A Gathering of Ghosts – Tuesday Tidbits

Posted on: 14/08/2018 with tags: Gathering of Ghosts, karen maitland, Tuesday Tidbits, Medieval

For her new novel, A GATHERING OF GHOSTS, Karen Maitland picks out some special Tuesday Tidbits relating to Dartmoor where the novel is based:

Bel Tor

If you climb Bel Tor on Dartmoor take care to ensure that you leave before the sun sets for, according to legend, on dark nights a ghostly herd of white horses gallops through Ipplepen village towards Bel Tor. When they reach the summit of the tor, they leap to their deaths and vanish, sweeping anyone foolish enough to be standing in their path over the edge with them.

Ashwell Spring

On Palm Sunday, young people drink honey-sweetened water from Ashwell Spring in Bovey Tracey on Dartmoor, in the hope of discovering their future partner. This tradition is said to have arisen from the legend that a wounded knight and a sick girl both separately confessed to a hermit that they loved one another but didn’t think their love was returned. The hermit sent each of them to bathe in the spring to cure their ailments in the hope they’d start talking. It worked and they wed.

River’s Cry

When the River Dart on Dartmoor is in full spate and this coincides with a north-westerly wind, a loud booming sound is heard, known as the ‘river’s cry’. It was believed that the Dart claimed a human heart in tribute every year and the ‘Dart’s Cry’ was the warning that someone would shortly die. There’ve been many tales of people hearing the cry and hurrying home to news of an unexpected death. But the river’s cry has also saved lives when the booming sent them scrambled out of the river in fright, just before a huge wall of water swept past, which would have carried them to their deaths.

Going Bodmin

Thanks to Doc Martin, many are now familiar with the phrase, ‘Going Bodmin’. But for centuries, Bodmin Moor was famous for its boussening wells where those thought to be ‘mad’ were dragged to be dipped. At St Nunne’s well, Altarnum, the sufferer was compelled to stand with his back to the well, then suddenly struck in the chest knocking him into the water. He was repeatedly ducked till his strength was gone, then led to the church where masses were said over him. If that didn’t work, the dipping was repeated until the madness left him or he died.



Childe was a wealthy fourteenth-century landowner from Plymstock. While hunting on Dartmoor, he was caught by a snowstorm on Cater’s Beam, a ridge surrounded on three sides by the infamous Fox Tor Mire. He tried to stay alive by slaying his horse, eviscerating it and crawling inside the steaming carcass. He was found, frozen to death, by monks from Tavistock who claimed the body, for whoever buried him would inherit his lands. Monks set out from Plymstock to ambush them and snatch the prize, but the Tavistock monks evaded them, burying Childe in their abbey and so gained his lands.



It’s easy to become disorientated on Dartmoor, especially if a mist descends. Locals called this being pixie-led, believing that malicious pixies cast spells to lure travellers into bogs to send them walking in circles until they died. They thought pixies could even imitate bushes and rocks to trick people into thinking they were on a familiar track. A nobleman and his wife were walking on the Dartmoor when they were enveloped by an enchanted mist. They wandered for hours, pixie-led, until near to death the stumbled across Fitz’s Well, drank from it and the spell was broken. They say that if you drink from this well on Easter Morning, you will discover who you are destined to be. But if you ever find yourself pixie-led, you might try the local rememdy of putting your coat on inside out to reverse the spell.


Great Hound Tor

Up until the nineteenth century, there was a widespread belief that witches could transform into hares. One Dartmoor legend tells of a farmer who set his dogs upon an old woman gleaning on his land. She transformed into a hare to escape. The man chased her mercilessly over the moor, urging his hounds to rip her to pieces, but when she reached the top of a tor, she changed back into an old woman and cursed the farmer and his hounds. They were turned to stone and remain forever on the tor, which is known as Great Hound Tor.


Stone Circles

There are many stone circles on Dartmoor. Most are the remains of Bronze Age round houses, which were often later used as pinfolds for livestock, but others are henges. For centuries, local people believed that it was not wise to trespass inside them. But one man decided to build a hut inside the stone circle at Foales Arrishes on Rippon Tor. His friends warned against it, but he refused to listen. On the first night he slept there, the Devil flew down, destroyed the hut and carried him away. No trace of man or hut was ever seen again.


Widecombe Church

During the Middle Ages, only certain churches on Dartmoor were licensed for burial. One was Widecombe Church, and mourners had to carry coffins many miles across the moors from outlying villages to reach it. There is a flat rock near Widecombe where the coffin could be laid while the mourners rested. The story goes that a burial party was carrying an evil old man to Widecombe and set his coffin down on the stone. The moment the coffin touched the granite rock, it was struck by a mighty thunderbolt, which burned coffin and corpse to ashes, and cracked the stone in two.


Branscombe’s Loaf and Cheese

In the twelfth century, Walter Branscombe, Bishop of Exeter, and his servant were lost and starving on Dartmoor. A stranger appeared and offered to share his bread and cheese, if the bishop called him ‘Master’. The bishop was so hungry he started to say the word, but the servant noticed a cloven hoof beneath the stranger’s long cloak and dashed the food from his hand. The loaf and cheese landed on Corn Ridge where they were turned to stones, and with a howl of fury the stranger vanished. The rocks are now known as ‘Branscombe’s Loaf and Cheese’.


Whisht Hounds

Wisht or Whisht Hounds of Dartmoor were spectral dogs, also known as hellhounds. Wisht meant to bewitch or invoke evil. They hunted in packs at night, preying on unwary travellers. After the coming of Christianity, the hounds were said to snatch unbaptised babies from their beds and devour them or drop their bloody corpses at the feet of their parents who had neglected to christen them. In winter it might have been months before babies could be taken over the moors for baptism, so to protect them, pieces of consecrated bread (the Host) was placed beneath the children’s pillows.


Saxon Well

In the Middle Ages, those suffering from ailments of the eyes would make long pilgrimages to bathe them in the Saxon Well in the village of Widecombe on Dartmoor, which was said to guarantee a cure. So soothing was this water, legend has it that the Devil himself once came to the well to wash the soot of hell from his eyes and, as he did so, a great sizzling was heard across the moor.


Karen Maitland’s A GATHERING OF GHOSTS publishes 6th September

Jo Liddiard

Post author: Jo Liddiard

Jo represents Headline on the H for History team, and likes to spend her Sunday afternoons wandering the gardens of historical buildings. Preferably with ice-cream. Favourite period of history: V hard to pick but probably The Tudors! Favourite historical read: Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy or Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham Upcoming book I’m most looking forward to: Antonia Hodgson’s A Death at Fountains Abbey

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