At The Hound Tor

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This is the place of legends.  Arthur Conan Doyle saw these rocks and promptly went home to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Our walk was five miles, beginning in the car park on the north side of Hound Tor.  We were to end our day climbing up and over and between the rock outcrops, then down to the waiting Fiat.  We walked past Bowerman’s Nose.  The legend: A hunter, Bowerman, accidentally came upon a coven of witches performing their incantations.  To silence him they turned him into a column of rock.  He had seen the forbidden, like Lot’s Wife.  He still stands on the Tor.  If you listen, you may hear his cries for mercy…or is it the wind and the spell that the moors can bring upon the mind?  We stopped and placed a flower on the lonely grave of Kitty Gray.  It is a haunted place.  Deemed a “whore”, she hanged herself and was buried in unconsecrated ground…at a cross roads.  It is a haunted place…or is it the wind and the spell that the moors can bring upon the mind?  We walked over pastures and wooded paths.  I held the gate for two teenage girls who were out riding their horses.  “Thank yew”, one said.  We sat for a sip of water and an apple.  There was a church steeple in a small village in a small valley.  The bell was tolling.  A wedding? A funeral? An Angelus?  We passed by the ruins of a medieval village.  Why did they chose this particular valley?  Why did they abandon the site?  Our legs became tired.  There was a steep uphill path, a lane with a tall hedge row.  I stopped to examine a flower.  I brushed against a thorn of some kind. My thumb turned red and began throbbing.  We came to the pass between the tors.  “At the top we’ll see our car,” I said.  My wife looked tired.  We reached the height of ground…our car sat in the lot below.  A small white Fiat.  A place to change our shoes, sip our water and drive to the nearest pub.

Legends and ghosts often have a tiny grain of truth buried within the story.

Humans have walked these hills for well over a thousand years.  No one can convince me that a seed from the distant past isn’t laying dormant under a lichen-covered stone…beneath the moss, the heather, the gorse and the years.

Passports 14: The Sad Life & Lonely Death of Kitty Gray

The Tors and heathland of Dartmoor is a landscape that breeds legends.  Legends, myths, mysteries and ghosts.

The guidebooks tell you not to go out onto the moors when the weather is foul.  When the fog descends, as it often does, and when the misty rain falls on the gorse, and on the matted shag of the unshorn sheep that graze the Tors, shapes can appear to move where rock piles sit.  In the sunlight, the Tors are rocky pointed hills.  In the fog, they are feral wolves and wild beasts.

This is the world at Hound Tor.  The rocks, from nearly any angle, can resemble the most hellish shapes.  It is little wonder that Arthur Conan Doyle found his dark inspiration here for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

But it’s not these rocks and shifting shapes that is the story I will tell you.

No, this is a brief narrative of a lonely place beside the road.  A tale told a thousand times, in a thousand places about thousands of men and the unfortunate women who believe false promises in exchange for their virtue.

Mary Gray was born somewhere in Devonshire in the late 18th century.  She was born into poverty and, because of the status of women in those days, she was destined to die in poverty.  (This is still true today–some things never change.)  She was sent, as a young teenager to work as a domestic on one of the farms near Hound Tor.  She washed the floors and cooked the food for the farmer, his wife and son.  She also was pretty enough to catch the lustful eye of the son.  They met–behind the stone barn, behind the hedges and in the woods.  One place they did not meet was in the open sunlight sky and where others could see affection.

Mary gradually lost her real given name and became known as Kitty.  Perhaps a snide reference to “loose morals”.  The son promised her an honest life–if she would give herself to him when he felt the urge.

She gave herself to him.  He lied to her.

She became pregnant and the farmer, fearing the shame, had her put out.  The son turned his back on her.  He had gotten what he wanted from her.  Kitty was labelled a slut.

Knowing she could never find work in the region again–not as a ‘soiled dove’, she made a decision.  A final decision.  A terrible decision.

Kitty Gray hanged herself.  Her child died soon after.

The local deacons of the church refused to bury her in consecrated ground.  She was Eve.  She tempted the farmer’s son.  She sinned with gravity.

She was buried, at night, in the fog, at the cross-roads.

There she lay, in a lonely and forgotten grave by a lonely forgotten lane.

Decades later, a couple of farm workers were digging in the area.  A small white object–thin–then another.  A doctor was called and identified the remains as that of a young woman and child.  The old folks of the tiny village recalled the story of Kitty Gray.  A man, an honest man with a kind heart had her bones placed in a box and reburied in her grave.  This time with a small stone to mark Kitty’s last rest.

Stories soon began to be told about strange occurrences at the grave site.  Fresh flowers were always seen near the headstone, but no one ever saw anyone put them there.

And, at night, some say they have glimpsed a hooded figure bent over the grave–as if in prayer.

Who places the flowers?  Who is the hooded figure?  Some say it’s the spirit of the farmer’s son who is cursed to keep vigil over the woman he betrayed.  Or, is it Kitty, praying for her own soul and the soul of her unbaptized child?

If you were at the grave site six days ago, you would have seen someone place a wildflower on the stone.

It was me.

I looked around.  I saw Hound Tor behind me.  The moors around me.  A light mist began to fall–but blue patches of sky peeked through the cloud cover.

It didn’t take much of an imagination to picture the grave on a day of lead-colored skies, soaking rain, chilling winds and fog.

Or, when the full moon lit the nearby fields with the magic and mysterious light that only the Goddess Luna can provide and a breeze rustles through the gorse and hedges, anyone who holds their breath, will surely hear the soft cry of a young woman named Kitty.

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Passports 12: The Legendary Hedges of Devonshire

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Hedges.

In most standard dictionaries, “hedge” will be defined as a row of shrubs to separate lawns, fields or pastures.  In Devon, they can also separate your sense of self-confidence and driving skill from your very soul.  If you drive seven miles along a “two-lane” road with these hedges, the fear you will feel is not unlike what you would feel if you stood before the very Gates of Hell and cursed Satan at his own doorway.  You enter the seven mile stretch, easy of mind, free at the wheel, confident, joyously celebrating the astonishing landscape and geography of this fabled west country county.  They you emerge at the far end, a mere seven miles of driving–you emerge gaunt, pale, perspiring, white fingers gripping the wheel like a death choke, unable to speak or formulate a coherent sentence.  You are breathing fast.  Your pulse rate is up around 375 beats per minute.  Your eyes are glazed over.  You try to speak.  The only sounds from your larynx is something that resembles the gibberish of a Neanderthal.  Your lips and tongue cannot form the simplest syllable or even articulate a vowel.  You attempt to say: “There, that wasn’t so bad”, but what comes out sounds like “Nnneeeyayayabaaa”.  Your brain functions are fried like a bad sausage at a county fair that has been cited for Botulism.  In rapid succession, you have calculated the cost of two side-view mirrors, the door handles, the paint job, tires, windshield and radiator.  And the car isn’t even yours.

The road, or more accurately, the lane, is wide enough for 1 1/3 car widths.  You don’t have to be a German mathematician to see that the numbers don’t work.  So, the road builders have put in “lay-bys”.  In theory, it works like this: You drive until you see an oncoming vehicle.  There should be a pull-over (lay-by) for you to edge over or the other car to edge over.  Sometimes, you have to back up a bit.  But, somehow, it works (most of the time).  And, God help you if you meet an oncoming milk truck… At some point, your mind, your soul begins to separate from your body and you are floating–high above the hedges.  You’re looking down at two cars passing each other within the width of a spider’s thread.  You cease to care about the cars because you’re nearer to God now and the trip to Paradise is going to be shorter.

Don’t forget to recall that the steering wheel is on the right, you’re driving on the left and you are shirting gears with your left hand.  You are so close to the opposing driver that you can estimate what time he shaved this morning.  If it’s a woman, you can count the curls of her ebony hair tucked behind her right ear.

But you do emerge.  Your faith in God is enhanced.  But, the promises you made to the Almighty for a safe seven mile passage is going to cost you.  You have to build an orphanage in Bolivia and a leper colony in Patagonia.  Somewhere, way back in your brain, you hope there are no lepers in Patagonia.

No wonder my father hated trimming the two hedges that bordered our lawn.

But enough about my twelve ‘out-of-body’ experiences.  Let’s take a closer look at the hedges of the most hedged county in all of England.

If you find yourself walking along a lane with hedges, they are, without question, astounding in many ways.  The use of hedges to enclose small fields has been found to date back to the Neolithic Age (4,000 – 6,000 years ago).  Many, if not most of the counties in the British Isles, have hedges as part of their characteristic landscape.  In the Lake District, to the north, the hedges are mostly stone.  But in Devon, that are whole plant communities.  I was astounded to learn that Devon has over 33,000 miles of hedges!  The reason for this is that county has held onto its traditional agriculture practices the longest.  In other parts of Britain, the hedges have been torn down to make way for larger field systems.  Many of these hedges are being replanted.

The typical Devon hedge is made of an earth or stone bank that is topped with the shrubs.  A full 25% of this counties hedges have been dated to 800 years or more in age.

A typical hedge is made of up 600 species of flowering plants, 1,500 species of insects, 65 species of birds and 20 species of mammals (perhaps the most famous being the “hedgehog”).

How can one estimate the age of a hedge, you may ask?  Well, a fellow named Hooper has come up with a formula.  If you count the number of woody species in 30 yards and multiply that by 110, you will get the age of the hedge (within a range, of course).

In the end, I offer two bits of advice: If you travel to Devonshire, either let a bus take you around and let the tour company worry about the damages, or, get a Hummer and become the Mad Max of southwest England.

Be a hedgehog.

[For more information: http://www.hedgelaying.org.uk]

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Passports 11: Morris Dancing: Another Way for the English to be Silly or an Ancient Cultural Tradition?

I had my hand on the door handle of the Antiquarian Book Store in Moretonhampstead village.  In a moment, I would be lost among my dear friends, the arcane tomes and dusty volumes of local history and regional literature.  My thumb was on the latch.  I pressed down.  It gave way under my pressure.  The place was open (a rarity, I was told).  The door cracked open.  The books awaited my gentle touch and curious eye.

I was stopped by someone standing in the Town Square, yelling.

“They’re here!”

“The Morris Dancers have arrived.”

I pulled the door shut and went to join my wife.  We were actually waiting for the dancers, but we told they might be late…or not show up at all.  That was when I headed to the bookstore to spend some precious moments browsing.

Please, those of you who are aware of this type of dancing, don’t leave now.  I need to explain a few things to the others who may  not be aware of this…this unique type of very entertainment.

At some vague date in British history, a couple of Englishmen decided to tie bells around their ankles, put on odd outfits, take some sticks or handkerchiefs and hop around to the accompaniment of an according or concertina or perhaps even a trombone and fiddle.  They must have enjoyed themselves, because the tradition lives on to this day.  There are hundreds of Morris Dancing troupes throughout the British Isles.

A fair question to ask at this point is exactly how old is this tradition?  Well, like nearly everything in British history, it can be traced back to either the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age or sometime in 1972.  The fog of history shrouds so many important aspects of the history of this wonderful island.  Who would have guessed that the bones of Richard III would be unearthed under a car park in Leister in 2012?

See what I mean?

Well, from what I’ve been able to piece together from Wikipedia, what follows is the essential facts relating to Morris Dancing.  I hope I make your day.

Morris dancing has been linked to similar activities practiced by the Spanish Moors–Moorish Dancing–forms of which are still practiced in the Basque country of Spain.

Henry VIII was said to be an avid fan of the dance and could put his own spin on the hops.  The first mention of the dance was made in 1448.  In 1600, a Shakespearean actor, one William Kempe, danced his way from London to Norwich.  Apparently the authorities in Norwich actually determined the guy was sane and he was allowed to go free after he arrived.

I have found references to six different styles of Morris Dancing.  I’m sure there are Morris Dancing scholars out there could cite much more information than I.  Happy Googling.

  • Cotswold style–heavy use of wooden sticks and handkerchiefs (wavers).
  • North West Morris–somewhat more military and processional in practice.
  • Border Morris–a simpler and looser style (of hopping) and use of blackface to represent coal miners.
  • Longsword/Yorkshire–use of long wood or metal swords.
  • Rappa–don in Northumberland using sticks and swords.
  • Molly Dancing–where one dancer dresses up as a woman (Molly).  This dance is usually performed for the first time each year on Plough Monday.  This is the start of the English agricultural season.  It’s the 1st Monday after Twelfth Day (Epiphany).

So, there it is.  I must say this: watching the dancers and listening to the concertina and hearing the bells go giggle-gangle, I find it soothing and compelling.

One can get drawn into the movement and the music and this, coupled with the ancient buildings and the take-your-breath-away beauty of Dartmoor, or the Cotswolds or Dorset, you are taken to a different time.

And who doesn’t relish a different time?  I do.

By the way, when the dancers withdrew into the local pub, I went back to the Antiquarian Book Store.

It was closed.

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A Morris Dancer.

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She danced just for me. (I wish).

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The “Leader”.

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Dorset style.

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Arriving.

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Hopping.