Dartmoor Ghost Stories
If you stand alone on the top of a Dartmoor tor, particularly on a dreary, misty day, and scan the far horizons you will begin to appreciate that this is a unique environment. Despite a first impression of being a barren wasteland, here is an ancient landscape, which has witnessed many events both mundane and extraordinary. It is therefore steeped in a wealth of folklore, legends and ghost stories, some based on fact, others passed by word of mouth by people who have lived and worked here for generations.
These stories are intended to both entertain and inform you about some of the many strange tales Dartmoor has thrown up through the murky mists of time. If you believed every tale you would probably never set foot in the place again because, as will be revealed, Dartmoor must have more ghosts than people living on it. If you throw in the Devil, headless horses, talking rivers, and pigs that wear wigs, phantom cottages, and many more weird and wonderful tales, you have the makings of a truly sinister and supernatural place!
When is a Ghost not a Ghost?
The solution to this riddle can be answered quite simply if the scene is a Dartmoor bog in the late evening or twilight. If you see a pale bluish flame flickering evanescently then this is probably; no spirit intent on luring you to a marshy demise. "Ignis fatuus", or as we would call it "will-o'-the-wisp", is a natural phenomenon which occasionally appears over marshes. This weird natural occurrence is also called "jack-o' lantern" and, seen from a distance, it is easy to see how it might perpetrate strange stories.
Well I Be Boggered!
A favorite tale told by a senior Dartmoor National Park Warden that centres on the infamous depths of a Dartmoor mire.
A young man was wending his way home, on foot, across the moor when he encountered a valley bog with very treacherous parts - the locals call them "Feather Beds" or "Quakers". The young moorman espied a rather fine top hat resting delicately on the mire and, unable to resist the temptation, he picked it up only to find that beneath it was a man's head. The immersed gentleman smiled, and introduced himself very politely and the moorman immediately offered to assist him out of his obvious predicament. His offer of help was accepted - but only on condition that the young man also rescued the horse on which he was seated!
The Great Grimpen Mire
Whilst we are on the subject of bogs, the famous Great Grimpen Mire was based on Foxtor Mires when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his fertile imagination to turn a local legend into a powerful drama. His Dartmoor based story, "The Hound of the Baskervilles", has been dramatized on numerous occasions, several versions for both television and film having been filmed on the moor.
Conan Doyle used to regularly visit friends who lived near Ipplepen in Devon. On one of his outings he visited the Royal Duchy Motel at Princetown (which has since become the prison officers mess) where he heard the story of a notorious character called Squire Cabell. This evil character, who died in 1677, scared the local populace so much, even in death, that his coffin was secured by an enormous slab to make sure he didn't get out again! His coffin was then entombed within a small building at Buckfastleigh.
Branscombe's Loaf and Cheese
There is a small granite capped hill, high on Sourton Common and close to don Reservoir, called Branscombe's Loaf. By chance, or a 'slice' of good luck, it has a lovely little story to explain its origin.
In the late thirteenth century Walter Bronescombe or Branscombe was Bishop of Exeter. His diocese stretched across the length and breadth of Devon and Cornwall and, from time to time, he had to travel around the area.
Now, on one particular occasion, whilst accompanied by his chaplain, he strayed from the King Way, the road from Okehampton to Tavistock, and became lost in the mist. As the time passed by and the mist persisted, the Bishop and his chaplain developed hunger pangs and, as one is wont to say in these circumstances, declared they "would give anything for a bite to eat". Miraculously, to their profound relief, a stranger materialized out of the mist and approached them. The old man, with a skeletal face and frame, produced some bread and cheese. The Bishop was just about to accept this kind offering when the chaplain let out a warning yell. He had spotted that the moorman's foot was cloven, absolute proof that it was the Evil One Himself confronting them. The uneaten bread and cheese dropped to the ground and immediately turned into the rocks of that name today.
The mist duly lifted and the Bishop and his chaplain went on their way none the worse for wear, still with rumbling tummies, but infinitely grateful that they hadn't been obliged to pay the ultimate price for the devilish waiter service.
The ancient stannary and borderland town off Ashburton possesses its own evil little sprite that appears in the shape of Cutty Dyer. He is easy to find as he lives near King's Bridge in the centre of the town. For many generations a visit by him was threatened to naughty children who didn't mend their ways, but misbehaving children were not his sole clients - he was particularly active against those folk who drank too much. He would eagerly waylay anyone in a state of alcoholic stupor as they staggered home. At best they could expect to be thrown into the River Ashburn but at worst this evil little sprite would cut their throats, drink their blood and then throw them into the river!
In the Middle Ages an image or statue of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, stood beside the river to help travellers when the Ashburn was in flood. Possibly a drunken reveller destroyed it which turned the image into this large, red-eyed watersprite - 'Cutty' being a derivative of St Christopher and a 'Dyer' is defined as a scoundrel of the deepest dye - so beware.'
The Dog-goned Ponsworthy Pig
Yet another black dog was found wandering near Ponsworthy by a local chap who just happened to be on the way back from the pub at Hexworthy. He tied his scarf around the dog's neck and led him home, locking him in his stable for the night. The following morning when he invited his neighbors to inspect his captive, he was embarrassed to find his scarf tied around the neck of a large black pig! We rather think that the spirit in this story owes more to the Forest Inn at Hexworthy than to the spirit world!
Lady Howard's coach is not the only one on Dartmoor to be pulled by headless horses. There is a haunted house on the eastern side of Dartmoor called Great Fulford (see "The DevonAir Book of Haunted Happenings"), and one of the old Squire Fulford's coaches has occasionally been seen near Dunsford, driven along the lanes by the old cavalier gentleman himself. This phantom coach is pulled by four headless horses but sadly history doesn't tell us the reason for the Squire's outings.
More Headless Horses
Several decades ago a young man proudly took his friends in his new car off on a jaunt across the moors. As they reached high ground they became enveloped by a thick mist and soon mistook the line of the road and drifted on to open moorland. They immediately realized their mistake but the mist was so dense they could not see the road at all.
As in all good ghost stories, instead of staying in the safety of the car, they got Out to look for the road, Suddenly, to their great astonishment, they heard the sound of thundering hooves quickly bearing down on them. As they gazed into the mist the ghostly sight of several headless horses all mounted by headless riders, menacingly encircling them, transfixed them. Fearing for their lives they cranked the engine (we said it was a few years ago!) dropping the starting handle in the panic and drove frantically away, fortunately regaining the road after a bit of bumping and skiding. A day or so later, when the conditions were clear, bright and sunny and the moor had no look of menace, the young man, decided to go back for his starting handle. He located the spot and retrieved the lost tool. Embedded in the ground he saw not only the footprints of himself and his friends, plus the tyre marks of his car, but also the hoof-prints of galloping and stomping horses. But they did not lead away from or up to the spot!
A similar event occurred when the Chagford Home Guard were on duty at Gidleigh, one night in 1943. On a clear bright, moonlit night the sound galloping hooves raced up to and past them but no pony was to be seen.
The Ghost Tor Rider
Between Powder Mills and Two Bridges the B3212 passes below an eminent pile of rocks called Crockern Tor. This point is close to the centre of Dartmoor and was used from 1305 to 1749 for open air meetings of the "Tinners" or Stannary Parliament (Stannum is Latin for tin). The tor was chosen because it was about an equal distance for the twenty four representatives who were sent from the four Stannary towns situated in each corner or "quarter" of the moor. They might well have had an uninvited member joining them at their twice yearly meetings for "Old Crockern" favoured dark nights for his adventures across Dartmoor. This mysterious horseman had a skeleton steed and was a truly frightening sight to behold.
It is believed that he may well have been associated with the Wisht Hounds as their "kennel" in Wiatman's Wood lies just over the hill from Crocker Tor. Nobody knows who this mysterious rider is or why he haunts this tor and surrounding moor.
Another Phantom Rider
The road from Haytor towards Widecombe is much used by visitors to Eastern Dartmoor. There is a stretch of it which curves and twists below Rippon Tor and leads, in a short while, to the crossroads at Hemsworthy Gate. A phantom rider has been known to speed along here, from time to time, and can be identified by his distinctive silver hair and an old-fashioned military style mackintosh.
There is not a lot of point in following him as you can be sure that by the time Hemsworthy Gate is he will dissolve into thin air!
Other reports have indicated that a phantom coach (of the coach and horses variety) also clatters along this stretch.
The A38 Ghosts
The A38 Exeter to Plymouth road skirts the southern edge of Dartmoor and passes by old Dartmoor towns and villages such as Ashburton, Buckfastleigh, South Brent and Ivybridge. Today's road is a fast highway, a great motorized conveyor belt which happens to be haunted by a hitch-hiking ghost.
However, in the past the route between Devon's premier settlements was a much quieter coaching route, except of course when the midnight coach thundered through the night during the 1830's and 40's. This coach has travelled along the old road at various times since then and, although the unmistakable sounds of horses hooves and rattling wheels can be clearly heard, the coach is never seen, perhaps this is why the phantom hitchhiker never uses it!
The Hairy Hands
Of the many stories which abound on Dartmoor, this is the one which most people have heard of, possibly because most people, at some time, have travelled the stretch of road where this hairy phenomenon occurs and anyone who knows the tale will make quite sure that their fellow travellers also know the story!
Shortly after 1910 a series of strange incidents occurred along the B3212 road between Postbridge and Two Bridges or, to put it another way, between the East and West Dart Rivers. Most of the incidents occurred near a farm called Archerton near Postbridge. Cyclists felt their handlebars wrenched out of their hands, turning them into the ditch and even ponytraps were put out of control and ended up in the ditch beside the road. Later cars and motor coaches suffered similar fates, sometimes with fatal results. A local man, Dr Helby, from Princetown, rode his motorbike and sidecar, which inexplicably went out of control. The two children passengers in the sidecar were thrown out and survived but the doctor was killed. Shortly afterwards an Army officer was injured on his motorcycle along this stretch but survived to reveal that a pair of large, muscular hairy hands closed over his own and forced him off the road.
This revelation led to sensational front page headlines. The Daily Mail sent reporters to investigate the story and their reports resulted in a full scale enquiry by the various road authorities into the state of the road. It was always possible that an adverse camber could have caused problems, and repairs were carried out to the road surface.
But that wouldn't explain why, one night in the mid 1920s, a lady in a caravan parked on this stretch of the road, saw a large hairy hand clawing its way up the outside of the window. In sheer panic she made a sign of the cross and the Hairy Hand disappeared never to be seen by her again!
Between 1910 and 1930 there was a spate of serious incidents but since those times the strange occurrences, which have undoubtedly happened along that road, have not been as dramatic. There was at least one fatal accident involving an overturned car but as the young occupant was found dead at the scene, we will never know whether the Hairy Hands played a murderous role or whether indeed it was simply an accident. Nevertheless, many folk will always feel a sense of unease, particularly between the Cherry Brook bridge and Postbridge and keep a wary eye out for any hairy intruders.
It is not only this stretch of the B3212 which is haunted because just over a mile to the north east of The Warren House Inn is a spot where the road roller coasters down into a hollow before rising again. This tiny stream, at the head of Green Combe, is the East Bovey River. Whether or not it is the sudden sharp drop into this deep hollow, which causes it, is not clear, but several people (and dogs) have experienced sudden cold an been overcome with great fear at this spot. Cyclists have complained that they have felt their bicycles enduring such great stresses that they felt they were about to fall apart, only to be perfectly alright again on the ascending opposite side of the depression.
The Watching Place
About four miles from Moretonhampstead, on the B3212 road over Dartmoor, is a mysterious and sinister spot called the Watching Place. It is located where the road is met by the B3344 which wends its way from the Manaton direction. Its name appears on the sign post but its origin is worthy of some consideration.
It is believed that the local Lord of the Manor once possessed the right to have a gallows on the edge of his lands. This particular gallows at the Watching Place wa far from redundant with a large proportion of its customers being drawn from the highwaymen trade, some of these footpads being left to dangle long after their death as an example to any others contemplating similar exploits. The Watching Place was thus where relatives or friends had to wait and watch before being allowed to remove the dead.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that the Watching Place is where the highwaymen actually watched out for their intended victims but, whoever it was doing the watching, it has been known for animals, ridden, lead or driven to react strongly to passing this point, experiencing a feeling, perhaps of being watched?
The Warren House
The Warren House Inn is an isolated inn on the Moreton to Postbridge road but a few centuries ago when the original inn stood on the opposite side of the road to the present one, the innkeeper and his family would have lead an extremely isolated existence. The bulk of their custom would have come from the tin miners who worked the many mines in the vicinity of the inn.
An amusing story which has been passed around for many years, tells of how, at the end of a spell of wintry weather, when the moors had been covered in snow for weeks, a visitor called at the inn, in search of overnight accommodation. He was shown to his room in which was a large chest. The visitor stared at it for ages wondering what treasures it might contain until; eventually his curiosity got the better of him. As he lifted the heavy lid he had the shock of his life for inside was a corpse with an extremely white, ghostly face. Thinking he had uncovered a murder victim he ran downstairs screaming. Almost nonchalantly the landlord said, "Don't worry, tiz only feyther". 'Father' had died a few weeks earlier and his corpse had been salted down to preserve it until the weather relented and it could be carried for burial at the parish church many miles away across the moor.
There is however another story, which might well, be construed as murder. Two men in the inn had an argument over their drinks and one threatened the other. A few nights later, unseen by his victim, he drew a 'magic circle in chalk around the man's feet. Sure enough, within a short time, his opponent took ill and passed away!
Soussons is a massive coniferous forest, which can be seen sprawling over the low hills to the south of the B3212 near the Warren House Inn. Trees cover most of the small hill called Ephraim's Pinch on the south side of this forest. The name is derived from an old story about a young man who had to show his would-be father-in-law that he had sufficient strength and fortitude to be worthy as a suitor to the farmer's daughter.
The task was set. Ephraim had to carry a bag of wheat six miles from Widecombe to Runnage, a farm in the vicinity of Soussons, have it ground and then carry it back without once putting it down for a rest. Ephraim was so determined not to fail that he strained himself badly and died from his injuries. The little hill where he collapsed is thus named in honour of his gallant, or foolish attempt, to win his loved one.
To most people "Dartmoor" is the prison and it is this grim edifice, which springs to mind whenever its name is mentioned. Initially this place of confinement was set up as a Prisoner of War Depot to accommodate thousands of French prisoners and later, in 1812, many Americans. In 1850 it became a convict prison and throughout its years many men have died there.
David Davies was sent there in 1879 and, over two terms of almost consecutive imprisonment, spent a total of 50 years at Princetown until his death in 1929. For a large part of the duration of his stay he was entrusted to be a shepherd on the open moor, a job that he fell in love with and refused to give up. On his release from his first term of imprisonment he begged to stay on in the same capacity but this was refused. So he went out, committed a crime, and was sentenced to return to his beloved post. At lambing time David was allowed to stay out on the moors tending to his flock. The dedication of the man to his task was so considerable that after he died it is said he still returned to the moor that he knew and loved so much. Many is the foggy night when the spectral shape of this spirit shepherd can be seen fleeting amongst the bleating sheep. His grey outline is a shy one, which disappears within seconds of being seen by any human - it is for his sheep that he haunts his old territory.
Princetown is supposedly the highest town in England and the Plume of Feathers is the oldest building in the town. It was built in 1785, many years before the prison. Not surprisingly such a wonderful old building has had its moments. The original ladies 100, on the eastern side of the building, have been known to cause a few scares. On many occasions a sudden icy presence was felt and the effect was so scary that some ladies ran out with their undies down around their knees. No historical reason is known for this. Meanwhile, in a middle room upstairs, several guests complained that, whilst they have slumbered in their beds, they have had to hold onto their sheets whilst some in visible force tried to tug them off. Perhaps the ghost responsible for these mild indiscretions is a naughty one
It is believed that long ago the sound of a mother sobbing was a frequent occurrence, her plight being the death of her child.
The landlord, the ever cheerful and charming James Langton, does not believe in ghosts but admitted that one night, whilst asleep in the top floor room, he was awoken by the unmistakable sounds of footsteps which walked right across the bedroom and back again. The resident Labrador dogs would not go near this room, perhaps aware of an unnatural presence?
Since the building was reroofed in 1983 none of these particular experiences have re-occurred but early one morning a lady, dressed in a brown cloak, walked the entire length of the inn. On inspection nobody could be found there which is strange because there are no exits and the building is solidly constructed. The witness of this was not immediately afraid of the passing person because she looked so real but, on realization of what had happened, was shaken for several days after the event.
Another obvious venue in Prince town is the cemetery where many French and American Prisoners of War are buried. They endured harsh and extreme conditions at Princetown and the number of untimely deaths has led to many sightings of ghosts at this spot.
Although there was a gap of almost 40 years between the War Depot closing and the convict prison opening at Princetown, the two completely separate establishments are linked by one unusual ghost story.
An old lag serving a sentence for deception had managed to convince the Authorities that he could be trusted to work outside the prison. But temptation overcame him and one misty day when nobody was looking, he slipped away from his working party.
Within hours he began to regret the folly of his actions because the Dartmoor mist made him lose his sense of direction. Ill equipped for such a foolish venture, the old con lost his confidence and began to despair.
Suddenly, out of the mist loomed two marching figures dressed in early nineteenth century uniforms. Not stopping to question the two soldiers presence on the moor, the convict hurriedly set off after them. In total silence they marched through the gloom until they walked straight into the lights of the search party out looking for him. But seconds before the recapture, the two accompanying troops suddenly vanished into thin air.
It is believed that these two men, from more than a century earlier, were part of a trio who perished on the moor in a blizzard. It has been calculated that the spot where the convict encountered them was probably the spot where two of them died. If you are ever Out on the moor, make sure you have a map and compass, it's far more reliable than waiting to be rescued by a ghost!
Legions of Ghosts
Although the Romans paid little attention to Dartmoor, it is rumored that the ancient camp on Hunter's Tor, above Lustleigh Cleave, was of Roman origin. This notion has been created because, when the moon is full, Roman legionnaires have been seen at this spot. It seems that their spirits are condemned to fight a never-ending battle.
The Cleave is one of the loveliest, most wooded valleys on the moor. But take care if you happen to hear the sound of the hunt - it may not be the red coated huntsmen of today but another ghostly gathering. This hunting party is centuries old and has been seen riding through the valley dressed in Tudor garments. There have also been many occasions when they have heard without being seen.
The 9.15 pm Ghosts
There is a fine line between a cottage, which may be described as quaint, and one which is about to fall down. Millbrook Cottage at Moretonhampstead turned from the former into the latter for the Milton family who lived there during the Second World War so they moved out before it fell down around their ears. Behind them they left long rambling gardens, which were used by a local man in which to keep poultry. Now, although midnight is generally accepted as the "witching hour" for "ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night", a series of ghostly occurrences happened at this derelict cottage at 9.15 pm. The apparitions on each occasion were all different. A silhouetted figure, seen against a moonlit snow scene, left no footprints and vanished into thin air. Another man visiting the cottage, at 9.15 pm, was grabbed by the throat by an invisible force before being dumped unceremoniously on the ground. A small boy apparently ran through an open doorway but, as the church clock of Moreton struck 9.15 pm, the boy disappeared. There were many other disquieting events which all coincided with this mid evening maelstrom of mysterious manifestations.
The Golden Ghost
Dartmoor and the surrounding lands have always been difficult to farm and this was the case for the Collins family in the 1830s. Mary Collins laboured long and hard and managed to eke out an existence. But she could only work by day; every night she had to lock all the windows and bolt all the doors in order to keep out the forbidding figure of a tall ghost who stalked the farmyard and it's out buildings.
However, one night her son had a fever and cried out for water, but the water was outside in a courtyard well. Bravely Mary picked up a bright lantern and set off on her mission of mercy. As she drew the water from the well the tall ghost appeared beside her and challenged her presence. In a deep bass voice, to which Mary replied, "In the name of God why do trouble me?" The ghost was so pleased that Mary had mentioned God in her response to him that he gently led her to a location on the farm where he told her that she must dig in the ground at first light. This she did and she came upon a crock of gold coins, which kept her and her family in relative comfort for the rest of their lives. The ghost was never seen again.
Kitty Jay's wayside grave is sited on the road between Hound Tor and Heatree Cross. Solid facts are hard to establish about this young girl who is believed to have committed suicide after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. In keeping with tradition she had to be buried at the nearest crossroads rather than in the consecrated ground of a parish church cemetery. Until 1823 the law required that suicides and criminals should be buried at a crossroads with a stake through their bodies. The idea was that their troubled spirits would not be able to find their way back to the village.
Who Kitty Jay really was is not known for the story passed down through time has warped and distorted, although the 'bare bones' of the story are probably close to the truth. In 1860, James Bryant, a road mender, discovered bones in a rough grave and it was at first supposed they were that of an animal. When it was discovered they were from a young woman, his wife vaguely remembered a story told her by her own mother about an orphan girl hanged herself. The bones were reburied in their present position and for many years fresh flowers appeared daily on her grave, creating their own mystery, as nobody knew who did this caring deed. It has been suggested by some that it is the pixies who leave them; others say that We Chase, the eccentric novelist who discovered the sad story of a ray who hanged herself, was responsible. It is now most likely that story has been told so often that people consider it a sign of good to leave a small posy of moorland flowers on her grave.
Her ghost has reputedly been seen hovering over the grave by people travelling past, although this is unsubstantiated but even so some folk will go on quite lengthy detours to avoid the spot.
Their are other suicide victims buried in similar circumstances at other locations on Dartmoor, the most notable being George Stephens grave is on the high, open moor, a few miles from Peter Tavy.
White and the Pixies
Dartmoor wouldn't be Dartmoor without its pixies, those mischievous creatures who so densely populate the moor. Stories abound but we have room here for one short one.
There once lived a handsome young moorman called Tom White. He was fit and strong and thought nothing of walking four miles across Bellever Tor and down to Huccaby Farm on the West River to meet his sweetheart.
One night Tom left Huccaby and started home. Beyond Laughter Tor he dropped to the East Dart River where he heard music nearby. Then he saw hundreds of tiny pixies having their own discotheque, dancing and prancing jumping about. Naturally Tom was spotted and he was forced to dance for them and, although he became weary, he simply could not stop until the pixies disappeared leaving Tom in a state of complete exhaustion. He vowed never to go out on the moor at night again - a promise seriously taken that he forsook his young lady at Huccaby. Well!
Vixana the Witch
Vixana, the ugliest old crone of a witch ever to darken the moors, the legendary Vixana had a face as wrinkled as a walnut, liberally spiced with a profusion of warts and spots. Her hair was like straggly straw, her teeth were green, black and festering and her nose was long and hooked. She was as evil as she was ugly and this diabolical person made her home from a rockpile close to a major path across the moor on the Two Bridges to Tavistock Road. Beside it was mire, so deep it would easily accommodate all who stepped in it - not always by accident!
Whenever a wayfarer passed close to her home she would use her evil powers to conjure up a mist. Totally lost the poor victim would eventually wander into the mire and be drawn into a vat of mud and ooze whilst the wicked witch stood and gloated.
Well of course the moor folk were not over enthusiastic about such goings on and were desperately keen to rid the moor of such an evil force. By a sheer stroke of good luck there just happened to be a handsome young moorman who had been awarded a magic ring as a result of services rendered to the pixies. Whenever he put this ring on he became invisible.
And so the Moorman was employed to sort out the evil Vixana. As he approached her tor she spied him and immediately conjured up a mist, which completely enshrouded him. But he kept his wits about him and put on his magic ring. He cleverly avoided the dire mire to reach the base of the tor; one of the highest granite piles on the moor. With his great strength and sure footedness he stealthily and silently climbed to the top of the tor where the perplexed witch stood peering into the mist. As she dwelled on where the young man had gone, he rushed towards her and threw her over the cliff face where, with no time to grab her broomstick, she crashed to a spectacular death.