IN this most pleasant part of England, the county of Devon, we have many hills and rivers, with plenty of woods, and fields, and birds, and flowers. And we have a large tract of country called Dartmoor, where the hills are so high that some of them are like mountains, with a number of beautiful sparkling streams and waterfalls, and a great many rocks, some standing alone, and others piled on the top of the heights in such an odd way, that they look like the ruins of castles and towers built by the giants in the olden time, and these are called Tors; they are so lofty that the clouds often hang upon them and hide their heads. And what with its being so large and lonely, and its having no trees, except in one or two spots near a river, Dartmoor is altogether, though a wild, a very grand place.
In going from Tavistock to Exeter, persons sometimes cross the moor, where there is now a good road, but it is so dreary and solitary, that you may travel for miles and only here and there see a hut of the very poorest kind, built of turf dug on the spot, and thatched with green rushes, so that at a little distance it looks like the ground on which it stands. The people who live in these humble dwellings are not very nice, for the pig-stye is generally near the door, and the children are not much cleaner than the pigs. It is the more discreditable to their mothers to let them be so, as there is water enough around to wash and keep clean all the children in Devonshire.
Corn can only be made to grow in a few scanty patches on Dartmoor, but there is plenty of grass between the rocks and stones, and on this sheep and oxen feed in great numbers. Many horses and young colts are also there sent to pasture, and there run about and gambol, with their manes and tails flowing and whisking about to keep off the flies (which are abundant), in the most frolicksome manner; and even the poorest have a donkey, that feeds near their huts.
The poor burn peat instead of wood or coal; and this useful kind of fuel is nothing more than decayed turf dug out of the surrounding bogs. It is cut in long pieces and dried, and then piled up, the one piece upon the other, till it becomes a large heap, which at a little distance looks not unlike a tent, and when several of them are seen standing together, they remind the traveller of a camp. This peat is principally sold to cottagers and farmers for fuel; and when it is carried to market, it is not taken in a cart, but put on what is called a crook, which is made of wood, in, shape something like the prongs of a pitchfork turned upward, and when placed upon the back of a horse or donkey, it holds, piled upon it, a great load.
The moor, being very hot in summer, abounds with adders or vipers, that creep under the stones and hide in the long grass; and the men, when at work, bind ropes of straw round their legs to save themselves from the bite of these venomous reptiles. The farmers hang boughs of ash-tree twisted round the necks of their cattle, believing that it will save them from being harmed by the adders; but it is of no use, as they are often sadly bitten.
There are a great many low walls, built of loose stones, to hinder the cattle from straying; for if any of them attempt to jump over, the stones not being fastened come tumbling down, and frighten them terribly. The rocks consist of a very hard stone called granite, which is quarried out and cut into blocks; and these are sent by a rude railway to Plymouth, where they are shipped off to London and elsewhere, to be used for building houses, churches, bridges, etc. The famous Waterloo bridge was partly built of the granite from Dartmoor.
The rocks are useful in another way also; for on them grows a sort of grey moss, which in the autumn produces a beautiful little red flower, not so big as a red berry from the holly tree; and this moss is gathered and sold to the dyer, with which he dyes woollen cloth a bright scarlet; and many boys and girls have coats and frocks made out of the cloth so dyed.
I do not know a prettier sight than to watch the rivers and streams of Dartmoor, as they rush along strong and rapid; and every now and then fall over great masses of rock in a sheet of white foam, or in a number of little bright cascades. And when they pass on in a more quiet way, the water is so clear you may see every stone beneath it; and several of the rocks standing in the middle or at the sides of these streams, are often quite covered with moss and what is called lichens. These are of various colours; white, green, grey, or of the deepest black, like a piece of rich black velvet. And it is very pretty, too, here to see the water-wagtail, a nice little bird with white and grey feathers, skimming over the rocks, shaking his tail up and down, dipping his wings into the stream and off again in a moment.
On Dartmoor, too, as I have noticed in a previous work, 1 we meet in spring, upon a sunny morning, the pale yellow butterfly, usually seen in the garden among the flower beds; but here sporting on the front of some old grey rock, or settling on the wild thyme, or on the golden furze, as its wings shake with a quickness that will sometimes dazzle the sight.
And how beautiful is the song of the birds that we often find on the moor! The thrush, that never tires; or the lark, which sings first and soars highest; and the pretty wheatear that builds her nest amongst the old rocks, whose colour it so resembles in the black and grey of its wings, that you sometimes do not observe it perched upon them till you hear its small cry. There, too, is the goshawk, so rare in Devon; and the kite, that now is seldom found in its inhabited valleys, still prowls, like a robber, about the moor, as if in search of his prey; and the ring-ouzel finds a dwelling in the hollows of the stones, and the poor little reed-wren makes them her home: and robin, that favourite of old and young, there need fear no pilferer; for so much is this pretty bird the familiar friend of children in our neighbourhood, that the boys will pelt any one of their companions who may steal but an egg from poor robin's nest.
But though there are so many pleasant sights, yet the moor has its dangers. Those very high hills and lofty tors are liable to be visited with sudden mists which are as thick as the clouds; and so hide every thing, that I have known persons when seated in a carriage and caught in one of these say, that they could not plainly see the heads of the horses which drew them along. It is sad to think how many poor people in old times before the good broad road was made, lost their lives on the moor in these mists; some by wandering about all night in the cold, and others by getting into bogs and being swallowed up alive before help could be given them.
Many years ago, a very remarkable instance occurred of a native of this place, the late Mr. Edward Smith, being enveloped inn mist, whilst endeavouring to make his way (from a stream where he had been fishing) across Mistor, with a view to shorten his road to Princetown on the moor. The following particulars I have gathered and selected from Mr. Smith's own account of the circumstance. 2
He had not advanced more than a quarter of a mile in his ascent, when he was so suddenly enveloped in a cloud, dense, dark, and flaky, that it startled him. On every side appeared whirling masses of mist, of so thick a consistency that it affected his very breathing. He paused; but thinking it would be impossible to err in walking in a straight line over the summit of a hill, continued to advance; but in this he was deceived. The way seemed to lengthen before him. At last he descried a few of those immense fragments of granite with which the summit of the tor was strewed. Their appearance through the fog was wonderfully grand, wavy, fantastic, and as if possessing life. Although even with the surface, such was the deception, they appeared upright, each in succession perpendicular, until he arrived so close, that it required almost the very touch to prove the deception. There were also some scattered sheep, one here and there. At the distance of twenty or thirty yards, for he could distinguish nothing further, they had the appearance of a moving unshapen mass, infinitely larger than reality. Every now and then one of these animals would start from the side of a block of granite close to his feet, affrighted--sometimes with a screaming bleat, as if, like himself, filled with surprise and awe.
When, as he believed, he had gained the summit, Mr. Smith stood still and looked about him. There was above, beneath, and all around, a mass, flaky, and at times even rushing, of white fog. At length he sat down to rest, feeling unable to walk on. His situation was now painful, and the evening rapidly approaching. The fog
increased in murkiness, and all hopes that it would clear away vanished. He looked around for some large fragments of stone, under the shelter of which to take up his quarters for the night. From exertion he had been hot even to excess, but was now shivering and chilled. At length he endeavoured to proceed.
The ground began to incline, and he suddenly found himself descending a very steep acclivity; presently he heard the distant rushing of water; the sound enlivened him; it was like the voice of a guide and friend, and he pressed onward; when suddenly, so instantaneously that he could compare it to nothing but the lifting up of a veil, the fog rushed from him, and the scene which opened induced him almost to doubt his very senses.
At his feet, the river Walkham brawled amongst the rocks scattered throughout its bed. On his left, was just sufficient of the hamlet of Merrivale open to show the eastern arch of its picturesque bridge, whilst in the distance the fantastic rocks of Vixen Tor were still wreathed in mist. At his right, within two or three hundred yards, was the very spot he had first quitted to ascend the mountain, and in front arose one of those grand and lofty tors which render the moor so striking; it was dark and frowning, its topmost ridges embosomed in clouds, whose summits were gilded by the broad sun, now rapidly descending behind them. The whole scene was like magic; even whilst looking on it, it appeared to him as a dream. He now found that, during a space of two hours and a half, he had walked up the mountain, taken a complete circuit of its summit, and almost retraced his steps in his descent, such had been the deception of this most dangerous mist.
In the winter months, the snow often entirely covers the moor, and so suddenly and heavily will a snow-storm come on, that travellers have not unfrequently been confined to the house in which they had the good luck to take shelter before it arose, for many days and weeks together. At various times, many a poor creature has been frozen to death on the moor. An instance that happened many years ago, was truly melancholy. A shepherd who had so perished was not found till some weeks after his death, when his dog, nearly starved, was discovered wistfully watching near the body of his unfortunate master.
At a later period, two boys were sent from a neighbouring farm to look for some strayed sheep on the moor. They were surprised by a sudden storm of snow; and not returning their master grew uneasy, and with some of his men went out to search for them. The lads were found nearly buried in snow, and both apparently sleeping. In this state they were removed to the farm-house; one was restored to life, but the other was quite dead. 3
Besides the huts I mentioned just now, there are a few cottages and houses, and a very large building on the moot, which is now a dismal one--a prison.
Some years ago, when there was a war between England and France, King George III used to send there the Frenchmen who were taken prisoners in battle by his soldiers and sailors; and now his grand-daughter, Queen Victoria, still uses it for a prison: and sends there no less than twelve hundred convicts as a punishment for their having broken the laws of the land in many ways.
These wicked men are not allowed to live in idleness; but are sent out to work upon the moor, under the care of a warden, armed with a double-barrelled gun. There are also a great many of the Queen's troops who are placed there to guard them, and to prevent their running away, which, however, I am told they sometimes do; but happily they are always caught again through their being unable to find any place of shelter, or anything to live upon, in that barren, lonely, and desolate region.
You have read, my young friends, in your History of England, some accounts of the ancient Britons, and of the Druids, who were priests and judges among them. The Druids lived very much together, and formed schools, in which they taught such arts and learning as they were acquainted with; and they studied much the stars on heights and open places, such as those on Dartmoor, where a great many of them dwelt. They said it was unlawful to perform the rites and ceremonies of their religion within a covered temple or under a roof of any kind. Whenever they could, therefore, they chose a hill or lofty mound for the purpose, as from such they could have a better view of the sun, and the moon, and the planets, which they were so ignorant as to worship.
Now these temples they made by setting upright in the earth large, rough, unhewn stones in the form of a circle; and many such are still to be seen on Dartmoor. Sometimes when they found a very large rock of a strange and unusual shape, they would at once choose it for a place of worship, and cut hollows like basins at the top to catch the rainwater, with which they sprinkled the people, and pretended to cure them of many diseases of body and mind.
One of these rocks on Dartmoor, called Vixen Tor, is a hundred and ten feet high; and so curiously formed by nature, that it resembles the Egyptian Sphinx, which is a very large stone cut into the shape of a man's face and head, that stands in the sandy desert on the banks of the river Nile.
Many of the Britons lived in huts on Dartmoor, and these were made, like the temples, by rough hewn stones set upright in the ground, in the form of a circle, with walls made of wood and roofs of rushes, high and tapering like tents. There are, also, still to be seen, here and there, a circle of very strong stones, so large as to have within its enclosure a great many small huts; and the sheep and the cattle used to be driven within it at night, to save them from being devoured by bears and wolves, which in those days prowled about the moor.
When the Dartmoor Britons buried a chief, who was always a warrior or a king, the Druids raised a heap of stones over his grave; and sometimes a very large single piece of granite, supported upon three or four upright stones, as we see the legs support an old fashioned table; and this they called a Cromlech.
On the moor, upon the side of a steep hill which rises above the river Dart, there is the most curious little wood ever seen. It is called Wistman's Wood, or "the wood of the wise men;" and is supposed to be the remains of one of the sacred groves of the Druids. It consists of some very aged and stunted oaks, not above ten or twelve feet high. The boles of these dwarf-trees are covered with moss of an exceeding thickness, hung with ivy, and have altogether a most strange and antiquated appearance.
Now this wild tract of land, as well as other parts of Devonshire and Cornwall, is considered to be haunted by a set of little creatures, called Pixies. They are not like children; for, though they are small, and can sometimes be seen, it is said they can fly as well as run, and creep through key-holes, and get into the bells of flowers, and many other places where little boys and girls cannot creep. The Pixies are sometimes good, and do kind acts; but more frequently they are mischievous, and do a great deal of harm to men, women, and children, if they have a spite against them; and often hurt the cattle.
Some people say they are the souls of poor children who die unbaptised, and others think that they are a kind of fairies, but more frolicsome, and have more power to do either good or harm. They are, however, generally considered a distinct race; for if you could but see a Pixy, my young friends, you would see at once how different was such a creature from a Fairy. Indeed, it is matter of tradition, that the Faries wished very much to establish themselves in Devonshire, but the Pixies would not hear of it; and a terrible war ensued. Oberon was, with his host, defeated; and his majesty received a wound in the leg which proved incurable; none of the herbs in his dominions have hitherto had the least beneficial effects, though his principal secretary and attendant, Puck, has been in search of one of a healing nature ever since.
Having said thus much concerning their general character, I will now proceed to speak a little more about the Pixies and their manners in detail, as in many respects. they are very curious; and in doing so, for some few particulars, I shall venture to draw upon my own account, given in a former work, which, being intended for men and women only, is not at all likely to fall into the hands of my young friends. 4
These tiny elves are said to delight in solitary places, to love pleasant hills and pathless woods, or to disport themselves on the margins of rivers and mountain streams. Of all their amusements dancing forms their chief delight; and this exercise they are said always to practise, like the Druids of old, in a circle or ring. These dainty beings, though represented as of exceeding beauty in their higher order, are nevertheless, in some instances, of strange, uncouth, and fantastic figure and visage; though such natural deformity need give them very little uneasiness, since they are traditionally believed to possess the power of assuming various shapes at will.
Their love of dancing is not unaccompanied with that of music, though it is often of a nature somewhat different to those sounds which human ears are apt to consider harmonious. In Devonshire, that unlucky omen, the cricket's cry, is to them as animating and as well timed as the piercing notes of the fife, or the dulcet melody of the flute, to mortals. The frogs sing their double-bass, and the screech-owl is to them like an aged and favoured minstrel piping in hall. The grasshopper, too, chirps with his merry note in the concert, and the humming-bee plays "his hautbois" to their tripping on the green; as the small stream, on whose banks they hold their sports, seems to share their hilarity, and talks and dances as well as they, in emulation of the revelry, whilst it shows through its crystal waters a gravelly bed as bright as burnished gold, the jewel-house of Pixy-land; or else the pretty stream lies sparkling in the moonbeam, for no hour is so dear to Pixy revels as that in which man sleeps, and the queen of night, who loves not his mortal gaze, becomes a watcher.
It is under the cold light of her beams, or amidst the silent shadows of the dark rocks, where that light never penetrates, that on the moor the elfin king of the Pixy race holds his high court of sovereignty and council. There each Pixy receives his especial charge: some are sent, like the spirit Gathon of Cornwall, to work the will of his master in the mines, to show by sure signs, where lies the richest lode; or sometimes to delude the unfortunate miner, and to mock his toil.
Other Pixies are commissioned on better errands than these; since, nice in their own persons, for they are the avowed enemies of all sluts, they sally forth to see if the maidens do their duty with mop and broom, and if these cares are neglected to give them a good pinching! Many, in this part of the world, are very particular in sweeping their houses before they go to bed, and they will frequently place a basin of water by the chimney nook, to accommodate the Pixies, who are great lovers of water; and sometimes requite the good deed by dropping a piece of money into the basin.
Many a Pixy is sent out on works of mischief to deceive the old nurses and steal away young children, or to do them harm. This is noticed' by one of our old English poets, Ben Jonson:--
"Under a cradle I did creep
By day, and, when the childe was asleepe
At night, I suck'd the breath, and rose
And pluck'd the nodding nurse by the nose."
The wicked and thievish elves, who are despatched on the dreadful errand of changing children in the cradle, are all said to be squint-eyed. In such cases (so say our gossips in Devon) the Pixies use the stolen child just as the mortal mother may happen to use the changeling dropped in its stead.
Many, also, bent solely on mischief are sent forth to lead poor travellers astray, to deceive them with those false lights called Will-o'-the-wisp, or to guide them a fine dance in trudging home through woods and water, through bogs and quagmires and every peril; or, as Robin Goodfellow says, to
"Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harms."
Others, who may be said to content themselves with a practical joke, and who love frolic better than mischief, will merely make sport by blowing out the candles on a
sudden, or overturning the cook's pot on the fire. Some Pixies are dispatched to frolic or make noises in wells; and the more gentle and kindly race will spin flax and help their favourite damsels to do their work.
In Devonshire, and more especially on Dartmoor, it is a very common thing with any person who loses his way, to consider himself as Pixy-led, and this frequently happens to our stout yeomen and farmers, when they happen to have a cup too much at a merry-making. But for this there is a remedy. For whoever finds himself; or if a woman herself, Pixy-led, has nothing more to do than to turn jacket, petticoat, pocket or apron inside out, and a Pixy, who hates the sight of any impropriety in dress, cannot stand this, and off the imp goes, as if, according to the vulgar saying, he had been sent packing with a flea in his ear.
A Pixy-house is often said to be in a rock; sometimes, however, a mole hill is a palace for the elves, or a hollow nut cracked by the "joiner squirrel," will contain the majesty of Pixy-land. And Drayton, who wrote of these little fanciful beings as if he were the chosen laureate of their race, thus describes their royal dwelling.
"The walls of spiders' legs are made,
Well morticed and finely laid,
He was the master of his trade
It curiously that builded;
The windows of the eyes of cats,
And for a roof, instead of slats,
Is covered with the skins of bats,
With moonshine that are gilded."
And now, my young friends, having told you that both Cornwall and Devonshire, and more particularly the wild waste of Dartmoor, are said to be much haunted by Pixies, I shall proceed to give you what I trust will afford you some amusement in those hours not devoted to your lessons, or to more serious studies, in a few Pixy tales.
1 "Borders of the Tamar and Tavy."
2 Given at large in the "Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy," vol. i, p. 208.
3 In the severe winter of 1853, four soldiers and a poor pedler were also lost in the snow on the moor.
4 "The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy."