A walk on Bodmin Moor
Self-care and a book idea
Out on the wily windy moors
I certainly didn’t ‘roll and fall in green’ as Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights proclaimed. More like, roll and fall in the mud. Bodmin Moor in the winter (certainly, in any month of the year) can be summarised in one word: wet.
The worn passages, made by man and beast, resemble trickling streams. These small tributaries shine like silver in the watery sunlight, nestled between tussocks of yellowing grass and scattered granite. However, the atmosphere on the day I decided to walk the moors was unusual. The golden light from the low winter sun had cooled to a blue tone. Often, it hid behind the clouds, which typically race from their passage across the Atlantic; the windswept trees are proof of that, yet today, they amble, unhurried. I’m used to hunching forward as I walk into the wind, or I stagger as a sudden gale pushes me from behind. Now, there’s barely a breath. The rain, typically horizontal, falls at a steady rate. I can hear the patter as it hits the ground. Hear it drip from the granite tors. Where I stand is wild, but eerily still.
A face on which time makes but little impression
The moors are captivating in their raw, stripped back bleakness. Thomas Hardy summed it perfectly for me in The Return of the Native, when he said,
It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature—neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; weight commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.
Those who’ve read The Return of the Native (sorry, spoilers ahead if you haven’t) there is a tragedy, and a similar tragedy occurred at the foot of Rough Tor, on Bodmin Moor, a-hundred and seventy-five years ago: a woman was murdered.
The murder of Charlotte Dymond
In April 1844, Charlotte Dymond and Matthew Weeks left Penhale Farm. Charlotte told her employer, Philippa Peter, she would not be back to milk the cows but Matthew would. Matthew Weeks returned later that evening, suppered, and went to bed. Charlotte never returned. Nine days later, they found her body by the ford which runs at the foot of Rough Tor; her throat slit.
Weeks left before the body was discovered, and was arrested in Plymouth for her murder. Weeks denied killing Charlotte but was trialled and found guilty. In his confession, he admitted he loved her, but she loved another. The murder wasn’t premeditated until she declared she wanted nothing more to do with him. To a crowd of twenty-thousand people, he was hanged. This tragic love-triangle ended with a murder and a hanging. Her ghost is said to walk the moors where she died. The knife Weeks used was thrown away, hidden still on the vast, empty moor.
I’ve known this story for as long as I can remember. I’ve seen the memorial stone countless times, but it’s only since I’ve seriously begun writing, I’ve probed deeper. Parish and census records allow us to glean a little bit about them. The newspaper coverage of the trial and execution bring the truth to light, but not without bias. The papers note Weeks had a smirk on his face for the whole trial. They do point out it’s likely due to his missing teeth, but the image of the prime suspect smiling in court plays a wicked piece of theatre. This tragedy deserves a blog to itself, but after reading a lot of Thomas Hardy last year, I’m keen to write historical fiction based around this event.
The Ancient Landscape
However, the moors, as immobile and unchanging as they appear, did not always look like this. The slopes beneath Rough Tor are covered in roundhouses which date from the Middle Bronze Age. On the summit, remains of an even earlier settlement exist. To the North, a cursus monument made of granite and rubble dates to the Neolithic and leads to Sharper tor. This Cheese-wring style tor is surrounded by a burial chamber. Charcoal remains show the area was once covered in oak and hazel woodland with grassland areas for grazing livestock. Beyond, between Rough Tor and Brown Willy is Fernacre stone circle, and on Brown Willy’s summit sits another burial site. This empty landscape was once a place where people called home.
The bleakness we see now. The face which time has little impression has changed. The ancient woodlands have vanished, although echoes still remain upon Dartmoor. Time is an interesting concept. It never goes at the pace we desire. We try to measure millennia and moments beside our lifespan. Rarely, is there never enough time, but there’s always time to escape into a piece of the wild, be it a place or an imagination.