Saturday, 4 April 2015

Spooky Dartmoor!

Let me backtrack a little. After visiting Castle Drogo, and with the afternoon well advanced, and the light beginning to fail, I had two further objectives. The first was a roadside grave, called Jay's Grave on the Ordnance Survey map. It lay on a minor road south-west of Moretonhampstead, not far from the jagged tooth-like silhouette of Hound Tor, already getting indistinct in the mist. In the photos below, do bear in mind that I've increased the contrast, exposure and colour-saturation settings, otherwise the shots would look flat and indistinct in the poor light.

What I can't show is the creeping cold that made this a very chilly experience! You might also think that something about this place - its Dartmoor setting, and the sad legend that attached to it - encouraged the shivers. Certainly, I'd hate to be here after dark. It wasn't just the dreeness of the grave. There were whispering trees, and ancient stones that had been pushed into service as field boundaries but may have once had a different purpose. The modern gate and footpath sign, and the items placed on the grave by persons unknown, none of these provided reassurance that this place was really part of the everyday world.

It was silly of me to linger as long as I did, even for atmospheric photos that I badly wanted. On the Moor, winter was still present. In fact, I was fearful that I'd revive the horrible cold I'd only just recovered from. I escaped that, but I assure you, I was very glad at the time to snuggle back into the well-insulated warmth of Fiona!

Let the photos tell their story.

I'd seen the grave on perhaps two previous occasions, although I had a photographic record only for one of them. Here is Jay's Grave on a brighter day in 1994, this time graced with flowers:

And what is the legend? Well, it really was the grave of someone, and it might date from the late eighteenth century. A skeleton was found beneath the grave mound in the mid-nineteenth century, and was coffined and reburied. The known 'facts' are that a young woman variously known as Mary, Ann, Betty or Kitty Jay hung herself in a barn on a farm at nearby Manaton, and, because she was a suicide, she was buried at what was then a country crossroads, and not in a churchyard. Embellishments to this tale have her orphaned, ex-workhouse, and working as a humble maidservant on the farm. On the face of it, it sounds as if a vulnerable girl with no family was made pregnant by the farmer or one of his sons, and then killed herself in shame and despair. The old story. A girl wronged and undone. Who knows? 

It's easy to feel romantic sorrow for poor Kitty if the story is even partly true, and modern sensibilities keep her memory fresh and the grave well-tended. And the grave itself is perfectly genuine. But what a bleak and lonely spot!   

I drove on, passing Hound Tor, its strange outline hardly discernible in the gloom.  

There was more than just mist now - there were blankets of dense fog here and there, and I knew that I hadn't long left if I wanted to find and inspect my next destination. This was the stone circle on Soussons Down, north-west of Widecombe in the Moor, on a very minor road, and situated very much more into the desolate heart of Dartmoor. An odd thing happened as I approached from the south-east. The map on Fiona's sat-nav display suddenly showed a speed-camera symbol. What? On a minor road like this? No must be a strange mistake. And indeed, there was no camera to be seen. Hmm. Very weird, that.

I parked Fiona off the road, and was rather reluctant to walk out of sight of her, as if Something might spirit her away - such was the mood. The light was getting positively dim.

Treading very carefully on the sodden ground, the stone circle came into view, set in a clearing on the edge of a wood. It looked very forlorn. The trees made unfriendly noises. I was intruding. I made a brave face, but I didn't really want to stay long.

It reminded me of a small version of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. But it actually wasn't a proper stone circle at all. The stones had once merely held in the sides of a low burial mound. The mound had contained a small burial chamber, or cist, where a crouched-up skeleton would have been, plus some valuable trinkets. All long gone, of course; but the stones remain. Silent, guarding, warning, repelling.

I squelched back to Fiona, and escaped.

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