Ilsington village whose origins probably date back to Anglo Saxon times and so it would be fair to say it and the local area has known human occupation for many, many centuries. Prior to the Norman Conquest the settlement was owned by a man named Merleswein. Just outside the village is what was the old manor of Bagtor which dates back to Conquest times when it was granted to the chief balister (crossbowman?) called Nicholas. It is a well known fact that many of the medieval manors had the power to dispense their own justice which in some cases would mean a trip to the gallows. It has been suggested that a one-time site of such was located near to what today is known as Smokey Cross but previously as Finchin’s Cross. (it’s worth noting here that on Dartmoor there are two types or ‘cross’, the traditional Christian stone cross and simply, as in this case, a crossroads). It should come as no surprise that such sinister locations will have ghostly tales firmly attached to them which is exactly what has happened here.
There are three spectral stories told of spine chilling apparitions which are known to haunt the area around Smokey Cross. In one case a spectral coach and horses thunders up one of the lanes leading off the crossroads. Whether locals have been too scared to talk much about this ghostly happening or not but apart from the fact people have witnessed the distressing event not a lot of detail exists. However, the other story has a bit more ‘meat on the bone’ and once again involves a mysterious coach and horses, it may even be the same one as before but it’s taking a different route. This one appears on the small lane which runs north-westwards from the crossroads and leads up onto the open moor below Pinchaford. What happened was that on this particular occasion a lady was walking up the lane with her small children. The party were merrily chatting away when a strange rumbling noise could be heard in the distance, at first nothing was thought of it as such noises are common on the moor. However, the rumbling began to get louder and louder and nearer and nearer but still the woman couldn’t see where it was coming from and what was making it. She began to panic somewhat when all of a sudden the sound was nearly upon the party, but now not only was it an ear shattering rumble but this was accompanied by the clatter and thunder of horse’s hooves. Fearing that they would become road kill and just in the nick of time she managed to grab the children and leap into the roadside hedge by which time it was evident that it was a coach and horses charging up behind them. As they lay terrified in the hedge they could feel a mighty rush of wind as the coach sped past them. Experiencing a mixture of fear and anger the lady turned to see what mad fool was galloping at such a speed up the narrow lane but much to her amazement there was nothing there, the coach and horses had simply vanished into thin air? Now she really was afraid because in her mind the only explanation for this was that she had just encountered the dreaded ghost coach. Without a second though she quickly gathered up her brood of children and scuttled off back home just in case the ghost coach returned.
The second tale of mystery and dread comes from nearer to the village, one night a gentleman who lived at nearby Bagtor Mill had visited some friends for an evening meal. Having been wined and dined he decided it was time to make his way homeward which mean a journey of about a mile and a half down the dark lanes. Feeling quite pleased with the entertainment the friends provided they decided it was time for bed and began locking up the house. Suddenly a frantic hammering was heard at the front door, it was unheard of for friends and neighbours to be calling at that time of night and so they were hesitant to find out who was a-knocking. The longer they waited the louder and more desperate the pounding got so arming himself with a poker the husband tentatively opened to door to be met with the sight of his distraught dinner guest. Clearly something was amiss so he invited him in, sat him down and poured a stiff glass of rum and waited for him to calm down. Eventually after a few more rums the man’s senses had returned and he was able to tell of his plight. Apparently as he was making his way home and as he turned the corner by the chapel he was met with what appeared to be a solid wall of woolsacks and a barking dog. He stopped, rubbed his eyes and tried to make some sense of what stood before him, suddenly the barking dog simply just disappeared without any logical explanation. If that wasn’t bad enough a hair-raising deep and menacing voice shouted out for him to turn around and go back before some dreadful harm came to him. Without a second thought the man spun around and dashed off back towards the village where he could find some safety and succour. As the hour was getting late the friend decided that it best for his guest to stay the night and at daybreak the pair would revisit the spot to see if their was any evidence of the incident. Mysteriously when they got to the exact same spot there was not even a twist of wool to be seen?
Now, with regards to all these stories, what is the possibility as to them being true? Well there are a explanations, firstly they did actually happen and the related stories are fact. Alternatively and certainly in the case of the latter story ,could such apparitions be the result of an over-active imagination fuelled by the over consumption of some alcoholic beverage of sorts? Or, and more likely, were such ghostly stories invented to deter folk from travelling around the roads and lanes and night? Why should that be? There were/are the type of persons whom it would suit not to have people witnessing their nocturnal activities such as robbers, smugglers, thieves, etc. So what better way to ensure there were no witnesses to their criminal activities than to scare people rigid with stories of ghosties and ghoulies and other abominations that wander the moor of a night. It is worth remembering that way back then the belief in such dark and evil entities was much, much stronger that it is today and so would have kept people behind locked doors at night. Unfortunately for the thieves and vagabonds of today such tales are not such an effective deterrent and folk are sometimes afield at all times of the night to sometimes witness their crimes.