Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies
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Pages (PDF): 69
Publication Date: 1890
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Tales Of The Dartmoor Pixies details some folk-lore and tales of the pixies. The stories were 'gathered from the peasantry of Dartmoor, and they may be accepted as representative of the class of stories told of the elves of superstition--the pixies.' Chapters include, The Moorland Haunts Of The Pixies, The Ungrateful Farmer.--The Pixy Threshers.--Rewarding A Pixy, The Pixies' Trysting Place, and Nanny Norrish And The Pixies.--The Ploughman's Breakfast.--The Pixy Riders.--Jan Coo.
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AMONG the superstitions of bygone times which still linger in Devonshire, the ideas regarding the pixies are undoubtedly the most interesting and romantic. Although the faith of the peasantry in the ability of these "little people" to exercise a control over their domestic arrangements is less firm than of yore, yet a notion still prevails that ill-luck will certainly overtake the hapless wight who is so unfortunate as to offend any of these diminutive elves. While instances are frequently related of help having been given to the farmer by these little sprites at night, the peasant who has only "heerd tell" of them, naturally looks upon them with some slight suspicion, and this lack of ocular demonstration on the part of the pixies it is that has somewhat shaken the faith of Hodge and Giles in their doings. However, let them be out late at night and hear some unusual sound at a lonely part of their road, or see, in the hollow below, the Will-o'-the-Wisp hovering about, and straightway they will begin to fancy the "little people" have something to do with it, and although they may be inclined to combat the idea, yet they will not be able to quite rid themselves of the impression that what they heard and saw was the pixies indulging in their midnight revels.
But it is to Dartmoor. we must go if we would hear fully of the fantastic tricks and antics of this elfin race, for there, and amid the combes which run far up into its borders, we shall find many a nook where they have often been observed dancing at night, according to old Uncle So-and-so, and in many an ancient farm-house shall be told how the -butter has been made, and the corn in the barn been threshed by these industrious little goblins.
Not far from the point of confluence of the two branches of the Mew rises "Sheepstor's dark-browed rock," and on the slope of the tor, on the side on which the village lies, is a vast clatter of boulders. Amid this is a narrow opening between two upright rocks, which will admit the visitor, though not without a little difficulty, into a small grotto, celebrated in local legend, and known as the Pixies' Cave. On entering the cleft we shall find that the passage, which is only a few feet in length, turns abruptly to the left, and we shall also have to descend a little, as the floor of the cave is several feet lower than the rock at the entrance. This turning leads immediately into the cave which we shall find to be a small square apartment capable of containing several persons, but scarcely high enough to permit us to stand upright. On our left as we enter is a rude stone seat, and in the furthest corner a low narrow passage, extending for some little distance, is discoverable. According to a note in Polwhele's Devon, this cavern became the retreat durng the Civil Wars of one of the Elford family, who here successfully hid himself from Cromwell's soldiers, and it is related that he beguiled the time by painting on the rocky walls of the cavern, traces of the pictures remaining long afterwards, hut nothing of the sort is discoverable now. Mrs. Bray in her romance of Warleigh has introduced with good effect this story of the fugitive royalist, and indeed it was this tradition, so she tells us in her Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, which first awakened a desire in her mind to search out the legendary lore of the neighbourhood, and which she afterwards presented to the public in so agreeable a form.
As its name indicates, the grotto is one of the haunts of the pixies, and according to local tradition these little fairy elves have made it their resort from time immemorial.
Doubtless in days gone by the old people of Sheepstor saw--or fancied they saw--the
"Litt'e pixy fair and slim
Without a rag to cover him."
busy clambering over the rocks by moonlight as he issued forth from his retreat to visit some farm-house to help forward the good yeoman's work, or to wait until sunrise to pinch the lazy maid-servants should they fail to leave their beds at the proper time.
But there is one thing which we must not forget ere we leave the cave. Do not let us go thoughtlessly away without leaving an offering for the pixies, or piskies, as the country people more frequently call them. They are not extravagant in their expectations, so we shall not be taxed very highly. A pin will suffice, or a piece of rag, provided it is sufficiently large to make a garment for one of these little folks, for though sometimes seen in a state of nudity, they would seem to be proud of possessing a suit of clothes. Indeed a sort of weakness for finery exists among them, and a piece of ribbon appears to be as highly prized by them, as a gaudy coloured shawl or string of heads would be by an African savage.
The cave is rather difficult to find, and one might pass and re-pass the crevice which forms its opening, without ever dreaming that such a place existed there, so narrow does the entrance look. The clatter is a perfect wilderness of boulders, and stretches around to the eastern side of the tor, where the rocks rise perpendicularly, forming a precipice of great height.
As we stand at the entrance to the grotto we may look down upon the little village of Sheepstor and its church with sturdy granite tower, nestling in the sheltered combe, while the grey tor rises high behind us, exposed to all the buffetings of the wild moorland storm.
The tradition connecting the cavern on Sheeps Tor with the Elford family has, of course, rendered it more celebrated than it otherwise would have become had it depended on the pixies alone for its; notoriety, for though most people in this part of Devonshire have heard of the cave, few beyond the borders of Dartmoor have any knowledge of a larger and more striking retreat of these llittle people.''
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