Kitty Jay’s grave – the making of a Dartmoor legend

Hound TorThere is a very pretty drive that I enjoy up over Dartmoor that is especially lovely just now with primroses and gorse in flower. It takes you down winding narrow lanes and then up over wild stretches of moorland, and past some of the best know tors such as Haytor and Hound Tor. Abount a mile from Hound Tor, I always glance to my left as we go past a small junction to check that there are flowers on the grave… and there always are! This is Jay’s Grave (or Kitty Jay’s grave), supposedly the last resting place of a young woman who is thought to have died in the late 18th century. It has become a well-known landmark and is the subject of local folklore, and several ghost stories…

Since it was first set down in the late 19th century, the story attached to the grave has changed and been greatly embellished, as these things so often are. An early newspaper account of the discovery of the grave appears in the North Devon Journal for 23 January 1851, under ‘County Intelligence’: 

Kitty Jay’s grave, complete with flowers, when I drove past earlier this month…“In the parish of Manaton, near Widdecombe on the moor while some men in the employ of James Bryant, Esq. of Prospect, at his seat, Hedge Barton, were removing some accumulations of way soil, a few days since, they discovered what appeared to be a grave. On further investigation, they found the skeleton of a body, which proved from enquiry to be the remains of Ann Jay, a woman who hung herself some three generations since in a barn at a place called Forder, and was buried at Four Cross Lane, according to the custom of that enlightened age.”

There are numerous other reports, with the name changing from Betty Kay to Mary Jay and then Kitty Jay. But the unchanging fact is that it is the body of a young woman who took her own life in tragic, if sadly predictable, circumstances.

As told by one ‘Granny Caunter’ the sorry tale was:

“Mary Jay was the poor maid’s name. I heard my mother tell of it, when I was a li’l maid. Her was an orphan from the workhouse, ‘prenticed to Barracott Farm between Manaton and Heatree. One day, when her was quite young, her tooked a rope and went to the barn there on the Manaton Road, and hanged herself from a beam. Her was quite dead when the farmer found her. Us reckoned ’twas the same old story – a young man, who wadn’t no gude to her, poor maid.”

HaytorBy 1965 Jay’s Grave had become a major Dartmoor attraction, with tourist coaches stopping there while the driver related his own version of the story. The mysterious appearance of fresh flowers upon the grave was always mentioned. 

Recent versions of the legend include embellishments such as the orphaned baby being taken into the Poor House in Newton Abbot where she was given the name Mary Jay. She sometimes acquires the name Kitty after being sent to Canna Farm as a teenage apprentice. In one version she is wronged by a local farmhand, in another, she finds romance with the farmer’s son. Either way she becomes pregnant which results in her being thrown out of the farm. Such is her shame and despair that she hangs herself in a barn, or perhaps from the great kitchen fireplace lintel, or else she drowns herself in a shallow pool.

It is said that the three local parishes of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, North Bovey and Manaton all refused to bury her body within consecrated ground, so she was buried at a crossroads, which was standard practice for suicide victims at the time.

There are always fresh flowers on the grave, but how they get there is the subject of local folklore – some claim they are placed there by pixies. By 2007 the placing of flowers had expanded into all sorts of offerings: coins, candles, shells, small crosses and toys. Motorists, passing at night, claim to have glimpsed ghostly figures in their headlights, others report seeing a dark, hooded figure kneeling there.

All I know is that whenever I have driven past, and that is quite a few times in the past 25 years or so… there are always fresh flowers there. So who knows, perhaps it is the Dartmoor pixies looking after the poor girl… 

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The gentle giants of Dartmoor

As many of you will know, Dartmoor is famous for its ponies. Small and hardy, whenever you drive over the moor you will almost certainly see them. Imagine my surprise then when I recently saw what looked like huge medieval jousting horses charging across the heather, with long manes, flowing fetlocks and mud flying in all directions! No, I hadn’t been on the Sloe Gin, I had come across a group of horses riding out from ‘Adventure Clydesdale’ based up on the moor.

These magnificent Clydesdale horses can stand up to 18 hands high, that’s a good 6ft, at the shoulder. They were bred for their strength and were extensively used in agriculture and haulage. Dating back to the mid-18th century, the breed was developed from Flemish stallions imported to Scotland and crossed with local mares. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of Clydesdales were exported from Scotland and sent throughout the world, including Australia and New Zealand, where they became known as ‘the breed that built Australia’. However, during World War I, their numbers began to decline due to increasing mechanization and, sadly war conscription. This decline continued, and by the 1970s, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust considered the breed vulnerable to extinction. Things have improved slightly since then, but they are still considered vulnerable.

So what are they doing dashing around Dartmoor?

Adventure Clydesdale has its origins on the Isle of Skye but, after a number of years, one of the leading lights, Tim Ancrum, decided to leave and find a more ‘riding friendly landscape’ to help his business flourish. After much searching, he settled on a farm in the Lake District. Rather than load up the horses and move everything south, he came up with the idea of riding 12 of the horse all the way to Cumbria! The journey of 450 miles, covered closely by Scottish television, confirmed to Tim the horses’ ability to tackle long trails, giving their riders a safe and comfortable ride. The TV coverage did the business no harm at all and it went on to be featured on the BBC Countryfile programme and became a top tourist attraction.

Always one for a challenge, Tim decided to move on again, this time to Cornwall with six of the Clydesdales, and established Adventure Clydesdale, concentrating on this magnificent breed and its ability to take on the challenges of the rugged terrain of the south west of England. In early 2013 Tim and his partner Aileen Ware moved their business to Dartmeet, in the middle of Dartmoor, an outstanding location for long distance trail rides.

So, if you are visiting this area, don’t be too surprised if you see something rather larger than a Dartmoor pony coming towards you! It is a magnificent sight, I can assure you, although I personally won’t be hopping on board anytime soon – my appreciation will be from the comfort of the car!

You can follow the Clydesdales on Facebook.

 

 

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A sign of the times…

If you live in Devon, you can get a bit obsessed with signposts. We still have lots of lovely old-fashioned white fingerposts at junctions in our narrow lanes displaying what we often refer to as ‘the Devon mile’ – a curious ‘elastic’ measurement. Let me explain. You set off following a fingerpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 3¼’ miles and then, after driving a good couple of miles, you’ll find another one that says Stokeinteignhead 2½’ miles. You frown, scratch your head and go on for another two or so until you come to another signpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 2¼’. You will get to your destination on the end, but a Devon mile is a funny thing and usually much longer than you expect…

Traditional direction signs, or ‘fingerposts’, are as English as red post boxes and the old-fashioned red telephone box and very much part of the ‘traditional’ English look’ that so many foreign visitors love to see. These days, many fingerposts are falling into disrepair but, where they do still survive, they come in a wide variety of regional and local designs. Some have finials on the top, others have proper pointing ‘hands’ like white gloves, while others even have lanterns on the top. Amazingly, the oldest fingerpost, in the Cotswolds, dates from 1699!

To try and standardise this mishmash of designs, in the 1920s the Ministry of Transport stated that direction signs should use standard black upper case lettering on a white background and specified that the name of the authority should also appear in the design. While following these guidelines, local authorities still had plenty of leeway over the exact design of posts, arms and finials and this led to a wide variety of local styles.

Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall boasted red posts with white lettering (no one is sure why!) while others had finials in the form of discs, rings, balls and pyramids marked with county names and sometimes even a map grid references. Over the years, further reviews have been carried out to try and standardise the signs, and again, local authorities were encouraged, but not forced, to remove traditional fingerposts. But, as is so often the case in this wonderfully eccentric country of ours, they wanted to maintain their regional identities, so did nothing. And that’s why there are still lots of weirdly designed fingerposts pointing all over the country to this day.

Being an old romantic, I think it will be a sad day when fingerposts eventually disappear and all anyone does is listen to their boring old sat nav bossing them about. In the Westountry we have wonderful, romantic place names – as well as some really funny ones. I still get a thrill when I drive past signs in Cornwall to ‘Demelza’, the name of a village borrowed by Winston Graham for the heroin of his Poldark books – and a steamy TV drama from my teens (Robin Ellis in tight breeches!!)! And on a back road way down in the south of Cornwall, you’ll come across one of my absolute favourite signs pointing to ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, the setting for, and name of, the impossibly romantic historical novel by Daphne Du Maurier.

Long may the fingerpost continue to show us the way!

 

 

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Fascinating and fun day out!

When I wrote my ‘My Top 10 days out in the West Country recently, I listed ‘The House of Marbles’ as one of my top choices. I am somewhat biased here as this is run by friends of mine, but it really is a fascinating place to visit and has something to interest visitors of all ages.

They manufacture glass wear in the traditional old pottery buildings on their site and I always find glass blowing absolutely fascinating to watch. There’s a museum with lots of interesting facts and examples of old-fashioned games and marbles of all sizes and antiquity. 

There are lots of nice little touches aimed especially at children throughout The House of Marbles. Hidden in among displays are moving life-size model animals such as gorillas with swivelling eyes or slumbering bears, that ‘breath’ and ‘snore’ as you wander past. Children absolutely adore things like this. There’s also a ‘wobbly’ distorting mirror that both children and adults seem to find endlessly fascinating!

The shop is huge and sells everything from exquisite glass wear to modern games and jewellery. If you are looking for unusual gifts – I’d be amazed if you couldn’t find something – it is packed with original items both fun and educational. 

There’s a whole section full of individual marbles for sale that children cannot resist. They can select their marbles just like we used to ‘pick and mix’ sweets in the old days. It’s a lovely way to get youngsters interested in an old-fashioned game and makes a change from their X-Boxes and wiis

On the way upstairs to the first floor of the shop (I told you it was huge!) is, what I suspect is the most popular attraction in the shop – ‘Snookie’ the largest marble run in the UK and possibly the world! As you reach the top of the stairs you will see a crowd of people, most often the male of the species of all ages, standing mesmerised as they watch the marbles clank and skip and run down through the complicated marble run again and again. It is fun to watch, especially as the route the marbles take seems to vary at random.

The first floor of the shop is full of very tempting clothing and kitchenwear and all sorts of lovely things that you know you absolutely HAVE to own!

And, to cap it all, there’s The Old Pottery Cafe and Restaurant. Serving everything from a full English breakfast to very yummy cakes, coffees and teas to snacks and three-course lunches. The restaurant is always busy – always a sign of good food – and locals eat there just as much as visitors. 

And if the weather is fine, there’s a Games Garden where you can enjoy your lunch outside in the courtyard where skittles, chess, giant Jericho and of course marbles are there to be played.

There’s plenty of free parking and no entry fee. The house of Marble is open Monday to Saturday, 9am – 5pm and Sunday, 10am – 5pm. It is closed on Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

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My Top 10 days out in the West Country

The West Country is a wonderful area to visit, it combines stunning natural beauty with lots and lots of attractions and interesting places to visit. I have picked just ten of some of the thousands of possibilities – seriously I could have done my top 100 and not run out of ideas! – some are days out that I have done with my family over the years, and there’s one I plan to try this year too!

Morwellham Quay1.  Paignton Zoo 
If you enjoy zoos, I think Paignton tries really hard and has some excellent exhibits – my favourites being the red panda, giraffes and the meerkats!

2. Buckfast Abbey
There’s a monastery shop here that sells products entirely from other monasteries – great Belgian beer and lovely perfumes etc. There’s also the most amazing stained glass window and a great cream tea!

3. Morwellham Quay
Both my girls loved visits here, it really brings history to life – it was a great copper ore port in Victorian times and there’s so much to see.

Cornwall’s Eden Project4. Eden Project
Interesting plant displays and environments, it’s internationally famous for its groundbreaking exhibits and even has concerts down there now!

5. House of Marbles, Bovey Tracey
I am somewhat biased here as this is run by friends of mine, but the glass blowing is fascinating to watch, the restaurant does a great lunch and the shop is very tempting – the marble displays were adored by my daughters and nephews alike!

6. Miniature Pony Centre, Dartmoor  
I just love this place, the ponies are adorable and make you want to take them home and I think I remember Pippa crying just because she couldn’t! Nice picnic area too.

Steaming through the countryside…7. Steam Trains from Buckfastleigh
Travel back in time… and rekindle your memories of steam trains! A lovely few hours reminiscing as you travel close to the River Dart from Buckfastleigh to Totnes – huge thumbs up from me. Have a browse round Totnes while you are there too – a lovely town.

8. Kent’s Cavern, Torquay
I have been here many times with visiting family and the stalactites and stalagmites are always fascinating and the cream tea is fun too!

9. Babbacombe Model Village
The detail in the work is great to see and when the village is illuminated at night it looks very pretty – lots to see including a fire breathing dragon on the model castle!

Kent’s Cavern10. Greenway House
Agatha Christie is one of my heroines and there’s a new trip for 2013 – departing from either Torquay or Brixham and travel on a river boat to her former home Greenway House and then return on Barnaby, a vintage bus. The garden is amazing and I have bought many plants from the nursery section in the past – so I am definitely planning this as a day out this year!

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