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Holne Pilrimage

Here is another nostalgic account of a man’s pilgrimage to Holne and the nearby Dart Valley taken sometime in the late 1880s. As with all such accounts of the period he experienced many things which would not be possible today. What makes this reading more interesting are the various ideas and notions of the era which can very much differ today. Personally when reading these old accounts I like to try and follow the route taken at the time on an early map, if you would like to do the same then The National Library of Scotland have the free to view Ordnance Survey 25 inch map of 1888 – 1913 online which you can find at the link –HERE.

A Pilgrimage to Holne 1881 – “To do this I booked to Ashburton by the first train, and acting on the experience of a former occasion when I visited Widecombe, I called at the Railway Hotel to consult my good friend, the host, on the best route &c. By his advice I first obtained permission from the Steward of the property to walk through the veritable Holne Chase, not the famous Buckland Drive, which are generally known by that name. As the walk was likely to be a long one and the day hot, I took a trap to Holne Bridge, a distance of two miles, where my pilgrimage began. On crossing the bridge I entered by a gate on the right into the Chase grounds, and followed the little drive. Two points in this portion afford views hardly surpassed, I should say, anywhere; the first is where the road passes on a ledge hewn in the rock overhanging a rapid and deep pool in the Dart below, with a sweep of Chase House and its shrubberies in the distance; the other one passes up the open field, where on the right, the deep gorge of the Dart first opens to view; the heath-clad abrupt promontory of Cleft Rock on the right, with Raven Rock behind it, and on the left the steep oak-clad side of Holne Chase, Buckland Beacon towering far above in the middle distance, whilst in the foreground flows the Dart, overhung by a grove of beech and oak trees, and fringed by gigantic osmunda ferns.

Leaving the main drive at the entrance gate to the private grounds, and following a cart track through a field to the right, I soon entered the wood, now a young oak tree coppice, but thirty years ago a magnificent forest of steely trees. The path followed the windings of the river but at a great height above it; the view up the wooded valleys on the opposite side, with the Dartmoor tors towering above, was grand in the extreme. I afterwards found out that I passed unvisited a fine specimen of a Roman-British camp, on the top of the hill near which a few years ago a number of roughly formed iron weapons were discovered. (A detailed discussion on these iron bars can be found on the Devonshire Association’s website – HERE). also I missed the view from the extreme point of the Chase known as Eagle Rock, but a guide was required to find those places in the thick wood. On regaining the Tavistock road, not liking to intrude into a private drive to Holne Cot, I turned backwards up the hill and made my way to Holne village, where I arrived at mid-day.

I found the village inn all that could be wished for, and entering through a large porch with benches, I passed the solitary parlour and entered the kitchen which serves as the common room. A commodious old-fashioned settle surrounded the large open hearth fire, before which on the bench sat some village gossips with half emptied glasses who kindly made room for me also. Although the temperature must have been 75 degrees in the shade, fire was still an attraction to them. On the window seat was a poor old fellow smoking a short foul clay pipe; time, poverty, and sickness seem to have rendered the old fellow quite a cripple. The talk of these worthies was a comparison between the late Holne Revel and those of former years, of which I heard more of afterwards. I ordered dinner to be ready at 5 o’clock sharp, refreshed myself for the time with such as I could get, and enquired about the vicarage and what was to be seen besides the pretty Holne church, when a fisherman called for his mid-day draught, and kindly offered to put me in the way to see the finest part of the Dart as he was going to commence fishing at Bel Pool.  So I jogged off with the Piscator, who led me by Holne Cot, from whence a magnificent view is obtained of the river below, as it runs between large boulders and over pebbly rapids down a straight reach he called Hannaford Stickles; on the opposite side were huge barren hills with numerous tors overlooking them, towards the north the dense fir plantations of Buckland and Auswell, the property of Mr. Bastard, of Kitley, whose great uncle – the late Colonel Bastard, – a Member for Devon, received the thanks of the house of Commons for his extensive planting of timber trees when England was at war with all the world. I could now realize  Kingsley’s rapture on visiting the place when he wrote to his father, “Hazel Tor (Auswell Rock) is to me the finest thing I have seen, except the Upper Wye, which the whole place much resembles.

A steep cart road soon brought us to the level of the river. A huge ridge of rocks and hills shut us in on the left, with here and there small streams rushing down little gullies, and falling into the Dart; at one place the most charming miniature waterfalls leapt from the thicket-clad rocks in a narrow gully quite hidden by bushes. The water makes two or three leaps from ledge to ledge, in all about 40 feet. The rocks and stones were draped with a mass of moss overhanging with huge ferns; in a wet season it must be very fine. Soon the cart path became a foot track, and after some up and down we dived through a thicket to the water’s edge. What a sight met us here! A deep still, black pool, with huge granite boulders standing here and there out of the inky water “as white as dog’s teeth.” This was Bel Pool, and Bel Tor stands 500 feet above on top of the hill. The blackness of the water is owing to the lichens on the rocks, and to the deposit of peaty matter on the bottom. Here Piscator set up his tackle, relighted his pipe, and after giving me many directions said good day.

I now found myself proceeding endlang Dertan, to use the phrase of a Saxon character, or along the stream of the Dart, and worth the trouble it was. I passed pools and rapids, climbed over huge moss-clad boulders, crept cautiously over sloping tables of granite as smooth as ice; I now had to round a hanging cliff by clinging to tottering shrubs, whose roots hardly held in the loose gravel of some more ancient river bed, subsequently cut through by the stream, then to jump from one polished stone to some small foothold on another at the imminent risk of a broken bone, the thought of which in such a place is purgatory. Here and there I observed the veins of blood red granite, polished by the passage of sand when the waters are high, and deep potholes worn by the eddies of countless winter floods, until at last I arrived at Broadstone (Also known as The Brad Stones).  There could be no doubt as to the spot – a natural weir, formed by a huge bed of granite, which appeared to be a single rock laid with such precision that the water ran evenly over its whole length into a pool below which I was informed is the most noted lair of salmon in the upper waters of this famous river.

After some trouble I found a path which seemed to lead up a boggy valley to the top of the hill; this I followed, and with no difficulty, for it was overgrown with huge bracken ferns towering above my head. I arrived hot and weary on the top of Benjy Tor (Bench Tor) at last.

Oh, such a place! The river reduced to a mere thread rushing its rapid course five hundred feet below, apparently only a stone throws distance, the rugged tors opposite standing rank behind rank as defenders of the Moor; then toward the east such a stretch of low county with the white villas of St. Mary Church and Babbacombe, bounded in the distance by the Channel, all the rich South Hams  appeared spread out like an embossed map, the numerous villages and towers clearly marked. Southward then was lost in a sea of undulating heather-clad hills about Peter-on-the-Mount and Puppers (Paupers), whilst to the west the convict prison and Prince’s Town were clearly visible, well backed by Hessary Tor. After a needful rest to fully enjoy the panorama I started along the ridge, which is almost level, to strike the road leading down the hill to Holne. This was the part of which Kingsley wrote :- “The distinctive and specific glory of Holne is the descent into cultivation down Holne Ridge after hours of awful silence and desolation of the Moor; the first gleam of spires and chequered fields; first tinkle of the sheep bell, and creak of the plough and holloo of the boys and the murmur of the hidden Dart. I could only pray and thank God for showing me such a place – it seemed the only true state to be in such a place. I did pray, and the Lord’s Prayer, too – it seemed the only thing to express one’s heart in.”

Passing through the Moor gate I soon came to a path on the left, which led me into the Vicarage grounds where I made some excuse for the intrusion. I found the house a pretty thatched cottage, with a veranda, situated in a charming lawn commanding a view of the Dart and distant hills of Dartmoor. Here, then, I was at the spot where Kingsley drew his first breath, and I could understand his enthusiasm for the place and for scenery of a similar kind..

A few minutes walk brought to me the village with an hour to spare before dinner, so I looked into the church, which has recently been re-seated and restored. The handsome screen of Perpendicular date has a good cornice of vine leaves and grapes; the lower part is divided into compartments containing the painted figures of apostles, saints, and fathers of the Church. The wooden pulpit is of similar work, and profusely decorated; it has eight compartments containing shields and arms. In the yard there is a fine old yew tree and cross recently restored to its pedestal.

Returning to the inn I found the same old man sitting at the window, and the settle by the fire still occupied. Time must, indeed be of little importance to these good people, or they must find an endless source of amusement in one and another’s conversation thus to spend a whole summer’s day in this manner. The subject of the recent revel was not yet exhausted. I found it was a pleasure feast held annually on Old Midsummer-day, when a ram is roasted whole in a field called Play Park. By ancient custom the inhabitants have the right to take for that purpose the first ram met with on entering the moor. When roasted it is carried in procession, preceded by a fiddler, to the inn and carved by an experienced person. A small fee entitles anyone to partake of the dainty, which the old man in the window assured me was the sweetest roast meat. The afternoon of the day is devoted to wrestling for prizes given by the principal residents, and in the evening all the young men and maidens of the neighbourhood join in the merry dances. I asked the old man whether or not he suffered rheumatic. He said he was “bow’d most two double with mun,” but in his time he had “proved all diseases;” they had certainly left their marks on him. My chops being ready, I was ushered by “neat-handed Phyllis” into the parlour, where I found all that a hungry man could desire. I did ample justice to the sweet moor mutton, quite as good to me as revel ram, and soon feeling as a giant refreshed, started my way to catch the train.

I followed the road to Gallantry Bower, which I found consisted of a lump of fir trees on the crest of the hill overlooking the chase, and commanding many deep-wooded valleys which seemed to converge toward that point. Following the footpath to Holne Bridge, through some fields and a thick wood, I soon regained the main road, and two more miles brought me once more to Ashburton, with a quarter-of-an-hour to spend with my host of the Railway Hotel before the train started.” – The Western Times, August 23rd, 1881.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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One comment

  1. What an enjoyable read…. Our “pilgrim” must have been a very fit man too..

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