Tales from the storyteller with David Phillips:
One of the most exciting things for me about my exploration of Dartmoor, and my research into its history and tales, is when I uncover something new.
A place I’ve never seen before, or a piece of information that breaths new life into an old story.
Hopefully I can pass on that excitement by sharing my findings with you here.
I made just such a discovery the other week, when I was contacted by a local lady, Claire Casely, who has just started producing her own series of podcasts called Weird Wonderful Wanders.
They are explorations of the myths and legends that Dartmoor is famous for, and wanderings in the landscape where they are said to have taken place, with people who have a connection with or a different perspective on the old tales.
The first instalment, available online now, is about the Hairy Hands, a story close to her heart as her great grandfather was the pharmacist at Dartmoor Prison when the prison doctor was killed in a motorbike accident that sparked the idea that hairy hands had caused it.
I got in touch with Claire, sharing my interest in the subject, and some of my insights into Dartmoor tales.
She replied by inviting me on a walk with her, so she could make some recordings for her next podcast, which should be available now.
For our starting point, we chose the sad tale of Kitty Jay.
Meeting in the car park below Hound Tor, we set off up the lane.
Once at the grave, which was adorned with the usual beautiful display of flowers and other offerings, I regaled Claire with the well known history of the spot, adding in my own evidence that the place is haunted, and finishing with my theory that there are also connections to witchcraft and rituals.
There is a Pagan goddess by the name of Hecate, who is revered by pagans and witchy folk alike.
She holds dominion over crossroads and the dead, keeping an eye on magic and spell casting. Her familiars take the shape of dogs and bears.
Over the many years I’ve been visiting the grave, which lies at a crossroads, I’ve seen many things, as well as flowers and coins, left as offerings, among them, various types of toy dogs and bears, including Paddington and Pluto... never the obvious, a toy doll for the baby.
My theory is that practicing witches, probably local teenagers, leave these gifts here for Hecate to bless during the course of a lunar cycle, allowing them to become imbued with the moon’s powerful energy, then retrieving them to be used in their own rituals and spell castings.
Having made enough recordings at the grave, it was time to move on.
If we had taken the path heading east, crossing Hayne Down, we would have eventually come across the impressive rocky pillar known as Bowerman’s Nose, a permanent reminder that it is not wise to upset the local witches, as they have a rather unique way of extracting revenge when annoyed!
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to include a visit, but I did relate the huntsman’s story as we headed north to Easdon Hill.
My reason for taking Claire here was as part of my own research.
A while ago, I was reading about the many interesting artefacts that are housed at the witchcraft museum in Boscastle, having visited them many times over the years, when I spotted an entry regarding one of my favourites.
It’s a human skull, strapped to an iron stand, in the shape of a pentacle, and all the metalwork painted red.
In the accompanying description, it says that this particular artefact once belonged to a Granny Mann, a white witch/wise woman who lived near North Bovey on Dartmoor.
She referred to the skull as her 'friend', and whenever any one asked her a question or for advice, she always said she would have to consult her 'friend' first!
She kept it hidden somewhere on Easdon Tor, which is on Easdon Hill, rising just above the outskirts of North Bovey, and this is where she went to perform her rituals and spell castings.
Reading this had intrigued me, leaving me with a desire to one day seek out a possible hiding place for the skull... the opportunity to do so occurred during my walk with Claire.
As we walked along the bridleway that passes along the bottom of Easdon Hill, passing rows of gorse bushes, it suddenly opened out giving us access to paths that run further up the hill rewards the tor.
Starting up one of these muddy tracks, my attention was drawn towards a small outcrop of rocks, shrouded in gorse, that appeared to have an opening.
As we approached, it became obvious to me that this was a perfect spot for Granny Mann’s needs!
The uppermost rock jutted out, forming a canopy for protection from the rain, in the centre was a slab of granite forming a shelf that rose higher at the back, perfect for an altar... I was already imagining it covered in lit candles dripping wax!
As I bent down to look underneath, I found the entrance to a small cave stretching into the rock, no good for crawling into, but perfect for storing a skull/'friend'!
The more I thought about it, the more ideal it seemed for Granny Mann.
The outcrop was at the foot of the hill, sheltered from the elements, just up from the footpath she would have taken coming from the North Bovey direction, and with a view looking towards Haytor, above which the Full Moon rises.
Why would an elderly lady want to climb a steep hill to the tor, when all she needed was at this particular spot lower down?
It felt right to me. Any thoughts of us exploring further, to rule out any other possibilities, however, were put to one side when it started to drizzle and the top became shrouded in mist.
As we made our way back to the cars, I contemplated all the other little weird synchronicities we had experienced during our walk, and it occurred to me that the three places we had talked about, all connected to witchcraft, formed a triangle, with Jay’s Grave to the West, Bowerman’s Nose to the East and Easdon to the North.
Henceforth, I will be referring to this area of the moors as the Witches' Triangle.
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