Tales from the Warren House gullies

Torbay Weekly

No sooner had I submitted last week’s article when 'fate' threw another synchronicity at me... almost as if it was underlining my chosen theme.

Once I had pressed the 'send' button, I got my kit together and set off for an afternoon of gentle letterboxing.

My previous visit that week had been cut short by the unrelenting heat! It's no fun wandering up and down a slope pushing through waist-high bracken when it’s so hot.

So this time I planned on a couple of shorter walks after some new boxes I had recently acquired the clues for.

My first stop was in a parking area just below the Warren House Inn, the second highest pub in England renowned for its 'fire that never goes out' and other tales for another day.

Boots on, I set off in search of my first target along a track leading down into the ruins of the Vitifier tin mining area below Birch Tor.

This new set of stamps all relate to artefacts from that era of tinning and take you to the actual sites, my favourite type of letterbox as its also educational.

I’m going to enjoy collecting this particular set over the coming months.

Poking around on a mossy mound, I soon located my quarry and proceeded to 'stamp up' as we letterboxers call it.

While doing so a couple walked past me on a nearby track heading further into the valley.

Usually you tend not to see another soul once you’ve left the car park, another reason why I love this solitary pastime, so when they come so close, they draw the eye just to make sure they won’t be hanging around long!

On this occasion I couldn’t help noticing how unusually long the woman’s hair was.

I’ve got a friend with hair that long called Helen whom I had last seen a few weeks previously at my TIP-X meeting-the Exeter branch of my ghost hunting group.

Helen has recently written a couple of books about Dartmoor’s stone circles, a beginner’s guide to how to find them, and she kindly came along with some signed copies for us to purchase from her.

But it couldn’t possibly be her here now...

Finishing off my business, I was about to move off to my next location when I heard the woman laugh down among the ruins, but she was now obscured by trees...that sounded like Helen!

Moving on to the track to get a better look, I saw her taking photographs, not in a touristy that’s a pretty view way, but in the looking for details way that you would use to illustrate your next book, which I know she is contemplating...that must be Helen!

Starting down the slope to get a closer look, I became certain that it was and this suspicion was finally confirmed when she said: “Is that you, David?”

Well met! A happy coincidence... they obviously don’t call that area Happy Valley for nothing!

It turned out Helen and her friend Fabio had stopped for a picnic in the mining ruins - as you do!

Fabio had just started asking Helen about the area they were in when up popped the local storyteller, on cue, as if by magic!

Although Helen had included the nearby Challacombe stone rows in her book, she hadn’t researched the rest of the surrounding area and so was more than happy for me to fill in her blanks and regale them with some of my stories.

They were actually picnicking in the remains of the mine carpenter’s shop and the walls in the bracken opposite belonged to the blacksmith’s shop attached to a drying area where the miner’s damp clothes would be hung up to dry by an open fire after a hard day's toil.

As for a local story, the sort that would put shivers down the back of any hard-nosed miner as they sat round the camp fire at night, they don’t come any better than the Legend of Chaw Gully.

Chaw Gully runs down the ridge from Birch Tor, just above where we were sitting in the ruins, and is one of the oldest and deepest on Dartmoor, around 50ft.

Some say it dates back to Roman Times and the reason they give for this is the fact it is guarded by an old raven, not any old raven no, but the very raven that Noah released from the Ark which never returned.

Now Chaw in the Devonshire vernacular means chough or jackdaw and these you will see circling the gullies and nesting in the crags but to date I’ve never seen a raven.

Nonetheless his job was to keep an eye out for any would be treasure seekers trying to gain access to the mine’s secret sash of gold which belonged to the Dartmoor Knockers who lived and worked in the deepest parts, and got their name from the noise they made whilst hacking away at the mine walls.

Knockers were a race of goblin-like creatures who demanded privacy from the outside world but would tolerate humans working in certain areas, even helping them locate rich seams of tin, as long as they steered clear of their treasure.

Anyone breaking this pact would meet certain doom in the depths of the mine, for when they started to lower themselves down by rope a loud cawing arose from the guardian raven and a gnarled hand would emerge from the rock face clutching a sharpened knife that would easily sever the offending rope, sending the would-be thief to their death on the rocks below.

Now another sign of the Knocker's benevolence was the fact they didn’t want the rotting corpses of dead Christians contaminating their home, so they would leave the battered and broken bodies on the moor at the top of the shaft laid out and ready for burial...how thoughtful of them!