Dartmoor is a place that abounds with legends. It is easy to see why: it is a bleak, and sometimes barren, landscape, where the wind whistles in your ears and the mist rises to block your way, where grim granite rocks may seem to assume human form, or worse. This is a land of prehistoric settlements, of castles, monasteries and moorland crosses, frequented by highwaymen and lone travellers.
Tales abound of ghostly funeral processions, headless horsemen and the unknown (and possibly diabolical) beasts that roam the moors. Some of the legends of Dartmoor have found their way into literature, a famous example being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles which was inspired by the author’s visits to the region.
The Warren House Inn and The Devil’s Playing Cards
High up on the B3212, the lonely moorland road between Moretonhampstead and Postbridge, sits the Warren House Inn. There has been an inn on this site for many years but the current building dates back to 1845. It is said that the peat fire has been burning continuously since that time. There are many legends associated with the inn, and you can read about them in the books on sale in the bar while you enjoy the real ales or good food that are available.
One such legend is that of Jan Reynolds and the Devil’s Playing Cards. Jan Reynolds was a tin miner from Widecombe who was more interested in drinking and gambling than in going to church on a Sunday. Finding himself short of money he made a deal with the Devil: in return for money to fund his gambling the Devil could have his soul if he was found asleep in church.
Jan soon forgot the pact and one Sunday he fell asleep while playing cards in church. There was a sound of horses’ hooves outside, and a flash of lightning so fierce that it tore off the top of the church tower, then the Devil strode into the church and snatched up the terrified miner, carrying him up into the sky and across the moor. Jan had four aces in his hand and he dropped them in what is now known as the Aces Field.
The Aces, four field enclosures with stone walls in the shape of playing cards, can still be seen in the fields opposite the Warren House Inn, as a warning to anyone who is tempted to play cards in church. (From the inn cross the road and turn left until you see the Ace of Diamonds. Note that only two of the fields are visible from the road.)
There are many strange rock formations on the moors around Manaton (off the A382 south of Moretonhampstead). One of these is Bowerman’s Nose, a large granite stack around a mile from Hound Tor.
If you look closely enough you will see that Bowerman’s Nose resembles the profile of a human face. The story is that many centuries ago there was a powerful hunter called Bowerman who would stop at nothing in the pursuit of his quarry. One day, he and his dogs ploughed right through a witches’ gathering and overturned their cauldron. This infuriated the witches and one of them turned herself into a hare, enticing the hunter and his hounds to pursue her until they dropped down in exhaustion. She then turned them all to stone: Bowerman into the large rock, and the dogs into the smaller stones that can be seen scattered around it.
The Flowers of Jay’s Grave
Not far from Bowerman’s Nose, on the road between Heatree Cross and Hound Tor, you can see Jay’s Grave, a grassy mound that is always covered with fresh flowers.
Kitty Jay was an orphan who worked at a farm near Manaton in the late eighteenth century. She committed suicide after becoming pregnant by a farmhand and, as was usual with suicides in those days, she was buried at a crossroads so that her soul would become confused and unable to haunt her former home. A mound was later built upon the site of her burial and fresh flowers appeared every day.
The flowers have continued to appear until this day, together with money, makeshift crosses and other offerings. No-one has ever seen anyone place the flowers, although it was originally assumed that they were a guilt offering from the family of the man who wronged Kitty. Motorists passing at night have also reported seeing male and female ghosts by the graveside. The story of Kitty Jay has inspired books and songs, most notably John Galsworthy’s short story The Apple Tree.
The Hairy Hands
Finally, if you are driving through Dartmoor at night, watch out for the Hairy Hands. These are a strong pair of hands, sometimes invisible, but sometimes clearly covered with thick brown hair, that grab the steering wheel and try to force the motorist off the road. In the early part of the twentieth century there were many reported incidents, some of which were fatal, on the B3212 between Postbridge and Two Bridges. The hands are also reputed to have attacked campers and caravanners in the area.
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