This is Beetor Cross on Dartmoor. It’s on the B3212 that crosses the moor from Moretonhampstead to Yelverton. It’s also known as The Watching Place, and there are several stories in circulation as to why this might be the case.
The first is that it was the haunt of a highwayman called John Fall, whose speciality was leaping out at his victims and taking them by surprise. Then there’s the theory that it marked the point beyond which French and American officers on parole from Dartmoor prison during the Napoleonic wars and living in Moretonhampstead were not permitted to proceed. Or that in mediaeval times it was the site of the gallows, where relatives or friends of the condemned person would watch and wait for permission from the Lord of the Manor to cut down the corpse.
My favourite story is that the name dates back to an outbreak of plague in 1626, which was spread by soldiers and sailors travelling between Barnstaple and Plymouth via the Mariner’s Way. Some of the inhabitants of a settlement called Puddaven, near Beetor Cross, were afflicted, and as they were no longer able to care for themselves, every evening neighbours placed provisions for them on a flattish stone at some distance from the house. They would then retreat to wait and watch. If the food was removed, fresh supplies would be left the following day. On the fifth day no one came and the food stayed where it was, so the neighbours understood that the last survivor had died. So, having approached the house, with no response to their shouts, the neighbours set fire to the thatch and burnt it down in the hope that this would stop the plague spreading further. From this time, it is said, the area became known as the Watching Place.
Something about this old story, the solidarity shown by neighbours during a time of great fear and uncertainty, lifted it above its rivals and prompted me to start writing a story of my own. As part of my research, I read all the folklore I could connected with the moor, and found several other stories associated with outbreaks of plague.
Notably, there was the story told about Merrivale by the celebrated chronicler of Dartmoor, William Crossing, who recalls that the area of Bronze Age relics on Longash Common was once known as Plague Market, the tradition being that during outbreaks of plague at Tavistock, food would be left there by moor folk for townspeople to collect.
And another that attaches itself to sites all over the country, but on Dartmoor to the ruins below Hound Tor: that the mediaeval village was abandoned during the Black Death. I visited and was moved not just by the deaths of the villagers but by the detail of their lives also, such as the fact they built their houses into the side of a hill, with livestock housed in the shippon at the lower end, and a gully cut to drain the slurry, and the step leading up into the cramped communal sleeping chamber.
And I read and wrote, and wrote and read, and after seven years there was a coming-of-age novel, and after a few more years, during which it sat on my laptop while I wrote poetry, and won a prize to have a collection published, it finally emerged into a largely oblivious world under my publishers’ Tamar Books imprint.
I picked up a copy the other day and read the back. Swine flu … avian flu … SARS … We are frequently warned of imminent, drug-resistant pandemics. But what is it really like to wait for the end of the world? Then I opened it and flicked through. Social distancing. Self-isolation. It’s all in there, centuries before these practices were formally identified and their names coined.
There’s even a scene involving frenetic hand washing, though no emphasis on that as a way of avoiding infection, because my characters, stuck in 1349, wouldn’t have known that. And besides it’s fleas they should mostly have been avoiding.
Every day on Twitter there are countless stories of selflessness, bravery and idiocy surrounding Covid-19, and I’m reminded again and again that while pandemics come and go, and technology and medical treatments improve, people are essentially the same as they’ve always been. We’re all in the Watching Place now, and I feel a renewed closeness to characters that were such a big part of my life for so long.
If you’d like to read an extract of ‘Dart’, please click on this link.
Cover illustration and map by Dru Marland
This blog was first published on The Red Dress of Poetry.