Whenever we plan a Dartmoor day I like to research the local legends and recount the tails to the children as we walk. There are many ghost stories surrounding the moor as you may imagine, the fog and stark landscape set the imagination alight.
Today I'm writing down a few of the more recent ones I've discovered.
The ghostly pigs of Merripit Hill
This is one of my favourites and less scary than your average ghost story, it's almost endearing.
At certain times of the year when the fog lies thick and darkness enshrouds the ancient lanscape an old sow and her litter of piglets appear and can be seen walking across the moor on Merripit Hill.
The young pigs are very hungry, and their mother is leading them to Cator Gate, where there is the body of an unfortunate Dartmoor pony. The piglets can be heard snorting to the sow:
The old sow replies:
‘Cator gate, Cator Gate;
dead horse, dead horse, dead horse.
They travel on through Runnage Bottom and Cator Moor, all the while repeating 'dead horse, dead horse, dead horse', and at last arrive at Cator Gate.
Upon arrival they find they are too late; the crows have beaten them to their meal and picked the carcass clean. Only the skin and bones of the dead horse are left. The little pigs all cry:
‘Skin an’ Bones, Skin an’ Bones.’
The old sow replies:
‘Let ‘en lie, let ‘en lie.’
And all return again across the moor to Merripit Hill getting thinner and thiner until once more, they vanish in the darkness and fog.
On Dartmoor, there’s the ‘yeth’ or ‘yell hound’ – a spectral dog that’s the spirit of an unbaptised child. It roams the moor at night, making wailing noises. This is said to have been yet another of the inspirations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Conan Doyle stayed at a hotel in Princetown while he was working on The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was published in 1902.
As well as the yeth hound, Conan Doyle drew inspiration from the story of Richard Cabell, a seventeenth-century squire who lived in Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor.
Cabell loved hunting with dogs and is said to have murdered his wife and sold his soul to the Devil.
When he was laid to rest in the churchyard at Buckfastleigh, a pack of phantom hounds is reported to have raced across the moor to howl at the graveside. On the anniversary of his death, Cabells ghost has been seen hunting on the moor with the ghostly hounds.
The Evil Rider
Widecombe Church is dedicated to St Pancras and in 1638, was shaken by a terrible thunderstorm.
It was an October afternoon and the congregation, terrified by the dreadful thunderstorm, gathered in the church seeking safety and comfort.
The parson, carried on with the sermon seemingly untroubled by the falling masonry and the dangers of the terrible lightning which flashed across the heavens. Many people were hurt by the debris as the pinnacle of the tower crashed into the church below.
What could have caused such a storm? The people who live around Widecombe have no doubt that it was the work of The Evil Rider.
The story starts at the inn at Poundstock when on a Sunday afternoon the sound of a horse’s hooves were heard approaching . The locals could tell by the sound, that the horse and its rider were strangers to the district and wondered who could be approaching. A frightened hush fell on the inn, the conversation stilled by an feeling of unease.
One patron plucked up courage to peer out through the window. He saw a tall, dark, figure seated on a high coal-black horse pawing the ground impatiently, striking sparks with each movement. “Fetch me a flagon of cider”, bellowed the figure on the horse when he caught site of the face at the window, “and quickly, for I have a terrible thirst”. The landlady was informed of the order and delivered it, tremblingly, to the strange horseman who threw her two coins before draining his tankard at one gulp an riding off towards Widecombe. The landlady afterwards swore to the customers of the inn that the cider hissed as he swallowed and that she was certain that they had had a visitation from the Devil.
Meanwhile, the Devil, had ridden on to Widecombe, where he tethered his steed to a pinnacle of the church tower. On peering into the Church, he noticed that one of the congregation, a young boy, had fallen asleep during the service.
Everyone knows that you mustn’t fall asleep in church or you are likely to fall into the hands of the Devil.
The Devil seizing the boy by the scruff of the neck, flew off with him up through the roof of the church. Throwing his victim across the saddle, the Devil mounted and rode off breaking the pinnacle of the tower in his haste to make off with his prey. Inside the church the startled congregation were shocked to see the pinnacle come crashing through the roof of the church to the accompaniment of a tremendous clap of thunder. No one ever found out what happened to the unfortunate boy who was never seen again.
Back in Poundstock, the customers at the inn heard the approaching hooves once more, like thunder, approaching from the direction of Widecombe, reaching a crescendo then dying away in the distance. None of the locals dared to look out this time, though one of them suggested that the landlady check the money she had received from the stranger. The money was gone and in its place were two withered leaves. “I knew that money was no good”, said the landlady, but Old George, the eldest of the locals had a different explanation, ‘Twere the pixies that changed it”, he said. “They knew that the money was evil, so to save ee they changed the money. Better to ‘ave leaves from the trees than evil money'.
The Legend of the Cranmere Benjie
Many years ago, in the town of Okehampton which lies at the foot of the highest part of Dartmoor, there lived a wealthy merchant named Benjamin Gayer.
Gayerr, had been entrusted with the task of collecting money from the residents of Okehampton, to be used to form the ransom of unfortunate mariners, doomed to spend the rest of their lives as galley slaves in the hands of Turkish pirates.
Once Benjamin Gayer had collected a large sum of money, news arrived that several of his own large ships, laden with valuable cargoes, had been captured.
The bulk of his wealth was invested in these ships and he was ruined unless he could obtain more money to release them.
Benjamin was not a bad man, though he had a large sum of money available in the shape of the ransom fund, he did not mean to steal the money. Just borrow it, he thought, until he could recoup the losses.
It was not to be, Benjamin suffered misfortune after misfortune and never managed to repay the money.
The wicked deed and the thought of the ill fate of the poor English marriners made him sick and very soon after he died.
This was not the end and the guilty spirit of Benjamin Gayer refused to be still haunting the neighbourhood of his old house. For many years the people of Okehampton were plagued by the wailing, moaning and sobbing of the ghost of Benjamin.
After some years the people of Okehampton could stand it no longer.
Though the ghost was harmless, it was very disturbing to hear the dreadful, piteous sobbing night after night and something had to be done.
The people of Okehampton asked the Archdeacon to rid them of the ghost.
Realising that the task would be no easy one the Archdeacon gathered together all the available clergy from the surrounding districts and together they set about the task of banishing the spirit.
The ghost was made to take the shape of a young, black colt.
One of the best horsemen in the town was instructed to ride him.
The Holy Sacrament of the Church was administered to the rider and he was given strict instructions.
He was ordered to ride the colt to Cranmere Pool, which is situated on one of the bleakest, most desolate parts of Dartmoor.
He was given firm instructions, when he neared the pool he was to ride fast down the slope to the water’s edge and at the last moment, he must throw himself clear, allowing the colt to ride on into the pool.
Poor Benjamin in the shape of the colt, plunged into the depths of Cranmere Pool never to be seen again.
To make sure that the ghost was laid for good, the spirit was condemned to bail the water from Cranmere Pool using a sieve.
Benjamin worked away at his endless task until one day he found the body of a sheep near the pool. The crafty spirit skinned the sheep and used it to line the sieve. Now he was able to empty the pool so quickly that the water flooded down upon the town of Okehampton causing great damage.
This made the people of Okehampton, understandably, very cross and they cursed Benjamin for a second time.
He was condemned to make trusses of sand and the task was to continue until the Day of Judgement.
Poor Cranmere Benjie, as the spirit came to be called, was never seen again, sometimes, when the night is dark and moonless and a mist falls on the moors, the wailing of poor Benjie can be heard sobbing and moaning as he continues with his endless task, and to this day Cranmere Pool is no longer a pool but just a marshy hollow amid the hills and tors of Dartmoor.