The brown hare is now a rare animal on Dartmoor, but it features in several Dartmoor folk tales. It also appears on Dartmoor as a visual symbol, usually on church roof bosses, in the form of three hares in a circle joined at the ears. The stories of the witches of Heathfield near Tavistock (recounted by Anna Eliza Bray, see below) and Buckland (recounted by William Crossing), as well as the more well-known myth of the origins of the outcrop known at Bowerman’s Nose, all involve the hare. Hares are still sighted on Dartmoor, for instance west of North Bovey in the last decade. The ‘three hares’ symbol has been used by a number of organisations and individuals as a logo – MED Theatre is just one of these. Hares are still seen in the Tavistock and North Bovey/Moretonhampstead areas of Dartmoor – three were seen in a field on the western outskirts of Moretonhampstead in October 2012.
From: Bray, A.E. (1879) The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy…(New edn, London, 1879), Vol.2, pp. 112-116 [in a letter to Robert Southey dated 8 January 1833]
‘An old witch, in days of yore, lived in this neighbourhood; and whenever she wanted money she would assume the shape of a hare, and would send out her grandson to tell a certain huntsman who lived hard by, that he had seen a hare sitting at such a particular spot, for which he always received the reward of sixpence. After this deception had many times been practised, the dogs turned out, the hare pursued, often seen, but never caught, a sportsman of the party began to suspect, in the language of tradition, ‘that the devil was in the dance,’ and there would be no end to it. The matter was discussed, a justice consulted, and a clergyman to boot; and it was thought that, however clever the devil might be, law and church combined would be more than a match for him. It was therefore agreed that, as the boy was singularly regular in the hour at which he came to announce the sight of the hare, all should be in readiness for a start the instant such information was given: and a neighbour of the witch, nothing friendly to her, promised to let the parties know directly the old woman and her grandson left the cottage and went off together; the one to be hunted, and the other to set on the hunt.
The news came, the hounds were unkennelled, and huntsmen and sportsmen set off with surprising speed. The witch, now a hare, and her little colleague in iniquity, did not expect so speedy a turn out; so that the game was pursued at a desperate rate, and the boy, forgetting himself in a moment of alarm, was heard to exclaim, “Run, Granny, run; run for your life!” At last the pursuers lost the hare, and she once more got safe into the cottage by a little hole in the door; not large enough to admit a hound in chase. The huntsman and all the squires with their train lent a hand to break open the door, yet could not do it till the parson and the justice came up; but as law and church ere certainly designed to break through iniquity, even so did they now succeed in bursting the magic bonds that opposed them. Up stairs they all went. There they found the old hag bleeding, and covered with wounds, and still out of breath. She denied she was a hare, and railed at the whole party. “Call up the hounds,” said the huntsman, “and let us see what they take her to be; may be we may yet have another hunt.”
On hearing this, the old woman cried quarter. The boy dropped on his knees, and begged hard for mercy, which was granted on its being received together with a good whipping; and the huntsman, having long practised amongst the hounds, now tried his hand on other game. Thus the old woman escaped a worse fate for the time present; but on being afterwards put on her trial for bewitching a young woman, and making her spit pins, the tale just told was given as evidence against her, before a particularly learned judge, and a remarkably sagacious jury, and the old woman finished her days, like a martyr, at the stake.’
‘There is a place near our town [Tavistock] called Heathfield – a gloomy and solitary waste. Heathfield was then just such as evil spirits delight in; where, if people really see nothing, it is quite dreary and vast enough to fancy they see a great deal which, in these sort of cases, is much the same thing. On Heathfield the devils dance; I do not know who is the piper, as we have here no Tam o’ Shanter to tell us but I suppose the company are not without musicians to give them a few hints in the ‘concord of sweet sounds’.
Now, as the old tale goes, there was, once upon a time – a mode of dating which all tellers of such tales as mine should never fail to employ, as it sets aside any small cavils that might arise from those awkward points in settling real facts that depend on chronology – there was, once upon a time, an old woman, and she made a slight mistake, I do not know how, and got up at midnight, thinking it to be morning. This good woman mounted her horse, and set off, panniers, cloak, and all, on her way to market. Anon she heard a cry of hounds, and soon perceived a hare rapidly making towards her. The hare, however, took a turn and a leap, and got on the top of the hedge, as if it would say, ‘Come, catch me,’ to the old woman. She liked such hunting as this very well, put forth her hand, secured the game, popped it into the panniers, covered it over, and rode forward. She had not gone far, when great was her alarm on perceiving in the midst of the dismal and solitary waste of Heathfield, advancing at full pace, a headless horse, bearing a black and grim rider, with horns sprouting from under a little jockey cap; and having a cloven foot thrust into one stirrup. He was surrounded by a pack of hounds, thus noticed by Mary Colling [a local poet] –
“Of hounds on Heathfield seen to rise,
With hornèd heads and flaming eyes.”
They had, according to tradition, tails too, that whisked about and shone like fire, and the air itself had a strong sulphureous scent. These were signs not to be mistaken; and the poor old woman knew in a moment that huntsman and hounds were taking a ride from the regions below. But it soon appeared that, however clever the devil might be, he was no conjurer; for he very civilly asked the old lady if she could set him right, and point out which way the hare was flown? Probably she thought it no harm to return the father of lies an answer in his own coin, so she boldly gave him a negative; and he rode on, nothing suspecting the cheat. When he was out of sight, she soon perceived the hare in the panniers begin to move, when to her utter amazement arose a beautiful young lady, all in white, who thus addressed her preserver:- “Good dame, I admire your courage; and thank you for the kindness with which you have saved me from a state of suffering that must not be told to human ears. Do not start when I tell you that I am not an inhabitant of the earth. For a great crime committed during the time I dwelt upon it, I was doomed, as a punishment in the other world, to be constantly pursued either above or below ground by evil spirits, until I could get behind their tails, whilst they passed on in search of me. This difficult object, by your means, I have now happily effected; and as a reward for your kindness I promise that all your hens shall lay two eggs instead of one, and that your cows shall yield the most plentiful store of milk all the year round; that you shall talk twice as much as you ever did before, and your husband stand no chance in any matter between you to be settled by the tongue. But beware of the devil, and don’t grumble about tithes; for my enemy and yours may do you an ill turn when he finds out you were clever enough to cheat even him; since, like all great impostors, he does not like to be cheated himself. He can assume all shapes, excepting those of the lamb and the dove.”
The lady in white vanished, as all such white ladies ought to do; the old market-woman found the best possible luck that morning in her traffic; and to this day the story goes in our town, that from the Saviour of the world having hallowed the form of the lamb, and the Holy Ghost that of the dove, they can never be assumed by the mortal enemy of the human race under any circumstances.’
Click below to find out about and sample MED Theatre’s Brown Hare project, which culminated in two performances on the shoulder of Hameldown on 7th August and 5th September 2010, the second as part of High Heathercombe Centre’s Sculpture Trail ‘The Edge’.