Beware the power of Old Crockern, the Guardian Spirit of Dartmoor, who embodies the soul of the rugged and wild English landscape, writes HELEN JR BRUCE
There are few landscapes in England that capture the imagination as much as Dartmoor. Covering 368 square miles and measuring 20 miles across, the moor is close to the same size as the city of London.
It is the source of multiple rivers, including the Dart and the Teign, and its granite bedrock protrudes to create over 160 magnificent tors.
The inhospitable and wild nature of this landscape inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Grimpen Mire in Hound of the Baskervilles and still offers a remote location for HM Prison Dartmoor.
But the wildness of the moor is, to some extent, an illusion. Around 90% of Dartmoor is used for farming, with farmers grazing approximately 50,000 cows, sheep and ponies. There are also extensive remains of past industry and cultivation, including Bronze Age hut circles, a ruined Medieval village near Hound Tor, abandoned quarries and disused mines. Despite its thin, acidic soil, various attempts have been made to farm the moor for profit, often with very little success.
A Warning from Old Crockern
One piece of local folklore concerns a farmer who moves to the area from Manchester, seeking to add to his fortune by cultivating the moor. From the vantage point of Crockern Tor, this man sits and decides that he will prove himself better than the backward locals; he will be the one to make this barren land productive. He has made a lot of money through farming already, and his ambition is only matched by his greed.
But, just as the time comes to finalise his plans for fertiliser and drainage, the farmer meets a local man whilst walking again to Crockern Tor. They fall into talking, and after a short time the man feels obliged to share the chilling warning that he has received from Old Crockern in a dream.
The Guardian Spirit of Dartmoor is aware of the greedy farmer’s plans, and his message is this; “tell the man from Manchester that I know his mighty plans and that many such men have come to my land with the same intent but like them I promise him one thing, if he as much as scratches my back with a plough share, I’ll tear his pockets out.”
Old Crockern’s Revenge
The farmer scoffs at the warning, thinking the local man to be a superstitious simpleton. He has seen the two rugged rock piles of Crockern Tor himself many times, but never found any sign of any supernatural figure. There’s no old grey spirit, with a beard made of lichen, and eyes black as peat pools, the farmer tells himself. But the words of the warning stay in his mind.
As the years pass, the ambitious farmer’s harvests become poorer and poorer. Rather than doubling his fortune, as he imagined, the long months spent cultivating the moor drain him of money and energy. At last he is forced to leave the moor, a broken man, painfully aware that Old Crockern has been true to his promise.
Wisht Hounds and the Wild Hunt
Old Crockern’s presence is not confined to Crockern Tor or ominous appearances in dreams. In his more active aspect, Crockern can also call upon the Wisht Hounds kennelled in Wistman’s Wood and lead them in pursuit of unwary travellers on the moor. Astride his skeletal steed, he leads the terrifying Wild Hunt along corpse paths and trackways, reminding humans that the soul of Dartmoor cannot be tamed.
With skin like granite and hair made from ragged mosses, Old Crockern is the embodiment of the landscape. His gaze is as dark as the raw peat deposits which extend for several metres beneath the grass and the lichen of his beard is hundreds of years old.
Despite around 34,500 people living on Dartmoor, the Guardian Spirit of the moor continues to manifest as a potent protector, and was summoned as recently as the 21st January 2023 as part of the Right to Roam protest.