When You Get Home (Merrivale)

October 20th, 2012 § 0 comments

One of the pleasures of walking is observing unfamiliar creatures; there is, however, little sign of wildlife on Dartmoor and few birds, just the odd buzzard glimpsed high above Staples tors. This dearth is unexpected given the lack of human habitation hereabouts. Merrivale Warren and the nearby Conies Down sound promising but there are few conies, perhaps the firing range has driven them away. A warren is anywhere that animals such as game birds and deer, not just rabbits, were warrened or bred. Dartmoor was a royal ‘forest’ or hunting ground but this should not mislead us into thinking that warrens were originally ‘upper-class’. It is all a matter of economics, wherever there are a lot of people locally but a lack of local food sources—in other words an industrial site—food has to be brought in. But where the site is relatively inaccessible, like Dartmoor in winter, warrening fills the gap. Obviously such poor grazing land does not permit the intensive rearing of large animals so look out for rabbit warrens where industry has taken place in uncultivated and remote grassland areas, e.g. Exmoor and the North York Moors.


Our Little Ponies

Semi-feral ponies are a particular feature of moors, the descendents of working animals from the days of tin-working and quarrying. You still see similar ponies in other areas with tracts of unproductive moorland such as Exmoor, the Gower peninsula and the New Forest. This reinforces the idea that moorland might be industrial wasteland.


Dartmoor Pony

The ponies have a reputation for being hardy but even so cannot survive the harsh winters on Dartmoor without farmers’ hay rations. They are clearly not ‘wild ponies’ if indeed such a species still exists. No-one knows when horses were first domesticated but since it is the animal best suited to rapid transit, the horse is likely to have been a major Megalithic preoccupation. However, horse riding as opposed to horse hauling is a much later development (1000 BC?) and seems more associated with military functions. Until the nineteenth century (AD) ploughing and carting were pretty much exclusively done by oxen (ignore the horses on Wagon Train, the forty-niners got there by ox-power). This leaves ponies, i.e. horses bred for specialised functions in specialised places, to fill the various niches unsuitable for large, unwieldy beasts. You can’t get an ox down a mine.


The prehistory of Dartmoor ponies is an enigma, though they do have a marked resemblance to Przewalski’s horse, the Mongolian wild pony. The ponies you will see are most likely to be dark bay or chestnut but their coats can range from almost black to near-white and it is hard to tell any more which are pure Dartmoor stock. They will allow people to come close for they are wary rather than wild. It is noticeable that ponies, roaming on quite desolate moorland, do not stray far from human settlements. The farmers who own them round them up, mainly in the autumn, the time of the ‘drifts’, but otherwise they are free to wander, at times perilously close to the road. Their original purposes are presumably reflected by the fact that they are well suited to long distance trekking and renowned for their quiet, sensible temperament. The locals relied on Dartmoor ponies for transport so extensively that main roads in Devon were built very late, in the nineteenth century. Are the characteristic high side hedges of West Country lanes the equivalent of blinkers?


Cut Hill

A row of stones was discovered in 2004 on Cut Hill and dated 3,500 BC or earlier. The unearthed stones, some of the largest ever erected on Dartmoor, were apparently selected for their size and shape before being transported to Cut Hill and the row had been aligned (ESE/WNW) with great care, according to the archaeological report. There is a barrow on the summit of Cut Hill which is visible against the skyline from a distance, creating an important landmark. This was presumably the feature that alerted archaeologists to the buried stones but is now misleading them into describing the site as a sacred hill. The clue is in the name: Cut Lane was cut by the Megalithics thereby providing safe passage through a bog five miles across, the only possible route for horse riders.


Monkish Ways

Another main east-west route across Dartmoor is popularly known as The Abbots Way, linking the Cistercian abbeys of Buckland and Buckfast built at opposite ends of the moor. It was almost certainly a prehistoric miners’ path as it passes through Erme Head, a source of tin (Erme = Worm = Hermes), and the Eylesbarrow tin mine, from where a branch led north to Merrivale and on to Tavistock Abbey.

The village of St. Erme in Cornwall is in a major tin-mining area to the south-west of St. Dennis, i.e. Dionysus. Its parish church is dedicated to St. Hermes. In very early times Dionysus seems to have been equated with Hermes and, significantly, both St. Erme and St. Dennis are on the Michael Line.

The Cistercians were the order most closely associated with the formerly Megalithic task of maintaining trading networks and animal droving, leading eventually to their domination of the wool trade. Specifically, on Dartmoor they ensured that the old tracks which had existed since Neolithic times were now used for the wool trade rather than for exporting tin. Buckfast nowadays is famous for a tonic wine suffused with caffeine that is drunk by thrill-seeking Scottish teenagers.



Brentor, the distinctive conical hill and a landmark on the Michael Line, is about a mile south of Lydford and it appears to have a twin in Brent Hill, twenty miles away in the southern half of the moors. Brent Hill can be seen from Torbay, though not from Plymouth because, significantly, Ugborough Beacon gets in the way.

All these “beacon” hills presumably denote various routes across the moor. The name Brent may mean ‘burnt’ suggesting that Brent Hill and Brentor are also beacon hills, but since in Welsh bryn means hill, Brent Hill might simply mean ‘hill hill’. The hill’s summit is marked ‘earthwork’ and has been variously described as a chapel, an oratory and a hermitage. Brent Hill has exactly the same legend attached to it as does Brent Tor (and half a hundred other such places) that a man about to be lost at sea swore to God that if only he were saved he would build a chapel on the first bit of land that came into view. The interesting point about these apochryphal tales is that they are clearly later explanations for why prominent local buildings exist but which have no obvious present function. Their original (pagan) purpose survives in local memory which is then converted into an improving (Christian) tale which is fair enough for locals but it should not mislead archaeologists, historians, cartographers, et al.


St. Patrick’s Day Parades

The parish church at Lydford was dedicated to St Petroc, a Celtic Christian monk of the sixth century. Petroc is the patron saint of Cornwall along with St Michael and St Piran. St Piran, or Perran, is also the patron saint of tin-miners though Piran and Petroc are almost certainly one and the same (and Patrick too). Patrick is celebrated for ridding Ireland of snakes, possibly an allusion to the Druids who were referred to as naddred (adders) by the Welsh bards. Petroc is said to have defeated a mighty serpent after which feat he retired to live as a hermit, in other words he is yet another dragon-slaying saint.

The event is commemorated by the May Day processions of the Hobby Horse in Padstow, though the songs have been updated and invoke St. George rather than their local Petroc. This patriotic switch may have been the only way to keep the festival going after saints’ days were outlawed by Protestant reformers. The same fate was initially meted out to hobby horses, Lords of Misrule, Plough Monday and other heathenish customs though Padstow (the Anglicised version of Petroc) has maintained not one but two rival hobby horses—townspeople, playing the part of hostages, have to pay a penny to be released, as per the usual reference to Megalithic tolls. The significantly named Minehead goes one better with three ‘horses’ who, before the ‘battle’ can begin, greet the May 1st sunrise at a crossroads outside the town. The hobby horse once resembled a dragon but is now more like a pantomime horse.[1]


Brownie Patrol

Piskies or pixies, mischievous will-o’-the-wisps that so flit about West Country moors, are popularly considered souls of unbaptised children, which may be a roundabout allusion to Michael/Mercury/Hermes escorting souls to the underworld. The word pixie is connected to psyche, the Greek for soul. All this is but a faintly religious version of the Megalithic network of people conducting travellers along these dangerous paths and a need to pay for their services. Pixies, though generally helpful, had a reputation for spitefulness if their assistance went unrewarded. Those unfortunate enough to be ‘pixie-led’ into bogs could escape by taking off their outer garments and turning them inside out, that is turning out their pockets.



Puck [Title page of Robin Good-Fellow, his Mad Pranks and merry Jests (1628)]

Woods are particularly tricky places that require their own set of rules and thus a special category of guide in the Megalithic System. Just as Pixies provide assistance through treacherous moorland bogs, so Puck is their equivalent for the Wild Wood. Puck is embedded in English folklore, often in the guise of the Green Man, Herne the Hunter and latterly of course Robin Hoodall of whom alternate as protectors or persecutors of travellers, depending on whether they get paid or not. They have obvious Hermetic characteristics being folkloric tricksters. Puck is frequently conflated with Pan the centaur, half-man half-goat. In Greek mythology centaurs are often wise teachers and healers but in typically mercurial fashion celebrate ‘pandemonium’ and viticulture (Dionysus). Pan, a son of Hermes, was associated with procreation and portrayed with an outsize phallus. Puck is synonymous with fuck. Shakespeare’s Puck put sleeping drops in people’s eyes, in Greek myth Hermes magically lulled the many-eyed giant Argus and the dogs guarding Apollo’s cattle. The legend lives on: Hermes was the Greek ‘Prince of Thieves’, the title Hollywood recently gave to Robin Hood.[2]


Ottery St Mary in East Devon has an annual Pixie Day when its long-banished pixies return and imprison the town’s bell-ringers who are then ransomed by the vicar. The bell-ringing aspect seems to relate to metallurgy and the role of the vicar is not so much to show that these pagan practices have been safely Christianised but to demonstrate the town’s duty to pay for Megalithic assistance and is reminiscent of the Pied Piper story.

However, these local British “carnivals” are significantly different from Continental saint’s-day processions, being much darker and more obviously pagan. The full-blown Christian iconography of Catholic Europe (even though the pagan origins of the various saints lurk just beneath the surface) shows that Classical civilisation had quite overborne the Megalithic world by the time of the Middle Ages. This is perhaps reflected in another difference between the two cultures: hobby-horse processions, egg-rolling, mass football games, blessing the cider-trees and so forth are definitely the sphere of the hoi polloi. On the Continent it is the Church (and more distantly, the State) that looks on benignly, indeed treating these popular revels as almost national policy, an extension of bread and circuses. In Britain by contrast, you can still see how purely local initiative can put on quite stunning displays of the traditional arts of well-dressing, tree-decoration, battles-of-the-flowers and so forth.


[1] Cock horse is the same as hobby horse. It may be significant that cocks crow; St. Michael, aka Hermes, was associated with a cock as well as a crow. The cock was the Orphic bird of resurrection, sacred to Aesculapius the god of healing; in the Bible the apostle known to be a physician, Luke, is a variation of Lugh, the Celtic god ‘skilled in all the arts’.  The May Day hobby (hobbled?) horse with its swaying gait recalls the lame smith with a ‘sacred thigh’ of mythology, also connected to ancient Spring rites. It is noticeable that all these processional ‘fearsome beasts’ are actually rather cuddly. Possibly the whole point of these proceedings is to render ‘the fearsome beast’ like iron foundries acceptable to the general public.

[2]  Robin Redbreast is the spirit of the New Year in British folklore, killing the Wren, the spirit of the Old Year. Inevitably ‘Cock Robin’ will also have to be killed. So the wheel of life turns. The wren, dryw in Welsh, is associated with the derw or oak, sacred to the Druids. Red dye, Kermes red, was made from the kermes beetle, a parasite of the kerm-oak, but the entire ‘oak family’ requires intensive investigation. This dye was particularly used for leather, especially with buskins, scarlet half-boots, known as ‘carmine leather’ presumably because Hermes is always shown wearing them. Kermes may be at the root of the word alchemy, whose origins are unclear, but it all might come down to Kemet, the old name for Egypt.

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