Ancient Dartmoor and its Legends Oct 28, 2013 17:52:02 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 28, 2013 17:52:02 GMT -5
Ancient Dartmoor and its Legends
Dartmoor is a vast expanse of moorland in the county of Devonshire in southwestern England. The moorland, now protected by National Park status, covers an area of 368 square miles and includes some of the wildest and bleakest country in all the United Kingdom. Perhaps it is not surprising then that Arthur Conan Doyle chose to se his dark atmospheric crime thriller, The Hound of the Baskervilles, on Dartmoor. Much of the Dartmoor National Park lies over a granite plateau and is characterized by numerous exposed granite hilltops, known as “tors.” The highest of these tors and also the highest point in southern England is High Willhays, at 2037 feet above sea level.
It has often been said that Dartmoor is the finest open-air archaeological museum in the country and, with more than 10,000 listed archaeological sites, this is hard to dispute. The presence of man in this wild, blustery part of England can be traced back to Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, who roamed the area around 10,000 years ago, leaving their flint blades, arrowheads and traces of temporary camps on the landscape. The majority of the rich prehistoric remains on Dartmoor date to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods (c. 3000-2000 BC), and include stone rows, circles and avenues, standing stones, hut circles, cists (known on Dartmoor as “kistvaens” – box-like stone coffins) and extensive field systems known as “the Dartmoor reaves.” Unfortunately, organic remains, including unburnt human bone, do not survive in the highly acidic soil of Dartmoor, so our picture of prehistoric life in the area is far from complete.
One of the most impressive series of prehistoric monuments on Dartmoor is located next to the River Plym at Drizzlecombe, east of the village of Sheepstor. This “intriguing ritual complex,” as Aubrey Burl calls it in his 2005 book, A Guide to the Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, contains impressive arrangements of stone circles, rows, cairns (artificial piles of stones), standing stones, cists and pounds (ancient walled settlements). The plan of the entire series of monuments forms a giant trapezoid, with a narrow north-to-east top, a wider base and long sides, in proportion to each other. Although the significance and function of this arrangement are long lost, it is likely that it was the inhabitants of the adjacent settlement who constructed this sacred landscape in stone.
Merrivale (“the pleasant valley”), located on a spur of high ground above the River Walkham, between the towns of Princetown and Tavistock, is home to another ritual complex. The monuments at Merrivale were once known locally as the “Potato Market and “The Plague Market.” The names date to the year 1625 when there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the area and 575 residents of the nearby town of Tavistock died. In order to get food to the townsfolk without contamination, the moorland farmers would travel to the ancient site and leave provisions.
The Merrivale complex consists of two stone circles, a stone avenue, double and single stone rows, standing stones, a large cist and hut circles (the remains of ancient houses). The narrow double stone row at Merrivale (it is only 3.6 feet wide) is aligned almost east-west and runs for almost 600 feet. There have been suggestions that the stone rows at the site were astronomically aligned, perhaps to provide a calendar for the year, enabling a more accurate planning of farming and ritualistic activity. The solstices, the bright orange star Arcturus and the Pleiades star cluster have all been suggested as possible targets of the stone alignments. But why the need for such precision? Such arrangements of stones were huge undertakings considering there were enough natural signs for Bronze Age inhabitants of the area to understand the time of year. Another objection to the astronomical hypothesis is that to make alignments “fit the intended pattern,” some researchers have used monuments dating from many different periods, sometimes hundreds of years apart; consequently, their theories are unlikely to have any validity.
The Nine Stones (pictured above), also known at the “Nine Maidens,” and the “Seventeen Brothers,” is a stone circle located on Belstone Common not far from the East Okement River, to the south of the village of Belstone. Despite the name, the monument, the outer wall of a vanished Bronze Age burial chamber, has 11 set upright stones, with others lying prostrate with a diameter of 25 feet 8 inches. The tallest stone of the ring is a mere 3 feet in height. There is a tradition that a group of maidens danced on the Sabbath and for their punishment, were turned to stone and compelled to dance at noon every day for eternity. In some versions of the tale, if the stones hear the sound of the bells of Belstone Church, they will come back to life. Another variation of the story, and one that tallies more with the actual number of stones in the circle, is that of the Seventeen Brothers who danced on Sunday and suffered the same fate as the maidens.
Many stone circles throughout the UK, Ireland and France are associated with a dancing legend (Stall Moor Circle on Dartmoor is another example), and most of them involve the tradition of people being turned to stone for some misdemeanor or other. Intriguingly, there are other examples connected to the dancing legend that are also called the “Nine Maidens” or “Nine Ladies” (the Nine Maidens in Cornwall, for example), often regardless of the actual number of stones in the circle. Legends of punishment for dancing on the Sabbath can be traced back to 17th century fire-and-brimstone preaching, though why the number 9 is so prevalent in these tales is not clear.
One fascinating theory of the ubiquity of the number 9 was suggested by B. C. Spooner, writing in the December 1953 issue of Folklore. Spooner noted the hour most connected to stone circles in tradition was noon, “the hour of the sun and the sun’s meridian, of the full strength of the noonday devil, the still hour of Pan.” Noon is derived from the Latin none hora, the ninth hour after sunrise, when the Office of Nones was to be recited. By AD 100, the hour of noon had been changed from 3 p.m. to midday and became known as None in France and Noon in England. That Nine Maidens and None Ladies stone circles should be associated with midday, noon, rather than the number 9, seems a perfectly reasonable suggestion, though the number 7 also occurs frequently in the folklore of megalithic monuments (The Seven Sisters, Lissyvihheen Killarney, Ireland, for example). There is a parallel here with the Greek myth of the petrification of Niobe, whose seven sons and seven daughters were killed by Apollo and Artemis for their mother's disrespect toward the goddess Leto.
Apart from its abundant prehistoric remains, the heather covered wilds of Dartmoor are also home to a plethora of antiquities from later periods. These include Anglo-Saxon settlements, ruined castles, medieval abbeys and manor houses, ancient churches and bridges, and the remains of tin, copper, lead, zinc and silver mines. It is often from Dartmoor’s historical sites that many of the best-known legends of the area come and prominent among these is that of “Childe the Hunter.” This legend was first recorded in the early to mid-1600s and tells of a wealthy Saxon Lord of the Manor of Plymstock, named Childe, who was caught in a blizzard on the wilds of Dartmoor. Lost and unable to continue in the bitter cold, Childe was forced to kill and disembowel his horse and take shelter inside the carcass. But this did not save him and a few weeks later, his body was discovered frozen to death inside the horse’s body. Childe had stated in his will that, wherever he was buried, the local church should inherit his land. The monks of Tavistock Abbey, on whose lands the body had been found, acted quickly and, after narrowly avoiding being ambushed by a rival party from Plymstock, buried the remains of Childe at the Abbey and inherited the land.
A stone cross monument known as “Childe’s Tomb” was erected in the place where the squire’s body was apparently recovered inside the horse, on the southeast edge of Foxtor Mire. This cross still stands next to a Bronze Age cist and the legend may indicate confusion between the story of Childe and a folk memory attached to the prehistoric tomb. Childe the Hunter is usually identified as Ordulf, son of Ordgar, an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon Earl of Devon, though whether the dramatic story of his death is fiction or reflects a genuine account is unknown. The tale of Childe the Hunter certainly has elements that seem to have originated in a dispute over land between the towns of Tavistock and Plymstock.
Some say Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired to write the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles after hearing tales about Dartmoor while staying at the Duchy Hotel in Princetown (now the High Moorland Visitor Centre). The legend of Squire Richard Cabell of Brook Manor, north of Buckfastleigh in Dartmoor, was probably related to the author by journalist and barrister Fletcher Robinson. Robinson’s coachman was called Harry Baskerville, though the name may also originate with Birmingham printer John Baskerville, a friend of Conan Doyle’s when he lived in the city in the late 1870s. Squire Cabell, who died in 1677, was rumored to have murdered his wife and apparently had an evil reputation in the district. There was a legend that when he died, howling black dogs breathing fire raced across Dartmoor ready to drag his soul to hell. It was also said that after his death, the wicked squire could be seen leading a phantom pack of hounds over the moors at night, usually on the anniversary of his death, or that he rode in a black coach pulled by headless horses and driven by a headless coachman.
Squire Richard Cabell lies buried in the mausoleum known as “the Sepulcher” in the churchyard of the ruins of Holy Trinity Church (above) in Buckfastleigh. The church was burned by arsonists July 21, 1991, and has since become a place where witches and Satanists perform their dark rituals There are various pieces of folklore attached to the Sepulcher: an eerie, red glow was said to surround the tomb and a host of demonic creatures reportedly clustered around it. Some said the demons were attempting to grab the squire’s soul through the black bars, but others believed they were a manifestation of his evil. Stories of the “hell hound,” the phantom black dog of British and Irish mythology, certainly influenced Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, but it is not the only example of the dreaded creature on Dartmoor.
The ancient structure called Fitsford House near Tavistock is home to a bizarre headless spirit. According to local tradition, the Lady Frances Howard (who died in 1671), wife of the owner of Fitzford House, Sir Richard Granville, had murdered her first three husbands. Because of her wickedness, the lady was condemned to ride out every night at midnight in a coach of human bones with skulls at the four corners. A spectral black hound, sometimes said to be Lady Howard herself, with a single eye in the middle of its forehead, accompanies this terrifying apparition. When the phantom coach arrives at Okehampton Castle, a ruined 11th-century structure overlooking the River Okement, it is the task of this dog to pluck one blade of grass from the castle mound and take it back to the gate of Fitzford House. The hound must continue to do this every night until the all the grass has been plucked from the mound, which, of course, will never happen because the grass grows faster than the creature can pluck it. In some versions of this tale, the coach stops to pick up the souls of the dying, which surely indicates that, as with so many spectral coach and black dog tales, Lady Howard and her phantom coach are the personification of death itself.
Another phantom black dog is attested to by the names of two hamlets in the parish of Washford Pyne: Upper and Lower Black Dog. Theo Brown was told the story there used to be a tunnel leading from the old well at the crossroads where the Black Dog Inn now stands to the ancient earthworks at Berry Castle, almost a mile to the south. At the time of the Civil War (1642-1651), the entrance to this fabled tunnel was guarded by a spectral hound. There are many more black dogs haunting the lanes and byways of Dartmoor. As elsewhere in the UK, the origins of such phantoms can be traced back to the folk myth of the Herleithing (Wild Hunt) of northern, western and central Europe, wherein a ghostly procession of huntsmen and their hounds pass nosily over the countryside at night reveling, hunting and destroying all in their path; the Dartmoor version was known as the “Whish-Hounds” (or “Wisht Hounds”) or “Yeth Hounds,” that were later said to be the souls of unbaptized children. An ancient road called the Abbot’s Way and the valley below Dewerstone Rock are said to be favorite haunts for these terrifying apparitions.
Source: Haunted Spaces, Sacred Places: A Field Guide to Stone Circles, Crop Circles, Ancient Tombs and Supernatural Landscapes by Brian Haughton.