Imagine back in the days of horse transport making the journey from Okehampton to Tavistock. You may be visiting family or conducting important business. The journey will take you through Sourton, past Lydford onto Black Down, down through through Mary Tavy and on to Tavistock. Consider then that you stay in Tavistock longer than expected and that by the time you leave for Okehampton it is dark. You mount your horse and set off across the moor. By the time you reach Mary Tavy all that can be seen is the yellow lamp glow from behind the heavily curtained cottage windows. As you pass the inn the murmur and laughter from the locals can be heard. You are tempted to go inside and warm up by the huge roaring fire but there are “many miles before you sleep.” The smell of the wood smoke drifting up from the chimneys is your last taste of Civilisation for many miles. Having slowly trotted up the hill you enter onto the moorland, to your right is Kingsett Down and to your left looms Black Down. An icy wind blows off the moors and you pull up your coat collar for warmth. Passing the Wheal Betsy engine house the sound of the wind rattling chains makes your heart beat faster, an uncontrollable shiver makes you pull your collar up further. The moon briefly manages to find a break in the clouds and bathes the lofty eminence of Black Down in a eerie yellow light and it is then the ghastly silhouette of the gibbet appears. The horse gets a firm kick and starts to canter faster, your eyes are magnetically drawn to the hill, “is that a body swinging from it or is it a trick of the moonlight?” Logic says not to fret about the dead but to worry about the living. This road is notorious for highwaymen and there will be no living soul to give assistance should one appear. Far in the distance a twinkling lantern light beckons, reassuringly it is signalling the presence of the Dartmoor Inn. The road takes a deep dip into a bend and as you get to the bottom a horse snorts and gallops out of the gully. A figure dressed in black sits astride and reins in the animal, sparks fly from its hooves as it dances around in the road. The figure produces a pistol and levels it at your heart. His face is hidden behind a black scarf, the horse has settled down and snorting lifts it head. The man say nothing, he just holds out his empty hand and urgently flicks his fingers. Pleading ignorance is a waste of time, you immediately become resigned to the fact that you are about to part company from your heavy leather purse. You reach down inside your coat and begrudgingly hand over your hard earned wealth to this supposed ‘knight of the road’. The highwayman opens the purse and peers inside, he whistles an approval, nods and kicks his horse. The animal speeds off down the gully and heads onto Black Down. Amidst the thunder of its hooves you hear wafting on the night air a loud laugh followed by the words, “Captain Jack thanks ee.”
A few months later a local newspaper reports that the infamous Captain Jack has been caught and tried at Exeter. The highwayman’s sentence was death by hanging and his mortal remains to be taken to hang from the gibbet on Black Down as a harsh reminder to any other highwaymen as to what fate awaits them.
Four months after reading the report you have to travel to Tavistock again, it is wintertime and that means the return journey will definitely be in the dark. This time a weighty pistol lies in your coat pocket should you meet Captain Jack’s successor. The night is cold and crisp with a full moon shining low in the sky. Having reached Black Down a body can clearly be seen swinging from the gibbet, the creak of the wooden crossbar whispers off the hill. No sooner have you drawn level with the gibbet when a horse and rider suddenly appear, it is clear from the silence that this steed is a phantom horse and the spectral rider not of this world. The apparition remains in the road, the ghost produces a pistol and levels it. The horses hooves are clattering around in the road but there is no sound. You look deep into the eyeless face of death, the stench of rotting flesh rips open your nostrils, the horse rears and then as suddenly as it appeared the phantom vanishes. The rotting corpse still sways on the gibbet high on the top of the hill. The idea that gallows/gibbets were placed in prominent places as a deterrent to any would be transgressors is a well documented fact. Clearly the place name ‘Gibbet Hill’ is a good indicator that such a feature once stood here.
There are also several mentions of a cage being sited here as well. The criminal would be placed in these and left to starve and rot. If they were lucky enough friends and family would feed them to prolong the inevitable. At nearby Mary Tavy one such cage is purported to have hung. At the end of Burn Lane there is a gate called ‘Iron Cage Gate’ and there are stories of how friends and family would feed the felons bread and water. There is even a report of one man eating candles as that was all he was offered. In a more bizarre instance there was a tradition that mothers would breast feed their sons in an effort to sustain them.