The Moorland Haunts of the Pixies:
Sheeps Tor: Huccaby Cleave
AMONG the superstitions of bygone times which still linger in Devonshire, the ideas regarding the pixies are undoubtedly the most interesting and romantic. Although the faith of the peasantry in the ability of these "little people" to exercise a control over their domestic arrangements is less firm than of yore, yet a notion still prevails that ill-luck will certainly overtake the hapless wight who is so unfortunate as to offend any of these diminutive elves. While instances are frequently related of help having been given to the farmer by these little sprites at night, the peasant who has only "heerd tell" of them, naturally looks upon them with some slight suspicion, and this lack of ocular demonstration on the part of the pixies it is that has somewhat shaken the faith of Hodge and Giles in their doings. However, let them be out late at night and hear some unusual sound at a lonely part of their road, or see, in the hollow below, the Will-o'-the-Wisp hovering about, and straightway they will begin to fancy the "little people" have something to do with it, and although they may he inclined to combat the idea, yet they will not be able to quite rid themselves of the impression that what they heard and saw was the pixies indulging in their midnight revels.
But it is to Dartmoor. we must go if we would hear fully of the fantastic tricks and antics of this elfin race, for there, and amid the combes which run far up into its borders, we shall find many a nook where they have often been observed dancing at night, according to old Uncle So-and-so, and in many an ancient farm-house shall be told how the -butter has been made, and the corn in the barn been threshed by these industrious little goblins.
Not far from the point of confluence of the two branches of the Mew rises "Sheepstor's dark-browed rock," and on the slope of the tor, on the side on which the village lies, is a vast clatter of boulders. Amid this is a narrow opening between two upright rocks, which will admit the visitor, though not without a little difficulty, into a small grotto, celebrated in local legend, and known as the Pixies' Cave. On entering the cleft we shall find that the passage, which is only a few feet in length, turns abruptly to the left, and we shall also have to descend a little, as the floor of the cave is several feet lower than the rock at the entrance. This turning leads immediately into the cave which we shall find to be a small square apartment capable of containing several persons, but scarcely high enough to permit us to stand upright. On our left as we enter is a rude stone seat, and in the furthest corner a low narrow passage, extending for some little distance, is discoverable. According to a note in Polwhele's Devon, this cavern became the retreat durng the Civil Wars of one of the Elford family, who here successfully hid himself from Cromwell's soldiers, and it is related that he beguiled the time by painting on the rocky walls of the cavern, traces of the pictures remaining long afterwards, hut nothing of the sort is discoverable now. Mrs. Bray in her romance of Warleigh has introduced with good effect this story of the fugitive royalist, and indeed it was this tradition, so she tells us in her Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, which first awakened a desire in her mind to search out the legendary lore of the neighbourhood, and which she afterwards presented to the public in so agreeable a form.
As its name indicates, the grotto is one of the haunts of the pixies, and according to local tradition these little fairy elves have made it their resort from time immemorial. Doubtless in days gone by the old people of Sheepstor saw--or fancied they saw--the
"Litt'e pixy fair and slim
Without a rag to cover him."
busy clambering over the rocks by moonlight as he issued forth from his retreat to visit some farm-house to help forward the good yeoman's work, or to wait until sunrise to pinch the lazy maid-servants should they fail to leave their beds at the proper time.
But there is one thing which we must not forget ere we leave the cave. Do not let us go thoughtlessly away without leaving an offering for the pixies, or piskies, as the country people more frequently call them. They are not extravagant in their expectations, so we shall not be taxed very highly. A pin will suffice, or a piece of rag, provided it is sufficiently large to make a garment for one of these little folks, for though sometimes seen in a state of nudity, they would seem to be proud of possessing a suit of clothes. Indeed a sort of weakness for finery exists among them, and a piece of ribbon appears to be as highly prized by them, as a gaudy coloured shawl or string of heads would be by an African savage.
The cave is rather difficult to find, and one might pass and re-pass the crevice which forms its opening, without ever dreaming that such a place existed there, so narrow does the entrance look. The clatter is a perfect wilderness of boulders, and stretches around to the eastern side of the tor, where the rocks rise perpendicularly, forming a precipice of great height.
As we stand at the entrance to the grotto we may look down upon the little village of Sheepstor and its church with sturdy granite tower, nestling in the sheltered combe, while the grey tor rises high behind us, exposed to all the buffetings of the wild moorland storm.
The tradition connecting the cavern on Sheeps Tor with the Elford family has, of course, rendered it more celebrated than it otherwise would have become had it depended on the pixies alone for its; notoriety, for though most people in this part of Devonshire have heard of the cave, few beyond the borders of Dartmoor have any knowledge of a larger and more striking retreat of these llittle people.''
This is known to the dwellers on the moor as the Piskies' Holt, and is situated in Huccaby Cleave, not far from Dartmeet. [a]
The West Dart makes a sweep round the hill between Hexworthy Bridge and the point: where it meets its sister stream as it comes rolling down by the plantations of Brimpts, and after leaving Week Ford passes the cleave. Among the tangled bushes and underwood growing here, may be seen four rather large sycamore trees, at some distance from the left bank of the river, and it is beneath these that we shall discover the Piskies' Holt. [b] It is a long narrow passage formed by large slabs of granite resting on two natural walls of the same. It is curved in form and extends for a distance of thirty-seven feet. its width is about four feet, and it is of sufficient height for a man to stand upright in it. The entrance, which is but two-and-a-half feet in height, is at the eastern cud, and at time other extremity is a small aperture through which it is possible to climb out of te cave. The floor is thickly covered with decayed leaves, blown in by the wind.
In summer time the knoll beneath which runs the bolt, is a most charming spot. The sycamore trees cast a cool and refreshing shade around, and the ferns with their bright green fronds, and the tall fox-gloves which lift their heads amid them, cover the ground near time fairy haunt, and force upon us the conviction that the pixies at all events have exhibited a deal of taste in their choice of an abode. Below, the West Dart hurries away to mingle its waters with time companion who never deserts it, but flows onward with it to the ocean, forcing its way over huge boulders, its banks overhung with foliage, and on the opposite hill-side are numerous enclosures which the hand of industry has rescued from the desert, with the brown moor stretching away beyond.
Truly it is a delightful spot, and as we throw ourselves back on the soft moss with the bright sun-rays streaming through the leafy canopy overhead, we can imagine that we are at the court of Oberon and Queen Titania. Did we visit the haunt by moonlight, perchance we should see the little elves coming stealthily forth from their retreat, and forming a fairy ring, indulge in their merry gambols on the sward.
Oh, these be Fancy's revellers by night
Stealthy companions of the downy moth--
Diana's motes, that flit in her pale light.
Shunners of sunbeams in diurnal sloth
These be the feasters on night's silver cloth
The gnat with shrilly trump is their convener.
Forth from their flowery chambers, nothing loth,
With lulling times to charm the air serener.
Or dance upon the grass to make it greener. " [c]
Many are the tales related of the doings of the pixies in this romantic neighbourhood, and in my note-book I have stored up more than one curious story, as I have gathered them from the Dartmoor peasants, to relate some of which shall presently be my pleasing task.
The two grottoes that I have noticed are the principal haunts of the pixies of Dartmoor, but there is not a tor near any of the moorland farms that has not been visited by them occasionally, and every homestead has at some time or other been the scene of the pranks of these merry elves. If we ask an old house-wife who and what the pixies are, she will tell us they are the souls of unbaptized children, and if we enquire as to their appearance, we shall be informed that they sometimes present themselves to human vision under the semblance of a small bundle of rags, but more frequently are seen in the form of little beings dressed in fantastic garments.
We shall find that beyond an excessive fondness for leading travellers astray, and for curiously riding on the Dartmoor colts much to the annoyance of the farmers, they seldom interfere with, or seek to bring trouble upon anyone, unless injury has been inflicted upon them. liven the practice in which they indulge of misleading travellers, we are told, may not be simply one of mischief, but may be for the purpose of leading the wayfarer from their secret haunts when he is unconsciously approaching too near diem, or may perhaps be intended as a punishment for some slight shown to them. It is true that lazy servants, and greedy and indolent masters suffer occasionally at their hands, but who can find fault with this? As a rule these "little people" seem to desire to do kind actions to the country folk, rather than cause them annoyance and inconvenience.
If perchance one should happen to be "pixy-led," as it is termed, and should find it impossible to discover the desired track, an infallible remedy for this state of things is to divest oneself of some outer garment, turn it inside out, and put it on again, when the charm will be at once broken. Only a few years since an instance o this being tried came tinder my notice, but although it may have prevented the pixies from continuing their spell, it certainly did not have the effect of enabling the wanderers to find their road, when they had been once turned aside from it. Some young people set out from Hexworthy with The intention of going to Princetown by way of Swincombe, and across Tor Royal New-take. When they reached the latter enclosure, which is a very extensive one, a Dartmoor mist utterly prevented them from finding their way across it, and they wandered about for some time, totally unable to discover the wall of the new-take, and so gain the gate. They concluded they must be "pixy-led," and the remedy in question was called into requisition. A short time after having done this they came upon an old kistvaen, known to the moor people as the "Crock of Gold," and which they had already stumbled upon several times in their wandering. This is close beside the green path that leads across the new-take, but night being far advanced and the mist being still very dense they determined to wait until the morning broke, when their friends, who had made up a search party, discovered them.
Sometimes these merry little elves have been seen dancing in a circle on thc sides of the hills, as the peasant has made his way homeward after night-fall; but as such sights have generally been witnessed when the beholder has been returning from a merry-making, a sheep-shearing feast, perhaps, or a Christmas revel, I am reluctantly obliged to confess that I am of opinion that the appearance of these spirits must have had some connection with the spirits of the hospitable farmer, and that a nodding thistle, or a bunch of gorse, may have been, in the heated imagination of the rustic, set down as a dancing elf.
Such tricks hath strong imagination;
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy
Or, in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos'd a bear!" [d]
These merry little folks though credited with many a frolicsome gambol, are seemingly very shy of disporting themselves at the present day, being much more retiring in their disposition than we are informed was the case "years agone;" but their curious pranks still form a theme for conversation when, the labours of the day being over, and darkness covers the moor, the cottagers gather round to spend the evening hour by the comfortable peat fire.
[a] At this delightful spot. one of the best known of any on Dartmoor, the East and West Dart unite. These are both fine streams, and give name to the wild district in which they rise.
[b] On the moor the word holt is used to signify a hole, or hollow among rocks,--the retreating place of a fox or a badger.--a hold, as it were. The ancient meaning of the word was a wood, or grove, and Risdon (Survey of Devon, p. 315, Edit. 1811) in noticing the parish of High Bickington, in North Devn, quotes the following ancient grant by King Athelstane. where the word, is used. Athelstane king, grome of this home, geve and graunt to the preist of this chirch, one yoke of mye land frelith to holde, woode in my holt house to buyld, bitt grass for all hys beasts. fuel for hys hearth, pannage for his sowe and piggs world without end."
[c] Hood. Plea of the Midsummer Fairies.
[d] Midsunsmer Nights Dream, Act V., Sc. 1.