I have always loved Dartmoor. It a place so rich in ancient remains that you could spend a lifetime exploring and never reach the end of it. There is a higher concentration of Bronze Age remains here than anywhere else… with over five thousand hut circles, and that’s just for starters! There are so many legends, ghosts and strange tales that the area has inspired writers from Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie and J.K. Rowling. There are peat bogs and weirdly shaped rocky tors, standing stones and haunted tombs. It is a truly mysterious place and you feel as if you have passed into another time and place as your wheels touch its narrow roads. There are a profusion of wildflowers, birds and animals… and it is incredibly beautiful. Every branch of science, from archaeology to zoology must have an interest in the area… no wonder it is protected by National Park status. So, I was as excited as a child as we climbed up to the hills and saw the open road snaking away before us.
“I can see this is going to take a while.” My companion sounded resigned to his fate as we pulled into the third stopping place in a mile. Low clouds were rolling in over the distant hills, enclosing the moor, horizon to horizon, in its own bubble of space and time. The ‘real’ world was receding, and it felt as if we were entering another world of magic and mystery.
“What’s that?” I swung the car into yet another stopping place, and passing between a pair of guardian watchers, we were out on the moor in a moment. A crudely-carved cross, around five and a half feet tall, as gnarled and twisted as an ancient oak, stood guard beside the road. Bennetts’s Cross is one of a hundred and thirty-two crosses on Dartmoor, some erected only a hundred years or so ago, but many of them a thousand years old. They were boundary markers, guiding waymarkers for travellers or, according to one legend, memorials for murderous monks.
The story goes that there were once four monks, so dissatisfied with the austerity of monastic life, that they were overjoyed when their abbot left to visit Rome. They wanted to celebrate… but celebrations require money and they were vowed to poverty. To line their pockets, they murdered a wealthy traveller, but before they could begin their carousing, they were called out onto the moor. And winter is harsh on the high moors; snow and ice lay on the ground and the wind howled as it froze everything in its path.
The monks were horrified to discover that it was the ghost of the murdered man who had called them out… his presence mesmerised them, and they followed him out onto the moor. The ghost led them to a mire where the ice beneath their feet cracked and they were sucked down into the bog. When the abbot returned, knowing nothing of the murder and mourning the loss of his brothers, he raised crosses to mark safe paths through the moors, so that no other travellers might be lost to the mire.
But Bennett’s Cross may not have been one of them… it is thought to have been carved from a standing stone that would predate Christianity by perhaps thousands of years and, to add fuel to the theory, it stands on a ley, as do so many of the ancient sites. But the age-old relic has a very modern bit of technology at its heart. Like many other ancient monuments in the area, it has a hidden microchip to help prevent its theft.
We returned to the car… there was still a fair drive ahead and the afternoon was drawing to a close. We had barely seen anything of Dartmoor yet… but we were not destined to do so. Just a mile or so later, the mists came down, swallowing first the horizon, and then the road ahead, leaving us crawling at walking pace for miles as we made our way through the heavy veil that was to be our gateway to another world…