Monday, 22 June 2009

Travels around Dartmoor

Last Tuesday, our new Texas Representative Naomi West came to visit us with her husband, Ritchie and mother Barbara. They are on a family holiday to the UK and came to stay in Devon for a few days before moving on to Scotland.

On Friday we all went for a day out to Dartmoor and its surrounding countryside on the way to visit CFZ friend Lionel Beer in Paignton who had some taxidermy specimens that he wished to kindly donate to the CFZ Museum.

We stopped at Okehampton Castle where, as a complete change of subject I felt really sorry for a young couple who were in charge of a plethora of young children all queuing for the one toilet facility at the site - some wiggling in their urgency, some looking as if they were saying to themselves 'I just went' as they stood with arms crossed with expressions of boredom across their face. It was, apparently, the second visit to the facilities that they had made that morning and seemed resigned to the fact that it was probably going to take at least half an hour to get all the children sorted out again.

But, back to the subject at hand.

Then it was on to a tiny village called Lewtrenchard. This was the name of the village where the celebrated hymn writer and novelist, Reverend Sabine Baring Gould (he composed Onward Christian Soldiers) lived in the Manor, which is now a luxury hotel. He is buried in the local church and both Barbara and Naomi had recently read about him and were interested in visiting the place where he lived and was buried.

After that, it was on to Baskerville country and a drive across Dartmoor. I can never decide whether it is Dartmoor or Exmoor that is my favourite. I have spent holidays walking across both of them in days long gone and they both hold a special place in my heart for their beauty and wildness. Ever since my first visit, though, I have always expressed the desire to live in a cottage in the middle of Dartmoor in the company of two Irish wolfhounds, a gaggle of geese, several chickens and a cow. OK a childish fantasy that is not really workable, but a delightful dream nevertheless. Especially in winter – oh those moors are even more beautiful at their bleakest.

Whilst on Dartmoor and near Hound Tor it was a must to take our visitors to see the enigmatic Jay’s Grave. This is sited at the intersection of an old moorland miners track that leads eastwards to Manaton and westwards to the mines around Birch tor and the Ashburton to Chagford road.

The story behind the resting place is both tragic and haunting, but considering the century it all took place, one that was perhaps more common than we at first think.

Back in around 1790 a baby girl was taken to the Poor House in Newton Abbot, Devon. She was an orphan and, as such, was now at the tender mercies of the government of the day and was destined to the care of one of those establishments we now read of in the novels of Charles Dickens.

As was traditional, the little girl was given a surname by the Poor House, known as Wolborough. It so happened that at the time of her arrival the next letter of the alphabet was ‘J’ so she was given the surname Jay. In those days, this was a slang term for prostitute so she was also given the Christian name Mary. It would seem that the more common names had been given to others already.

It seems that Mary Jay spent her life at Wolborough until her teens, looking after younger children. Then she was sent to a farm in Manaton – Canna Farm – as an apprentice, which would mean she would work in both the house and the fields. Her days would have been long and the rewards would have been few – decent meals and clothing would have been luxuries and ones that we will never know whether Mary received. It is not known from where she got her nickname ‘Kitty’, but it could well have been at this farm.

So, in the early 1800s Kitty, as she was now known, spent her days working at Canna Farm, and - as is oft the case - she soon became the recipient of the attentions of the farmer’s son. And - as was so often the case too - she became pregnant. To be fair, we will never know whether those attentions were one sided or not but we can only imagine her despair at finding out that she was going to have a child at such a young age, with no home, no family and – of course – out of wedlock and with no hope of that situation changing. She was shunned – after all her surname said it all. She was thrown out of the farm and she knew that word would soon get around as to her predicament and that she would find no other employment. Her only other choice would be to return to Wolborough, but the poor child could not face this fate.

Therefore, as I am sure quite a few other young girls did who found themselves in such a situation, she took her own life.

Suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground and as was the tradition of the day, she was buried at a crossroads. It was tradition that sometimes stakes would be driven through the deceased’s heart to prevent their souls returning and tormenting god fearing mortals, but we do not know whether this was the case with Kitty.

Road-workers found her remains in 1860 and they were placed in a coffin and reburied. A ghost has been seen at her resting place - a figure in a thick black cloak has been seen kneeling by her grave on many occasions, and it is thought that this apparition could be the farmer’s son or even perhaps the person who actually threw her off the farm.

The other phenomenon that surrounds her resting place is the daily addition of fresh flowers/greenery upon the grave. No-one sees anyone leave them, but they are placed there all through the year.

The site of Jay’s Grave, as it is now known, has become a pilgrimage for many a visitor to the hypnotic and beautiful wilds of Dartmoor.

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