The Pixies' Trysting Place:
New Bridge on the Dart
HAVING given a brief description of the two more important places traditionally regarded as haunts of the pixies, we shall now proceed to notice a spot which is said to have been formerly much favoured by them as a trysting-place. This is New Bridge, on the Dart, and an examination of its charming surroundings will compel us to admit that the fairy elves most certainly displayed a keen appreciation of the beauties of nature in selecting such a spot for their place of rendezvous.
The course of the noble riser after leaving the bridge at Dartmeet lies down a deep valley, overhung with rugged tors, the sides with coppices of oak. On one hand rise the rugged summits of Sharp Tor and Mil Tor, and on the other the granite piles of Bench Tor, overlooking the hollow known as Langamarsh. Beneath the first two, and very near to the river's brink, is Lug Tor, not crowning an eminence as is usually the case, but being situated on a comparatively level piece of ground in the bottom of the valley. At a short distance it presents the appearance of a ruin, the dark ivy which clothes some portions of its perpendicular sides, tending considerably to produce this effect, while the jackdaws which build their nests in its crevices, and are frequently to be seen circling around it, keep up the illusion. The Dart rushes down through the narrow valley with impetuous course, leaping out, ever and anon, in fine cascades, its path being marked with foam. On emerging from this valley the river becomes more tranquil, and the scenery on its banks of a softer nature. On one side cultivation has taken the place of the barren rock-strewn bank, though on the other the heathery moor still rises from its brink. And so it pursues its course, until a little further on it sweeps beneath the grey arches of a picturesque bridge, and glides onward between thickly fringed banks.
This is New Bridge, and the piece of sward between it and the foot of the steep gorse-covered hill, is the ground whereon the pixies in the days of our grandfathers were wont to meet and indulge in moonlight revelry.
Growing between the stones on the outside of the parapets the wall rue and the ceterach may be observed, and on the right bank, below the bridge, when the summer breezes blow, the waving fronds of the stately Osmunda regalis may be seen.
On the side on which the common sweeps down to the water's edge, and at some distance up the slope, the fantastically piled rocks of Leigh Tor are prominent objects, and will commend themselves at once to the beholder as most excellent points of vantage, from which to observe the beauties which nature has here given with so free a hand. The tor itself will be found to be of an extremely interesting character, and on a fine, clear day the visitor to its hoary rocks will see displayed a picture which will detain him long in its contemplation, and from which he will turn away with regret.
The Buckland Woods, on the opposite side of the Dart to which Home Chase is situated, clothe the steep side of the valley down which we lose the stream, and high above them the bare commons are seen, with more than one tor lifting its head to the sky. The one seemingly not far above the edge of the woods is Buckland Beacon, and beyond it, and towering considerably higher, is Rippon Tor. Those rocky eminences more to the left, almost mountainous in their outline, are the fine group of tors overlooking the vale of Widecombe, which runs far up into the moor,--a sheltered spot, where smiling fields may be seen in close proximity to barren slopes, the contrast of cultivation with wild nature producing an interesting effect.
Behind Leigh Tar the hill rises yet higher, and the road from New Bridge winds up this and passes not far from the rocks leading shortly to the hamlet of Pound's Gate. Many a visit have the pixies paid to the ancient cottages of that moorland settlement in the days that are flown, and often have the house-wives had to be thankful--or otherwise--for the attention bestowed upon them by the "little people." If their conduct had been such as to gain the approbation of the pixies they were rewarded, but if they had done aught to merit their displeasure, could they wonder if matters went rather cross with them?
"If ye will with Mab find grace.
Set each platter in his place;
Rake the fire up, and get
Water in, ere sun be set.
Wash your pails and cleanse your dairies,
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies:
Sweep your house; who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe." [a]
Was it to be thought that untidy folk should he regarded with pleasure by a race which had always been noted for the exercise of order and regularity in their own concerns? Dirt and dust were abominations to the pixies, and those careful house-wives and servants who used every means in their power to banish such from their dwellings became the favourites of the little elves.
The hostelry at Pound's Gate is connected with a tradition relating to the great thunder-storm at Widecombe in 1638, when on a Sunday afternoon in October the church was struck by lightning and considerably damaged, many people being injured and some killed. It is related how a mysterious rider stopped at the door of this inn on the Sunday afternoon, and called for drink, and how the landlady remarked that as he drank, the liquor went hissing down his throat, and that on looking at him more narrowly she perceived the cloven foot, and knew it was his Satanic Majesty upon whom she was waiting. The horseman after enquiring the way to Widecombe town rides off, hut, as one writer remarks, no mention is made as to whether he paid for the drink or not. However, from the following, which was told me on Dartmoor some years since, and which I have never seen recorded, it appears that the dark visitor did not neglect this important matter, hut whether that which he tendered in payment for his drink was, as it at first appeared, true coin of the realm, is not so certain. It seems that the mysterious visitor on returning the cup to the hostess, gave her at the same time a handful of coins, and the direction he was to take to reach Widecombe church being pointed out to him, he rode rapidly from the door of the inn. The good dame looked at the money. It was by far too great a sum for the cup of drink which the rider had taken, and she scarce knew what to think of it. The hissing sound that came from the throat of the stranger, and the cloven foot which his riding boot could not conceal, told her but too plainly who it was that had stopped at her door, and her first impulse was to throw away the money which had been given her. However, she reflected that it was easier to throw money away than to earn it, and after all, though she was ready to admit that the Devil was undoubtedly a had lot, she had no reason to think that his money was not good. She, therefore, determined upon keeping the cash and saying nothing to anyone about the matter, so deposited it carefully in a basin, with the intention of placing it upon the shelf in her kitchen. As she was about doing so, she cast her eyes into the basin again, in order to have one more look at the money, when what was her surprise to see that it had vanished, and that a handful of dried leaves had taken its place! This transformation of the coins will remind readers of the Arabian Nights of the story of the Barber's Fourth Brother, where Alcouz finds the money which he received from a magician in payment for some meat, changed in a somewhat similar manner.
Now, whether the fiend by means of magic arts made these leaves appear at first to the Landlady's eyes to be coins, or whether that which lie gave her actually was money, and that the pixies transformed it in order to prevent such a sad state of affairs occurring as the landlady of the little hostelry, near which they so often met, receiving money from the Devil, is a point I cannot determine; but, however this may be, it is certain that the landlady of Pound's Gate reaped no pecuniary benefit from the visit of the dark horseman.
In the sequel it appears that the Devil soon after reached Widecombe Church, and raised the great thunderstorm by his evil power.
The Reverend George Lyde was the vicar of Widecombe at the period of the occurrence, and the calm and heroic manner in which he comported himself in the midst of the danger--for he was in the pulpit conducting the afternoon service at the time the tower was struck--show him to have been endowed with true courage, and possessed of faith in the Master of whose word he was the expounder.
An account of the storm was given in a pamphlet printed not long after it occurred, and Prince in his Worthies of Devon has also detailed the circumstances.
From amid the trees of Buckland Woods springs the romantic looking cliff known as the Lovers' Leap, while further from the river may be seen Auswell Rock, or, as it is generally termed, Hazel Rock. The little church of Buckland-in-the-Moor is discernible from some points, seemingly embosomed in the thick foliage, its low grey tower looking over the leafy vale where Dart's swift waters run.
Through this lovely valley, with the trees of Buckland Woods and Home Chase almost kissing its crystal wavelets, the Dart leaves the wild steeps of the moor and seeks the meads of the lowlands.
Beautiful river, how calm is thy way,
Lingering fondly, ere winding away;
Winding away to the Ocean, whose sigh
Comes, in low murmurs, imploringly by.
Fairy-like river, how long Is thy way.
Timidly coying In haven and bay;
Musical wanderer, haste to depart,
Child of the wilderness, beautiful Dart.
Go to thy home in the Ocean, and be
Bride of the Infinite, bride of the Free!
Yet, from thy crown of enchantment, unbind
Treasures that linger, like music, behind.
Leave to the Post his dreams from above,
Leave to the lovely their visions of love,
Blend them in rapture, and be to their heart
Bright as the Sun to thee, beautiful Dart." [b]
One can well imagine, leaning on the parapet of the bridge, why such a spot, where all around is so charming, should he given to the pixies as the place of their trysts. The very character of the little elves demands that their surroundings should be romantic, and that tradition should bestow upon them the velvety swards near New Bridge as the spot on which they should meet by moonlight is not to be wondered at. Often so the stories say, have they been seen dancing here, and many a belated traveller, the ancient gossips will relate, has been almost scared nut of his wits at hearing the chorus raised by the elves, when at their revels here in the silent night. To-day the visitor must be content to feast his eyes upon the beauties of the scene, and will not he disappointed at the non-appearance of the elfin sprites, for nature has here offered that which will not fail to he regarded as ample compensation for the absence of the pixies.
[a] Herrick. Hesperides.
[b] To the River Dart, from Rambles in Devonshire, by the Rev. H. J. Whltfield M.A