Jeremy Clarke

Under a lowering sky

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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Back on track with the abstinence regime after the debacle at the dog lunch, I treated myself last weekend to a guided walk on Dartmoor. The walk, advertised in the Dartmoor Visitor, was called ‘Crock of Gold and Childe’s Tomb’. Twenty Gore-Tex-clad people, some with ski poles, plus yours truly, dressed appropriately perhaps for a longish journey on the District Line, met at Princetown, under the massive granite walls of Dartmoor Prison.

The guide introduced himself as Brian. He was clean-shaven, 50-ish and if you closed your eyes when he spoke he might have been Alan Bennett. The first piece of information he gave us was that there were nine Brians in the Dartmoor Guides Service. Brian collected a fiver from each of us then led us out of Princetown village towards the open moor.

Once out on the moor, the cold wind stung the eyeballs. And what a dismal, desolate scene! Wind and cold had leached all pigment from the landscape leaving everything a sort of anaemic brown colour. The range of low hills Brian was leading us towards was sinister in its desolation.

The going was relatively easy at first. Brian informed us that this was because during the first world war the track we were treading on was surfaced with crushed granite by a chain gang of conscientious objectors. Soon, however, the Conchies Road, as it was known locally, petered out, and, as the sky went blacker and blacker, we lit out across a sort of tundra. After a bit we came to a Bronze Age burial chamber and Brian motioned us to gather round. Even this broken remnant of an ancient civilisation was a comfort to the spirit amid such a barren waste. This was the burial chamber known as Crock of Gold, announced Brian. The more impressionable among us peered down into the chamber hoping to see if not a glint of gold at least an old crock. ‘Nobody knows why this particular burial chamber is called Crock of Gold,’ said Brian, ‘because there’s no record of one ever being found here.’ After that Brian led his slightly disappointed party in single file across a bog.

If this bog, called Foxtor Mire, isn’t the most depressing place in Britain, I want to know what is. According to Brian, Foxtor Mire was the inspiration, if that’s the word I’m looking for, for Grimpen Mire, haunt of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, which was based on a legend, which I for one find entirely credible, of a ghostly hell-hound reputed to dwell in the area. If anybody has ever held a carnival there, or even told a joke, I would be very surprised.

We staggered across Foxtor Mire under a lowering sky. I overheard one member of our party telling another how glad he was he’d packed a survival blanket. Two thirds of the way across the bog, Brian called a halt and motioned us to gather round. I thought he was going to suggest mass suicide. But, on the contrary, his aim was to lend hope and encouragement. He pointed to a melancholy boulder-strewn slope in the middle-distance. ‘See that low hill over there?’ he said. ‘That’s Mount Misery.’ Nobody cheered. ‘And see that stone cross at the foot of Mount Misery?’ he said. ‘That’s Childe’s Tomb. So we’re nearly there.’ Ankle-deep in glacial black mud, numb with cold and traumatised by our ghastly surroundings, we obediently scanned the foothills of Mount Misery for Childe’s Tomb.

Childe was a Saxon earl. He was skirting Foxtor Mire on his horse 1,100 years ago when he was caught out by a blizzard. To keep himself from freezing to death he killed his horse, disemboweled it and climbed inside. He froze anyway, but before the end he rewrote his will using his horse’s blood for ink.

Here legend takes its usual ludicrous turn. ‘Whoever finds my body and gives it a Christian burial,’ the dying earl is supposed to have written, ‘will inherit all my lands and property.’ After his body and the will were found, news of the pious bequest reached the nearest monasteries of Tavistock and Plymstock. Monks raced to the scene and there followed an unseemly rugby match between the two rival monasteries using Childe’s corpse as the ball. A body recently exhumed at Tavistock has been identified as being possibly that of Childe.

This was the account Brian gave when we finally crossed the Mire and had gathered round the tomb. If true, of course, Childe’s Tomb is only a memorial. But worse than this, the ‘tomb’ looks suspiciously like a Victorian plinth and cross erected on top of a Bronze Age burial chamber. It is, therefore, about as Saxon as my Nokia 6310. But the bottom of Mount Misery in January is no place for quibbling about Truth. You want only to get back to the relatively cosy environs of Dartmoor prison, and as fast as possible.