Crowded places, I shunned them as noises too rude
And fled to the silence of sweet solitude.
I couldn’t resist a quick sneak around Holne Parish church before I left. From the outside, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the church of St Mary the Virgin, but step inside and everything changes.
The medieval pulpit is simply stunning. Here we can see the foliage that covers, and gorgeously, the leaves rising up the outside of the arch and just at the tip, where we would expect a flower blossoming out, transforming into two lines of foliage that circle around to start again; life recycles, born again.
Beautiful gilding too, gold and silver, the silver now tarnished to black (the dark flat background is painted), with red highlights, and the inside of the arches (the chamfer, the angled bit) have little stencilled yellow flowers. How sweet is that?
The painters, masters of their art, would have created their own paints by grinding up pigment powders from mineral, plant, animal or manufactured sources and mixing them with glue or oil depending on the layer of the paint. There were at least six main layers used, from the grounding, which was the base layer after the sanding, through the primer, gilding, painting, glazing and varnishing, and each layer had one or more coats. Each coat had to dry before applying the next, and this could take weeks or more, especially in damp Devon.
One of the church’s ‘miracles’ is the rood screen, I call it a miracle because despite Henry VIII’s attempts to purge all religious icons and the later attempts of Cromwell’s Levellers it survived. The screen is thought to have been constructed and decorated sometime between 1480 and 1500. Along the top of the screen are many fine carvings of wheat, grapes which represent the Holy Communion bread and wine, and birds. All along the wainscot are 38 panels, each depicting a saint with two other panels on the chancel gates showing Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The right hand panel of the rood screen is particularly fascinating. Here we have, from the left, St Roche who looked after plague victims and whose dog looked after him when he got the plague himself; he is the patron saint of the sick, the plagued and second-hand dealers, which seems to be a slightly arguable connection. I know of some very nice second-hand dealers…
Next is St Margaret who was swallowed by a dragon after many torments only to emerge from its stomach, as seen here, and now the patron saint of childbirth.
Last is St Bavon, who repented after 50 years of dissipation (we should be so lucky) and ended up a hermit. Often shown holding a falcon, as here…
The Two Moors Way bypasses Widecombe-in-the-Moor but by the time I reached the village it was mid morning and I’d already exhausted my water supplies. It seemed a good idea to make a short detour, make a pit stop and rehydrate.v
I’ve been to Widecombe countless times over the years but for some reason I’ve never paid much attention to the parish church which is dedicated to Saint Pancras. Other than St Pancras Station in London I don’t think I’ve ever come across St Pancras before! Apparently Pancras was a Roman citizen who converted to Christianity, and was beheaded for his faith at the age of fourteen, around the year 304. His name is Greek and means “the one that holds everything”.
The walk along the ridge of Hamel Down towards Grimspound must be one of my favourite on Dartmoor. On a clear the panoramic views are breathtaking. You feel on top of the world, best described as the “Thin Places” – somewhere one can walk in two worlds , where the worlds are fused together, knitted loosely where the differences can be discerned or tightly where the two worlds become one. When I was living at Chudleigh, many was the time when I would drive up and park my car at Widecombe-in-the Moor and then embark on a 25-30 mile walk across the moor, starting off along Hamel Down towards Gidleigh.
I hadn’t been walking on Hamel Down more than 15 minutes or so, when one of those strange things occurs which makes you wonder whether ‘there’s a maker shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” In the distance I could see four people walking in a group along the ridge towards me. One appeared to be wearing a tweed cap but it was the larger man on the left of the group that caught my attention. There was something oddly familiar about his gait….
As I approached the group I could hardly believe my eyes – it was two close university friends from Wiltshire with a couple of their friends out for a walk on Dartmoor. They were also astounded at meeting me in such an unlikely setting. It seemed like a strange kind of synchronicity had drawn us together!
Just beyond Hamel Down Tor lies Grimspound. It has been estimated that some 2,000 prehistoric sites can be found on Dartmoor. Of these, the most impressive is the Late Bronze Age (1450 -700 BC) settlement of Grimspound. Apparently this eerie setting was the model for the prehistoric hut in which Sherlock Holmes spent the night in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
A massive stone wall, some 9 feet thick, encompasses a 4-acre site containing 24 circular huts. Eighteen of these huts were excavated in the late 19th century, and 13 of these were found to have evidence of human habitation. A good guess is that the other huts were used for animals or storage.
The huts are an average of 10 feet in diameter, and the walls would have risen to a height of 3-4 feet and been topped with branches and turf. The hut entrances are oriented towards the south. It seems likely that the perimeter wall, though very thick, was intended as an animal barrier, and was not used for defensive purposes.
We do not know precisely how long Grimspound was in use, but by about 1200 BC the settlement pattern was changing. The thin moorland soils appear to have deteriorated very quickly and it also seems that there was a change in the climate. Heavy rainfall reduced the fertility of the Dartmoor soil, so that it could not sustain the same level of occupation
Descending from Hamel Down past Headland Warren Farm (a 19th century farm where rabbits were bred to supply miners at the nearby Vitifer, , Birch Tor and Golden Dagger mines) I made my way to the Warren House Inn for another quick pit stop.
The Warren House Inn is a Dartmoor institution. At 1,425 feet (434 m) above sea level it is the highest pub in southern England. Located on an ancient road across the moor, it has been a stopping point for travellers since the middle of the 18th century.
The Inn is the subject of much folklore – probably exaggerated over the generations. For example, one traveller is said to have stayed there overnight and found a body in a chest in his room. When he mentioned this to the landlord, he was told: “’tis only fayther! … the snaw being so thick, and making the roads so cledgey-like, when old fayther died, two weeks agon, we couldn’t carry un to Tavistock to bury un; and so mother put un in the old box, and salted un in…”
Another relates to a visitor who was persuaded to buy a flock of sheep, after consuming copious quantities of cider. The following morning he discovered that the “flock” that he’d been shown by the locals that night was actually the prehistoric stone circles circles of Grey Wethers. The fire in the hearth, it is rumoured, has never been allowed to go out and has itself become part of the folklore of the inn. It is said that when the inn was rebuilt, the glowing embers of the fire were carried across the road on a shovel to the new hearth.
The last time I visited the Warren House Inn was back in 2019. It seems like an age ago! So much has happened over the ensuing three years. I came here with a my Belgian friend Claude and my godson Georges (aged 10) to introduce him to the joys of wild camping on Dartmoor. We camped in the valley near the site of the Golden Dagger Tin Mine. Without doubt the highlight of our brief stay was being rudely woken early the next morning by the sound of animals sniffing outside our tents. It turned out to be a pack of fox hounds who were out cub hunting and had been attracted by the pungent odour of the remains of our previous evening’s supper – spicy Korean Shin Ramyon!
The Golden Dagger Tin mine was the last working tin mine on Dartmoor. Tin mining was first documented here in 1809 and the mine was particularly active from 1835 to 1860. However, it was not until the 1850s that the mine became known as Golden Dagger Tin Mine. By 1892 the mine employed 41 people. Underground production ceased at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
The mine was the scene of a tragic accident in February 1882. Working conditions in the mine were cold, wet , cramped and dangerous and many of the workers were employed on a ‘tribute’ or piece-work arrangement which meant that the quicker they worked the more they earned. This could lead to costly mistakes if corners were cut to save time and earn more money. One of these mistakes proved fatal in February 1882 during the blasting of the rock with gunpowder which led to a miner called Richard Stephens having half his face blown off. It was reported that “his head was opened up so that his brains were exposed and eyes shockingly injured.”
It was clear that the miner needed urgent medical attention and so a man was dispatched to Moretonhampstead to summon a doctor. Three doctors were called upon and all refused to attend the patient. One doctor was expecting two women to give birth and another was expecting one birth but stated that either way he would not attend until his fee had been paid. The doctor at Chagford was also summoned but for what ever reason he didn’t show up. Sadly Richard Stephens died from his injuries and three days later the inquest was held with the coroner delivering a verdict of Accidental Death.
Just before reaching Drewsteignton, perched high on an escarpment above the Teign stands Castle Drogo which has the dubious distinction of being the lasty castle to have been built in England. In 1910 Julius Drew commissioned Henry Lutyens to design a granite castle for him in what he claimed was the birthplace of his ancestors. Drew had made his fortune by importing tea from Inia cheaply for his growing chain of Home & Colonial Stores. In the process he turned tea into a drink for the masses and himself into a multi millionaire! He retired at the age of 33 and indulged in his passion of tracing his ancestry. A genealogist produced a pedigree which purported to show his descent from Dru, one of William the Conqueror’s barons. A descendant of Dru, Drogo de Teign, founded Drewsteignton in the 12th century. Drew changed his name to Drewe and moved into the completed castle in 1927. Tragically he only enjoyed the fruits of his labour for 4 years before his death in 1931. He never truly recovered from the shock of losing his eldest son, Adrian Hendicott Drewe, who died during the First World War on the front line in 1917 from overwhelming intake of mustard gas in Ypres, alongside 80-100 men (approx) from his platoon.
At around 7pm I finally made it to the Three Hares Campsite on a farm about 20 minutes from Drewsteigton. It was low key (no more than 6-7 other groups there) with excellent facilities, a lovely couple running the campsite and a pair of friendly geese called Goosey and Gander. Best of all though, it had an electric socket to recharge my phone which mercifully spared me a 40 min walk to the pub and back at Drewsteignton. Happiness is ultimately based on the simpler things in life – a tent which doesn’t leak, blister free feet and a fully recharged phone!