On the hillside above the river Walkham stood the ‘Church Rock’, this huge boulder had stood guard over the old village of the ancients since time began. A local farmer decided that he needed a new byre and so started scouring the rock clitters of Staple tor. Here he found many slabs and boulders that would serve his purpose but he realised that it would mean hauling them a long way back to his farm. The man then noticed the great Church Rock way below and saw how much nearer that was to his home, that would do him he thought. The next day he summoned all his workers and explained that he wanted a new byre and the stone to build it was going to come from the Church Rock. With that the hammers, jumpers, tares and feathers (stone splitting tools) were handed out. His men shuffled their feet and mumbled to each other, the farmer asked what the problem was. “Master, ee knaw us allus do as ee asks, but we bain’t gawing to smash the ‘Piskie’s Church,” one of them replied. “What on God’s earth are ee on about, the ‘Piskies Church’, I nivver ‘eard such twaddle,” the farmer yelled. Once more his men squirmed and stared at the ground, again the reluctant spokesman replied, “if ee ‘arms that rock there be naw sayin’ what evil the piskies u’ll do and us be not going to incur their wrath.” With that they all returned to their normal daily work.
Never one to be beaten, the next day saw the farmer and his sons with ‘truck-a-mucks’ (sleds), carts and tools heading off to Church Rock. It did not take long to mark out the slabs and soon the clang of hammer on jumper could be heard ringing out over the valley. At first his sons thought the ringing sounds were coming from the feathers as they were being hit into the jumper holes but soon realised they were coming from under the ground. High pitched shrieking and wailing could also be heard. This un-nerved the boys something awful and made them work faster so as they could get the job done and get away back to the farm. By teatime enough stone had been split and loaded onto the carts to build the byre. The farmer’s sons anxiously looked at the shattered stump of what was the Church Rock and hurried home.
The next day work on the new building started and the farmers men were told to start the job or face the workhouse. A meeting was held and it was decided as they had nothing to do with actually breaking up the ‘Piskie Church’ they would not get the blame if they simply used the stone. As the men built slab on slab they all began to get awful cramps which made for a very painful day. That night as the men lay in their beds they all suffered from excruciating pins and needles. The following morning, having all compared illnesses, it was decided to work like ‘Billy’ and finish the byre, then that would be their part in the matter closed. By the time the sun sank behind Mis tor the building was complete – that night all farm workers slept soundly in their beds.
Next morning the farmer came down into the kitchen and to his horror saw a huge pile of ash in the hearth of the granite fireplace. It was as if a whole tree had been burnt in one gigantic fire. He then went out into the yard and saw that in fact a whole tree had been burnt because a quarter of his winter log pile has vanished along with the great Yule Logs that he had been keeping for Christmas. A pathetic lowing sound was coming from the cattle shed and the farmer rushed over to investigate. Inside he saw his best milking cow stood shaking in its stall. Her eyes were bulging out of what could only be described as a shrivelled up carcass, the poor animal looked just like a ‘chapel hat rack’. The old man began to realise what his men had meant by the ‘wrath of the piskies’, “pixies have pity on me,” he pleaded out loud.
The following morning the farmer was once again greeted by the sight of a hearth full of ashes, another quarter of his log stack gone and his prime bullock wasted away to skin and bone. It was with fear and dread that he awoke the next day, but again there was a huge pile of ash in the fireplace, another quarter of his wood rick had gone and this time it was his prize bull that stood emaciated its stall.
Come nightfall the farmer decided to see for himself what unearthly events were happening and so once the old clock struck eleven he hid himself in the old ‘smuggler’s hole’. This was a secret cupboard that old farmhouses had in which to hide things the taxman had no business seeing, especially the deliveries of Tom Penny. It was not long before a tiny, ragged figure scurried under the kitchen door, the piskie climbed onto the old wooden dresser and heaved the front door key onto his shoulders. He then scampered over and placed it in the lock and with a mighty swing the key turned and the door opened. Immediately a whole host of piskies scampered into the kitchen followed by an old, ugly, spotty eyesore of a figure. He was only about the size of a kitchen candle but he was still larger than the rest. Excitedly he chirped and chattered, pointed and prodded and sent the rest of the little folk about their work. Half of them ran out to the near depleted log pile and the rest scuttled across to the cowshed. Log after log was piled in the fireplace until the stack nearly touched the granite lintel. The old piskie lit the fire and it didn’t take long before the flames were roaring up the chimney. The rest of the piskies appeared at the door with his second best bullock. Some of them were swinging on its tail, others were sat on the poor animals back where they were un-mercifully pinching and pricking it, three of the little devils had secured themselves onto its nose and two more were swinging from each horn. The beast was petrified and as it turned out with good cause, because as soon as they had got the animal infront of the fire the piskies wrestled it to the ground. The farmer was amazed that such small creatures could ‘throw’ a fully grown bullock. Once the animal was on its side, one piskie got a fork and stuck it into the cow’s nose, another did the same in its rump and a third similar in the flank. Having securely skewered the beast the piskie host then hoisted it up over the fire and began spit roasting the poor cow. Round and round he spun, the flames licking its flesh with fat and grease spitting like the farm cat. Next, the barbecued bullock was lifted into the air three times and lowered three times then heaved onto the table. To a ‘little man’ the piskies leapt up, produced tiny knives and tucked in. The farmer had never seen such appetites, within three minutes the carcass was stripped to the bone and the piskies were waddling around with huge distended bellies, burping, and belching.
Just when the old man had thought he had seen it all, the large ugly piskie gestured and his companions flung the clean white bones onto the floor, the eyes, brain and sinews were left on the greasy table top. One of the shin bones rolled over to just infront of the smugglers hole, the farmer was terrified, what if they should look for it and discover him? He had just seen what they could do with a full grown bullock, a human would present no problem. Slowly the old man slid the door open and shot out a hand, grabbed the bone and gently moved the panel back, luckily the piskies never spotted him.
The piskie host formed a circle around the bones and holding hands danced around the gleaming pile, all the time singing, chirping and giggling.
When the ugly piskie became tired he clapped his hands and gibbered something, immediately the rest sprang to and started re-assembling the bullock’s skeleton. Some held the bones as other tied them together with the sinews. Before long the framework was complete, that is all except the shin bone which the farmer held in his hand. The piskies searched the kitchen for the missing piece of their hideous jigsaw, all to no avail. Mr Ugly then addressed the throng, with much gibbering and waving it seemed that the search was over, the rest of the piskies then replaced the brain, pulled the skin over the cow’s skeleton and pushed the eyes back in their sockets. A ring was made around the cow and the little people danced three times in a circle which was followed by a high pitched shriek. Two piskies then climbed up each nostril and blew deep inside, they then clambered into each ear and whispered some strange spell. Mr Ugly then grabbed some birch twigs and ran them from the cows head to its tail. The animal shook, rolled its eyes, lolled out a long tongue and let out a fearful bellow. With that, for fear of awaking the supposed sleeping family, the piskies drove the animal back to cowshed, all the time pinching and goading. This task was not as easy as they thought because the poor bullock was still missing the shin bone that the farmer had and so it meant one leg swung around like a bell clapper. Having finally got the beast out of the kitchen the rest scampered off into the night leaving just one to lock the door and replace the key.
Enough was enough, the farmer needed magical help and so sought the advice of ‘Old Joan’. She was the local ‘wisewoman’, some said she was a witch but the old boy was not too particular by then. Having confessed his crime the farmer pleaded for her help which was not really forthcoming. The piskies were ‘Old Joan’s’ friends and so why should she help this wicked man. However she did tell him to go and seek the council of the old sage of Exeter, and that is exactly what the farmer did. The old sage took some finding but when he finally tracked him down the farmer was given some sound advice. The wiseman said that he had no fear or liking for piskies and so to help the farmer he instructed him to go back to the farm and knock down the new byre. The stone then had to be carted back up to where Church Rock once stood and piled in a neat stack. The farmer must then go to the priest and confess his transgressions asking for forgiveness, this would ensure the piskies left him alone. That very afternoon the old sage’s advice was heeded and the stones were replaced on the stub of Church Rock.
The next day, to his amazement, the farmer saw that Church Rock was once again a huge granite boulder with not the slightest sign of any damage. The farmer then went to the priest to relate his story. The priest willingly blessed him and told him that although in the eyes of the church there was no such thing as a piskie it may be prudent in future not to do anything that would upset them. From that day forth the farmer never saw a sign of a piskie, that was not to mean that everything returned to normal, no far from it. The farm never prospered, the animals never thrived and the old man was in a state of permanent depression. Week after week he slowly sank deeper and deeper into a dark, melancholy state until eventually he wasted away just like his cattle. Only he was more fortunate because he was not stitched back together, he was buried in the local churchyard..
Another legend about ‘Church Rock’ is that if on a Sunday you put you ear to it you will hear the sound of Tavistock’s church bells ringing from deep inside its granite depths. It coincides with the peels announcing the start of the service. The same can be said for the hours of 4, 8 and 12 o’clock when the Tavistock clock bells can be heard.
There is some debate which rock if any is the ‘Church Rock’ of the story. The area where it is said to be located is fairly boulder strewn and therefore it may be one of several large granite boulders. The whole area has been subject to stone cutting since the Bronze Age, nearby is evidence for such a settlement as are the remnants of a rabbit warren, several field enclosures and tinning activity.
Crossing, 1990, p. 129 makes a brief mention of the rock when he says: “On the common near Over tor, a mass of granite called the Church Rock used to be pointed out as one of the abodes of the pixies…” He again makes reference to the rock, 1997, p.74, stating that on Mis Tor Moor is a small mass of granite called the Church Rock. Hemery, to the best of my knowledge makes no mention what so ever of the place. In short none of the noted Dartmoor writers say anything regarding the Church Rock.
Mrs Bray, who recorded the story in her book 1854 book called ‘A Peep at the Pixies’ does make the following observation about the tale:
“It was related as a warning both to young and old, never to meddle with, or to destroy, any Pixy rocks, houses or buildings, or rings of any kind or description, as these little Pixy beings, though sometimes of service where they take a fancy, are, nevertheless, spiteful and revengeful in their nature, and will requite an offence with tenfold injury, be it what it may.”
Could it be that if the piskies are disregarded the warning was never to “meddle” with ancient houses, buildings or ‘rings’ of any kind? If the modern interpretation of ‘ rings’ is followed then it describes Bronze Age settlements such as in Arms Tor Ring, Krapp’s Ring, and Ryder’s Rings. There are Bronze Age settlements near the Church Rock area and the Merrivale ceremonial complex is less that a quarter of a mile away. Possibly the story was used to illustrate the deep seated fear and reverend respect that such places of the ancient ancestors were held in.
Crossing, W. 1997 Folklore & Legends of Dartmoor, Forest Pub. Liverton.
Crossing, W. 1990 Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Peninsula Press, Newton Abbot.