A Book of Dartmoor/Chapter 10

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A Book of Dartmoor by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter 10

CHAPTER X.


BELSTONE


Derivation of the name—Phœnicians—Taw Marsh—Artillery practice on the moors—Encroachments—The East Okement—Pounds and hut circles—Stone rows on Cosdon—Cranmere Pool—Sticklepath—Christian inscribed stones—South Zeal—West Wyke—North Wyke—The wicked Richard Weekes—South Tawton church—The West Okement—Yes Tor—Camp and Roman road—Throwleigh.

A GOOD deal of pseudo-antiquarianism has been expressed relative to the name of a little moorland parish two and a half miles uphill from Okehampton. It is now called Belstone, and it has been surmised that here stood a stone dedicated to Baal, whose worship had been introduced by the Phœnicians.

I must really quote one of the finest specimens of "exquisite fooling" I have ever come across. It appeared as a sub-article in the Western Morning News in 1890.

It was headed: —

"PHŒNICIANS IN DART VALE.

[SPECIAL.]

"Much interest, not only local but world-wide, was aroused a few months back by the announcement of a Phœnician survival at Ipplepen, in the person of Mr. Thomas Ballhatchet, descendant of the priest of the Sun

 Temple there, and until lately owner of the plot of land called Baalford, under Baal Tor, a priestly patrimony, which had come down to him through some eighteen or twenty centuries, together with his name and his marked 

Levantine features and characteristics.

"Such survivals are not infrequent among Orientals, as, for instance, the Cohens, Aaron's family, the Bengal Brahmins, the Rechabites, etc. Ballhatchet's sole peculiarity is his holding on to the land, in which, however, he is kept in countenance in England by the Purkises, who drew the body of Rufus to its grave in Winchester Cathedral on 2nd August, 1100.

"Further quiet research makes it clear beyond all manner of doubt that the Phœnician tin colony, domiciled at Totnes, and whose Sun Temple was located on their eastern sky-line at Ipplepen, have left extensive traces of their presence all the way down the Dart in the identical andunaltered names of places, a test of which the Palestine Exploration Committee record the priceless value. To give but one instance. The beautiful light-refracting diadem which makes Belliver[1] the most striking of all her sister tors, received from the Semite its consecration as 'Baallivyah,' Baal, crown of beauty or glory. The word itself occurs in Proverbs i. 9 and iv. 9, and as both Septuagint and Vulgate so render it, it must have borne that meaning in the third century B C., and in the third century A.D., and, of course, in the interval. There are many other instances quite as close, and any student of the new and fascinating science of Assyriology will continually add to them. A portrait of Ballhatchet, with some notes by an eminent and well-known Semitic scholar, may probably appear in the Graphic; in the meantime it may be pointed out that his

 name is typically Babylonian. Not only is there at Pantellaria the gravestone of one Baal-yachi (Baal's beloved), but no less than three clay tablets from the Sun Temple of Sippara (the Bible Sepharvaim) bear the names of Baal-achi-iddin, Baal-achi-utsur, and Baal-achi-irriba. This last, which bears date 22 Sivan (in the eleventh year of Nabonidus, B.C. 540), just two years before the catastrophe which followed on Belshazzar's feast, is in the possession of Mr. W. G. Thorpe, F.S.A. It is in beautiful condition, and records a loan by one Dinkiva to Baal-achi-irriba (Baal will protect his brother), on the security of some slaves." 


One really wonders in reading such nonsense as this whether modern education is worth much, when a man could write such trash and an editor could admit it into his paper.

Ballhatchet means the hatchet or gate to a ball, i.e. a mine.

As it happens, there is not a particle of trustworthy evidence that the Phœnicians ever traded directly with Cornwall and Devon. The intermediary traders were the Veneti of what is now Vannes, and the tin trade was carried through Gaul to Marseilles, as is shown by traces left on the old trade route. In the next place, there is no evidence that our British or Ivernian ancestors ever heard the name of Baal. And finally, Belstone is not named after a stone at all, to return to the point whence we started. In Domesday it is Bellestham, or the ham, meadow of Belles or Bioll, a Saxon name that remains among us as Beale.

Belstone is situated at the lip of Taw Marsh, once a fine lake, with Steeperton Tor rising above it at the head. Partly because the river has fretted a way through the joints of the granite, forming Belstone Cleave, and partly on account of the silting up of the lake-bed with rubble brought down by the several streams that here unite, the lake-bed is now filled up with sand and gravel and swamp.

The military authorities coveted this tract for artillery practice. They set up butts, but woman intervened. A very determined lady marched up to them, although the warning red flags fluttered, and planted herself in front of a target, took out of her reticule a packet of ham sandwiches and a flask of cold tea, and declared her intention of spending the day there. In vain did the military protest, entreat, remonstrate; she proceeded to nibble at her sandwiches and defied them to fire.

She carried the day.

Since then Taw Marsh has been the playfield of many children, and has been rambled over by visitors, but the artillery have abstained from practising on it.

The fact is that the military have made the moors about Okehampton impossible for the visitor, and those who desire to rove over it in pursuit of health have been driven from Okehampton to Belstone, and object to be moved on further.

What with the camp at Okehampton and the prisons at Princetown and encroachments on every side, the amount of moorland left open to the rambler is greatly curtailed.

The privation is not only felt by the visitor but also by the farmer, who has a right to send out his sheep and cattle upon the moor in summer, and in times of drought looks to this upland as his salvation.

A comparison between what the Forest of Dartmoor was at the beginning of this century and its condition to-day shows how inclosures have crept on—nay, not crept, increased by leaps; and what is true of the forest is true also of the commons that surround it. Add to the inclosed land the large tract swept by the guns at Okehampton, and the case becomes more grave still. The public have been robbed of their rights wholesale. Not a word can now be raised against the military. The Transvaal War has brought home to us the need we have to become expert marksmen, and the Forest of Dartmoor seems to offer itself for the purpose of a practising-ground. Nevertheless, one accepts the situation with a sigh.

There is a charming excursion up the East Okement from the railway bridge to Cullever Steps, passing on the way a little fall of the river, not remarkable for height but for picturesqueness. There is no path, and the excursion demands exertion.

On Belstone Common is a stone circle and near it a fallen menhir. The circle is merely one of stones that formed a hut, which had upright slabs lining it within as well as girdling without.

Under Belstone Tor, among the "old men's workings" by the Taw, an experienced eye will detect a blowing-house, but it is much dilapidated.

The Taw and an affluent pour down from the central bog, one on each side of Steeperton Tor, and from the east the small brook dances into Taw Marsh. Beside the latter, on the slopes, are numerous pounds and hut circles, and near its source is a stone circle, of which the best uprights have been carried off for gateposts. South of it is a menhir, the Whitmoor Stone, leaning, as the ground about it is marshy. Cosdon, or, as it is incorrectly called occasionally, Cawsand, is a huge rounded hill ascending to 1,785 feet, crowned with dilapidated cairns and ruined kistvaens. East of the summit, near the turf track from South Zeal, is a cairn that contained three kistvaens. One is perfect, one wrecked, and of the third only the space remained and indications whence the slabs had been torn. From these three kistvaens in one mound start three stone rows that are broken through by the track, but can be traced beyond it for some way; they have been robbed, as the householders of South Zeal have been of late freely inclosing large tracts of their common, and have taken the stones for the construction of walls about their fields.

By ascending the Taw, Cranmere Pool may be reached, but is only so far worth the visit that the walk to and from it gives a good insight into the nature of the central bogs. The pool is hardly more than a puddle. Belstone church is not interesting; it was rebuilt, all but the tower, in 1881. Under Cosdon nestles Sticklepath. "Stickle" is the Devonshire for steep. Here is a holy well near an inscribed stone. A second inscribed stone is by the roadside to Okehampton. At Belstone are two more, but none of these bear names. They are Christian monuments of the sixth, or at latest seventh, century. At Sticklepath was a curious old cob thatched chapel, but this has been unnecessarily destroyed, and a modern erection of no interest or

Inscribed Stone, Sticklepath A Book of Dartmoor.jpg

Inscribed Stone, Sticklepath


beauty has taken its place. South Zeal is an interesting little village, through which ran the old high-road, but which is now left on one side. For long it was a treasury of interesting old houses; many have disappeared recently, but the "Oxenham Arms," the seat of the Burgoyne family, remains, the fine old village cross, and the chapel, of granite. Above South Zeal, on West Wyke Moor, is the house that belonged to the Battishill family, with a ruined cross near it. The house has been much spoiled of late; the stone mullions have been removed from the hall window, but the ancient gateway, surmounted by the Battishill arms, and with the date 1656, remains untouched. It is curious, because one would hardly have expected a country gentleman to have erected an embattled gateway during the Commonwealth, and in the style of the early Tudor kings. In the hall window are the arms of Battishill, impaled with a coat that cannot be determined as belonging to any known family. In the same parish of South Tawton is another old house, North Wyke, that belonged to the Wyke or Weekes family. The ancient gatehouse and chapel are interesting; they belong, in my opinion, to the sixteenth century, and to the latter part of the same. The chapel has a corbel, the arms of Wykes and Gifford; and John Wyke of North Wyke, who was buried in 1591, married the daughter of Sir Roger Gifford. The gateway can hardly be earlier. The house was built by the same man, but underwent great alteration in the fashion introduced from France by Charles II., when the rooms were raised and the windows altered into croisées.

Touching this house a tale is told.

About the year 1660 there was a John Weekes of North Wyke, who was a bachelor, and lived in the old mansion along with his sister Katherine, who was unmarried, and his mother. He was a man of weak intellect, and was consumptive. John came of age in 1658. In the event of his death without will his heir would be his uncle John, his father's brother, who died in 1680. This latter John had a son Roger.

Now it happened that there was a great scamp of the name of Richard Weekes, born at Hatherleigh, son of Francis Weekes of Honeychurch, possibly a remote connection, but not demonstrably so.

He was a gentleman pensioner of Charles II., but spent most of his leisure time in the Fleet Prison. One day this rascal came down from London, it is probable at the suggestion of consumptive John's mother and sister, who could not be sure what he, with his feeble mind, might do with the estate.

Richard ingratiated himself into the favour of John, and urged him not to risk his health in so bleak and exposed a spot as South Tawton, but to seek a warmer climate, and he invited him to Plymouth. The unsuspicious John assented.

When John was cajoled to Plymouth, Richard surrounded him with creatures of his own, a doctor and two lawyers, who, with Richard's assistance, coaxed, bullied, and persuaded the sickly John into making a deed of settlement of all his estate in favour of Richard. The unhappy man did this, but with a curious proviso enabling him to revoke his act by word as well as by deed. Richard had now completely outwitted John's mother and sister, who had been conspirators with him, on the understanding that they were to share the spoils.

After a while, when it was clear that John was
North Wyke Gate House-A Book of Dartmoor.jpg

North Wyke Gate House

 dying, Richard hurried him back to North Wyke, where he expired on Saturday, September 2ist, 

1661, but not till he had been induced by his mother and sister to revoke his will verbally, for they had now learned how that the wily Richard had got the better of them.

Next day, Sunday, Richard Weekes arrived, booted and spurred, at the head of a party of men he had collected. With sword drawn he burst into the house, and when Katherine Weekes attempted to bar the way he knocked her down. Then he drove the widow mother into a closet and locked the door on her. He now cleared the house of the servants, and proceeded to take possession of all the documents and valuables that the mansion contained. Poor John's body lay upstairs: no regard was paid to that, and, saying "I am come to do the devil's work and my own," he drove Katherine out of the house, and she was constrained to take refuge for the night in a neighbouring farm. The widow, Mary Weekes, was then liberated and also turned out of doors.

The heir-at-law was the uncle John, against whom Mary and Katherine Weekes had conspired with the scoundrel Richard. This latter now sought Uncle John, made him drunk, and got him to sign a deed, when tipsy, conveying all his rights to the said Richard for the sum of fifty pounds paid down. Richard was now in possession. The widow thereupon brought an action in Chancery against Richard. The lawyers saw the opportunity. Here was a noble estate that might be sucked dry, and they descended on it with this end in view.

 The lawsuit was protracted for forty years, from 1661 to 1701, when the heirs of the wicked Richard retained the property, but it had been so exhausted and burdened, that the suit was abandoned undecided. Richard Weekes died in 1670. 

The plan resorted to in order to keep possession after the forcible entry was this. The son of Richard Weekes had married a Northmore of Well, in South Tawton, and the Northmores bought up all the debts on the estate and got possession of the mortgages, and worked them persistently and successfully against the rightful claimants till, worried and wearied out, and with empty purses, they were unable further to pursue the claim. In 1713 the estate was sold by John Weekes, the grandson of Richard, who had also married a Northmore, and North Wyke passed away from the family after having been in its possession since the reign of Henry III.

It was broken up into two farms, and the house divided into two. Recently it has, however, been repurchased by a descendant of the original possessors, in a female line, the Rev. W. Wykes Finch, and the house is being restored in excellent taste.

In South Tawton church is a fine monument of the common ancestor, John Wyke, 1591. The church has been renovated, monumental slabs sawn in half and used to line the drain round the church externally. With the exception of the sun-dial, bearing the motto from Juvenal, "Obrepet non intellecta senectus" and a Burgoyne monument and that of "Warrior Wyke," the church does not present much of interest at present, whatever it may have done before it fell into the hands of spoilers.

The West Okement comes down from the central bogs through a fine "Valley of Rocks," dividing and forming an islet overgrown with wild rose and whortleberry. Above it stands Shilstone Tor, telling by its name that on it at one time stood a cromlech, which has been destroyed. This valley furnishes many studies for the artist.

Hence Yes Tor may be ascended, for long held to be the highest elevation on Dartmoor. The highest peak it is, rising to 2,030 feet, but it is over-topped by the rounded High Willhayes, 2,039 feet. Between Yes Tor and Mill Tor is a rather nasty bog. Mill Tor consists of a peculiar granite; the feldspar is so pure that speculators have been induced to attempt to make soda-water bottles out of it, by fusing without the adjunct of other materials.

On the extreme edge of a ridge above the East Okement, opposite Belstone Tor, is a camp, much injured by the plough. Apparently from it leads a paved raised causeway or road, presumed to be Roman; but why such a road should have been made from a precipitous headland above the Okement, and whither it led, are shrouded in mystery. Near this road, in 1897, was found a hoard of the smallest Roman coins, probably the store of some beggar, which he concealed under a rock, and died without being able to recover it. All pertained to the years between A.D. 320 and 330.

Of Okehampton I will say nothing here, as the place has had a chapter devoted to it in my Book of the West—too much space, some might say, for in itself it is devoid of interest. Its charm is in the scenery round, and its great attraction during the summer is the artillery camp on the down above Okehampton Park. On the other side of Belstone, Throwleigh may be visited, where there are numerous prehistoric relics. There were many others, but they have been destroyed, amongst others a fine inclosure like Grimspound, but more perfect, as the inclosing wall was not ruinous throughout, and the stones were laid in courses. The pulpit of Throwleigh church is made up of old bench-ends.

  1. Belliver is a modern contraction of Bellaford, as Redever is Redaford.