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Tavistock and Back


Here’s another account of a walk taken some 159 years ago which gives a taste of Dartmoor during that time. No longer will you see inmates of Dartmoor prison guarded by warders with muskets and fixed bayonets. Likewise there is no chance of walking past Trowlesworthy or Ditsworthy  warrens and watching the hundred of rabbits scampering around in their enclosures. Who today would fill their pocket pistol’s barrel with wine or believe that the Druids fashioned rock basins to use in their rituals?

“Leaving Tavistock by the early morning train, we found that the majority of our companions were young militia men proceeding to join their regiment. To many of them this was evidently their first ride by rail; one who could boast of having made a journey of 140 miles was looked up to as a veteran traveller by these raw recruits. The novelty of their position called forth all their powers of conversation but as this was neither very wise nor very witty, we will not inflict it on the reader.
Arriving at Bickleigh station we had to wait longer than usual till someone came to take our tickets. I have often remarked on the politeness and courtesy of the railway officials, but this man was as gruff and uncivil as you please. We will not however be too hard upon the poor fellow, for perhaps he deserved our sympathy rather than our blame; who knows but that a certain lecture or a crying baby had disturbed his repose and soured a naturally amiable deposition. Knowing that cupboards are high and appetites keen on the moor, we provided a small knapsack into which we stowed a good supply of sandwiches, reserving the corner for a pocket pistol loaded to the muzzle with the juice of grapes; and strapping this to the back set off on our tour. The day was exceedingly fine, ‘White clouds like frosted silver, met-The azure of boundless arch- The fresh rills danced, the blithe birds sang,- So did our hearts, for we were young.’
A shady lane, decked with delicate mosses and ferns, gaudy fox-gloves, sweet smelling dog-roses, and festoons of blossom, promising a plentiful harvest of delicious blackberries, led to Shaugh Bridge in the neighbourhood of which are some giant oaks, whose brawny arms, spread out in every direction, formed a leafy shade in which numerous cattle were reposing. The scenery here is romantic; just above the bridge the mew and Cad mingle their waters, which united flow onward under the name of the Plym. At the time of our visit the river was small, but the rugged bed and huge boulders scattered about in the channel and on either bank, told plainly that when swollen with winter rains, it becomes a roaring torrent, lashing itself into fury, and careering madly along till its stream is lost and voice hushed for ever in the boundless ocean.
We crossed the cad by some stepping stones and rambled on, struck by something new and beautiful on every side; here a charcoal burner’s hut, there a rare fern or exquisite wild flower growing luxuriantly in the crevice of a grey rock. We missed the ordinary path to the Dewerstone and plunged into the recesses of a dense coppice of oak, ash, and fern; when for nearly an hour our position resembled that of the subjects of an eastern despot, who to save their heads have to make low and frequent prostrations of their bodies. Just as we were emerging from the woods a load report reverberated along the hills and the next instant a shower of stones, from a nearby quarry near at hand, falling among the branches, warned us that our heads were not yet out of danger. We therefore hastened on to the Dewerstone where a scene of surpassing grandeur awaited us. This huge mass of rocks rises perpendicularly from the stream to an immense height. It is profusely overgrown with ivy and other creeping plants which spread their pleasing foliage over its shattered front, as if anxious to bind up the wounds that time and tempest has inflicted. The rocks immediately beneath seem as if they had been struck at once by a thousand thunder bolts, and appear only prevented from bursting asunder by chains of ivy. The opposite hills are dreary yet magnificent, large masses of granite crop out from the soil, some immovably fixed, others on tiptoe to quit their precarious situations and roll down to the flushing stream below. After clambering about on different rocks to get a complete view of the place in all its varied beauties, we turned our faces towards the moor. With delight we sniffed up the passing breeze, inhaling health at every inspiration, and feeling the chest expand and spirits rise at every step of our progress. The lark welcomed us to his mountain home with a song, the grasshopper with a chirp, while the gurgling rivulet, shaded by overhanging grass and rushes, invited to a cool and refreshing draught. Keeping along the brow of the hill we pursued our way to Cadaford or Cadover Bridge, a plain substantial structure, spanning the stream. Without possessing any striking features, the scene was impressive from the perfect quiet which reigned around; the moor stretched away on either side in gentle undulations, bounded by the distant heights whose bold outline was clearly defined against the deep blue sky; near at hand was a herd of oxen, some standing in the deep pools, other lying in the shade, all quite still; while even the river, as it glided noiselessly along, seemed unwilling to disturb the solemn silence. A little beyond is Knowlsworthy (Trowlesworthy) Warren, where numerous artificial mounds and many acres of land are burrowed in every direction by thousands of rabbits; as we came suddenly on the ground scores of them scampered away into their holes’ evidently in their flight a few had entered the wrong dwelling, and discovering their mistake rushed quick as thought, into their own quarters. The whole of this valley is broken up into irregular heaps, intersected by deep trenches partially filled with loose stones. These are the remains of ancient stream works, where ages ago, rude Britons carried on their primitive mining operation. Here they raised tin for which Phoenician sailors braved the dangers of unknown seas, and which mixed in certain proportions with copper formed the only articles of cutlery and weapons of war known to the savage tribes then occupying Britannia or ‘the Brigh-tin-land.’ On the side of Knowlesworthy hill is a circle, (Brisworthy Stone Circle) more than 70 feet in circumference, consisting of eight stones, seven remaining in their original position, and one thrown down; smaller circles and avenues of stone are to be found in the immediate neighbourhood.
Pursuing our walk we soon cam to Ditsworthy where there is another large warren similar to the one already mentioned. In the distance we descried Eylesbarrow, situated on a high ridge, extensive mining operations have been carried on here at no distant period; a solitary dwelling in the midst of roofless houses and crumbling walls, is all that now remains of the busy scene that must have once enlivened the region. Here the tors are higher and the country more desolate than anything we had yet met with; to the left lay Sheepstor, behind lower and higher Haitor (???), and in front a wilderness of peaks rising summit above summit far as eye can reach.
A walk of about two miles over some very rough country brought us to Sinard’s or Min’s Cross (Siward’s or Nun’s Cross), an interesting relic of bygone days; when the moor was a trackless waste, this and other similar structures were erected as beacons to warn unwary travellers that a treacherous bog was not far off. A few years since it was thrown down and broken but Sir Ralph Lopes had it repaired with iron clamps and replaced in its original position. on one side of it is engraved a rude cross with an inscription under, which we were unable to decipher; on the other the words BAD ROAD were more legible (actually read BocLonD), truly it is a bad road, for close at hand is Fox Tor mine (I think this should read Mire), which not eve a hare or rabbit would venture to cross with impunity.

Nun’s Cross

Near here the Devonport leat enters a tunnel excavated for it through the hill, and in the valley below are the ruins of a mine known as White Works. Here we halted to take some refreshments and having rested a while, struck into a path which leads over Tor Royal direct to Princetown. Fortune threw in our way a communicative official, with whom we passed a pleasant half hour in conversation respecting the prison and its inhabitants. Hundreds of the convicts were employed in cutting, drying and storing turf, smaller groups were saving hay, mending roads or drawing stones. We noticed a few old men leisurely weeding the paths were vigilantly guarded by warders armed with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets; while a few of the more trustworthy were engaged, singly, without any apparent oversight in driving home pigs and cattle. tending to poultry &c.
Not far from Prince Town is Mis-tor, the finest of the Dartmoor hills, within walking distance from Tavistock. A visit to it will amply repay one for the exertion necessary in mounting its steep side; having attained the summit, Mis-tor Pan, an artificial excavation of great antiquity can easily be found (actually a perfectly natural rock basin). The bold grouping of the rocks cannot fail to arrest the observer’s attention. While gazing on these stupendous piles, moss grown and hoary with age, shattered into every fantastic form by the storm and tempests of centuries; how readily the imagination pictures the stern Druid, clothed in white robes, with uplifted aim and gleaming knife, about to pour out the life blood of its human victim, hoping thereby to appease the vengeance or win favour of his sanguinary deities, (here alluding to the belief that Mistor Pan was used for Druidical rites). These rocks must oft have witnessed the gathering of warriors, from the village lying beneath, either to attack a neighbouring tribe or to unite in repelling the Roman invader, who after many a desperate conflict – ‘Taught his stubborn knee to bow, – Though twice a Caesar could not bend it now.’ (slight poetic licence here, the village below was Bronze Age which was way before the Roman era).
The eye drinks in with delight the glorious prospect of hill and dale, quiet homestead and rustic village church whose grey tower mounting heavenward keeps watch over the graves.
Proceeding homeward by way of Merrivale bridge we pass the remains of an ancient village (the Merrivale Complex) consisting of numerous double circles of stones which served as the foundation for a superstructure of mud and wicker-work. These circles are of different sizes from 40 to 120 feet in circumference; one of the largest had a cromlech in its centre. A detailed account of this old British town or village may be found in Rowe’s perambulation of Dartmoor, a book which all, who are in the habit of making frequent visits to the moor, should carefully read.
Following the direction of the road, leaving Vixen Tor to the left and Cox Tor on the right we rapidly descended to Tavistock, which we reached late in the afternoon, having thoroughly enjoyed our day’s excursion.” – The Tavistock Gazette, July 15th, 1859.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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