Now legend would have it said that the mysterious ancient oak grove of Wistman’s Wood is infested with numerous supernatural beings such as the Wisht Hounds, Druids and ghosts along with the infamous Dartmoor Piskies. I think it would be fair to say that in these modern times many people still believe in ghosts and certainly there are Druids still following their pagan beliefs. But Piskies? well, they either have vaporised into the deep realms of folklore or have migrated down into the dark caves and old tin mines of Dartmoor to dwell. But about one hundred and fifty years ago the ‘little folk’ were busy frolicking around the rugged tors and ferny combes of the moor. As Victor Meldrew would have said ‘I don’t beeelieeve it’? Well here is an account dating from the 1870s of a person who actually ‘saw‘ one in Wistman’s Wood.
“THE DWARF’S FOREST – WE have found the place where the wee grey men used to live (if ever they lived at all, which, strange to say, it seems there are people now found to doubt; but then everybody doubts about everything nowadays).
There is a great plateau of rugged, rocky, boggy moorland in the middle of Devon called Dartmoor, which stretches high and treeless over many thousand acres, and is singularly wild and barren. A number of round-shouldered valleys run up into it, worn by the action of the bright brown streams, large and small, many of which fall into the Dart. In one of the most secluded of these, far up in the heart of the hills, beyond all traces of man or cultivation, where the boulders of blue-grey granite are strewn on the steep bare hillside, and piled up here and there into fantastic tors, there nestles in among the stones a forest of lilliputian oak, fully grown, but only from four to ten feet high, with trunks two feet and more in diameter, looking old beyond description.
The wood ends at a tumbling, wild, dashing stream, rushing down from the central bog of the moor, which is almost impassable; and the patches of moist treacherous ground about its banks, bright with green and yellow sphagnum, asphodel, and moss, are fringed with long sedge-rushes haunted by adders.
The moors were rich and brilliant in colour with their autumn tints, and the deep brown of the oaks and fern, the cold grey granite, and the purple heath were all melting into a soft blue distance. As we came up the combe, the trunks of the little trees looked generally about the height of a man, and mostly bigger round than his body; they were often hollow and decayed away, almost into soil. Strange, wicked-looking little antiquities they seemed, which might have been coeval with those prehistoric folk who used the flint weapons; and I hope had the nice little elephants, three feet high, ” like pigs with trunks,” to play with, whose bones have lately been discovered in some rocky caverns of probably a not much earlier date.
The soil is extremely shallow, and the branches all slope one way, driven by the fierce Atlantic gales, which are felt even in this inland spot, and which blow without a stick to stop them from America to Dartmoor. Shaggy, contorted, and bent, the tangled mats of boughs run out horizontally for ten or twenty feet, covered with tufts of feathery fern; while long grey beards of moss wave to and fro, and give a most weird look to the whole. One could believe in any amount of cluricaunes (Irish Fairy) and pixies dwelling in such a strange, haunted-looking forest; instead of which it had been taken possession of that day by much less picturesque people the statisticians, botanists, and geologists who came down upon it from the Exeter meeting of wise men.
I sat down alone amongst the queer little pygmies on the hillside ; the rest of the party had gone on to the Devil’s Tor. The dusk was beginning to fall, and I was very still, watching the young moon, which was rising over the valley, when suddenly it seemed to me as if the wee grey men must have come back again, for there certainly sat one in the shadow, where I was sure he had not been before; he must have come up out of the ground ! He was quite of the right height and colour, and was looking intently at me, as I could just see in the gathering gloom. Presently he slowly put up one short little arm, and then the other, and wiped his nose upon them as is much the habit of field-folk in Devon and elsewhere; perhaps pocket-handkerchiefs were scarce, too, among the little grey hill-men and then he remained motionless, and so did I. But I was meditating a rush in order to seize him by the waist, when, as is well known, if I could only keep my eye upon him he would have been obliged to show me where to dig for the crock of gold, or give up the little purse with the ever-renewed penny in it; the only difficulty being, that if he can but cajole you into once turning your head the spell is broken and he invariably vanishes. I was measuring my distance, when his great suspicious eyes shone, it seemed to me, even in the dusk, and suddenly he came down on all fours, and drummed violently with his hind legs upon the ground, as a signal of danger; for there was a very distant noise of voices, which he heard long before I did. Alas! He was only a coney, who had made his dwelling among the rocks; set, however, in a post of much dignity and responsibility, as sentinel to a large colony of friends and relations, who ordered their out-comings and in-goings according to the telegraphic thumps which he delivered for their guidance. And then the outside car drove back again down the steep hillside, and I heard a voice say, “You must make haste, Tomkins, or we shan’t be in time for the express from Plymouth.” We were in full nineteenth century again, and cluricaunes, and pixies, and Pucks all vanished as I reluctantly turned away.
Still, as we drove slowly along the rough heath track, I looked back regretfully, and saw the rising moonlight, though the sun had not yet quite disappeared, lying softly and tenderly upon the grey
hillside, the grey stones, and the weird little dwarf forest, over which the night wind, which was beginning to rise, sighed with a hollow sort of music among the fern. And it somehow seemed to me as if the instant our backs were turned geologists, botanists, statisticians, and all – the little grey men came back again and took possession in spite of our scepticism; and it is my full conviction that they are all there now.
Go and see for yourselves. But you will not find them! Did you never look for a robber or a ghost behind a curtain? He is not there; but the moment you have gone once more to your seat he has got in again somehow, behind your back, and you cannot help returning to look again. Still he is never to be found. It is only the haunting sense of the unseen. ” Nature abhors a vacuum,” you know they say. That is the way, I feel sure, with the wee grey men in the lonely little Dwarfs’ Forest, commonly called Wistman’s, that is “Wise man’s,” or Wizard’s Wood, on Dartmoor.”
Lady Verney, 1877. Sketches From Nature, London: Daldy & Isbister Co. pp. 171 -177.
Imagination is a fine thing, especially when in such a mysterious place but this does go to show how legends develop over the telling and as always there is a logical grain of truth in this story. Around about the time this visit would have taken place there would have been a rabbit warren near to Wistman’s Wood hence the encounter with one of its ‘coneys’