen out looking for work and only occasionally was he ever spotted at the turf ties (peat cuttings). In the neighbourhood this man soon earned himself the reputation of being a complete waster. The strange thing was that despite the man’s laziness both he and his tribe, and I say tribe because he had even more children that his neighbour, always looked the perfect picture of health. In fact if there was such a thing back then as the Body Mass Index they would have all clocked in at the higher end of the scale.

Taking into account that one one hand there was an industrious man working desperately hard to scratch and living who despite his efforts could not keep home and hearth together. Then on the other hand there was this work-shy man who earned not a penny with his family blooming with health. It did not take long for the locals to question this and they soon came to the conclusion that the only way to put food on the table for free was to purloin some of the sheep that freely grazed that part of the moor. After all there is nothing so nutritious and tasty as a good mutton stew and a sheep’s carcass could make for plenty of that. This thought was brooding amongst the moor folk for ages until one day, thanks to a missing sheep, it erupted like a volcano. This sheep was last seen in the vicinity of the combe in which the little cotts were located, and so as far as the local farmers were concerned the figure could only point in one direction. A meeting was called and the upshot was that a posse of farmers marched up the combe and paid a visit on the wastrel. They didn’t even waiting for the door to be answered, a swift knock was followed by the entourage forcibly marching into the kitchen. Once inside they began to search every nook and cranny but despite their diligence not a scrap of fleece or bone was found. In fact not a crumb or morsel of any discript was anywhere to be seen.

Just as they were about to leave one of the party spotted several blocks of granite lined up along the wall of the kitchen, each was was carefully covered by a course, grubby, linen towel. For the unfortunate finder it was a case of ‘curiosity killed the cat’ or rather ‘curiosity killed his appetite’ for after carefully lifting one of the towels he saw a large bowl shaped depression cut into the granite block. And much to his disgust he then noticed it was full of huge, slimy, black slugs, all of which were coated in salt. In utter silence the posse of farmers hurriedly left the cott as it was now obvious why and how the family were flourishing – by eating slugs! Now here is an excellent definition of the word ‘sluggish’ in every sense.

Right, you don’t believe this to be a true story? For you doubting Thomas’ visit the Pastscape link opposite where you will find none other than the very reputably English Heritage detailing a medieval house in which was found a granite block with a bowl shaped depression cut into it.

Well OK, it is an old tinners blowing house and the granite block was (because it’s now missing) an old mould stone but as the saying goes’ “there’s no smoke without fire” and as always there can be a grain of truth in everything. This tale is also very similar to the two old slug eating women who lived at the ‘Snaily House‘ just the location and characters have changed. Was this a story used by the folk of the moor to impress on their children the importance of hard work as without out it they may be forced to eat slugs?

I suppose that if you talk to Bear Grylls he would say that in a survival situation slugs can be very nutritious and could well save your life. But if you are thinking of making savings on the ASDA shop just be aware that wild slugs will carry parasites and if taken from a garden environment could contain traces of slug killer.

Fernworthy Immigrants


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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