Our ancient and rugged landscape can be a place of beauty in the summer but as the nights draw in and we head ever closer to All Hallow’s Eve, be aware of the ghosts and ghouls that are omnipresent, plentiful and sometimes deadly.
Perhaps one of the best known on Dartmoor is Shuck, or Black Shuck, a huge hound said to have been the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.
He is seen in various places across the moor including Marchant’s Cross, around the River Tavy and in Dewerstone Woods. The spectral black hound chases unwary night travellers across the moor, terrifying them with his blood-red eyes, huge fangs and menacing snarl.
Old Shuck is also linked to the Whisht Hounds that race across the moor on stormy nights, driven by their master The Huntsman.
This legend is very similar to that of Herne the Hunter of Windsor Park, but on Dartmoor it is believed that The Huntsman is Squire Cabell, maybe Sir Walter Raleigh or even the Devil himself. This demonic pack will hunt down lost wanderers and feast on their souls.
Squire Richard Cabell lived in Buckfastleigh in the 1600s and sold his soul to the Devil, hunted young maids across the moor as if they were hares, and may have even murdered his wife. The night he was laid to rest, his grave was visited by a pack of baying hellhounds and now, nearly 400 years later, he continues to take his pleasure hunting with his pack.
It’s not just the woods you should avoid – the waters are just as heavily haunted. Bradford Pool just outside Drewsteignton is home to a disembodied spirit who will know your name. If you spend too long near the edge of their watery resting place, they will call your name softly and hypnotically until you find yourself joining them beneath the surface.
Cranmere Pool isn’t any safer. Benjamin Gayer was a merchant, importer, ship owner and Mayor of Okehampton in the late 1600s. He ‘borrowed’ money from a fund that had been collected to pay for the ransom of shipmates that were being plagued by pirates. Unfortunately his fortunes didn’t recover and he died a guilt-ridden man. He is now heard wailing around the pool as he carries water from the pool into Okehampton in a thimble with a hole in it.
In a completely different version of the legend, Benjamin Gayer was convicted of stealing sheep and as punishment was ordered to empty Cranmere Pool with a sieve. Quick-thinking Gayer saw a way to be released early from this tedious task – he stole and killed another sheep and lined the sieve with its skin.
He was then able to empty the pool at such speed that the town of Okehampton was flooded. He was then caught and hanged on nearby Hangingstone Hill and his spirit was cursed to spin all the sand at the bottom of the pool into ropes.
Of course, we all know about poor Kitty Jay, the Hairy Hands and Lady Howard’s coach made of bones and driven wildly by a headless coachman. But back in the day when folk absolutely had to be buried in consecrated ground or their souls would become trapped and earthbound forever, it’s no wonder the moor is so populated with ghosts that there are more spirits than living beings there.
With the large number of lych ways, or corpse ways, tracking across the moor from remote settlements to the nearest burial ground, it’s unsurprising that these ancient routes are full of tension and palpable sorrow, even today. And for those poor folk who couldn’t get to their hallowed ground such as George Stephens, who took his life after his heart was broken, their spirits will wander and we will see them.
So on Hallowe’en night, light your lamp, lock the door, leave an offering for the faeries so that they don’t spoil your milk, and hide away. Dartmoor’s ghosts will be abroad.