The first time I visited Dartmoor I was nine years old and on one of the cheap and cheerful British summer holidays that characterised my childhood until I was twelve; when a promotion at work meant my parents had enough money for shabby hotels in Spain, where we were never allowed to drink the water. The bed and breakfast we stayed in was no different than any other I’d seen in the past and I have little memory of it other than the oddly musty smell of the thick floral bedspread on the pull out bed my sister and I shared.
The moor on the other hand has stayed with me ever since.
Looking back, I think it was an act more of despair at the ceaselessly poor weather than planning on my parent’s part that meant the holiday was made up of trips to the many unusual local sites rather than days lounging on a beach. And my sister and I must have driven them half mad at first, stone circles and old ruins in the rain weren’t particularly entertaining for a nine and fourteen year old.
But, fortunately, at a little gift shop in the Okehampton Castle ruins we came across a local author selling self-published copies of a book of Dartmoor legends which had been illustrated with strange black and white prints of various ghostly creatures. Avid readers, my sister and I both begged for a copy and were finally bought one to share, my sister reading it aloud in the back of the car as we travelled from one mystery location to the next.
It was transformative; days of rain coats and ruins became journeys through ghostly hauntings, devils bargains and fairy magic. It seemed to me that Dartmoor was as perilous as it was mysterious, a place where people met gristly endings and their spirits roamed in the company of bloody giants and black dogs for all eternity. I remember constantly asking my dad if he’d felt the ‘hairy hands’ try to wrest control of car and my sister and I watching the mist for signs of headless horsemen.
In many ways that week in Dartmoor shaped how I would look at the world around me for the rest of my life; listening for footsteps as I walked past willow trees, turning a sock inside out if I was lost. I don’t pretend to be particularly serious about these superstitions, but on stormy evenings there’s a small part of me that’s still a child listening to scary stories in the back seat of a car and hiding under the bedclothes at night.
In any case, luckily, or perhaps not as my tale goes, I came across that same book a few months ago while clearing boxes from my parent’s house. It was a little worse for wear, and looked as if it had been tucked under the corner of an old bookcase in the loft for years. The cover was torn and so thick with dust I hardly recognized it at first, but curiosity got the better of me and I rubbed the dust away. I can’t say that it struck me as particularly interesting at first but I flicked through the drawings, the lines a little clumsier than I recalled, until I reached a map of the moor which was spotted with markers for every tale and I was filled with a near compulsion to start reading, so read I did.
I sat just long enough, propped amongst the boxes and spider webs, for my legs to numb but I read it from cover to cover and back again. I think I’d forgotten how rich the legends were, how deep an impression the moor made upon me. And it felt like a fire had been kindled, after years living the stagnant death of office drudgery and urban boredom I was desperate to breathe the rich wild air again.
Despite what was to come, I can’t say I regret that moment.
This is the first part in a first person horror tale and a first draft too, please enjoy!