A Book of Dartmoor/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX

LYDFORD


An out-of-the-world spot—The church dilapidated—The clerk—Situation of Lydford—An early fortress—The church of S. Petrock—British foundations—Monument of the watchmaker—The castle—A prison—Mr. Radford—Will Huggins—Primitive gate-hinges—The gorge—The waterfall—The Gubbins crew—Black Down—Entries in the registers of Mary Tavy—Mary and Peter Tavy churches—Bridestowe church—Bronescombe's Loaf and Cheese—Tavy Cleave—Peat-works—Cross on Sourton Down.

FIFTY years ago Lydford was one of the most out-of-the-world and wild spots in England. I had almost written God-forsaken, but checked my pen, for God forsakes no place, though He may tarry to bless. There were no resident gentry—there never had been, as a glance at the registers reveals. There was no resident rector—there had not been within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. The rector was a wealthy pluralist, rector of Southill and Callington, in Cornwall, who hardly ever showed his face in Lydford, the largest parish in England, and maintained a poor curate there on a hundred pounds a year in a miserable cottage.

The people were a law to themselves, and had the credit of being inveterate poachers.

The houses, thatched, built of moor-stones, not set in mortar, were in a ruinous condition. The aspect
On The Lyd.jpg

On The Lyd

of the place was that of an Irish village. It was dominated by a ruined castle, and possessed a church fast lapsing to ruin, and was girt in by walls long ago reduced to heaps. One Christmas Day the curate went to the church for the celebration of the Holy Communion, and found the altar covered with snow that had blown in through the battered east window and under the cracked slates of the roof.

"I'll sweep it off," said the clerk.

"On no account. God has spread His table," said the curate; and he celebrated on the white sheet of snow.

In the cottage that served as parsonage it was not much better. The curate had two rooms downstairs and one above. One room was slate-paved. Upstairs there was no ceiling, and he had occasionally to spread his umbrella over his head and pillow when he went to bed.

Now all is changed, or changing.

The church has been restored, and is a model of what a church should be. The old parsonage has been pulled down, and stables built on the site, and the late Mr. Street, the architect, erected an absurd Scottish castle with angle turrets and extinguisher caps to serve as rectory. The ruinous houses are being replaced by trim, if ugly, habitations. Only the gaunt castle remains gutted.

About fifty years ago the clerk was addicted to lifting his elbow too freely, and came to church occasionally in a hilarious condition. The climax was reached at a funeral, when he tumbled into the grave before the coffin, and apostrophised the dead man as he scrambled out: "Beg parding, Ted; I bain't minded to change places wi' you just yet."

The curate was compelled to discharge him and appoint another, Peter X.

The old clerk refused to accept his dismissal, and gathered his adherents, and on the ensuing Sunday marched at their head to the house of God. Peter, advised of this, summoned his supporters, and, having the keys, ensconced himself early within the sacred building, in the clerk's pew, surrounded by his upholders. The rival party entered, and a battle ensued between the factions. The curate absolutely refused to perform the service to the clerking of the dismissed official, and finally the latter and his gang were ejected from the church, loudly professing that they would all turn Dissenters.

This Peter remained clerk for fifty years. He obtained a subsidiary revenue by carrying children afflicted with "the thrush" up the tower, and holding them over the battlements at each pinnacle, whilst he recited the Lord's Prayer. For this he received a small gratuity.

He was a most worthy man, and, as he is now dead, I do not scruple to mention that the story I have told in Furze Bloom, under the title of "Peter Lempole," pertained to him. He never married, the reason being that he had a childish old brother entirely dependent on him. Peter was engaged to a bright, pretty girl; but one day she said to him, "When us is married, then, mind y', Peter, I'm not going to have that silly brother of yourn in the house with me." "Indeed!" was Peter's retort; "then into my house you shall never come."

Lydford occupies a tongue of land between two ravines, one cleft perpendicularly to a depth of seventy feet, the other steep, but not sheer through rock. The old line of fortifications, much degraded by the plough, may be traced distinctly, nevertheless, across the only portion of the headland by which attack was possible. It is the sort of fortress which goes by the name of cliff castle on the Cornish and Welsh coasts.

That it was a site chosen by the prehistoric population is undoubted. Such a natural fortress could not have been overlooked, and it was held since remote times till the Normans came. Yet, notwithstanding the position being almost impregnable, it was taken, and the town of Lydford was burnt by the Danes in 997 after they had destroyed the Abbey of Tavistock. From Domesday it would appear that at the Conquest Lydford was a walled town. It sent burgesses to Parliament twice in the reign of Edward I.

The church is dedicated to S. Petrock, and at its restoration some remains of the old British church were discovered three feet below the pavement of the present edifice. The slabs that had lain on the floor of the original oratory were taken up and placed within the doorway of the present church; so that the worshippers may stand on the very stones on which their ancestors stood in the sixth century. That into the walls of the reconstructed church most of the stones of the original edifice were incorporated, is more than probable.

There are several Petrock churches round the moor —Harford, South Brent, Clannaborough; and probably the original founder and patron of Buckfast Abbey was this saint.

The great distinction between British foundations and those that were Roman was this: a British church was called after its founder, whereas a Roman church received its name from some scraps of dead bones of a saint laid under the altar, or placed in it. Unhappily, we have no record of S. Petrock's labours in Devon, but there can exist little hesitation in holding that he was an apostle of the district about Dartmoor and of a tract north of it as well, as also that he laboured and died in Cornwall.

Here is what Bede tells us of the manner of consecration among the Celts. It must be premised that the historian is speaking of Cedd, Bishop of the East Saxons from 653 to 664, to whom Oidilvald, King of the Deisa, had given a piece of land. Cedd had received his training from Celtic monks at Iona.


"This man of God, wishing by prayer and fasting to purge the place of its former pollution of wickedness, and so to lay the foundation of the monastery, entreated the king that he would grant him the means and permission to dwell there for that purpose, during the whole time of Lent, which was then at hand. In all the days of this time, except on Sundays, he fasted till the evening, according to custom, and then took no other sustenance than a little bread, one hen's egg, and a little milk mixed with water. This, he said, was the custom of those of whom he had learned the rule of regular discipline; first to consecrate to our Lord, by prayer and fasting, the places which they had newly received for building a monastery or a church.

"When there were ten days of Lent still remaining there came a messenger to call him to the king, and he, that the religious work might not be intermitted, on account of the king's affairs, entreated his priest, Cynebil, who was also his brother, to complete the work that had been so piously begun. Cynebil readily complied, and when the time of fasting and prayer was over he there built the monastery, which is now called Lastingham."[1]

The name Petrock is really Peterkin, the Celtic diminutive of Peter, and it is probable that Peter Tavy is another of his foundations, as well as certain other churches now regarded as dedicated to the great apostle.

The Saxons, who were saturated with Latin ideas, when they obtained supremacy, rededicated the churches to saints of the Roman calendar, if they were able to obtain from Italy some scraps of bone that it was pretended had belonged to one of the saints of the Latin calendar. But there is no evidence that the British Christians did other than call their churches after the names of the founders.

Lydford church is of fifteenth-century Perpendicular, but in the chancel is an earlier piscina, and the font is possibly pre-Norman. The chancel screen is gone, but the rood staircase remains.

In the churchyard is the often-quoted epitaph of George Routleigh:—

"Here lies in horizontal position
the outside case of
George Routleigh, watch-maker,

whose abilities in that line were an honour
to his profession.
Integrity was the main-spring
and Prudence the regulator
of all the actions of his life.
Humane, generous and liberal
his Hand never stopped
till he had relieved distress.
So nicely regulated were all his motions
that he never went wrong,
except when set agoing
by people who did not know his key.
Even then he was easily set right again.
He had the art of disposing his time so well
that his hours glided away
in one continual round
of pleasure and delight.
Till an unlucky minute put a period to
his existence.
He departed this life Nov. 14, 1802,
aged 57,
wound up
in hopes of being taken in hand
by his Maker
and of being thoroughly cleaned, repaired
and set agoing
in the World to Come."


In the churchyard may be noticed some altar tombs of the type not infrequent round the moor.

Due west of the church, across the graveyard hedge, is a small camp, possibly British.

The castle is planted on a tump, a natural elevation artificially shaped, and is not particularly interesting. It is square, and was built after the Conquest. By a charter of Edward I, it was constituted a Stannary prison. Richard Strode, of Newnham Park, one of the principal gentry of the county, moved in Parliament to restrain the miners from discharging their refuse into the rivers with the result of choking up the harbours. The miners were so incensed against him that they captured him in 1512, had him summarily tried by their Stannary Laws, on Crockern Tor, and threw him into Lydford gaol, where he languished for some time, and it was with considerable difficulty that his release was obtained.

What with Forest Laws and Stannary Laws, Lydford Castle rarely lacked tenants. Even in 1399 Lydford law was held in bad repute, for Wright, in his collection of political poems, prints some verses of that date which speak of it as such; and William Browne, in 1644, wrote on it:—

"I oft have heard of Lydford law,
 How in the morn they hang and draw,
   And sit in judgment after:
 At first I wondered at it much,
 But soon I found the matter such
   As it deserves no laughter.

"They have a castle on a hill;
 I took it for some old wind-mill,
   The vanes blown off by weather.
 Than lie therein one night 'tis guessed
 'Twere better to be stoned or pressed
    Or hanged, ere you come thither."

And so on for sixteen verses.

Below the castle is the water-gate where is the only spring from which Lydford town was supplied till Mr. Radford brought drinking water into the place.

With Lydford the name of Daniel Radford will be indissolubly connected—one of the noblest and kindest of men, and one of the most modest. He cut the way up the ravine by which the gorge was made accessible. When I was a boy the only method by which it could be explored was by swimming and scrambling in summer, when the water was low. Mr. Radford built Bridge House and restored the church. It was due to him that I undertook, in 1888, to collect the folk-music in Devon and Cornwall; and it is in Lydford churchyard that he lies, awaiting the resurrection of the just. Not without deep feeling can I pen these lines to commemorate one of the best men whom it has been my happiness to know.

As I have mentioned the folk-music of Devon, I may here add that one of my assistants was old Will Huggins, of Lydford, a mason, who entered enthusiastically into the work. I had an attack of influenza in the winter of 1889-90, and had to leave England for Italy. Before my departure Will promised me to go about among his old cronies and collect ancient ballads. Alas! he caught a chill; it fell on his chest, and when I returned in the spring, it was to learn that he was gone.

"I'm going, I reckon, full mellow
   To lay in the churchyard my head;
 So say, God be wi' you, old fellow,
   The last of the singers is dead."

In the village street may be noticed, built into the hedge or wall, a piece of granite with a round hole like a rock basin depressed in it. Actually it is one of the stones of a gate-hinge.

Formerly the gates around Dartmoor had no iron hinges, but turned in sockets cut in granite blocks. Few of these now remain in use, but the stones may be noticed lying about in many places, and it is really

A Primitive Hinge.jpg

A Primitive Hinge.

marvellous that the antiquaries of the past did not suppose they were basins for sacrificial lustration.

In 1880 the late Mr. Lukis was in Devon, planning the rude stone monuments on Dartmoor for the Royal Society of Antiquaries. He came on some of these cuplike holes in stones, and carefully measured and drew them. Happily, I was able to show a gate swinging between two of these blocks, and so explain to him their purpose.

The Lydford ravine is the finest of its kind in England. A bridge crosses it, and it is worth while looking over the parapet into the gulf below, through which the river writhes and leaps. The gardens of Bridge House are thrown open on Mondays, when a visitor may descend and thread the gorge. But decidedly the best way for him to see the beauties of the Lyd valley, where most restricted and romantic, is for him to descend at the waterfall, a pretty but not grand slide of a lateral brook, and ascend the ravine of the Lyd from thence; he will pass through the gorge where finest, under the bridge, and pursue his course till he comes out at a mill below the south gate of Lydford. Hence a half-mile will take him to Kitt's Steps, another fall, a leap of the Lyd into a basin half choked with the rubbish from a mine. The mine happily failed, but it has left its heaps in the glen as a permanent disfigurement.

Considerable caution must be exercised in ascending the gorge, as the path is narrow, and in places slippery. A schoolmistress was killed here a few years ago. She turned to look at the sun glancing through the leaves at the entrance of the chasm, became giddy, and fell over. She was dead when her body was recovered.

Inhabiting the valley and lateral combes of the Lyd, in the time of Charles I. and the Commonwealth, was a race of men called the Gubbinses. They were wild and lawless, and maintained themselves by stealing sheep and cattle, and carrying them into the labyrinth of glens where they could not be traced.

Fuller, in his account of the wonders of the county of Devon, includes the Gubbinses. He heard of them during his stay in Exeter, 1644-7.


"I have read of an England beyond Wales, but the Gubbings land is a Scythia within England, and they be pure heathens therein. It lyeth near Brenttor, in the edge of Dartmore. . . . They are a peculiar of their own making, exempt from Bishop, Archdeacon, and all Authority, either ecclesiastical or civil. They live in cotts (rather holes than houses) like swine, having all in common, multiplied, without marriage, into many hundreds. Their language is the drosse of the dregs of the vulgar Devonian; and the more learned a man is, the worse he can understand them. Their wealth consists in other men's goods, and they live by stealing the sheep on the More, and vain it is for any to search their Houses, being a Work beneath the pains of a Sheriff, and above the powers of any constable. Such their fleetness, they will out-run many horses: vivaciousnesse, they outlive most men, living in the ignorance of luxury, the Extinguisher of Life, they hold together like Burrs, offend One, and All will revenge his quarrel."

William Browne speaks of them as near Lydford:—

"And near thereto's the Gubbins' cave,
 A people that no knowledge have
     Of law, of God, or men;
 Whom Caæsar never yet subdued;
 Who've lawless liv'd; of manners rude;
     All savage in their den.

"By whom, if any pass that way,
 He dares not the least time to stay,
     But presently they howl;
 Upon which signal they do muster
 Their naked forces in a cluster,
     Led forth by Roger Rowle."

It cannot be said that the race is altogether extinct. The magistrates have had much trouble with certain persons living in hovels on the outskirts of the moor, who subsist in the same manner. They carry off lambs and young horses before they are marked, and when it is difficult, not to say impossible, for the owners to identify them. Their own ewes always have doubles.

In the West Okement valley, in a solitary spot, are the foundations of a cottage in which for many years a man lived, preying upon the flocks and cattle on the moor, and carrying on his depredations with such cunning that he was never caught. It was shrewdly suspected that he was in league with a number of small farmers, and that he was by this means able to pass on his captures and ensure their concealment.

Black Down is an extensive ridge of moorland traversed by the high road from Okehampton to Tavistock. The highest point is called Gibbet Hill, but tradition is silent as to who hung there.

In the Mary Tavy register occurs this entry:—

"1691, March 12, William Warden, a currier, was whipped by the Parson and Churchwardens of Whitchurch, and ordered to be passed on as a wandering rogue from parish to parish, by the officers therein, in 26 days to his native place, Cheshunt in Hertfordshire, and as the Churchwardens were conveying him on horseback over Black Down, he died on the back of the horse, and was buried the same night."

The parson of Whitchurch was a Mr. Polwhele, who was also justice of peace.

Here is another curious entry in the same book of registers:—

"1756, Sept. 12, Robert Elford, was baptized, the child of Susanna Elford by her sister's husband, to whom she was married with the consent of her sister, the wife, who was at the wedding."

Here the union is not with a deceased wife's sister, but the living wife's sister. There is no entry relative to this marriage, so that the pair must have got their unhallowed union blessed in some remote parish, where the relationship was not known.

In 1760 William Greedy, sojourner, and Susanna Elford had their banns called, but there is no entry of a marriage.

Another entry in the same register book is suggestive of a scandal.

"1627, Aug. 5, Baptized, Nicolas filius Mri. Johan. Cake jam senio confecti."

Mary Tavy church, picturesquely situated, not on the Tavy, but on a little confluent, was barbarously renovated some years ago, but of late much loving care has been bestowed upon the structure, and something has been done to efface the mischief wrought by the architect who had dealt with it previously. The new screen is remarkably good, and in accordance with Devonshire work of the sixteenth century. The stained glass is excellent.

Peter Tavy church was disfigured rather later than Mary Tavy. It possessed an interesting Tudor square pew, richly carved, and with posts at the corners supporting heraldic beasts. This was demolished at the so-called restoration. Some scraps have been preserved and worked up to form a screen across the tower arch. All the modern work is of the vulgarest description, in yellow deal. A portion of the screen with saints painted on it is preserved within the altar rails.

Peter Tavy Combe must on no account be neglected; it is a remarkably picturesque valley.

Another church that may be visited from Lydford is Bridestowe, dedicated to S. Bridget, who had a sanctuary of refuge here, now called the Sentry. The original church stood in a different position, and contained the Norman arch now erected at the entrance to the church avenue. It was turned into a church-house, then became ruinous and was pulled down. The reason for the removal of the parish church in the fifteenth century was probably because the old church was near the road at a turn, so that there was not space available to enlarge it.

This church has suffered from maltreatment by a late rector, who tore down the old roodscreen, sawed it down the middle, and plastered the tracery so treated against a deal dwarf screen, inverted, and against a vestry door. To make matters worse, he boarded the entire interior of the chancel with deal, varnished. It presented the appearance of a cabin of a ship. This has now happily disappeared. It is greatly to be desired that the screen should be restored.

Second to the Dart only in beauty is the West Okement that comes foaming down from the bogs about Cranmere through a fine ravine between Yes Tor and Amicombe Hill. If the river be followed up from Meldon Viaduct, a point is reached where it rushes over a barrier-of rocks fallen from Black Tor, and divides about an islet. But perhaps the best way to see this valley is to ascend a combe, crossed at the foot by the Lake Viaduct, and follow a track that sweeps round Sourton Tor, and ascend to Bronescombe's Loaf and Cheese, where is a fine cairn. On the slope between Sourton Tor and Bronescombe's Loaf lies a large slab of granite through which a dyke of elvan has been thrust. In this elvan have been cut the moulds for two bronze axe-heads.

Walter Bronescombe was Bishop of Exeter between 1258 and 1280, and he lies buried in the Cathedral under a fine canopied tomb. The effigy is of his own date, and gives apparently a true portrait of a worthy prelate.

One day he was visiting this portion of his diocese, and had ventured to ride over the moor from Widdecombe. He and his retinue had laboured through bogs, and almost despaired of reaching the confines of the wilderness. Moreover, on attaining Amicombe Hill they knew not which way to take, for the bogs there are nasty; and his attendants dispersed to seek a way. The Bishop was overcome with fatigue, and was starving. He turned to his chaplain and said, "Our Master in the wilderness was offered by Satan bread made of stones. If he were now to make the same offer to me, I doubt if I should have the Christian fortitude to refuse."

"Ah!" sighed the chaplain, "and a hunch of cheese as well!"

"Bread and cheese I could not hold out against," said the Bishop.

Hardly had he spoken before a moorman rose up from a peat dyke and drew nigh; he had a wallet on his back.

"Master! "called the chaplain, "dost thou chance to have a snack of meat with thee?"

"Ay, verily," replied the moorman, and approached, hobbling, for he was apparently lame. "I have with me bread and cheese, naught else."

"Give it us, my son," said the Bishop; "I will well repay thee."

"Nay," replied the stranger, "I be no son of thine. And I ask no reward save that thou descend from thy steed, doff thy cap, and salute me with the title of master."

"I will do that," said the Bishop, and alighted.

Then the strange man produced a loaf and a large piece of cheese.

Now, the Bishop was about to take off his cap and address the moorman in a tone of entreaty and by the title of master, when the chaplain perceived that the man had one foot like that of a goat. He instantly cried out to God, and signified what he saw to the prelate, who, in holy horror, made the sign of the cross, and lo! the moorman vanished, and the bread and cheese remained transformed to stone.

Do you doubt it? Go and see. Look on the Ordnance Survey map and you will find Bread
Hare Tor - A Book of Dartmoor.jpg

Hare Tor

and Cheese marked there. Only Bronescombe's name has been transformed to Brandescombe.

But the Bishop, to make atonement, and to ease his conscience for having so nearly yielded to temptation, spent great sums on the rebuilding of his cathedral.

From the Bread and Cheese, a walk along the brow of the hill by the Slipper Stones—so called because there Bishop Bronescombe dropped one of the coverings of his feet—shows the valley to perfection, with Black Tor rising above it, and Yes Tor towering high aloft in the rear. By the stream below is a stunted copse, a relic of the ancient arms of forest that stole up the ravines far into the moor, but of which now hardly any remain. At Stinga Tor, further up, is a fine logan rock. The visitor may return by the peat-works and the noble pile of Lynx Tor to the valley of the Lyd.

An interesting excursion may be made to Tavy Cleave. The course to be adopted, so as to see it in perfection, is to go on to the moor from the Dartmoor Inn. Here in its proper season, August to October, the field gentian, with its dull purple flowers, may be gathered. A descent to the Lyd by some old mine works opens a fine view of Lynx, Hare, and Doe Tors, and the little farm named after the latter lies before one, solitary in the midst of heather and swamp. Stepping-stones allow the river to be crossed, and the farm is reached and passed, and Hare Tor is aimed at. Old stream-works and prospecting pits abound. By leaving the summit of Hare Tor on the left, a cluster of rocks rising above the grass and heather must be struck at, and suddenly before the eye opens the ravine of the Tavy, that foams far below over a bar of red granite.

Between the rocks and Ger Tor is a cluster of hut circles in tolerable preservation, and a very interesting collection is found on a spur of Stannon, on the further side of the Tavy.

Lynx Tor may be ascended from Lydford. The summit is occupied by a fine mass of rocks, and

Inscription on Sourton Cross.-A Book of Dartmoor.jpg

Inscription on Sourton Cross.

commands a superb view as far as the Atlantic in one direction, and Plymouth Sound and the Channel in another.

Near Lynx Tor are the peat-works already mentioned. Various attempts have been made to find for the peat a use that may prove commercially successful, but hitherto these attempts have not been satisfactory to investors. The bogs are hungry, and swallow up a good deal of money.

Hence a short diversion will take to the logan rock on Stinga Tor.

On Sourton Down stands an old granite cross that bears an inscription only to be read when the sun is setting and casts its rays aslant over the face. Apparently the monolith was shaped into a Latin cross at some period later than the inscription, which belongs to the sixth century. It is headed by the early Christian symbol of the Early Christian symbol -A Book of Dartmoor.jpg, but badly made. The same symbol occurs on the inscribed stone at Southill. The granite is of a very coarse texture, especially where the figure occurs and at the beginning of the name.

As for every person, so for every place, a time comes if waited for. It has come for Lydford, burnt by Danes, deserted in the Middle Ages, abandoned by its rectors.

"At six o'clock I came along
 And prayed for those that were to stay
    Within a place so arrant;
 Wide and ope the winds so roar,
 By God's grace I'll come there no more
    Till forc'd by a tin warrant."

So wrote Browne in the seventeenth century.

But the time has arrived for Lydford at last, and now in summer it is hardly possible for a visitor to obtain lodgings, unless he has written to secure them months before, so greatly does Lydford attract to it those who have eyes to see beautiful scenery and hearts to appreciate it.

  1. Hist. Eccl; iii. c. 23.