Dartmoor has long inspired stories, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskerville novel that saw Sherlock Holmes battling a beast on the moor to the poet Ted Hughes who has a memorial in Okehampton. This is likely due to the thick mists, the stone circles and cries of the birds, all of which instil a little mystery and magic to every trip to the moor. There are folk stories and traditions all over Devon, but Dartmoor has a huge history of myths and legends that many residents still take to heart today. These tales include ghostly goings on, pixies, witches and much more and have passed down from generation to generation.
There are a number of local myths and legends that have connections to places that still exist and are accessible to visitors, should you really want to dive into the region’s stories, otherwise, we’ve picked out a few of our favourites to tantalise you with!
Kitty Jay’s Grave
Perhaps one of the creepiest of Dartmoor’s stories is that of Kitty Jay’s Grave. If you find yourself near Natsworthy at the top of Green Lane you’ll likely spot the burial mound that is said to be the final resting place of Kitty Jay. The story says that Kitty was a farm worker who became pregnant and after being rejected by the baby’s father, took her own life. Back in those days, those that committed suicide were not allowed to be buried on hallowed ground and in order to confuse the spirits, were often buried at crossroads to prevent hauntings. That’s not the bit that’s creepy though, to this day fresh flowers continue to appear on her grave, but no one has ever owned up to leaving them there. Some say its pixies, but who knows…
The ghost of Okehampton castle
Apparently the ghost of Lady Howard haunts Okehampton Castle and according to residents, she spends her nights travelling from Okehampton to Tavistock in the guise of a big black dog after taking grass from the castle grounds. The dog is said to run alongside a coach made from the bones of her dead husbands and that Lady Howard will not find peace until she has removed every single blade of grass from the castle grounds.
The healing waters of Fitz’ Well
There are several holy wells on Dartmoor and Fitz’s Well is between Okehampton and Princetown. According to legend, John Fitzford and his lady friend were lost on the moor when it became suddenly foggy. They were set upon by a pixie and to escape, had to turn their coats inside out. Once the fog lifted, they found themselves at a spring and were able to rehydrate themselves. The pair then built a well house around it where they left an engraving.
Other local legends claim that the water in this particular well is known for eye cures and was visited on Easter morning by young maidens.
The famous ghost of Buckland Abbey
Buckland Abbey is one of the region’s most popular attractions and is also said to be one of the most haunted. The most famous ghostly resident is that of Sir Francis Drake who used to live in the abbey and is said to have made a pact with the devil to ensure the defeat of the Spanish Armada. His ghost is said to drive around Dartmoor towards Plymouth in a black coach drawn by headless horses. If that wasn’t spooky enough, there are a rumours that underneath the abbey are a series of tunnels connecting it to the village and that there are all manner of sprites and spirits living under there.
This refers to a granite stack near Manaton rather than an actual nose, but it does have a few tales surrounding it. One claims that a hunter called Bowerman ran into a coven of witches while hunting hares and interrupted their ritual. Angry, they waiting until the next time he went hunting and lured him into chasing one of them until he was exhausted. They then cast a spell turning him into the stone mass now known as Bowerman’s Nose. His hunting dogs are said to be the rocks at Hound Tor.
More stony punishments…
Another story about being turned into stone surrounds Spinster’s Rock, one of the only recognisable Neolitic Dolmen left in Devon. It consists of three upright stones which were said to have been erected by three young women. This is one of many stone circles that can be found on Dartmoor and all of them have some kind of story about being the remains of young women turned into stone for dancing on the Sabbath.
Not content with stones actually being people, apparently one stone circle was mistaken as a flock of sheep. The circle in question is Grey Wethers which can be found on Sittaford Tor. From a distance, the stones look like a flock of sheep grazing which is probably where the name comes from, in Devon ‘wether’ is another name for sheep. According to the stories, a man who had recently moved to the area criticised the quality of the sheep for sale at the local market, so the locals got him very drunk and convinced him that they knew of some excellent sheep for sale. They took him across Dartmoor and in his drunken state, saw the rocks and agreed that they were excellent sheep and bought them. The next day, he returned to look at his new flock to discover that they were actually just stones.
This is where it starts to get creepy… The Dewerstone is a large granite outcrop that stands over 100 meters high and is named after the devil. Legend has it that the devil himself used to terrorise the moor at night with a pack of hell hounds from Whistman’s Wood and run travellers from the top of the stone.
You can’t miss the site of this tomb as it is marked with a large stone cross. Childe was the Lord of the Manor at Plymstock and found himself stranded on the moor during a blizzard. Before he died, he wrote his will on a nearby stone in blood stating that whoever found his body and buried him could inherit his estate. It is said that the monks of nearby Tavistock Abbey recovered his body and claimed the land and his burial place is now marked by the cross.
Branscombe’s Loaf and Cheese
This tale refers to a tor on Corn Ridge known as Branscombe’s Loaf. In the 13th century, Walter Branscombe, who was Bishop of Exeter, was journeying across the moor after visiting some of his parishes. He was approached by a man who offered him bread and cheese, but after his servant noticed that the man had cloven hooves instead of feet, throw them to the ground and refused to eat them. The bread and cheese became the rocks that can be seen today and presumably, the Bishop made it home safe.
And finally… Hairy Hands Bridge
There have been rumours about this bridge which is located between Postbridge and Two Bridges for even longer than there have been cars on the road. It is said that a pair of hairy hands appear on your steering wheel or handlebars and try to force you off the road. Whether or not that is true, this stretch has seen many accidents over the years and was avoided even before driving was commonplace.