The path to Wistman's Wood
We are on Dartmoor to seek out Wistman's Wood-a quest which begins fairly easily as there is a sign pointing out the footpath that leads to it from Two Bridges. But this is Dartmoor and a path which is easily defined at the outset can sometimes peter out into a fan of well trodden paths spreading out in all directions. Today this wouldn't be too much of a problem-the wood is only a mile or so along this path and should be easy to spot from a distance (it being the only wood around here and thus easily distinguishable from the Tor above, the river below and the sheep all around) but then we encounter another of Dartmoor's idiosyncrasies: the weather. Fine summer rain is all very fine and dandy in its own way but halfway between Two Bridges and Wistman's Wood, where the aforementioned path peters out, it creates a haze which hides all around which may help us into the right direction. But, we agree, Wistman's Wood has been there for dozens of centuries and probably longer so it aint going to go away. We can find it another day and, in the meantime, we shall go and find Spinsters' Rock instead. It is a place of legends.
OK, so which legend fires your imagination more? The one which insists the rocks were placed there by Noah and his boys who, having parked the Ark atop a nearby hill, wandered down to erect the stones after which they wandered away again? Or do you prefer the one that tells of the three spinsters? These spinsters were of the original breed for this title-i.e. those who spun rather than unmarried women-and this paticular trio are three of the twelve Nymphs of Valhalla of Norse mythology-the Choosers of the Slain in battle. These Nymphs were known as the Valkriur and they rode around the battlefield on horses, waving great swords around as they decided who should live and those that would die. To our minds this is far more stirring stuff than the namby-pamby Noah theory, and two of the spinsters had really cool names befitting their status: Mista and Sangrida. (the other one was called Hilda-which is almost as silly as calling a bull Alan: see earlier post.) Anyway, the story goes that these three erected the stones one morning before breakfast.
Whichever legend suits your thinking it is a place well worth seeking out. A peaceful spot, a magnificent cromlech standing alone in a field of grass that couldn't be any greener if it tried.
A few days later we are once again setting off up the path from Two Bridges to Wistman's Wood-this time without attending rain to baffle our inner lodestones once on the moor. The path to the wood is well defined at the start and at the end, in the middle there is just a few hundred yards which is difficult to follow. The problem that we had earlier that week was, without any visibility, getting past those few hundred yards and onto the track again is a matter of pure luck-we were wise to abandon the attempt because now we can see that we were heading the wrong way completely-we had been heading towards Crockern Tor. No such worry today, our path is clear and we take a stroll up to what has been described as "the most haunted place on Dartmoor".
Wistman's Wood is indeed a strange place. There are numerous stories of supernatural happenings in and around these ancient stunted oak trees, all of which have great credibility once you are stood amongst them-even in broad daylight. The trees (mainly oak but also rowan and willow) grow from between boulders that litter the hillside upon which the wood stands and everything-boulders, trees and the ground, is covered by a thick layer of moss. It is certainly an eerie place, which is a good reason to explore it fully-but slowly. It is not easy terrain to walk over as the moss disguises the crevices underfoot and in places can be slippery. But it is compulsively inviting to walk from one end to the other.
Apart from the various spectres which are known to wander here after dark Wistman's Wood is also believed to be the home of the Wisht Hounds, those terrifying beasts which roam the Moor at night chasing sinners, scaring seven shades out of the unbaptised and doing the voice-overs for "The Hound of the Baskervilles". (There is another canine spook in the woods-a small terrier called "Jumbo". The story goes that this little feller was hunting rabbits amongst the rocks when he got fatally bitten by an adder. His unfortunate moniker suggests that he was more than a little domesticated and this was presumably why he was unable to tell a rabbit from a snake. Perhaps his demise was the kindest thing really.....)
When you spend time in Wistman's Wood the spectres become real: everywhere through the wood unseen eyes are watching you, you can feel them and out of the corner of your eye there is...........something? or perhaps your imagination is playing tricks on your vision? It is a feeling that cannot be conveyed in words, nor can our photographs fully do Wistman's Wood justice. You will have to go and see it for yourself.