It is a gray and chilly October morning in the churchyard of St Andrew's, Ipplepen. Beneath a tall and oddly severe tower, gravestones tilt at weird angles, their inscriptions erased by wind, rain and patches of silvery green lichen. Even the air smells of decay.
A large and crumbling granite monument stands somewhat apart from the others. We can just make out the name carved on it.
No, we're not in the middle of yet another Sherlock Holmes adaptation. This is the real grave of Mary Baskerville, mother of the real Henry Baskerville. Together with local guide Alex Graeme, of Unique Devon Tours, we are exploring the legends and landscapes that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic story. As a fourth generation descendent of one of the original participants in Conan Doyle's Dartmoor adventures, Graeme is particularly knowledgeable. And as the day progressed, the stories and the surroundings only got stranger.
Three Victorian Gentlemen and a Humble Coachman
Dartmoor legends inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. But they did more than that. They actually inspired him to bring his famous detective back from the dead.
Conan Doyle had killed Holmes off by sending him over Reichenbach Falls in the story The Final Solution, in 1893. On a sea voyage, returning from the Boer War, Conan Doyle ran into an old acquaintance, Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Conan Doyle had been serving as a volunteer medical doctor at Blomfontein and Robinson, a writer and journalist, had been covering the war. During the voyage, Robinson shared the true story of the evil Squire Richard Cabell III and the legends of his hounds of hell on Dartmoor.
Oh yes, mustn't forget their coach driver. After all, Conan Doyle immortalised him in his story. His name? Henry Baskerville.
Conan Doyle was intrigued and made several research trips to Dartmoor and the surrounding towns in the company of Robinson (also buried at St Andrew's Ippelpen) and the Robinson family coach driver. The Rev. R.D. Cooke, an expert on the history and stories of Dartmoor (and coincidentally the great great grandfather of my guide Alex Graeme), provided information and sometimes accompanied them. The eventual result was the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story in eight years. And oh yes, mustn't forget their coach driver. After all, Conan Doyle immortalised him in his story. His name was Henry Baskerville.
A Memorable Custom Tour
My Hound of the Baskervilles Tour, with Unique Devon Tours, was custom designed to combine my interests and abilities (no scaling tors or balancing across stepping stones, thank you) with guide Alex Graeme's apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject.
We had plenty of time for picture taking and several stops for morning coffee (or it could have been a beer if I was so inclined at 11am), lunch and tea. The day disappeared as I absorbed one fascinating fact and shudder inducing legend after another. And while navigating from one key location to another in his very comfortable luxury mini van, Graeme gradually led me from the pleasant villages on the edge of Dartmoor to it's brooding intimidating heights (pictured here) and its secret heart of darkness.
The Story Continues in a Pretty Market Town
In his later years, Baskerville moved his carriage and stabling business to the colorful market town of Ashburton. Here we visit Henry Baskerville's grave, see the Methodist chapel he attended, take in the out and out charm of the place and visit a 14th century pub - with its own dark story.
The Exeter Inn and Sir Walter Raleigh
The Exeter Inn, located just up the street from Henry Baskerville's stables, dates from the 12th century, circa 1130. It's likely that Conan Doyle stopped here during his local research for The Hound of the Baskervilles, if not for a pint then for its historic interest. It was from this pub, a warren of low-ceiled rooms with old beams, crooked walls and bags of charm, that Sir Walter Raleigh was taken to the Tower of London in 1603. He stayed there until 1616, was set free to do a bit of new world adventuring, then was rearrested and beheaded in 1618.
Life during his first 13 years in the Tower could not have been too bad. He had the company of his wife and fathered a son while imprisoned there.
Before moving on, we stop for drink here. If you feel you're too early for a beer, this pub will serve you coffee or tea as well as pub grub.
In Buckfastleigh - A Ruined Church and an Evil Legacy
We approach Holy Trinity Church, Buckfastleigh, down a quiet road, hemmed in on both sides by tall, impenetrable hedges. Wrought iron gates open into the biggest graveyard we've seen so far. But no sign of the church. Finally, through the trees, a view of the roofless ruin of a medieval stone church emerges.
Unlike most church and abbey ruins in the UK that were destroyed and pillaged on the orders of Henry VIII, this 13th century building was the victim of multiple arson attacks in more recent times. It was first set ablaze in 1849 and then as recently as 1992. After that, local authorities attempted some works to secure the church tower but those were vandalized as well.
Why, in this quiet Devonshire town, would so much destruction be heaped on a small local church, much like many other churches in the area? And therein lies a tale. For a strange looking sepulchre, placed just outside the church, contains the remains of the man known as the evil Squire Richard Cabel (or Cabell) III, the historic source and inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles.
Is This the Final Resting Place of a Monster?
Squire Richard Cabel III, who died in 1677, was a man with an evil reputation. There are dozens of legends about him and his evil deeds. He was rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil, to practice black magic and to travel across Dartmoor in the company of vicious hounds. There are even stories of his using his hounds to chase village maidens and to hunt down more than game (shudder).
Some say he killed his unfaithful wife (though others insist she outlived him by 14 years), others that he chased her across the moors and beat her savagely until her faithful hound attacked him and ripped out his throat.
Before he died, ghostly, glowing hounds appeared on the moor and around his house, Brooke Manor. The baying hounds were said to have surrounded his tomb. People say that on the anniversary of his death their howling can still be heard.
Whatever the truth of his wickedness, his evil spirit and the hounds of hell, he was so disliked by the locals that they sealed his tomb with a heavy stone lid to prevent him from rising and wandering in the night.
The kiosk shaped sepulchre built around the tomb is meant to discourage Satanists and practitioners of the dark arts from freeing his soul to fulfill its pact and join the Devil. You can peer inside through an iron grille on the side of the tomb that faces the church. The other side is sealed with a locked wooden door. For some reason, this is supposed to prevent the Devil's familiars from entering.
And, they say that if you run around the tomb clockwise (or counter clockwise - depends upon who is relating the story) and then stick your finger through the grille (or the keyhole of the wooden door - again, different teller - different tale), it will be nibbled by the Devil and/or Richard Cabel's imprisoned soul.
Believe what you will, there is no denying that this is a grim and spooky place.
An Evil Following
Over the years, the man and his reputation have encouraged a following of Satanists and fans of black magic. It's likely that they were responsible for the arson attacks on the church and for the rough witchcraft symbols found behind the altar.
So many similarities link the legends of Squire Richard Cabel and the story of Hugo Baskerville in Conan Doyle's story that it is impossible not to consider it the dark source at the heart of the Hound of the Baskervilles.
"The Devil Hath Power to Assume a Pleasing Shape"
Shakespeare may have put the words in Hamlet's mouth but folk stories about the Devil's power to conceal his identity behind a lovely, smiling face are as old as time.
The same might be said about Dartmoor. On a, sunny day, climb up the side of a hill and the views are lovely. Sheep and cattle graze across apparently open, rolling meadows. On the roads, drivers have to make way for meandering cows and strolling sheep.
But make no mistake, this is a dangerous place for the unwary and the unprepared. The vast open space (Dartmoor covers more than 300 square miles) has few easily identified landmarks for first time visitors on foot. Disorienting mists can roll across it with little warning and when it rains (which is often - as much as 80 inches of rainfall a year), there is almost no shelter.
The danger of stumbling into a hidden bog and sinking waist deep (or worse) in the cold wet mass of mud and tangled roots is probably overstated but it can happen. And to add another frisson of hidden danger, the Ministry of Defense maintains three live firing ranges on North Dartmoor. They are all open to the public when shooting is not taking place, so you need to be aware of schedules and signs. They've been using parts of Dartmoor as a firing range since the 1800s, so don't be tempted to pick up random pieces of metal you may find.
The official Visit Dartmoor website has lots of good advice about walking and cycling in the area. There is also a very useful downloadable pdf, Walking on Dartmoor, with safety information and lists of paths for all abilities.
The Spirits of the Past
It is hard to imagine a life in this lonely and inhospitable place. But Dartmoor is dotted with the remains of at least 5,000 Bronze Age huts. It was was once covered with rolling forests and arable farmland. From high points, the outlines of ancient farm enclosures can still be seen, almost engraved upon the moor. There are also hundreds of mysterious, small standing stones and ancient boundary markers.
Tin was deep mined from the moors from the mid-18th up to the early 20th century and water filled pits are one of the dangers to avoid on the moors. If you come across narrow, shallow valleys, enclosed between steep banks lined with moss covered stones, you've probably found evidence of streaming, an ancient method of extracting tin. In pre-Roman times water was diverted into channels. Workers sifted and sorted the ore in much the same way as prospectors pan for gold, with the spoils creating the steep banks.
The Man-Eating Mire
Fox Tor Mire was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's man-eating Grimpen Mire, the haunt of the devilish black dog in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Its reputation for sucking the unwary into 20-foot depths of rotting, peat forming vegetation is probably exaggerated (and there is a solid path across it) but this intimidating land and waterscape is not a place to venture in wet weather. It's easy to see why it inspired the author.
The danger for the uninitiated is that what looks like acres of dry vegetation is actually the top layer of a blanket bog. It's made up of sphagnum moss capable of holding water like a sponge. In fact, if you find a relatively solid area and jump on it, the ground may wobble like a sponge.
Underlying the mire is solid granite - in fact Dartmoor is the largest area of granite in the UK. In the highland mires, rotting leaves and moss fill the lowest areas soaking up water that cannot drain away through the granite. Eventually this vegetable matter is compressed into peat, forming the dangerous, mucky but sometimes invisible bog.
On Tour in Baskerville Country
We toured Hound of the Baskerville with Unique Devon Tours. Run by the friendly and knowledgeable Alex Graeme, the company offers a range of private one-to-14 day tours for up to six people. Other popular tour options include an Agatha Christie full day outing, family history and genealogy tours, fossil hunting and vineyard tours.
Comfortable transport is included and tours are custom-tailored to your own interests and physical requirements. In addition to our morning coffee at the Exeter Inn, we stopped for lunch at the incredibly atmospheric Rugglestone Inn, a Grade II listed cottage, converted to an inn in 1832. Later we stopped for a cuppa at my favorite dog-friendly hotel, Prince Hall.
While visiting Devon, we stayed at Orestone Manor, a country house hotel with fine dining, glorious views of Torbay and interesting historical connections. Watch for a review next month.
- Unique Devon Tours - customized private tours for up to 6 in an air-conditioned minivan.
- Duration - Selection of tours from one to 14 days.
- Cost - Expect to pay about £280 for the guide and transportation services of a one day tour. Food and drink are at your own expense, payable directly to the restaurants and pubs.
- Contact: Alex Graeme by email or telephone +44 (0)1803 812 566 or mobile +44 (0)7585 928 070
- Visit their website for more tour information.
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