As the polar vortex has its way with us, even snowshoeing the trail across the street from our house can begin to feel like an effort. So it seemed like a good time to pull out some old pictures from a trip to Dartmoor, and curl up by the fire as we plan a trip to Glastonbury and the Ridgeway Trail for next summer.
No-one really needs to justify wanting to explore Dartmoor. But in our case, we were beckoned there by Anna Bray, clergyman’s wife, children’s author, historical novelist, and folklorist, who, at the behest of Robert Southey, then Poet Laureate of England, collected and published her Legends, Superstitions, and Sketches of Devonshire on the Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy in 1844. Bray’s novels may have faded from view, and her children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, is known best as an inspiration for her cousin Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, but Bray’s Legends is still considered an important source among folklorists today.
Like so many others in the nineteenth century, Bray and her vicar husband were bitten by the druid bug “as confirmed by the inscribed monumental stones of Romanized British chiefs that have been found in this neighborhood, two of which are still preserved as obelisks in our garden… I know there are those who have been skeptical about the Druidical remains on the moor; but no one should venture to deny the existence of what they have never seen, only because they have never heard of it.” Those stones remain in the vicarage garden today, and the current Vicar of Tavistock was gracious enough to allow us to see them.
The Reverend Bray spent his youth hunting down and deciphering other similar inscriptions in the lands beneath Bair Down, whose name he believed meant “Hill of the Bards.” After their marriage, Mrs. Bray entered into her husband’s interests with enthusiasm, accompanying him across Dartmoor in search of druidical circles, logan stones, and basins (or as Anna Bray insisted on calling them, “libation bowls”).
So did we. Our trip to Mis-Tor (a relatively flat 5 mile round trip, #42 in John Earle’s helpful Walking on Dartmoor) provided a plethora of examples:
An equally relaxed 7.5 mile hike to King’s Tor (Earle #17) gets you to the prehistoric remains by Merrivale bridge, breathlessly described by Mrs. Bray as a “Druid Processional Way.” And maybe it is. But even those among us who are aficionados of Spinal Tap must admit that whoever processed here must have been, frankly, rather small druids.
A much more aggressive, 8 mile hike (Earle #29) leads you across Crockern Tor to Wistman’s Wood, whose name, according to Mrs. Bray derives from “Wiseman’s Wood,” proving, of course, once more that it was an ancient druid grove. The Reverend Bray claims that “tradition relates that Wistman’s Wood was planted by the celebrated Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon. But I do not hesitate to say that, to any one who has visited the spot, it is evident no other hand has planted it than that of God. No one would or could have planted trees in the midst of such rocks.”
Regardless of who planted it, Wistman’s Wood remains a singularly eerie place, made only more so by Anna Bray’s description of how to repel the adders that infest the place with an ash wand. (Snake-phobic Erica has to admit, there are a lot of adders on Dartmoor, but they are small enough and shy enough that you can simply pretend not to have seen them.)
Another stone circle, the Grey Wethers, has far less mystical associations. According to local legend, a visiting farmer criticized the sheep available at Tavistock Market. After a few drinks at a local inn, he was offered the opportunity to buy an excellent flock. Taken to view them in a typical Dartmoor mist, he purchased the sheep, only to discover in the broad light of the next morning that they were actually a circle of standing stones. Grey Wethers can be accessed by a demanding hike of nearly 10 miles (Earle #32).
If the legend of Grey Wethers seems somewhat prosaic, the story of the Dewerstone more than makes up for it. No druids this time, but rather the Devil himself, who used his Wisthounds to hunt his victims across the moor until they plunged to their death from the Dewerstone, which is why it was also known as the Devil’s Leap. The legendary story is attested to by a series of footprints – of a naked man, a pack of hounds, and a cloven hoof. Nonetheless, the site itself is relatively easily accessible via a 4.25 mile round-trip hike (Earle #13).