Christmastime is never complete without a ghost story and this one dates back to 1847 and relates the terrifying experience one lone traveller had whilst travelling across Dartmoor. Nobody can ever prove or disprove such stories but as far as this particular traveller goes what you are about to read was God’s honest truth and nobody could convince him otherwise. Its the tale of a young Dartmoor lad born and bred on the moor and who, through hard work and study, became a well educated and elloquent undergraduate at Oxford college. I will now let him tell his story in his own words:
“That year (1847) Christmas Day fell on a Saturday; I did not leave Oxford until Thursday, and having slept the night in Exeter I went to Plymouth the next day by coach. It was late in the evening of Christmas Eve when we pulled up at the door of the ‘Old Four Castles,’ in Old Town-street; the night was cold, and bowls of hot punch, or egg-flip mulled from the white ale for which the locality is famed were steaming on the table of every guest-room in the inn. From Plymouth to my home was a good twenty miles ride; and although the animal which had been sent for me was a sure footed as Dartmoor horses always are, still twenty miles on a dark, cold Christmas Eve, over roads as slippery as glass, and as steep as the side of a house, afforded by no means a cheering prospect. But I had promised to be at home for Christmas morning, so I resolutely buttoned my coat up to the chin, consigned my baggage to mine host, to be sent out the next day, and mounted, disregarding alike the temptations of the steaming punch-bowls, and as the warning of the farmers in the tap room: ‘Of a Christmas Eve of a Friday, The piskies ‘ll ride beside ye! I laughingly rejoined that I had always been accustomed to appease the Piskies by dropping a pin on the floor of one of their grottoes, so that I had no fear of them.
I left Plymouth by the good north road that leads to Tavistock. For the first five or six miles my was was easy enough; a series of gradual ascents, through a tolerably populous country, gradually bringing one up to the higher and bleaker regions that borders the wilds of the Devonshire Highlands. I passed several of the villages and I could see through the frozen windows, now partly blinded by the snow which had commenced to fall thickly, boisterous parties assembled around the Ashen Faggot drinking their metheglin or hot elderberry, smoking long pipes, and bent on ‘keeping up of Chrissymas.’ I must confess I envied the merry-makers, for besides the actual physical discomfort of a ride in the snow at Midwinter, there were many other considerations which made my journey not a particularly enjoyable one – at all events to a somewhat sensitive and imaginative youth, as I was. Owing to the disturbed and distressed state of the country – which those who recollect the winter of 1847-8 will readily remember – isolated moorland roads were by no means the safest places at night for a man who might supposed to carry a purse in his pocket. Moreover, more than one or two spots on this particular road bore a very unsavoury reputation. Stories were current of body snatchers, who, on being accidentally overlooked in their unholy work in the churchyards of some of the remote little parishes, savagely knocked out the brains of their unlucky detector, and carted off his mortal remains with the other ‘bodies’ as ‘subjects’ for the London medical students; indeed, there was scarcely a mile of the road but what had its particular ‘wishtness,’ its tale of comparatively recent deeds of darkness and horror. As I got further into the moors, the travelling became more and more difficult; for though the snow had by that time ceased falling, it lay on the ground to a depth just sufficient to obliterate the most obvious landmarks of the road where it crossed the patches of open common which now became larger and more frequent; and freezing too as it fell, it rendered the footing of my horse so insecure that before I had got many miles further on, I found myself obliged to dismount and lead the poor brute in order to make any progress at all.
Now and then we had to cross little combes or valleys of some Dartmoor rivulets that flow down through the hills to feed the Plym or Tamar. These valleys were generally thickly wooded; and as the snow scarcely lay at all in their recesses, the darkness of the lower parts of the road here was in appalling contrast to the light of the snowy path higher up on the moor. As I was riding through one of these combes I observed through the gloom a small dark body, apparently hobbling along infront of me. I had not seen a living thing for a good hour or so – it was now nearly midnight – si I reigned in a little, in order to come up with my fellow traveller in a lighter more canny spot. As soon as we began to ascend the hill again, I found myself quickly compelled to dismount again, for the slope was a steep one and perfectly frozen; but notwithstanding the fact that I walked with difficulty, having almost to drag the horse after me, I soon overtook the object which had attracted my attention; and in passing I observed it was a little old woman, dressed all in black or some dark colour, with a very curious old-fashioned bonnet. She walked heavily as if she were very tired and footsore but otherwise with remarkable ease, considering the slippery state of the road. She looked steadily infront of her, but kept both her hands nervously clasped on what seemed to be a leather bag. I gave the usual Devonshire salutation, ‘Good night, Mother,’ in as cheerful tone as I could muster; but she went on as if she had not heard me. Just after I passed, a break in the clouds or a bend in the road, or something gave us a little more light than usual, so I turned my head to see her face. Even then I could scarcely distinguish anything, except that the reflection of the snow appeared ti impart its blue-white pallor to her features, and yet I can never forget the nameless horror that seized me at the dim sight of the ghastly visage. I pulled in fright at the bridle I was holding, and struggled almost breathlessly up the hill to get away from the indefinable terror that oppressed and threatened to paralyse me. Up the long hill, and across the wide stretch of bleak snow-clad moor, and then down into another valley. I pressed on without daring to look back for a moment. It was not until I had plunged into the shades of the wood, which, in this valley as in the former ones, overhung the road, that I stopped to draw breath and listen. Not a sound was to be heard save only the frightened snorting and restless movements of the horse, and the beating of my own heart. I had just entered a part of the road comparatively free from snow, under the shadows of the trees, (though within a yard or two of the open moor), so I thought I would remount and push on as rapidly as possible.
I was turning towards the horse, when a piercing unearthly shriek, or rather yell, apparently at my very shoulder, drove my heart in one big jump up into my throat; at the same moment the horse, with a wild bound, tore the bridle out of my hands, and galloped madly down the valley and out of sight. I looked around and within ten yards of me, on the snowy moor, lay the old woman – whom I had supposed to have been a mile behind me – in the midst of a dark stain of blood, which I could plainly see spouting from her neck. Over her was a man, who looked like a farm labourer or an underkeeper, old and grizzled, but still hale and powerful. Him too, I could see plainly against the background of snow; his left hand was holding down the woman’s head against a piece of rock, with his right hand he was deliberately sawing and hacking at the bones of her neck, with an implement like a reaping hook. In another moment he held up the severed head as if to satisfy himself of the completeness of his bloody work. With a shout of horror I raised my riding crop and leapt forward forward to attempt to seize the miscreant, and at the same instant I fell, or was precipitated, headlong against the sharp edge of a granite boulder that lay in my way. How long I lay there, stunned and motionless, I know not. When I came to myself, stiff and cold, bleeding from a wound in my forehead where my head had struck the rock, the snow had disappeared, and the moon was shining brightly and calmly over the silent moor. I could see around me nothing but the ordinary objects of the moorland – furze bushes, tufts of rushes, scattered stones and boulders; and though I searched carefully and wearily, I could not discover the smallest vestige of the horrible tragedy of which I had been, or believed I had been, a spectator. Slowly and painfully I dragged myself homeward, and at no great distance was met by a party of villagers, who had been sent off to look for me on the arrival of my riderless horse at the stable. I explained that I had a bad fall, and they carried me home between them. From the effects of the terrible brain fever which prostrated me during that melancholy Christmas vacation, I have never quite recovered; but no one knows except myself, and no one will ever know, what was really the cause of that illness.“