There is nothing better for Dartmoor nostalgia than to read words and imagine descriptions and voices from the dim and distant past. Here are a few insights in the life of a ‘youth’ written in 1890 and it’s also a great recommendation for the healing powers of the fresh and bracing Dartmoor air. So for a glimpse of live in Sticklepath, South Zeal and Okehampton let the ‘youth’ be our guide.
In the year 1842 the health of a youth had been broken down through devoting too many hours to his trade. A well-known physician gave him up as incurable with only, at the longest, a few weeks to live. Dartmoor air was recommended. The youth went among the Finch’s, at the then fine little business village called Sticklepath. Close by the dwelling ran a beautiful stream of water, on a bed of solid rock, well supplied with fish. This stream worked the water-wheels of Messrs. Pearce’s woollen factory, Finch’s foundry, and corn mills. Before Messrs. Finch’s dwelling house passed daily the fine old ‘Quicksilver’ mail coach, drawn by four horses at the rate of twelve miles an hour. Messrs. Pearce’s woollen factory, in which a large number of people are employed, was a fine attraction to the youth. On the first visit some fair ones began wiping his shoes, which was meant to be a hint for the visitor that he was expected to pay a footing, If no money was forthcoming the penalty was to be cast into the devil’s pit. Having no money, the youth was cast in, and what was called the devil was tearing the wool over and on his head. This spot did not suit him, and he was quickly out again. By kind permission of Messrs. Pearse his visits at the factory were frequent, and as he was always a welcome visitor he was taken into the various departments, and the process explained to him by the foreman. It must have been a sad loss to Sticklepath and South Zeal when this factory closed. With such residents as the Messrs. Pearce, Miss Pearse, Messrs. Brown, Sercombe, Legasic, Messrs. Finch, and Miss F. Finch it is no marvel that Methodism prospered there, and that the youths went ahead. Some of the then boys are now well-known in England. One of them, who now resides in the city of Bristol the youth saw not long since on the Holsworthy railway platform. Though he is risen, in every sense far beyond the youth, yet both felt at home when talking about the days of boyhood when together they wandered about Dartmoor and other places. The fine Wesleyan chapel at Sticklepath had one bell. The graveyard is very ancient, and at one time belonged to the Quakers. Not far from the chapel is the spot where Rev. J. Wesley used sometimes to preach.
Just under Dartmoor, near the bridge, used to run out from a rock, what was called ironwater, looking rusty enough. A cup was kept there by Miss Pearse, as the water was considered good for those who were not overly healthy. It was also thought to be a first-class eye water. The youth would often have a draught, and on gaining strength, in company with his companions went up over the moor, a hill three miles in length, and so steep that it was named by them ‘Constitution Hill’. On going back on one occasion the youth was told that some women close by were skinning the flinty granite rocks with knives to send the skins to Exeter and elsewhere to put in the parlour grates – viz. moss. Women and children were also in the valleys turning what they called vags – viz. turf for firing; horses with panniers were carrying the cut turf across the valleys and hills to the homesteads. Turning turf was a fine amusement after this for the youth and the bracing air gave vigour, strength, and appetite superior to the doctor’s physic. They sometimes walked over the moor to Throwleigh church on Sundays. The rustic youths were rough enough there 35 years ago in more ways than one. Sometimes they would go to Mr. Dunning Gay’s Bible Christian Chapel on the Chagford road. One working day we noticed some women and girls pithing rushes and preparing the pith in an extraordinary way for the chandler’s rush-lights. Wishing to know everything, and, as they thought too much, the lads had to beat a hasty retreat over the moor, with no very kind words following them, and went to South Zeal. The people of South Zeal, a large village, seemed very different to those of Sticklepath, especially their fair week; some bright sporting was carried on, and teetotal speakers almost got mobbed when holding their meetings in basket-maker Finch’s house, and a person was employed, it was said, to offer insults to the speakers on their way home to Sticklepath. In “Quicksilver” days a weekly ride to Exeter market thirty-eight years ago in Mr. Finch’s van was very pleasant but now a good deal of the pleasure is gone. Dartmoor physic having somewhat restored health, the youth could soon help with harvest the corn, assist in the foundry by binding up the scrap iron for the ponderous hammers, while reaping hooks were making by the dozen every day. The fine old unassuming working people at the factory and foundry have nearly all been removed by death.
After leaving the Finch’s the youth went reside amongst the Okehampton Sparrows and whilst there paid a few hours’ visit to the old castle for sport. This castle was erected by one of the Baldwin de Brionus about 1058. The ancient Barons of Okehampton had much power, exercising the right of capital punishment and held 92 manors. The whole history must be interesting to some people. History informs us that the remains of the old castle near Ocmenton or Okehampton was the residence for the barons for 500 years, that in the year 1539 it was dismantled, notwithstanding the castle stood on a rock. The large and important fortress, with its chapel, the keep, banquet hall, and the moat, are now in ruins, and all the rich barons gone. Flourishing trades since that day have decayed but the old tors remain just the same as in the days of the Belstone Druids. The most interesting sight to one youth when in Okehampton in 1842 was a fine residence called “Oaklands,” near a beautiful river. There was a very large library of beautifully bound volumes, nicely placed in a large room. Many visitors went to view the, the youth viewed them from the window, and wished he could have a few days to look at some of the large volumes, for certain it was some ancient histories and valuable works were to be found there. The fine old church at Okehampton, which stood on an eminence some distance from the borough town, was about this time partly burnt down, and lay in ruins for some time.
Whilst there I – for I was that youth – went down the valley, and, by kind permission of the master, viewed the then workhouse, which was apparently a good building. Health being partially restored, I had to leave good friends, and have lived to relate a simple tale about several places around Dartmoor. Certainly, sometimes a change of air for the afflicted is far better than doctor’s physic. Health is better than wealth; both may be lost by the best of people in these days of depression and trial.” – The Western Times, March 19th, 1880.