A Book of Dartmoor/Chapter 16
A filled-up lake-bed—Stannon—The great central trackway—Destruction of monuments—Cyclopean bridge—Blowing-house— Another up the river—Cut Hill—The Jack-o'-lantern—The maid and the lantern—Gathering lichens—Dyes—The coral moss—Birds —The cuckoo—The wren—Rooks and daddy longlegs—The Lych Way—Bellever Tor.
A COLONY about a school-chapel and a few deformed beech trees in a basin among tors constitute Post Bridge.
Here the East Dart flows through a filled-up lake-bed, and passes away by a narrow cleft that it has sawn for itself through the granite.
The beech trees were planted at the same time that two lodges were erected by a gentleman called Hullett, who was induced to believe that he could convert a portion of Dartmoor into paradise. He purposed building a mansion at Stannon, and actually began the house. But by the time the lodges were set up and a wing of his house, he had discovered that Dartmoor would spell ruin, and he threw up his attempt. And Dartmoor will spell ruin unless approached and treated in the only suitable manner. It will pasture cattle and feed ponies and sheep, but it will never grow corn and roots.
The great central causeway crossed the modern road near the Dissenting chapel, and may be traced in the marsh aiming for the river, beyond which it ascends the hill and strikes along the brow behind Archerton. It is paved, and is a continuation of the old Fosse Way. It is certainly not Roman work, but British.
Post Bridge has been termed, not accurately, a prehistoric metropolis of the moor. This is because round the ancient lake-bed were numerous pounds containing hut circles. Most of these have now been destroyed, yet one remains perfect—Broadun; and adjoining it is Broadun Ring, where the outer circle of the inclosure has been pulled down, but a considerable number of the huts has been spared. There remain indications of fifteen of these inclosures. More have certainly been destroyed.
Lake-head Hill has been almost denuded of the monuments that once crowded it. They were systematically removed by the farmer at Bellever. Happily one kistvaen has been left on the summit, and there are two or three others, small and ruinous, on the sides.
The "cyclopean bridge" over the Dart is composed of rude masses of granite maintained in position by their own weight. It was the old packhorse bridge.
There are other bridges of the same description; one is on the stream at Bellever, one under Bairdown. But a structure of this sort is the simplest and most easily reared on Dartmoor, where lime is not found, and has to be brought at great expense from a distance.
Great numbers of worked flints are found in this neighbourhood, and a bronze ferrule to a spear was dug up a few years ago in Gawlor Bottom.
A little way, but a few steps below the bridge, on the west side, is a comparatively modern blowing-house; two mould-stones for tin may be seen there lying among the nettles. This house is built with mortar and is of considerable size, whereas the ancient blowing-houses are very small, and no lime has been employed in their construction. One of these with a cache may be found in the midst of the tinners' heaps if the Dart be followed up to where it makes a sudden bend and comes from the east. Here a tongue of hill stands out above it, and a stream sweeps down from the north to join it. A very short distance up this stream is the blowing-house with a beehive cache.
If this stream be pursued, and Sittaford Tor be aimed at, then a few hundred yards to the right of the tor the Grey Wethers will be found, two very fine circles in contact with one another; but the stones of one are nearly all down.
If the Ordnance Sheet XCIX., N.W., be taken, and the ridge followed north-west along the line indicated by bench-marks, Cut Hill will finally be attained, which is all bog, but which has a gash cut in it to afford a passage through the moors from Okehampton to Post Bridge. This expedition will take the visitor into some of the wildest and most desolate portions of the northern half of Dartmoor.
Many years ago the question was mooted in, I think, the Times, whether there were really such things as Jack-o'-lanterns.
Few instances can be recorded where this ignis fatuus has been seen on Dartmoor, probably because so few cattle are lost in the bogs there. I was told by a man accustomed to draw turf, that he has seen the legs and belly of the horse as though on fire, where it had been splashed by the peat water.
I walked one night from Plymouth to Tavistock across Roborough Down, before it was inclosed and built upon, and I then saw a little blue flame dancing on a pool. I went on my knees and crept close to it, to make quite sure what it was, and that it was not a glow-worm.
Mr. Coaker, of Sherberton, informs me that he has on several occasions seen the Jack-o'-lantern. There is a bit of marshy land where rises Muddy Lake, near the road from Princetown to Ashburton, and he has seen it there. Sometimes, according to his account, it appears like the flash of a lantern, and then disappears, and presently flashes again. It has also been seen by him in the boggy ground of Slade by Huccaby Bridge. There, on one occasion, he made his way towards it. From a distance the light seemed to be considerable, but as he approached it appeared only as a small flame.
The Rev. T. E. Fox, curate, living at Post Bridge, and serving the little chapel there and that at Huccaby, has also seen it, in Brimpts, hovering, a greenish-blue flame, about three feet above the soil; and a woman living near informs me that she also has noticed it in the same place.
The following story is told in the parish of Broadwoodwidger, where is a field in which, it is asserted, Will-o'-the-wisp is seen.
The farmer's son was delicate, and in haymaking time assisted in the work, and I have no doubt, notwithstanding his feeble lungs, in making sweet hay with the maidens. However, he over-exerted himself, broke a blood-vessel, and died. Ever since a blue flame has been seen dancing in this field, and even on the top of the haycocks.
The tale I have heard told, as a child, of a blue flame being seen leaving the churchyard and travelling down the lanes or roads to a certain door, and there waiting and returning accompanied by another flame, which appeared simultaneously with a death occurring in the house, is doubtless a distortion of a fact that such a flame as the Jack-o'-lantern does occasionally appear in graveyards.
A miner engaged at the Whiteworks crossed the moor on a Saturday to Cornwood, to see a brother who was dangerously ill, and started to return somewhat late on the Sunday afternoon. In consequence, night overtook him on the moor; he became entangled among the bogs, and was in sore distress, unable to proceed or to retreat.
Being an eminently God-fearing man, he took off his cap and prayed.
All at once a little light sprang up and moved forward. He knew that this was a Will-o'-the-wisp, and that it was held to lead into dangerous places; but his confidence in Providence was so strong, and so assured was he that the light was sent in answer to his prayer, that he followed it. He was conducted over ground fairly firm, though miry, till he reached heather and a sound footing, whereupon the flame vanished. Thanking God, he pursued his way, taking his direction by the stars, and reached his destination in safety.
"I tell the tale as 'twas told to me," but I will not vouch for the truth of it, as I did not hear it from the man himself, nor did I know him personally, so as to judge whether his word could be trusted.
Here, however, is an instance on which implicit reliance can be placed.
Mr. W. Bennett Dawe, of Hill, near Ashburton, together with his family, saw one on several nights in succession in the autumn of 1898. The month of September had been very hot and dry, and this was succeeded by a heavy rainfall in October during twenty-three days. The mean temperature of the month was 54.7, being 4 above the average of twenty years. The warm damp season following on the heated ground and the boggy deposits in the Dart valley resulted in the generation of a good deal of decomposition. Mr. Dawe and several of his household observed at night a light of a phosphorescent nature in the meadows between Ashburton and Pridhamsleigh. It appeared to hover a little above the ground and dance to and fro, then race off in another direction, as if affected by currents of air. This was watched during several evenings, and the members of his family were wont as darkness fell to go out and observe it. The meadows are on deep alluvial soil, formerly marsh, and were drained perhaps sixty years ago.
The same gentleman saw a similar flame in the form of a ball some forty years previously in the low and then marshy valley between Tor Abbey gateway and the Paignton road, near where is now the Devon Rosery. The valley was then undrained. The gas generated, which catches fire on rising to the surface, is phosphoretted hydrogen, and is certainly evolved by decay of animal matter in water; if occasionally seen in churchyards it is probably after continued rain, when the graves have become sodden.
Jack-o'-lantern is called in Yorkshire Peggy-wi'-t'-wisp; consequently the treacherous, misleading character is there attributed to a sprite of that sex which has misled man from the first moment she appeared on earth—who never rested till she had led him out of the terrestrial paradise into one of her own making.
I was talking about this one evening in a little tavern, over the fire, to a Cornishman, when he laughed and volunteered a song. It was one, he said, that was employed as a test to see whether a man were sober enough to be able to repeat the numbers correctly that followed at the close of each stanza.
"As I trudged on at ten at night
rocks for the use of the dyers. There exists in MS. an interesting book by a Dr. Tripe, of Ashburton, recording what he saw and did each day, at the close of last century. He says that he observed women scraping off the lichen from the rocks near the Drewsteignton cromlech. This they sold to the dyers, who dried it, reduced it to powder, and treated it with a solution of tin in aqua fortis and another ingredient, when a most vivid scarlet dye was produced. The lichen is called botanically Lichinoides saxatile. Other lichens were employed to give purple and yellow colours. The cudbear and crab's-eye lichens (Lecanora tartarea and Lecanora parella) gave a dye of a royal purple, and the two species called Parmelia saxatilis and Parmelia omphalodes gave a yellowish brown. Moss also was employed for the purpose; the Hypnum cupressiforme yielded a rich reddish brown.
"Lichens and mosses," says Mr. Parfitt, "are the pioneers of the vegetable kingdom in attacking the hard and almost impenetrable rocks, and so preparing the way for the more noble plants—the trees and shrubs—by gradual disintegration, and by adding their own dead bodies to the soil, enrich it for the food of others."
It is marvellous to see how the lichen attaches itself to the granite. A harshly glaring piece that the quarrymen have cut is touched with fine specks that spread into black and crocus-yellow circles, and
tone down the stone to a sober tint. Unhappily of late years there has been much firing of the furze
and heather on the moor, and the flames destroy the beautiful lichens and mosses, and leave the old stones white and ghostly, not to be reclothed with the old tints for centuries.
I do not think that we have any idea of the slowness with which the lichens spread; a century to them is nothing—it passes as a watch in the night. There is a granite post I often go by. It was set up just seventy years ago, and on it the largest golden circle of the Physcia parietina has attained the diameter of an inch. Mr. Parfitt mentions in connection with it a rocky crag at Baggy Point, North Devon, where it covers the whole surface with a coat of golden colour. It spreads more rapidly on slate than it does on granite, and especially on such slates as are liable to rapid disintegration. The Woodland and the Coryton slates are readily attacked by it. The growth begins with a splash about the size of a sixpence, and increases to that of a plate, when the centre breaks up, and the ring becomes detached in fragments which meet others, and so appear to cover the rock or roof.
One of the most beautiful of the lichens on the moor is the coral moss, Sphœrophoron coralloides. It is a pale greenish- white, upright-growing lichen, that forms a cup, and somewhat resembles an old Venetian wineglass. Then points of brilliant scarlet form round the lip of the cup, and increase in size till the whole presents a wonderful appearance as of sealing-wax splashed over the soil. It is not confined to the moorland, but grows also in woods, where there has been a clearance made. I came upon a wonderful carpet of sprinkled scarlet and white on one occasion, where there was a woodman's track through an old oak coppice. But it must be capricious, for of late years when searching for it in the same spot I have found no more. The black coral moss is scarce, but it has been found about Lynx and Yes Tors.
The birds on Dartmoor have a hard time of it, not only because of the guns levelled at them, but because of the "swaling" or burning of the moor, which takes place at the time when they are nesting. In East Anglia there are along the coast the "bird tides," as the people say. At that period when the plovers and sea-mews are nesting in the marshes, there are unusually low tides, a provision of God, so it is held, for the protection of the feathered creatures whilst laying and hatching out their eggs. So the ancients told of the halcyon days when the gods had pity on the seabirds, and smoothed seven to eleven days in the winter solstice, that they might with safety hatch their young. But on Dartmoor man has none of this pity; he selects the very time when the poor birds are sitting in their nests on their eggs, or are cherishing their callow young, for enveloping them in flames. The buzzard, the hen-harrier, and the sparrow-hawk are now chiefly seen in the most lonely portions of the moor. Gulls visit it on the approach of stormy weather; but the ring-ouzel is there throughout the year. The golden and grey plovers are abundant; the pipe of the curlew may be heard; black grouse and quail may be shot, as also snipe. By the water, that living jewel the kingfisher can be observed watching for his prey, and about every farm the blue tit, called locally the hicky maul or hicka noddy, is abundant. The sand martin breeds in a few places. The heron has a place where she builds at Archerton.
The snow bunting and cirl bunting are met with occasionally.
The cuckoo is heard on the moor before he visits the lowlands. "March, he sits on his perch; April, he tunes his bill; May, he sings all day; June, he alters his tune, and July, away he do fly." So say the people.
One of the freshest and most delicious of Devonshire folk-melodies is that connected with a song about the cuckoo.
"The cuckoo is a pretty bird,
There is a saying among the country folk:—
"Kill a robin or a wren,
The wren is said to be the king of all birds. The story told to account for this is that the birds once assembled to elect a sovereign, and agreed that that
one of the feathered creation who soared highest should be esteemed king. The eagle mounted, and
towered aloft high above the rest, but was outwitted by the wren, who, unobserved and unfelt, had hopped on to the eagle's back.
The birds were so distressed and angry at the trick that they resolved to drown the wren in their tears. Accordingly they procured a pan into which each bird in turn wept. When it was nearly full the blundering old owl came up. "With such big eyes," said the birds, "he will weep great tears." But he perched on the edge of the pan and upset it. Thenceforth the wren has reigned undisputed king of the birds.
There is a curious story told of a wren. In one of the Irish rebellions a party of British military were out after the enemy when, having made a long march, they lay down to sleep and left no one to keep sentinel. As they lay slumbering the murderous rascals stole up, creeping like snakes in the grass and among the bushes, and would have butchered the entire party had it not been for a wren, which, perching on the drum belonging to the company, tapped it repeatedly with its little beak. This roused the soldiers, they became aware of their situation, and were able just in time to fire on their assailants and disperse them.
In Ireland, and in Pembrokeshire and elsewhere in South Wales, it was usual, on S. Stephen's Day or at the New Year, to put a wren in a lantern that was decorated with ribbons and carry it about to farms and cottages, with a song, which was repaid by a small coin. Whether such a custom existed in Devon I cannot say; I remember nothing of the sort
The sparrow-hawk is often seen quivering aloft in the air. A curious story is told of one by Mr. Elliot.
"As is well known, not only sparrow-hawks, but other birds of prey as well as other species, repair to the same site year after year for nesting. This knowledge is valuable to the keepers, who look up these haunts and try to shoot the old birds before they hatch their eggs. On one occasion he shot the female as she came off the nest, and this satisfied him, but on visiting the spot later he was surprised at another female flying off; on climbing to the nest he found that the male must have found another mate, as they had built a second nest over and into the old one, which contained four eggs, whilst the freshly-built nest contained five."
One has supposed hitherto that the gay widower who looked out for another spouse after having lost the first was a product of the human species only.
A visitor to Dartmoor in June or July will be surprised to find flights of rooks over it. As soon as their maternal cares are over, they desert the rookeries on the lowland and go for change of air and diet to the moor, where they feed on the whortleberry, possibly, but most certainly on the daddy longlegs and its first cousin, who is the hateful wireworm in his fully developed form. A friend one day saw a bit of the moor dense with rooks, and surprised at their movements and excitement, observed them closely, and discovered that they were having a glut of daddy longlegs. The light and friable peat earth exactly suits the wireworm in its early stages, and when the pest emerged from the soil full blown, then the rooks were down on him before he could come to our gardens and turnip fields to devastate them.
The one deficiency in the soil on Dartmoor is lime. That will sweeten the grass and enable the cattle to thrive. Bullocks and other cattle will do on the moor, but they really need a change to land on lime whilst they are growing. The roots of the grass and heather are ravenous after lime, and for this reason it is that of the many interments on the moor hardly a particle of bone remains.
From Post Bridge starts the Lych Way, the Road of the Dead, along which corpses were conveyed to Lydford, the parish church, until, in 1260, Bishop Bronescombe gave licence to the inhabitants of Dartmoor, who lived nearer to Widdecombe than to Lydford, to resort thither for baptisms and funerals.
The Lych Way may be traced from Conies Down Tor to Whitabarrow; thence it strikes for Hill Bridge, and so across the spur of Black Down to Lydford church.
When I was a boy I heard strange tales of the Lych Way—and of funerals being seen passing over it of moonlight nights. But superstition is dead now on Dartmoor, as elsewhere, and ghosts as well as pixies have been banished, not as the old moormen say, by the "ding-dongs" of the church and mission chapel bells, but by the voice of the schoolmaster.
A walk or scramble down the Dart will take to the ruins of the Snaily House, the story concerning which I have told elsewhere. It may be carried on to Dartmeet, where a little colony of inhabitants will be found, and a return may be taken over Bellever Tor, a striking height that holds its own, and seems to be the true centre of the moor. On its slopes are several kistvaens, but all have been robbed of their covering-stones. There is an unpleasant morass between Bellever Tor and the high-road.
I was witness here of a rather amusing scene. A gentleman with his wife and a young lady friend of hers had driven out, from Princetown or Tavistock, and when near Bellever the latter expressed a wish to go to the summit of the tor. The gentleman looked at his better half, who gave consent with a nod, whereupon he started with the young lady, and his wife drove on and put up the horse at Post Bridge, then walked back to meet the two as they returned to the high-road, on which madame promenaded. Now, as it fell out, the husband missed his way on trying to reach the high-road, and got to the morass, where he and the young lady walked up and down, and every now and then he extended his hand and helped her along from one tuft of grass to another. They went up—got more involved—then down again, and were fully half an hour in the morass.
Madame paced up and down the road, glaring at her husband and the young lady dallying on the
moor, as she took it; for she was quite unable to apprehend the reason why they did not come to her as the crow flies, and as she considered was her due. Her pace was accelerated, her turns sharper, her glances more indignant, as minute after minute passed. She saw them approach, then turn and retrace their steps, gyrate, holding each other's hands, and walk down the slope some way. Then along the road, snorting like a war-horse, went the lady. She flourished her parasol at them; she called, they paid no attention. Finally they headed the swamp and arrived on the firm road. Thereupon the lady strode forward speechless with wrath towards Post Bridge and the inn, where a high tea was ready. Not a word would she vouchsafe to either. Not a word of explanation would she listen to from her husband.
Curious to see the end, I went on to Webb's Inn, and came in on the party.
The gentleman sat limp and crestfallen.
An excellent tea was ready. Cold chicken, ham, whortleberry jam and Devonshire cream. He ate nothing.
"My dear," said madame to her husband, "you are not eating."
"No, precious!" he replied. "I have lost my appetite."
"But," retorted she, "the moor gives one."
"Not to me," he responded feebly. "I don't feel well. The moor has taken mine away."
Obviously there had been an interview, tête-à-tête, before they sat down.
Presently I saw them drive away.
Madame brandished the whip and held the reins, and the young lady friend sat in front.
Monsieur was behind, disconsolate and sniffing.
- I have been informed that the Jack-o'-lantern is only to be seen after a hot summer, at the end of July, and in August and September. As the moormen say, "When the vaen rises," i.e. when there is fermentation going on in the fen or vaen.
- I have had to considerably tone down the original, which was hardly presentable if given verbatim.
- "The Lichen Flora of Devonshire," in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1883.
- Given in A Garland of Country Song. Methuen, 1895.
- E. A. S. Elliot, " Birds in the South Hams," Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1899.
- Dartmoor Idylls. Methuen, 1896.