Inspiration and legends on Dartmoor. Book 3, The Supper Club Murders

Hound Tor

The Supper Club Murders is the third in the Smart woman’s mystery series and takes place on Dartmoor. I love the unique atmosphere of bleak beauty and isolation. It’s the perfect place for a murder mystery, set in a small, quaint village where festering resentments and long held grudges quickly surface.

In celebration of the book’s release I’m going to be looking at this magnificent landscape and the tales of spirits, foul play and hauntings it has given rise to. It will form a series of myths, legends and tales from Dartmoor.

Here I am looking suitably windswept on Dartmoor

This is one of my favourite places and the setting of my new book, The Supper Club Murders. I’d love to hear your stories too! Do you, like me, have a deep fascination with moorlands? It doesn’t have to be just from Dartmoor. As a young girl, I grew up near the Yorkshire Moors and loved Wuthering Heights.

Today, I’m standing at Hound Tor, the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s said to take its name from the dog head shapes it forms and was originally recorded in the Doomsday book as Hundatora. An ancient, deserted medieval village stands nearby. The whole of Dartmoor is littered with burial mounds, stone rows, stone circles and ancient settlements such as this.

This tor in particular is surrounded by tales of ghosts and apparitions, from travelling Cavaliers to the infamous black dog. Aside from Sherlock’s legendary hound, my favourite tale of Dartmoor’s black dog is that of Lady Mary Howard. She is said to ride out across the western borders of Dartmoor in a carriage made of her husband’s bones. On each corner is the skull of each of her unfortunate husbands. She is often known as ‘the Devil on Dartmoor’ and in her carriage is the huge black hound with blazing red eyes. According to legend, if you see the coach, there is death. Sadly, in reality she was rather a more wronged woman who was ill-treated and married off to various unpleasant characters.

Hound Tor and Lady Mary’s legend both appear in my new book which is available to pre order here.

Thank you for reading and be careful when you travel on the moor at night!

Part 2 – Kitty Jay’s Grave


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Kitty Jay’s grave

As a celebration of Dartmoor and in anticipation of my new book’s release which is set there, I’m doing a little series of posts on legends and tales from this fabulous landscape. Following on from my previous piece on Hound Tor, this is Kitty Jay’s grave. Not far from Hound Tor, this strange site is by the side of the road running from Heatree Cross to Hound Tor. It is one of the most haunted places on Dartmoor with many supposed sightings of the girl’s ghost. A young woman, floats around this bleak, deserted spot, as does a hooded figure which bends over the grave. But like many of these legends, it has it’s roots in tragedy.

Kitty Jay, Ann or Mary as she was also known, was an orphan who took work at Manaton Ford Farmhouse (or Canna Farm). Soon, after taking employment there, however she hanged herself. The tale has been embroidered over the years to include her being attacked by a farm hand or even the farmer’s son and, as a result, becoming pregnant. Her shame leading her to take her own life.

Whatever the reason, she was buried at a crossroads which was a practice in those days as none of the local parishes would bury her in consecrated ground. Some tales even have the poor girl’s body also being skewered with a metal bar but perhaps that’s straying too far into more vampiric tales. However, what is true even now is that every day fresh flowers are set on the grave and nobody knows who put them there. The bouquets still appear even in the snow, when it’s said that no footprints lead to or from the grave. Small votives and offerings are placed there now too.

One of the people it is thought who did this was the author Beatrice Chase who was inspired to write about the legend. Many people have found inspiration in this sad tale and the people and places involved. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course. And also, one of my favourites, Seth Lakeman, who wrote the wonderful song about Kitty Jay.

The grave and it’s legend are featured in my new book The Supper Club Murders which is out this September.

Part 3 – A Salty Tale

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As with many of the folktales that circulate Dartmoor, there are multiple versions of this story. This is just one interpretation.

The weather can turn in a breath on Dartmoor. The most crisp and clear of autumn days falls into mist within an hour. A cool winter’s night freezes to blizzard before a lone traveller can reach their destination. It is a wild land with many unfinished, bleak journeys and shelter can be rare. One such traveller, caught in the sharp teeth of winter, thought he had been fortunate enough to find respite for the night.

This gentleman was said to be travelling across Dartmoor on horseback. It had been a brutal, long winter but the hard frost was melting and the roads were becoming more passable. He decided to strike out. Yet, as it edged towards dusk, a thick, frozen mist fell. He would not be able to reach Tavistock that night nor would he be able to stay out on the moor much longer. He had to find shelter.

It was fortunate then, or so he thought, that he caught sight of one thin stream of smoke rising up from the chimney of a small cottage. The taste of cinders was sharp with a familiar flavour that drew him in. Isolated and lonely, the building still bore traces of a desolate winter. Snow was piled around the stone walls, the earth frozen solid. But our weary, cold traveller paid no note. He had no choice but to stop. It was certain death from exposure to remain out on the bleak moor for much longer. He rapped at the old, rough door.

It was answered by an elderly woman, with a taut, starved look about her. She welcomed the traveller and asked him inside. The smell of roasting meat was too much for him to deny. As he entered, she motioned towards her son stationed by the stove. He was a surly, thick set man who only spoke to begrudgingly say he would give up his bed for one night and sleep on the settle.

The traveller uttered his thanks and was shown to the small room by the woman. She closed the door on his night.

It was a serviceable room and far better than the freezing fate he’d faced outside on the moor. There was a small bed with thin blankets and a chest at the end. The floor was bare, and the window uncovered. He settled down to sleep but there would be no rest that night.

He’d barely drifted into dreams when shocking thoughts of the room he slept in began to play at the edges of his mind. Something else was in this room. Another soul. He could sense them, feel the shallow pull of their breath. But where? There was no place to hide, no space for anyone but him. Then, as thoughts tend to do in the dark hours, his settled on the only place this other life could be. The chest.

His mind instantly spun out images of the trapped inhabitant scratching away at the wood, beating with tired hands on the lid, ivory eyes set wide in disbelief and horror.

Our traveller sat up fast in the bed and his gaze was on that chest immediately. It waited, patiently at the end of the bed. The closed lid a simple invitation to open it. He looked and looked until his eyes were raw and believed they saw it lifting of its own accord.

He could stand it no more. Better to open it himself than let whatever was in there climb out to greet him.

With fear trembling in his chest he reached out to the old wooden chest and opened it.

When imagined fears disappear and are faced with stark reality, there is a moment of disbelief as if imagination should be the truth not what our eyes see. And what he saw was the simple curled round shape of what was once a man.

The traveller stared in horror at the body, stiff with cold death, the skin grey and limbs rigid. The lid dropped from his hand in one clear thud but the image of the dead man didn’t close in the traveller’s mind. It lay there behind those thick planks, its unseeing eyes pointed towards the bed, towards him.

He cowered into the pillows, drawing the mean blanket up to his chin as if it could keep out the dead. He bunched his knees into his chest and let his mind flick through all the fanciful ideas of escape. The wind circled the house in response. There was no leaving tonight. It was certain death for him out there in that bleak night. But what were his chances here in this house with the murderers and their corpse? For surely they knew there was a dead man in their empty linen chest.

He stayed in that rigid pose of disbelief until the first cut of dawn opened in the sky. The weak light brought a slight warmth but his thoughts remained cold. He had to get away. He had to get out of the house before his murderous hosts awoke.

He was too late. They were already at the kitchen table, waiting.

‘Join us for breakfast, sir, before your journey.’ The man’s words had the ring of a command and the traveller was eager not to infuriate this killer.

He strained a smile and edged his way onto the bench. The old woman brought over a plate of fresh cooked bacon and that warm fat smell trailed through the air. The traveller’s hand shook as he took a piece and placed the smallest morsel in his mouth. Although food was the furthest thing from his mind, he had to admit it was some of the best bacon he had ever tasted. Sharp with salt but still a rich sweetness of the meat came through deep and strong.

When he commented on the extraordinarily fine meat, the man said, ‘Aye, mother is the best salter in the whole of Dartmoor.’ He said it as if the borders of their imagination had never gone beyond the vast world of the moor.

The traveller ate quickly, nervously, all the while feeling the heavy presence of that chest above him.

Finally, as he was about to leave, he could stand it no more. Something compelled him to tell these people, to confess what he had seen.

‘Aye,’ said the man, ‘father died two weeks ago and we were snowed in hard. Couldn’t get out to Tavistock to get him buried proper yet. As I said, Mother is the best salter in the whole of Dartmoor.’

To this day, our traveller has never eaten bacon again.

Here is the link to the book The Supper Club Murders