A craggy tree, stone wall and monolith in the countryside

Following on from her previous journey along the Devonshire coast, Kirsteen McNish’s next walk takes her from the centre of a small wooded village to a hilltop stone circle steeped in local legend.

I start my walk near Gidleigh Church where a gnarled tree greets me, laden thick with lichen and the last drops of the previous day’s mist, Through a high gate, remains of a castle or folly stand, tantalisingly bolted to prevent the public from entering. Both buildings look to be made of the moor itself; mossy walls and flecks of granite contrast bitingly against the bright blue sky. A stream gullies through the gravestones, one of which is carved with a quote from Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century mystic: ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

As I turn onto the laneway toward the village hall, trees take on sculptural forms. Gaps in the walls seem to gape like open mouths, covered with a deep green wet moss that springs back pleasingly when pressed. Crab apples in bright limes and yellows are scattered on the roadside and a heady smell of rotting foliage punctures the air. A Devonian tale comes to mind, one which advises leaving the last apple on the tree to appease the ‘Apple Tree Man’ – believed to be the spirit of the tree – and ensure farmers and their families are spoiled with future crops. We are a little way off what is known as wassailing time, but I look forward to seeing the Border Morris Dancers welcome in the blessing of the orchard in our friend's village in mid-January.

The bracken is burnt gold and orange and unidentifiable beings stir in the bushes as I stroll past. I pass a Tolkien-esque house named ‘Berrydown’ with three sentinel stones in its garden and a slender stream marking a border between it and the road. Feeling slightly short of breath from the uphill curve, I smile to myself as I imagine what it would have been like to drag the monolithic stones up these tracks to the site of the Scorhill Stone Circle where I’m headed. A sign for The Mariners Way and Drogo Castle gives me pause for thought. This is where sailors would disembark from one boat in Dartmouth and trudge a great many miles to Bideford to board another. In contrast to their gruelling treks, I am here, centuries later, ambling along at a relatively leisurely pace.

A view of a stone circle in Devon

On reaching the road’s peak, I move through a roughly-hewn car park at the entrance to Gidleigh Farm. The views here are somehow more impressive on a crisp winter’s day than I recall from my summer visits. Wispy clouds streak over a patina of green, orange and brown patchwork hills. The glare from the Wintery sun bounces with a glare on my phone camera lens. I hear meadow pipits as I approach the stone circle, out of sight but somewhere close by.

When I last came here with a friend in early October, a small crowd passed us as we approached the brow of the hill. One woman wore a pre-Raphaelite style dress, another draped in long fur-trimmed robes, returning from some kind of ceremony, whilst others wore shades despite the darkened low clouds. I distinctly remember the stippled pink of one woman’s knee against the purple slip of her dress, a sight which felt surreal and incongruous as we walked with folded arms, wrapped in warm coats, hats and gloves shivering slightly in the first of autumn's chill, no escape from the swirling wind.

Today though, I can clearly see the silver ribbon of a river threads its way through the gorse and brush like embroidered silk through textured wool. Blue-green granite rocks pepper the path like languidly thrown stepping stones. Soft dew flickers brightly on the rough grasses. As the stone circle looms into view, I notice a large bird of prey rise and soar from the headstone and a crow caws out from somewhere to my right. Otherwise, I am alone here for the first time in the very many times I have visited these stones, and I feel it somehow deep in my marrow. According to local lore, no beast can enter the circle of the stones, the grass never grows long, and horses swerve when passing to avoid entering the inner circle. Leaning with my back against the headstone, I notice a tiny ball of sheep’s wool clinging to its craggy side which I place in my pocket as a memento.

A clear stream and stoney grassy area of Dartmoor

In the distance, a primitive but sturdy clapper bridge creates a safe passage over the brook towards the Teign River and up into the hills. I’m transfixed by fronds of weed undulating under a clear peaty stream running like a vein through the moor - creating a feeling of intense decompression within me. I turn toward the Tolmen Stone, a huge boulder which is said to have been used for fertility rituals. It’s sobering to think women were also said to be forced to dip in the river and run around the stones three times, before being ordered to walk over a kilometre away to Grey Wethers Stone Circle to ask for forgiveness for whatever misdemeanour they had been accused of. I can’t imagine the fear that might have wracked their bones, and what dread this place might have struck in their psyche, and in contrast, I am here centuries later to simply revel in awe of all I see.

The rocks are still quite slippery today near the river, from rapidly changing weather and the misty rain the day before - I climb steadily and slowly to get as close as I can to the Tolmen Stone, careful not to lose my footing with only spindly tree branches to hold on to. A small bunch of fresh lavender stalks tied in pink ribbon catches my eye. I think back to a fascinating recent talk at Dartington Bookshop with artist Ethan Pennell. He spoke of the folklore of sightings of the non-human spirits here, and I wonder if someone has left this tiny bouquet as an offering to these legendary guardians of the moors.

The acoustics are very strange here, and it almost feels as though this landscape is singing to you. At times, the hills rumble and I cannot place from which direction the noises come or what the noises are. Thousands of people make a pilgrimage to these stones each year, perhaps seeking something, wanting to connect with those who placed the stones here, and this near-silent circle is no doubt witness to all manner of desires, regrets, questions, respect for the past carrying harboured hopes. I am no different. I climb the hill and head back towards Gidleigh, turning one last time to survey this ancient site enraptured once again, like every time before - seeing something new in each time I walk here.

Yellow flowers on a green bush in the countryside

By the time I reach the pub in Chagford, my cheeks are wind-whipped and rosy. I order a hearty Sunday lunch and an older man is with his two friends at the bar and merrily asks me about my walk, no doubt noticing my cheeks pink in the warmth of the bar. Behind their head the pub’s emblem shows three hares chasing each other in a perpetual circle, creating a diamond-like symbol between their intertwined ears. I have read in folkloric tales that hares symbolise witches shapeshifting into animal forms, and this village has its own legend of ‘Old Moll’, a shapeshifting witch who used her powers to trick the hunt. This image of three hares is visible on the roofs of many churches in Devon and is also believed to represent eternity, lunar cycles and fertility. It feels portentous to discover it here in Chagford at this moment, close to the stone circle I’ve just reluctantly left.

At home, I sit down to listen to my voice notes from the journey. Just one lengthy note, which I recorded as the stone circle came into view, refuses point blank, to play. I give up after several attempts, accepting that my spoken words are destined to remain in the moors but the images from my visit are still vivid and stay with me until I fall into slumber that night. The next day, as I reach into my pocket and twist the tiny ball of sheep’s wool between my thumb and forefinger, it is clear that I don’t need a recording to remind me of this walk. I am there again in an instant, deep in the valley, alone and in a lasting reverie.

50.670583°N 3.905422°W

Words by Kirsteen McNish.

Photography by Kate Mount.

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