Legends and folk tales can open a window to our past. Passed from generation to generation, many hold grains of truth and were used to warn of danger, extol the virtues of various plants and animals, or explain strange natural events. Dartmoor legends and folk tales serve the same purpose and we’ve noted some below. Many include pixies, witches, ghosts and ghouls, making them perfect for a campfire telling. All of the famous Dartmoor legends open a window to England’s past and give insight into times long gone.
The pixies native to Devon and Cornwall are unlike those in the rest of Britain. Our southwest pixies are mostly helpful creatures. They love to help humans and gather to dance in the countryside on moonlit nights.
One tale from Dartmoor dates back to 1853 and tells of a mother who arrived home late after a journey through the night across the moor with her three children. When she arrived at her front door she found that one of her children was missing! A frantic search ended under a tree, which she had been led to by two bundles of rags with small lights. These figures disappeared when the search party’s lantern light reached them. The child was safe and returned home.
Strange lights on the moor were often attributed to pixies, although today they are known to come from marsh gas.
Said to have healing properties for eye problems, Fice’s Well owes its fame to John Fitz of Fitzford and his lady friend. The tale from the 1500s tells how they became enveloped by mist one afternoon as they tried to make their way home. Unsure where to go, they followed a pixy into the hills and ended up hopelessly lost. When they stopped to quench their thirst at a spring on a hillside, the glamour cast by the smallfolk was lifted! Once more they were able to see their way and reached their home before nightfall.
To mark their gratitude, the Fitz family built a granite canopy over the spring to commemorate its healing properties. The marker stands to this day and a short walk from Tavistock will lead you to the well.
Kitty Jay, a farm girl, fell pregnant out of wedlock to a local boy. He ran away and left her when she told him of their predicament. Heartbroken and alone, Kitty took her life. Because of this, she was buried at a crossroads instead of the consecrated ground of the church graveyard. This was done to confuse her spirit and prevent it from haunting the living.
The strange thing about Kitty Jay’s grave isn’t that she’s buried at a crossroad, but rather the fresh flowers that appear on her grave each morning. No one knows who leaves them or why.
Many tales have been told about Dartmoor and the landscape lends itself well to mysteries and legends. You can learn about some of the modern Dartmoor tales in our blog about filming locations on Dartmoor.