Interviews conducted by Sarah Ashford Hart with Vanni Cook and Frank Woodland
Interviewer – Did you hear a lot of stories about the moor, folk stories, growing up here?
Vanni – Yes I did, because I went to a school locally and so we were brought up on the ghost stories of the moor and naturally we believe in pixies.
Interviewer – What’s a pixie?
Vanni – A pixy is one of the fairy folk who inhabit the moor and they’re never seen unless they want to be seen.
Interviewer – And can you give me an example of a story about a pixy or what a pixy might do?
Vanni – Yeah, certainly. In actual fact one of the stories is about Nanny Norris and I’m gonna use my local accent now, so…
Vanni – Well Nanny Norris, her lived up in a cottage called Dunston, Dunston Cottage near Widecombe. And her lived with her husband. Her husband was called John Norris but he was a school teacher locally. He was a good schoolteacher because in actual fact he didn’t ask much money from all his pupils. But poor Nanny because of this actually she had to work really hard and she used to have to go across the moors to all the cottages on the moors and it didn’t matter what whether it was drizzle or mist; it didn’t matter whether it was ailin. It didn’t matter what it was like, whether it was mizlin or whatever. And her used to go and her used to work at the washtub all day. But she was a good tempered old person and she didn’t mind if she was late coming back across the moors. But a’course everyone was afraid of the piskies, the pixy folk who inhabited the moors. And every night when she left the cottages, they’d say to her, “Beware, look behind the firs bushes, you never know who’s lurkin there.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m not afraid of those piskies; I’ve lived in the moors for years and years and years and I’ve never seen one anywhere.” Well one night she was later back than usual and the sun had dimmed over the edge of the moor and the sheep had started to huddle together. And as she marched steadily over the moor, she started to hear faint noises, just rustlins. At first she thought it was the birds on the moors, but then she started to wonder. And as she got closer to Widecombe, the whisperin started to get stronger, the stars started to shine brightly in the sky, and yet she couldn’t really believe that there were such things as piskies. And all of a sudden, there was a loud huburb of many many voices chatterin chatterin chatterin louder and louder and louder in shrill tiny voices and then she looked ahead and she couldn’t believe her senses. She saw an immense crowd of little people standin on one another’s heads, and forming a living pyramid, reaching to an immense height, piled up high, reaching towards the sky and charterin away. And she stopped, and she stopped and she couldn’t believe she had seen the piskies because she knew how wicked they could be. But the piskies weren’t there to do Nanny Norris any harm because they knew how hard she worked. They just wanted to let her know that they were there. And there is a moral to this story, because Nanny Norris was a kind soul but if she hadn’t a been then it would be sure that the piskies would have molested her and done her harm. Because people who despise their power usually had fates worse than we can possibly imagine, just like the things that the goblins, those sometimes merry folk, would do in times of old.
Vanni – So it’s all about being pixie-led this one. Which I think is quite quite true, in the sense that if people – if you went out on the moors, the pixies would call you and take you in different directions and lead you off or –
Frank – Yeah. There’s also a law in the Middle Ages that if you managed to escape and go to a town, and reside there for a year and a day, you could stay there forever more, and gain the freedom of that town. So presumably they thought the pixies may only want him for a year and a day, but they didn’t, they wanted him forever unfortunately.
Vanni – Perhaps they wanted a change.
Interviewer – So how do you think stories like this come about?
Vanni – Well certainly on the moors because of the fact people did go missing quite regularly, um purely because now even if you’re going up on the moors and the mist comes down, or it’s the dimpsy which is that period between, um at twilight, the light can be very misleading. And there are bogs and marshes which we know of, and one nice little piece of truth which isn’t folklore, is that during the Second World War the Americans had a habit of parking their tanks up on Dartmoor and one farmer went up to the chap and said, “Er, you dunno this, but if you leave tha there tonight it’s not gonna be there tomorrow.” And the Americans didn’t believe them and the next morning the tank had gone. (laughter) Because it had sunk.
In actual fact I think the folklore is based a lot in fact, which is partly why you get stories like Childe Harold, which obviously is one of the main stories of the moor. Um and that’s about the young man. He wasn’t led astray by the pixies…um, would you like me to tell you the story?
Interviewer – I would love to!
CHILDE THE HUNTER
Vanni – Well, once upon a time, because that’s the way stories always should start, a long way in the past, what happened was that there was a young man. And the young man went out on the moor. Well he had to go right across the moor because actually he had lands in Plymstock. So he had to go right across the moor, from one side to the other. He was also a hunter, so he was out there on the moor looking for boar and various other animals that he might hunt on the way no doubt. But anyway, as with the moor, you never know what’s gonna happen, and a storm started to brew. And so from one minute when it was beautiful and the sun was shining, the clouds rolled thickly over the moor, and darkness spread around, although it was the middle of the day. With the darkness came the wind and with the wind came the cold and with the cold came the snow. And the snow started to fall gently at first, just little flakes landing on the barren moor. Childe the Hunter carried on. He couldn’t go back, so he had to go forwards. But as he went on the blizzard became thicker and thicker and he ended up below a tor. But up there, it was so cold that he knew, he knew in his heart, that if he went on he would die, for sure, and if he went back he would die for sure, so he had no choice. He was riding his horse, his beloved horse, but to save himself from death, he killed his horse, and he cut it open, and he wrapped himself within the horse. But the snow carried on, and with the snow, darkness started to fall all around the moor. As he realized that his life was slowly ebbing away, he reached out, and with the blood from within the warm horse, he wrote his will on a piece of granite which lay near his head. And he said in his last words written on that cold bleak night on Dartmoor, that whoever should take him to be buried, across the moor in some hospitable corner, would be given all his lands, all the lands around Plymstock. Snow fell. Snow covered him. And he died. Died peacefully, but died alone in the wilderness of the moor. And it was only later that his body was found.
But then what a hue and cry, because there were the monks of Buckfast and the monks of Tavistock, Tavistock Abbey, nestled in the valley, were the first that managed to get to Childe and to take him to be buried. They managed by building a whole new bridge to get across the river, over the Tavy, and to bring Childe Harold (sic) to his last resting place.
Up on the moors now there is a monument, a tomb to Childe. And to this day tis said that if you’re up there on a bleak, dark night, and you are near his death place, you will see forever against the white snow, the words, his last words, written in blood on the stones that lie below his last resting place.
Interviewer – When did you first hear that story?
Vanni – Um, when I was at primary school I mean that’s one of the traditional moorland stories. Um I think as a child we were more upset, certainly I was more upset, and I think a lot of my friends were more upset, that the horse died than the young man. But I mean that’s children. And certainly I think that the fact that he was um, that his death meant that Tavistock Abbey gained the lands around Plymstock had no significance. And it was a good adventure story you know I think that was the basis of it.
One snowy night the Devil walked across the moor, and over all the houses on the moor you could see the Devil’s footprints on the rooftops. And that there was no explanation for this, because the footprints went from one house roof to another across the moor, but there was no reason why the Devil should have just gone across the moor in this way. And it was actually documented that these footprints were on the rooftops and they weren’t made by a bird, they weren’t made by an animal, so there was no explanation, which is why I also loved the Widecombe story which is about the Devil Rider – the Evil Rider.
Source: Vanni Cook
Vanni: Widecombe Church is most probably one of the most beautiful on the moor. It’s called the cathedral of the moor, and its been the inspiration for many, many stories, including Lorna Dune, but the one that always struck us when we were children was about a child, because it was all about the Devil and it was about behaving well. And one night, or rather one afternoon I suppose it was, it was an October day but it was getting dark, in 1638, it was nearly time for the afternoon service at Widecombe-in-the-moor and the congregation had gathered already, but it was a very stormy, stormy, stormy afternoon and everything looked gray and bleak, but at the same time there was a kind of pinkness in the sky. There’s a kind of pinkness you always get over Dartmoor when you’re going to have a thunder storm. In a nearby pub, or rather an inn at Pounds Gate, there were some people sitting and all of a sudden they heard hooves, and the hooves got closer and closer and closer, and they thought this was very odd because they didn’t have many visitors, especially in October, a-crossing the moors, and it was a Sabbath afternoon, but all of a sudden, there was a knocking on the door and a pounding on the door. The innkeeper’s wife, she wasn’t too keen on going to the door to open it, now, but she did, she went to the door. She opened the door and there was a man dressed in black, black hat, black cape, and outside was a black steed. And the man asked for a drink. Now the innkeeper’s wife wasn’t too keen, but she was also so frightened that she thought that she ought to give a drink to the stranger as he passed across the moor. So she gave him some of her finest ale. And as he drank it at the door, she heard the strangest sound. It was like there was a hissin, like there was a deep, deep hissing coming from inside the man and the hissing got stronger and it sounded as if something was burning in her kitchen. And she took a step back, but the man fixed his black coal black eyes on her and he said, “How much do I owe you for this?” The innkeeper’s wife said, “Nothing, nothing, you can have it for free.” But the man insisted and he gave her a coin. And as she touched the coin, the coin felt hot and warm in her hand. She went back into the inn and she said to her husband, “I think that we ought to give this to the piskies. I think we ought to put it outside. I think there is evil in this coin.” But her husband said, “No, no, no. No. You aren’t right me dear. Put it in that jug over there. I’m sure it is all right.” So she put it in the jug. But as the afternoon wore on, the winds got up and they howled round the inn. Bit at Widecombe it was worse. At Widecombe the wind whistled round the church, whistled round the church steeple, and as the congregation sat there they heard the sound of the horse’s hooves as they came towards the church. Then there was a still silence. Then the wind started to roar again, and all of a sudden the steeple of the church started to rock, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, and that was the Black Rider, tying hiss horse to the steeple of the church. And then, then the Black Rider looked in through the windows of the church. At the back was a young boy and the young boy, he’d fallen asleep. That was what the Black Rider, the Black Devil was looking for, because the boy was asleep and he could take him, because he wasn’t paying attention to the lessons and to the service in the church. And so the Devil took the boy and the boy was never seen again. And in the inn, all the way back there, the innkeeper’s wife, opening up for the evening, looked in the pot and in the pot there was no coin, there were only some old dried leaves. And she turned to her husband and she said, “That was black money, I’m sure it was black money. There will be evil in this house.” But her husband said, “Fear not, my lady, because the piskies have saved you. You didn’t want the money, you didn’t ask the money, so the piskies have changed the money, the Devil’s money into the leaves and they’ve been saved.
Interviewer: So why do you think that story continues to be retold?
Vanni: I think because the child, I think it’s the child in the story that is the key factor and because it is actually a documented event. In 1638 there was a dreadful storm, people were actually, somebody was killed, it is actually a documented event.
So I think this is one of the great joys of, of folk lore and of myth is that quite often they’re based in historical fact, as with Childe Harold, the lands at Plymstock were real, as with at the other side of the moors at Lydford, you have the Gubbinses and the Gubbinses were real people who lived in holes in the ground and who actually went out and killed travellers and stole all their goods and they were noted for wearing no clothes, okay, so the Gubbinses lived in holes in the ground, they had no clothes, the were actually a family and you will still find the family name around here. Okay, so these stories are based in reality. And I mean I think this true, is perhaps really the best demonstration of this, is the story of Lady Howard, because Lady Howard actually was a very clever woman in her age, fantastically intelligent, a great manager. She was married off at an exceedingly young age to somebody that she didn’t know and yet a great myth was built around her… perhaps one of the most fabulous ghost stories of the moors, and Frank’s going to tell the story.
Thoughts on the myth
Vanni: I think the great thing about that is because as children, you could actually see Fitzford Gate House, which is still there in Tavistock at the bottom of Plymouth Road. And also you would be told as a child you know if there was a carriage never to take a ride in the carriage if you were out at night, and also that the people who lived in Old Exeter Road would sometimes at night hear their toilet chains being pulled, without anybody being there and that was supposedly Lady Howard on her way to (laughter) on her way (laughter) on her way to her camp. So it’s interesting that that story which has been passed down since Elizabethan times, you know, before, has actually continued to be told and retold, possible because of the physical fact that Okehampton Castle is still there as well, the road is still there, and Fitzford Gatehouse is still there.
Frank: And it’s become a morality tale as well, isn’t it.
Vanni: Yes, it’s a morality tale too.
Frank: Sinful wives, and also, not getting lifts from strangers I suppose. (Laughter)
Interviewer: When was the first time that you heard the story?
Frank: This, quite recently, but I’ve heard a lot of variations of ones about coaches. They feature an awful lot. Not so much random coaches as people travelling in coaches and then strangers appearing who turn into monsters, leaving their hands behind and gruesome things like that, but I suppose because a coach was the main form of transportation, it was just so many tales around it. And they could appear silently in the night, which is always rather scary.
Interviewer: Is there something you like particularly about that story? Any reason why you chose it or the other one that you chose?
Frank: I suppose I like it because it is, in a way, it is a sort of very modern sort of morality tale, and yet you think of them as being modern, but in fact it’s a really sort of a very old tale that just continues through history, those sort of views. And also I like the fact that people will admit that tales become embellished. So you think, yes, perhaps the person wasn’t really quire as bad, and yet over time they become worse and worse and worse, and suddenly you’ve got a Lady Macbeth on your hands. (Laughter)