Here is a strange tale that was in circulation in 1892 and tells of a sportsman’s experience whilst out on Dartmoor in pursuit of game. There is a strong connection, as far as locality and characters go between fact and reality as will be seen later.
“I had been shooting snipe one wintry day, quite half a century ago on Dartmoor and stupidly stayed so late in the afternoon that a heavy snowstorm came on and completely destroyed what little ideas of locality I had possessed beforehand. I denounced my rashness in quitting the inn at Widdecombe without a guide. I shouted, I fired off my gun, but all in vain. For a couple of hours I stumbled upon one brown swell, down another, avoiding the tors, and seeing all around me gradually assume a wintry coat of snow. At length I found myself in a circular enclosure on the side of a hill, with stones solemnly placed at regular distances and circular depressions within the outer range of large stones. It flashed upon me at once that this was the old Celtic village of Grimspound, once peopled with a fierce set of inhabitants, and now with memories only – memories of all that was proud and and shadowy. I had serious thoughts of choosing a snug corner and trying to camp here for the night, when the drift of snow blew off, and the moon shone out among the quick-flying clouds, a grey spectre seemed to flit before me far down the hill. It was better to join it than pass the night in the village of the dead, so I quickly made after it and shouted after it appeared again; and at last had the satisfaction of seeing it halt. On joining it, breathless and wearied out, it resolved itself into a figure of a spare old man, with a white handkerchief twisted around his neck, and aristocratic face, and remarkably keen eyes. He addressed me in the vernacular – “Who be yew?” I told him of my ill plight, and begged directions. “Tis pretty mucksey here, ” he said, “an yew will zune be a stugged in the mire. Widdecombe! why blessee, ’tis miles away! I uddn’t let ye gallup all the way if ye had a ‘orse to carry ee. Nay! I’m the passon of Crockern down below. You’ll come along wi’ me an’ sleep, an’ I ‘ull zee ee homeward in the morn.”
I was only too glad to assent, and three-quarters of an hour’s walk brought us to his house. It was very old, low, and built of the grey granite of the Moor, standing in a lonely situation, with a little garden around it; but a good fire blazed within, and the table was laid for dinner – a welcome sight to a hungry man.
After dinner we drew our chairs to the blaze, and then my entertainer, who had been somewhat reserved, I fancied, opened out about the sport of the Moor, and waxed enthusiastic over the fox hunts which could be obtained. In the meantime I was struck with the curious aspect of the room. It was low and long, but each of the four corners was built up with an unsightly semicircular projection. All at once (it was nearly midnight), a hideous scream seemed to ring out from the wall, and I naturally started. “Don’t mind ee,” said the old man, “tis only passon Hearn at work. He’ll not hurt ee. Let un squeal!” Of course I proceeded to inquire into this mysterious story, and my entertainer told me the following tale, which was emphasised every now and again by grunts, screams and scratches from behind the walls, till I anticipated no very pleasant night in the bedroom above. I was reassured, however, when the old man told me that Parson Hearn never conceded to scratch and scream in the bedrooms of his little parsonage. Diverted of the rich vernacular in which he told it, the story ran as follows: when he was much younger he had married, and naturally enlarged the house by adding a sitting room and some rooms overhead. But in doing so he must have offended the spirit of his predecessor, an old bachelor who had acted as parson for many years, and spent all his days, from Monday till Saturday, fishing in the neighbouring streams. His ‘Blue Uprights’ were famous the county through and his ‘March Browns’ would kill when no fine London flies were looked at. At length there was no service one Sunday, and the clerk and chief singer set out to look for him. He was found in the best trout pool of the Dart, within reach of his house, and they shuddered to see his cheeks and neck stuck all over with artificial flies. How he perished, whether by accident or suicide, was never discovered. But those flies – who stuck them into his face and neck after death? there was an awful question!
“Anyhow, he was buried, there be allus a swarm of flies a top of his grave stone, ” said my host. Before his successor had lived many months after the alterations were complete ghostly disturbances commenced. Sounds were heard at night as though a figure, in a coat with many patches and pockets, were sweeping in and out of the room. Sometimes a fisherman’s reel was distinctly heard whirring around; at other times a ‘swish’ as of a line cast from a fly-rod pervaded the room. These eerie sounds frequently began at nightfall and continued until next morning. Uneasiness soon made itself felt; no servants would stay, none could be obtained to fill the vacant places. At length my host found an old deaf servant man, Bob Selway, who was as great a character in a way as his master. He could hear some of the cries, and, on consideration of much cider after nightfall agreed to stop “til, Ole Nick pulled ‘un out of bed.” But misfortunes came apace. The parson’s daughters became ill and died, then his wife passed away. Still the noises and apparitions went on ceaselessly and the parson was left with deaf unsympathetic Selway at the mercy of the old fisherman’s ghost. At length one Saturday evening he was sitting up late penning his next sermon, when the screeching and scratching culminated in his chair being drawn from under him and his receiving a severe fall.
This was the climax of my host’s endurance. he got up, opened the door, and, late though it was, made his way to the nearest farm where dwelt his churchwarden, and honest Dartmoor farmer. ‘Jan’ and the missus received him kindly and gave him a bed, after he had told of the horrors which had at length waxed unendurable. “Tell ee what ’tis,” said Jan, “‘tis auld passon Hearn wi’ his rod and reel. He mun be laid,”
Next week accordingly he sent round to seven parsons from the neighbouring villages, and, when this ghost jury was duly assembled at the cottage, each sat for half-an-hour with a lighted candle in his hand, and each one of the six burnt out its time, showing plainly that none of them could lay the ghost. After all, this was not wonderful, for six of them; had been friends of the deceased parson, and, of course, he knew all their tricks. The ghost could afford to defy them; it was not worth his while to blow out their candles. But the seventh parson was a stranger and a scholar fresh from Oxford. The light in his hand went out at once. He was clearly the man who could lay the ghost, so he addressed himself to the task. The ghost gave in after a few lines of his Latin, and he exorcised it at once to dwell for eternity into a nearby beer barrel. What to be done with the beer barrel and its mysterious tenant? Where could it be placed free from the touch of any misguided hand which might seek to utilise the barrel by broaching it and so set the ghost to liberty? Nothing occurred to the assembled company but roll the thing into the nearest corner and send for the mason to enclose it with stones and mortar. This was done, and then the room looked very odd with one corner thus blocked up. Uniformity required that the other three should be blocked up as well; besides the ghost would be still more safe if none knew the exact corner in which it was confined. For some time all went well and there was no renewal of the disturbances.
However, of late the noises had again been heard, as I knew, and there were persons who has seen at times the fisherman and his rod, and heard to reel winding up. My host devoutly wished he could hear of another and more skilled layer of ghosts. The noises continued at intervals as we talked, and I determined to investigate the matter thoroughly in the morning. As soon as the dawn broke I searched each of the corners but in vain. The stonework was covered, it seemed, externally with varnished boards. I could not pull up these readily. No sound was heard, so I continued the search after dinner, when they would be once more audible, and accept the hospitality of the parsonage another night.
After dinner there certainly were scratchings and odd screams, but whence did they proceed? The echo seemed to point out that the disturbance was in every corner at once. A happy thought possessed me to use a stethoscope on the four wooden corners, and at once I could clearly detect breathing, scratchings and low screams at times. The following morning I went outside and found a mass of rubbish against the offending corner, together with a thicket of fennel which the old fisherman had planted to provide him with sauce to accompany his fish dinners. I moved apart these, kicked away some big stones, and found a hole, not unlike a rabbit burrow. The parson was now much interested, and I told him I should want a keen terrier, a mason, and a couple of men. These were soon procured and I engaged this time to lay the ghost effectually. Causing the mason to begin inside and break away through the wooden covering of the corner, I posted the men with sticks, together with the dog, on the outside, near the hole by the fennel bed. After a few minutes the mason reported that he had opened the corner, and infront of him was actually and old, but very rotten, beer barrel. At the same moment, from inside of this, where it had evidently been wont to sleep and have its lair, sprang out with a smothered screech a huge polecat, right under the jaws of the terrier on the other side. Gallantly did the little dog face its fierce assailant, while the two men rushing to its aid with their sticks, soon laid it dead. Sad though it be to tell it, the fisherman’s ghost never more appeared or indulged in winding its reel and the like. The corner was fastened up, and the polecat once dead, no more noises were heard or spectres beheld.
These events supposedly took place at what was known as ‘Parson’s Cottage’ and was built in the early 1800s by the Rev. J. H. Mason when initially the dwelling was known as ‘Crockern Cottage’. It has also been known as ‘Billy Clack’s Cottage’ as it was once inhabited by the Rev. William Clack who himself was a so-called ‘sporting parson’. It has also been suggested that the cottage was once the headquarters of a sportsman and was known as ‘Boarding House Farm’.