Sunday, 8 February 2009

The Devil on Dartmoor

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor . . .

Apologies for blog quietness for a couple of days, but what with no internet connection all afternoon yesterday, and then the excitement of finding my ancestors in other people's family trees (still on a high over that as I found another link this morning!), blogging has been on hold.

Regulars to this blog may know of my love of Dartmoor and fascination about its history, natural history, people and archaeology. I will include ghostie stories in that remit too.

If you know Dartmoor at all, you will know that even today, there are remote spots where myth and legend seem but a breath away. How real these stories must have seemed to my ancestors, in the days when you only saw neighbours on high days or holidays, or at market, and when life was so parochial and insular.

The Devil figured large in Dartmoor legend. Perhaps the best-known tale is of the Wisht Hounds, the spectral hounds of the Devil who hunt no normal quarry - they seek the souls of unbaptized babies. I can imagine only too well the distress of a poor uneducated mother whose child has died before it was recognized in the eyes of the church and was condemned to be buried outside of the churchyard walls, like poor Sorrow, Tess's bastard child in Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, despite her "home baptism" involving her younger brothers and sisters. The Wisht Hounds were said to set off at midnight from Wistman's Wood, led by the devil on a headless black horse. The red-eyed hounds bay as they chase their victims towards the Dewerstone, where they are chased over the edge of the precipice above the River Plym.

Wistman's Wood, as in the photo above (many thanks to Creative Commons) is a strange place even in sunshine, with the mossy boulders trapping stunted, twisted oak trees, hundreds of years old but some no bigger in circumference than my lower leg. At night, a spooky place indeed.


Wild Somerset Child said...

I too love Dartmoor and was privileged to be asked to write a short travel piece on part of it last year - the upper reaches of the River Dart. We went searching for clapper bridges during part of our stay down there. I guess Wistman's Wood is on the western/south-western side of the more; I must check my OS maps; I do not know that part.

Morning's Minion said...

Finding the traces of an ancestor when least expected is one of the rewards of geneaology. The ones that remain elusive are head-bangers. I got chills reading about the Wisht Hounds--but I would love to explore that region.

nancy said...

oooooooh! How stunted the trees are. I can't imagine tramping about in the dark. Thinking of the hound of the Baskervilles. I'm just starting "Tess". Aren't you happy for me? I am.