Seven spooky sites to visit in Devon - if you dare!
PUBLISHED: 13:43 27 August 2020
Alex Walton Photography
Pixies, sprites and a wicked witch lie in wait for the unsuspecting visitor
The old folklore of Devon is steeped in tales of magical creatures and strange superstition. For example, turn your coat inside out so the mischievous pixies can’t steal you away on the moors. A hare seen in moonlight may be a local witch in disguise. Carry a bottle of holy water if you venture onto Dartmoor at night, in case you meet the hellish Whisht Hounds. And should you find yourself ‘pixie-led’ (lost) out in the wild, ask the jack o’lantern faery to guide you to safety. If you fancy a spine-tingling outing on Hallowe’en weekend, here are seven places to brave.
Wistman’s Wood, Two Bridges - the oak trees of this mysterious little wood are stooped, haggard and small like crones. Some of the oldest are 400-500 years old; their branches are clad in ferns and lichen and they grow among moss-clad boulders, under which a large population of adders shelters from the sun. Long ago (7000 BC), the whole of Dartmoor would have been covered in oak forest like this - the word dart stems from an ancient word for oak. Wist either derives from an Old English word meaning wisdom or the dialect word whisht, meaning eerie or uncanny. Modern-day druids like to carry out rituals here because they venerate oak trees and regard this woodland as sacred. However, folklore asserts that the devil sends his dogs (the Whisht Hounds) out on a Wild Hunt from this place. The huge, red-eyed, black beasts emerge from Wistman’s Wood on Hallowe’en and set off across the moor, hunting down bad souls.
Bathe Pool, North Tawton - on the east banks of the River Taw is a hollow in the ground that is usually dry, even after rain, but occasionally overflows with water. Local legend says the pool fills just before the death of a member of the royal family or a national disaster. Archeological laser study suggests it’s an earthwork and its proximity to a Roman fort indicates it could have been created by the Romans, who knew the area as nemeto, which means sacred grove. Further east, near Bow, the remains of a wood henge associated with Druid worship further shows that this has long been regarded as a magical place.
Vixen Tor, Merrivale - between Princetown and Tavistock lies the iconic tor said to belong to the witch Vixana. Folklore states that when she’s in a foul mood and sees a lone walker striding across the moor, she will conjure a fog. Losing their way, her victim will wander off the path and sink into the bog. Vixana waits until they’ve almost disappeared into the mire and then snaps off their fingers. She lives in a cavern under the tor, which is easy to spot: the 120ft-high mound of stones is the largest mass of granite on Dartmoor and resembles a sphinx. It’s on private land, but you can get close to it on the open access moorland to the north west…just don’t get too close.
Dragon of O Brook, Hexworthy - in the remote moorland between Ter Hill and Combestone Tor, lies the valley of O Brook. According to old Devon lore, this is where one of the Dartmoor dragons lives, in an underground lair beside the stream. In times gone by, the beast was angered by noise from the area’s tin mining and would eat sheep, ponies and sometimes people, but nowadays he’s peaceable - as long as you don’t make too much noise.
Crazywell Pool, Princetown - the water of this small Dartmoor lake is very dark. According to local legend that’s because it has no bottom. The water board say this was disproved during the drought of 1844 when all the water was pumped out, revealing Crazywell to be just under 5m deep and therefore likely to be an old tin mining shaft. But the older villagers of Sheepstor insist the mysterious pool is bottomless because years ago bellringers from the local church tied six 100ft bell ropes together and still didn’t reach the bottom.
It’s said that on some nights the pool will whisper the name of the next parishioner fated to die or show their face in the water. Another legend is that the water is the favourite haunt of a witch who offers very bad advice, so if a mesmerising woman at the pool gives you a betting tip, think twice.
Cutty Dyer, Ashburton - the River Ashburn is notorious for the water sprite Cutty Dyer. Locals who’ve seen him say he has huge, glowing eyes and sharp, pointy teeth. Folklore warns that he likes to lurk under bridges - including the King’s Bridge in Ashburton and Cuddyford Bridge - and pull people into the water. So, don’t get too close to the edge.
Jack the White Hat, Taw estuary - if you’re sailing in or out of the mouth of the River Taw at night and see a lantern light held aloft by a man wearing a hat, stay well away, warn the locals. Folklore describes him as a bad pixie who bestows ill fortune. His story may have been started by smugglers trying to frighten people away from the estuary so they could unload after dark.
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