I will make a bet than any Dartmoor lover has never once thought that just maybe they would love to live in the wilds of Dartmoor, away from everybody and spend their days tramping the moor – I know I have on many occasions. Clearly in this day and age this simply would not be allowed but over the centuries many people have done exactly that. The early tinners and peat cutters spent many a night on the open moor in their makeshift shelters. Stockmen would also find abandoned huts from where they could guard their sheep and cattle under the starry skies. But none of these folk lived for long periods al fresco but there possibly was one person who did live upon the moor – Fredrick William Symes alias Mooroaman.
Fredrick Symes was the son of a Cornish Methodist minister and in later life became a schoolmaster, on retirement decided that he needed to get away from civilisation and spent a lot of time tramping the moors of Bodmin and Dartmoor. He has been described as an individualist and a hermit with a ‘wild’ appearance. Easily recognisable with his snow white hair, sparkling eyes and a powerful trudging stride. Often he could be seen stomping across the moor in an old stained raincoat which was fastened at the waste by a length of rope, scuffed boots and carrying his faithful stick. It was during his time wandering the lonely moorland wastes that he adopted the appropriate name of ‘Mooroaman.
Following the abandonment of Hunting Warren Farm sometime during World War Two the old farmhouse was left to slowly fall into ruins. It was sometime in 1942 that Mooroaman decided that the dilapidated building would make a perfect summer residence. The topographical writer – Eric Hemery would often visit Mooroaman whenever he was in the area of Huntingdon Warren. The ‘Lonestead’ as Symes had christened his new found abode was to say the least – basic. He lived in two rooms, one up and one down, the cooking was done on a fire made of peat and the rotting timbers which lay all around the farmhouse. His method of making toast was to simply lay the slice of bread across a piece of flat, glowing peat. The front door was secured by means of a huge beam hung across the inside of the frame. The decor in the living room was sparse apart from a piece of wreckage from a Dakota aeroplane that had crashed near to the farm in 1945. Remaining with his religious beliefs it is said that the old potato cave belonging to the farm was converted into a very small chapel. Eric Hemery describes the experience of paying Mooroaman a visit; “He made the thickest, brownest tea of anyone I knew, brewing it in an orange-coloured tin teapot over a fire of peat and rotting timbers from the warren outhouses – and that among conditions which the prying eye advisedly ignored if his hospitality was were to be stomached. His welcome was a shout from the kitchen window, then a laborious shifting of the wooden beam with which he barricaded his front door,” p.312. When in residence at the ‘Lonestead’ some poor postman had the twice weekly task of delivering his mail which I am sure was no pleasure on wet days. Oddly enough although he was living as a hermit there were times when he missed the company of people, insomuch that allegedly he would send himself letters just ensure a visit from the postie.
Mooroaman’s daily routine was varied, some days he would walk the ten mile round trip to Buckfastleigh to buy his supplies which he would carry home in a large pack on his back. Other days he would tramp to Ashburton or Totnes to partake in a ‘proper’ breakfast. Once a year, at Michaelmas, he would take an annual vacation and travel to Brimpts Farm which certainly did not further his horizons very much. Now and again he would travel down the old Redlake Tramway to Ivybridge to partake in some fine ale and company. Mooroaman also had a strange urge to embellish the work of the prehistoric cairn builders and legend has it that it was he that was responsible for the make-over he gave the ‘Heap of Sinners‘ cairn. Whether is summer residence at the ‘Lonestead’ or whilst passing the winters in more favourable climbs Symes passion was tramping the moors. His favourite Mecca was Cranmere Pool which he would visit at all times of the day and all times throughout the year. Here his account of such a visit made on Boxing Day in 1933;
“I made my way from Okehampton on Sunday afternoon, partaking of tea at Lewdown, and arriving at 7.30 pm. after some four and a half hours going, and in time to listen to the broadcast from Bethlehem.
On Christmas morning I explored Okement Hill, deferring Cranmere for Boxing Day, when I reached it at 12.45 pm. Never before has it commanded my respect as being a river urn – and oh did I not long for the tea urn! – watching the tinkling streamlets of the gathering ground all around ‘the urn’. I found two cards left by the two visitors of Christmas Day, one who had left London at 3,30 am. and at 11.30 am. had reached Cranmere from Fernworthy. Some Hustle.
I noted the Cranmerean’s 233rd entry in the visitors book, under date of December 22.
I left a card for H.R.H., in memory of his one and only visit on May 19, 1921 at 2.30 pm, expressing a desire for a field day of Cranmereans some time during the coming Moor season, and that he might be present. Incidentally, I samples ice and snow, and was astonished at finding the latter almost too cold to endure within the mouth.
The going over the fen, with its frozen, hummocky, tussocky, uneveness proved rather tiring from the pool southwards towards Fur tor, near which I sighted about 2.30 pm., a trio, the first humans since passing a farmer near the camp at 11 am. Nor did I observe either equine or bovine, and but a few ovine occupants, and flushed one growsing grouse.
At Standon Farm I enjoyed a welcome tea, and piano prelude to conclude. Skirting the Tavy I emerged on to the byway at Brouzen Tor Farm, reaching Tavistock at 6.15 pm. ‘Double-deckering’ it to Horrabridge, where in lieu of ‘Auld acquaintance,’ I , a stranger, was taken in very hospitably indeed, yet again. I ‘double-deckered’ it to Launceston, in the through Bude bus, with the prospect of the North Cornwall Moors for New Year’s Day.” The Western Times, December 30th, 1933.
Mooroaman was a regular contributor to The Western Morning Times in the form of various letters (like the one above), comments and questions regarding both Dartmoor and Cornwall. He was also not adverse to penning the occasional verse as well, such as; “The Hiker’s Lot – Oh, Jolly is the hiker’s lot – Blow it cold, or blow it hot. – Unmindful of discomforts met, – Be it dry, or be it wet. – Wayfaring may be smooth or rough, – He not too soon has had enough. – A really merry life he leads, – Kind nature satisfied his need. – Wayside trading proves a boon – Both before and after noon. – Towards the rising sun he goes, – Returning as the day doth close. – Sunset’s glories lingering glow, – While soft the evening breezes blow. – A day well spent in open air, – Now for wholesome, homely fare. – The refreshing, natural sleep, – Strength for yet more hiking reap.” The Western Morning News, May 13th, 1932. and: “New Year Greeting – On, Dartmoorians – ‘One and All’ – May mister, not mis(s)fortune fall, – All good success be to thee and thine, – Through nineteen hundred thirty nine! – O’er moor and fen, crag and torrent, – Prove anything but abhorrent; – Heath heather, health, let motto be, – Old Dartmoor appeals to me.” The Western Morning News, December 29th, 1938. I think it is clear to see from these verses that the one passion in Symes’ life was the outdoors and all that nature had to offer him come rain or shine. On a further literary note, his idol was William Crossing and at Crossing’s funeral he was listed as one of the mourners.
For 14 years Mooroaman lived his years on and around the wild moors of Dartmoor when finally in his 80s he moved into lodgings in Buckfastleigh. In 1961 he once again moved to Kingsteignton and it was here in the same year that he passed away at Newton Abbot hospital. Frederick William Symes was buried at Albaston in Cornwall.
Hemery, E. 1987. High Dartmoor. London: Robert Hale.
Stanbrook, E. 1994 Dartmoor Forest Farms, Devon Books, Exeter – pp 100 -105.