The Tale of the Black Brush
It was 7:30 on a clear, chilly night in October, when our last dinner guest bolted through the door. He was out of breath, and in the firelight he looked a little wild, definitely a man in need of a drink. Driving on Dartmoor can have that effect. Fog patches rise out of nowhere, and cows, sheep, and ponies wander in the narrow lanes.
"It's the most extraordinary thing!" he exclaimed, "I've just run into a pack of hounds! I didn't even hear them, suddenly they were all over the road. I braked hard, and I was sure I'd hit them, but when I got out they were gone. They must be rioting, because there wasn't a huntsman in sight! Do you think we should call the police?"
"Where did you see them?" our neighbor, John, asked. Unlike the rest of us, he's lived in the west of England all his life, and his family have farmed the same land on the edge of Dartmoor for ten generations.
"On the moor," our guest replied.
At this John nodded and smiled.
"And were they running due south-west, making for Hound Tor?"
The black granite rocks of Hound Tor, which feature in The Hound of The Baskervilles, seem to hang off of the edge of one of the highest ridges on this part of Dartmoor, and its profile, which looks uncannily like something leaping into flight, can be seen for miles around. Our guest nodded, looking uneasy. And John smiled again.
"You needn't call the police," he said. "Those hounds will be home by now."
"So you know who hunts them?" my husband asked.
"Of course," John said. "You've just seen the Wisht Hounds, and some folks say they're hunted by The Devil himself."
John wasn't allowed to drop his story there, and after dinner we banked up the fire, and gathered around to hear the tale of the Wisht Hounds.
In the late 1700s, John told us, a large tract of land on the edge of the moor was bought by a mysterious nobleman. The new lord was a dark, handsome man with no family, and he built himself a great house that looked out over Dartmoor. No one knew where he came from, but rumor had it that he had made his money in the slave trade. He had a passion for horses and hunting, and he built a fine kennel, hired a huntsman, and bought himself a pack of huge hounds that were said to come from Ireland. Soon he began to invite all the local gentry to go hunting with him, and they were happy to accept.
The estate the lord had bought was large, but just on the edge of it, in a shallow valley under a high ridge right up on the moor, there was a small free-holding. It was nothing but a stone cottage and a hay barn, and the old woman who lived in it owned a few sheep and had been there for as long as anyone could remember. She had a reputation for being strange, and some said she was the granddaughter of a famous highwayman, who had given her the land, and that she had been a great beauty in her youth. Women sometimes went to her to be cured of warts, or of nightmares, or loutish husbands, and she was both respected and a little feared by the locals.
The new lord eyed her valley, and he wanted her land. But when he tried to buy it from her, she declined. He was not a man who liked to be crossed, and from that time forward the old woman became a thorn in his side.
The summer came, and the weather was very hot and dry, and after the harvest the old woman's barn was filled with enough hay to get her sheep through the winter. And then one night it caught fire. She must have tipped a lantern over, but no one ever knew for sure, because the place went up in flames, and she was killed.
The Highwayman's granddaughter was buried in the local village. She had no family and no headstone, but shortly after the funeral villagers began to see a large fox with a black brush sitting on her grave. As everyone living on Dartmoor knows, foxes with black brushes are not ordinary and must be treated with special respect, and so the villagers saluted the fox when they saw him, and hurried home and closed their doors.
At about the same time, the fox was seen at the new kennels. On several occasions it appeared in daylight, and one night the hounds began to bay furiously. The huntsman got out of bed and went to the window, and when he looked out he saw the fox, walking up and down in front of the runs, staring at the hounds almost as if it was taunting them. He started to go down and chase it away, but then the fox looked up at him. And when the huntsman met its eyes, he was suddenly afraid, and so instead he crept back to bed and lay listening to the hounds howling in the moonlight.
Two days later, the weather turned cold and crisp. A frost lay on the ground, and the hunting season had begun. That morning the local gentry mounted their fine hunters, and drank their stirrup cups, and cheered their host, the lord of the manor, heartily when the hounds came out of the kennel, sure that they were in for a good day's sport.
The hounds drew almost at once, and a handsome dog fox led them for three miles over open country before it went to ground. The huntsman cast the hounds again, and they found again, and again the field raced across farmland at the edge of the moor before the fox slipped away and the hounds were left milling in a wood. Twice more they found, and were led, baying, across the fields, but each time the fox vanished, and they were denied a kill.
The hunt had reached the far edge of the estate when the weather began to change. Clouds gathered, and a fine mist turned to rain. By this time it was late afternoon, and the field, mindful of their fireplaces, began to turn for home. But the lord wanted a kill, and finally he took the horn himself and sent the hounds into a copse. At once they gave voice, and the huntsman saw a great fox with a black brush break cover and race towards the open moor. "Call them off!" he shouted, but the lord laughed at him and spurred his horse on.
The huntsman had no choice but to follow, and he urged his horse through the now driving rain. From time to time he glimpsed the lord ahead, or heard the hounds, but as they galloped uphill past the burned ruins of a cottage, he lost them. Now the sky blackened, and as the huntsman rode up towards a high ridge, thunder cracked. There was a flash of lightening, and in that second the huntsman saw the fox silhouetted on the ridge. He swore that then the fox rose up on its hind feet, and appeared, for all the world, more like the figure of a woman than an animal. Then his horse stumbled and he fell, and as his eyes closed he heard a scream, and the baying of hounds.
They found the huntsman just alive, but the lord and his hounds were never seen again. Some said they were lost in one of the moor's fearsome bogs. But soon people began to hear baying, and sometimes to see a pack racing across the moor at night. And then they began to notice how much the great Tor that rose above the ruined cottage looked like a horseman and a pack of hounds, caught leaping off of the ridge, and struck to stone.
"Wisht" is the ancient word for eerie or ghostly, and the "Wisht Hounds" are still seen on Dartmoor, England's largest national park, which lies in the southwest, in the county of Devon. Great Hound Tor itself is in the northern part of the moor between the market town of Moretonhampstead and the village of Widecombe, and can be seen for miles around. There is a parking space on the road below, and it is an easy climb up to the Tor. A path leads down from the rocks into the basin of a valley, where the ruins of stone buildings are clearly visible.
There are several excellent places to stay while you look for the Wisht Hounds, or any of the other many spectral inhabitants of Dartmoor:
Gidleigh Park in the village of Chagford is one of Britain's most famous and luxurious country house hotels. Winner of many accolades, it is considered by many in the know to serve food that is "the best in England outside of London." Gidleigh Park features 15 rooms and a restaurant. For reservations call 011-44-1647-432-367 from the U.S. From within the UK, call 01647-432-367.
Also in the village of Chagford is the excellent restaurant,22 MillStreet. It serves lunch and dinner and has two rooms for accommodation. Call 011-44-1647-432-244 from the U.S. From within the UK, call 01647-432-244.
Just outside the northern limits of the park in the tiny village of Doddiscombleigh is The Nobody Inn. This wonderful pub, run by three generations of the same family, is famous for its Devon cheeses and its impressive list of wines by the glass. It was voted the Best Pub In Britain for 2000. The Nobody Inn has seven rooms for accommodation, serves lunch and dinner, and is closed Sunday and Monday. Call 011-44-1647 252-394 from the U.S. and 01647-252-394 from within the UK.
And last, but not least, in the market town of Moretonhampstead, "gateway to the moor," stop in at The Lion House Gallery (01647-441-007), which always has a few lovely pieces of equestrian art, and a wonderful collection of signed photographs of Dartmoor, and pieces of Georgian silver, perhaps once owned by a mysterious nobleman...
Then cross the street to buy everything you need for a picnic at Great Hound Tor at the aptly named Barry Moore, Butchers (01647-440-267),which carries delicious sandwiches and pastries, and the best ginger beer in England--and for heaven's sake, if you see a black brushed fox, be certain to throw it a chicken leg!