New Year is a time for making resolutions, wishing and hoping that the coming year is going to be more prosperous for us than the one before.
You wouldn’t go as far as making a pact with the Devil to ensure that it was... but that was exactly what a gentleman by the name of Jan Reynolds did to amass a fortune as a gambler!
The tale of Jan Reynolds and the Devil is one of my favourite Dartmoor stories, so much so that I’ve made it the basis for one of my Moors Tours, as it nicely takes in The Tavistock Inn at Poundsgate, Widecombe in the Moor and the landscape outside the Warren House Inn, the second highest pub in England.
I almost called it The Devil’s Pub-crawl, fearing it might attract the wrong type of customer, it’s now known as The Devil’s Quest!
If you wish to see the sites where the story unfolds, you can hire my services but I’m happy to share some of the details of the story with you here.
Is it a story though, or is it based in fact?
I will also share with you some of the evidence I’ve uncovered during my many years of Dartmoor research.
Jan Reynolds was a tin miner who lived in Widecombe in the Moor.
When not working, he was to be found in the local hostelries, playing cards with his mates and fleecing them for every penny they had!
One night, he was at The Newhouse Inn, which is just outside Widecombe, up the lane from Hemsworthy Gate, behind which lies a tract of land known as Foales Arrishes.
This was a piece of uncultivated scrubland, belonging to the pub landlord, a certain Mr Foales.
As was their wont, the two men became embroiled in a serious game of cards.
Drink was flowing, and, rather unwisely, Mr Foales put up his Arrishes as part of his wager, which Jan went on to win from him.
Emboldened by this stroke of luck, and finding himself an instant landowner, Reynolds wanted to guarantee his winning streak by going to the one entity that could make his wish come true -the Devil himself.
Now a pact with the Devil came with strings attached.
In return for seven years of good luck, the price was to hand over one’s soul, at the end of that time period, and spend eternity in Hell.
Most normal people would feel that was too high a price to pay, but not Jan!
Wanting to seal the deal, he went to a kistvaen, an ancient burial site, amongst an outcrop of rocks on the slopes above Widecombe, known as Tunhill Rocks, and, armed with a summoning spell that he had purchased from a local practitioner of the black arts, he had his face to face with the Devil himself!
Pact drawn up, Jan Reynolds went off to enjoy seven years good luck as a gambler with his trusty pack of cards, while the Devil waited patiently.
I did promise you evidence that this story might have a grain of truth in it, well for starters all the places mentioned do exist, and can still be found on the moor.
Even an abandoned cross, carved by a local stonemason to ward off the presence of the Devil, when he learnt he had been among them, can still be seen lying in the grass on the slopes of Rippon Tor, opposite the spot where they met.
However, the best clues come from the time when the seven years were up and the Devil went in search of his prize.
Hearing that Jan was to be found playing cards with his mates at the back of the church in Widecombe, during a Sunday service, he decided this would be an apt spot to seize his victim.
Not being au fait with the religious establishments on the moors, he stopped to ask for directions at The Tavistock Inn in Poundsgate, having a cheeky pint whilst he was there... the scorch mark he made on the bar top when he placed down his tankard can still be seen to this day.
Armed with directions, he flew his horse through the sky and harnessed it to one of the steeples on the church tower, while he swooped down to snatch Jan from the back pews.
Hoisting him up on to his horse behind him, in haste, he failed to untie his steed fully, and pulled the steeple loose, causing it to crash through the roof, killing and maiming members of the congregation inside... if you visit the church today, you will find some wooden plaques on the wall of the bell tower, that tell the story of how the church was once struck by a thunderbolt, killing and maiming members of the congregation.
The Devil or a thunderbolt? I know where my money lies...
The last that was ever seen of Jan, as he clung on for dear life, was as they flew over the moor by the Warren House Inn, and it was here that he finally lost hold of his precious cards.
As they fell to the ground, up sprouted four stone-walled enclosures, each in the shape of the ace of one of the suits of cards, a club, a spade, a heart and a diamond.
They became known as The Ace Fields, and can still be seen to this day, on the slopes below Birch Tor, a fitting memorial to the memory of the poor, misguided Jan Reynolds.
I’ve saved my best piece of evidence until last.
While researching Dartmoor tales, I was reading William Crossing’s guide to all the routes you can possibly take over the moor, when I came across a reference to Foales Arrishes.
It mentions a time when the tenants of that particular plot of land were forced to report their landlord missing to the authorities.
Now Crossing doesn’t name the landlord, but I’d like to think it was Jan Reynolds.
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