Just returned from a wonderful holiday down in Devon and my beloved Dartmoor National Park. Backpacks and suitcases are still unpacked and littering the hall. The dogs are going crazy over the strange smells they’re getting from my trainers…I’m hoping it’s the wild pony poo and the great outdoors and NOT my feet! So, as I nurse my various bruises, scrapes, blisters and insect bites, I find myself grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat!
Basking in uncharacteristic and glorious sunshine, I found myself lying on the soft golden sands of Bigbury-on-Sea, listening to the lapping waves, children playing and the occasional family disagreement! Under cerulean skies I watched the world’s only sea tractor cross the bay to Burgh Island, laden with passengers, to the island’s most famous landmark – the 1920′s Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel, haunt of such luminaries as Agatha Christie, Cole Porter and Noel Coward amongst others.
Agatha Christie wrote Evil Under the Sun whilst staying there, staring out across the cliffs and shifting sands, and it also proved inspiration for her novel, And Then There were None. You can easily see why writers from Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle to Du Maurier were drawn to Devon and Cornwall, it is simply breathtaking!
Leaving the coast though, I entered the magical mythical world of Dartmoor.
Ahhh Dartmoor…such a wondrous place. Wild, unspoilt, hauntingly beautiful. Drenched in rich history. Steeped in so much mythology and folklore you can practically taste it, not to mention the ghost tales…
My favourite ghost story, apart from the infamous ‘Hairy Hands’ that grab your steering wheel and send you careering off the road to your untimely death, is the forlorn and rather spooky tale of ‘Jay’s Grave’. There are various versions of the story, as is often the case with oral traditions.
Around 1790 a young girl, Mary Jay, later called Kitty Jay, left the Poor House to work as a servant girl at a local landowner’s farm. Once there, she quickly caught the attention of the landowner’s son who promised to marry her. But, when she fell pregnant he abandoned her and she was thrown out of the farm. With no where to go, no chance of employment anywhere else, and labelled as a ‘slut’, in despair Kitty Jay tragically took her own life. She was found hanging in one of the barns on the farm. The local church refused to have her buried on consecrated ground. The custom at the time was to bury suicides at crossroads, sometimes with a stake driven through their hearts to ensure that the restless soul of the departed could not return to haunt living, god-fearing mortals. This was the fate of poor Kitty Jay. She was interred at an intersection of a road and track high up in moors, just north-west of Hound Tor. The grave soon became known as ‘Jay’s Grave’ and it was not long before strange events were reported there. On some moonlit nights, a dark figure was seen kneeling beside the grave, head bowed, face in hands. But the phenomenon most associated with Kitty’s final resting place is the strange and daily appearance of fresh flowers placed on her grave. To this day, and no matter what time of the year it may be, every morning a new posy of flowers appears. No-one has ever been seen leaving them. Over the years many have tried to glimpse who may be responsible, even camping out all night to witness the event. Yet again and again, the mystery remains as the fresh flowers appear.
Being up on the moors myself, you can easily understand where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his inspiration for his most famous work and possibly the best crime fiction mystery of all time, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Climbing to the top of a tor to survey the wild windswept moors below, is just a magical sight. Watching the weather play its own role in maintaining the character and mystery of the place. One moment bright sunshine, the next thick mists and fogs to ensnare the weary traveller. Every place, every rock, has a story to tell or a story to inspire. Certainly, years before, I found my own novel growing there, amongst the tussock grasses, gorse and bracken.
Very few places can fire the imagination that way, but Dartmoor IS such a place. Clapper bridges, ancient wizened oak forests, leafy glades, rushing rivers, dark foreboding dells and weather-beaten tors. If you truly want to step back in time and be transported to a magical land of fantasy and history…you MUST visit!
So, after my second exhausting hike, having negotiated the very uneven stepping-stones that cross the River Dart, I sat stretched out in the gusts that so often howl over the moors and watched Dartmoor’s wild ponies. Sheer bliss!