Occupying the main part of the county of Devon between Exeter and Plymouth, Dartmoor is southern England’s greatest expanse of wilderness, some 365 square miles of raw granite, barren bogland, sparse grass and heather-grown moor. It was not always so desolate, as testified by the remnants of scattered Stone Age settlements and the ruined relics of the area’s 19th century tin-mining industry. Today, desultory flocks of sheep and groups of ponies are virtually the only living creatures to be seen wandering over the central vastnesses of the National Park, with solitary birds – buzzards, kestrels, pipits, stonechats and wagtails – wheeling and hovering high above. But even more than its natural beauty, Dartmoor is known for its myths and legends. It is reputedly the haunt of pixies, a headless horseman, a mysterious pack of spectral hounds, and a large black dog, among others. Many landmarks have ancient legends and ghost stories associated with them, such as the allegedly haunted Jay’s Grave, the ancient burial site of Childe’s Tomb, the rock pile called Bowerman’s Nose, and the stone crosses that mark former mediaeval routes across the moor. Dartmoor has also inspired a number of artists and writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, R. D. Blackmore, Eden Phillpotts, Beatrice Chase, Agatha Christie, Rosamunde Pilcher, and the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fictional Quidditch World Cup final between Ireland and Bulgaria was even hosted on the moor!
The core of Dartmoor, characterised by tumbling streams and high tors chiselled by the elements, is Dartmoor Forest, which has belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall since 1307. Bleak, treeless moorland extends in every direction, wrapped in silence that is pierced occasionally by the shrill cries of stonechats and wheatears. A couple of miles eastwards, Gibbet Hill looms over Black Down and the ruined stack of the abandoned Wheal Betsy silver and lead mine. Numerous prehistoric menhirs (more usually referred to locally as standing stones or longstones), stone circles, kistvaens, cairns and stone rows are to be found on the moor. The most significant sites include Upper Erme, Greywethers and Challacombe, near the prehistoric settlement of Grimspound. This Bronze Age village consists of 24 circular huts scattered within a four-acre enclosure. Grimspound itself is thought to have been the model for the Stone Age settlement in which Sherlock Holmes camped in The Hound of the Baskervilles, while Hound Tor, an outcrop three miles to the southwest, may have been one of the main inspirations for Conan Doyle’s tale. According to local legend, phantom hounds were sighted racing across the moor to hurl themselves on the tomb of a hated squire at his death in 1677.
Another Dartmoor site steeped in legend is the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, which is set in a hollow amid high, granite-strewn ridges four miles north of Buckland. Its church of St Pancras provides a famous local landmark, the pinnacled tower dwarfing the 14th century main building and the moorland village below. A carved one-eared rabbit – an alchemist’s symbol – is perched ominously above the communion rail. During the Great Thunderstorm of 1638, St Pancras was even said to have been visited by the Devil. Widecombe’s other claim to fame is the traditional song Widdicombe Fair – the fair itself is still held annually on the second Tuesday of September, but is now primarily a tourist attraction. The area’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination may in part explain the spate of ‘rural legends’ that have emerged in recent decades, such as the ‘hairy hands’, which are said to attack motorists on the B3212 near Two Bridges. According to the story surrounding them, the Hairy Hands are a pair of disembodied hands that appear suddenly, grab at the steering wheel of a moving car or the handlebars of a motorcycle, and then force the victim off the road. According to local sceptics, most of the accidents were caused by people who were unfamiliar with the area driving too fast down narrow country roads with high walled sides, resulting in them either losing control or misjudging the road and running off its edges. Then there is the ‘Beast of Dartmoor’, supposedly a large black panther seen by a group of fifteen people in the summer of 2011 in the Haldon Forest. Again, cynics point to the similarity of this incident to other, more famous big cat sightings in nearby Exmoor and Bodmin moor. There is something undeniably eerie about Dartmoor, however, and its empty vastnesses will no doubt continue to be the source of many myths and mysteries in years to come.