“The sour and uninviting upland pastures”J.R.A. Hockin, 1939
It seems that some places by their very nature create their own mythology. The austere wildness of the vast tracts of Davidstow Moor have conceivably led to it being regarded by many as a dark and haunted landscape. However, a number of strange and unfortunate occurrences on this part of Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor may have also contributed to its ‘sour’ reputation.
Davidstow Moor is a large area of moorland on the north-eastern edge of Bodmin Moor. Close to Camelford, this area is well-known for being comparatively pancake flat (for Cornwall) and offering excellent views of Rough Tor and Brown Willy. (It was also the place where you were taught to drive by your parents when I was a teenager . . .)
According to Rev. J.J. Daniell, in his 1880 book on the history of Cornwall, the parish was named for the Welsh Saint David, the uncle of King Arthur. Supposedly David founded the church here while visiting his mother at near by Altarnun. The literal translation of Davidstow is ‘David’s place’.
Much of Bodmin Moor, some 17,000 acres, is what is known as common land. One of the largest unfenced areas includes Davidstow Moor. The ground in these uplands is often too harsh and exposed to grow any crops successfully, but the moor does provide an income for the farmers. Also known as commoners, they have grazing rights dating back to medieval times which enable them to keep numerous sheep, cattle and ponies here. To this day the animals are left to roam freely.
A witch, a wizard & a terrible calamity
A strange case involving one of Davidstow’s residents occurred in 1824. William French and his wife Frances Toms had married in 1810 and lived together on a farm on Davidstow Moor. The couple had seven children – William, Mary, Ann, Jane, Betsy, Thomas and Fanny. According to the newspapers the family had four horses which they would work for hire at other farms and William, in order to support his large family, would also deliver coal using horse and cart from Boscastle to the neighbouring villages.
In the summer of 1824 however disaster stuck the French family when all of their horses suddenly died in the space of just 30 hours. The West Briton reported that the family were in ‘great distress’ not only at the loss of their animals but also their income. William was unable to explain the cause or to accept the calamity and when a suspicious neighbour suggested that there could be a supernatural cause to his misfortune he decided he needed to take action.
William French apparently travelled to north Devon to consult ‘a celebrated wizard’ who remains unnamed in the newspapers. The wizard told him that he was right and that the animals deaths had been caused by a malevolent spell cast by a witch on Bodmin Moor. The description the wizard gave of the witch was predictable vague – she was purported to be ‘an old woman’ – but William returned home determined to hunt down the wicked cause of all his problems.
In the meantime, the plight of the French family was the talk of the parish and the local gentry began raising money in order to purchase more horses for them. The Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that the community was determined that Mr French be able to return to his usual business with their help.
However time would prove that the cause of the death of the animals was not exactly supernatural but no less concerning. With no animals to feed William French sold his hay to a local clergyman whose three horses ate it and died shortly after. When the hay was analysed it was found to have been laced with arsenic. So no witch but something equally sinister. As far as I have been able to establish who was responsible for poisoning the animal’s feed was never determined.
And the existence, or not, of a Davidstow witch is still up for debate. Though some would say they hear her laugh in the howl of the wind . . .
Another bizarre and unfortunate event happened on Davidstow Moor on 8th July 1847. It was in the middle of summer, a hot and sultry day with many men working in the fields bringing in that year’s harvest, when a tremendous thunderstorm hit. According to reports a ‘waterspout burst’ over a small area on Davidstow Moor and the subsequent rainfall was the worst in 50 years. People reported that heavy rain began pouring at 10am and continued without let up until 6pm. Unfortunately this area of Bodmin Moor holds the watershed where both the Camel River and the Inney take their rise and as a consequence both these rivers quickly began to swell with the excess run-off.
“A wall of water from 12 to 18 feet above the usual level of the river swept down the Camel Valley carrying everything before it.”charles Henderson, Old Cornish Bridges, 1928
By the end of the day houses had been flooding, livestock drowned, crops destroyed and at least six ancient bridges, as well as one railway bridge, washed away. Newspapers reported farmers risking their lives trying to save animals caught in the flood waters. Whole fields of newly cut grass just completely disappeared. Such was the force of the water that huge blocks of granite estimated to weigh as much as 10 tons each were seen being carried along in the deluge. A reporter in the Royal Cornwall Gazette wrote:
“A man came galloping up the hill to tell me the Dunmeer bridge was washed away . . . on getting to the banks of the river I found it to be true . . . about 10 minutes after the new bridge below went. This was a fine bridge of one arch more than 40 feet high. Nothing was, at this time, to be seen but a waste of foaming raging waters. Hay-ricks, poles, trees, everything had been swept away.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 16th July 1847
When the flood water subsided it was discovered that both the Inney and the Camel valleys had been ‘devastated from end to end’. The area remained impassable for twelve months while bridges were being rebuilt. Even many years after pieces of hay, straw and mud could be still be seen hanging in the trees near Dunmeer, some 20 feet up in the branches.
Tales of Davidstow Moor as a truly haunted place however is a relatively modern idea arising from the activities here during the 20th century.
RAF Davidstow Moor
The flat landscape and straight roads at Davidstow have always been a temptation for drivers, in fact there are a number of early newspaper reports of fines being handed out by the courts for speeding and endangering livestock. The 1920s saw this section of the moor being used speed trials and indeed F1 Motor Racing was revived here for a time in the 1950s. But it was the arrival of the Second World War that really opened a new chapter in this area’s history.
At 970 feet (295m) above sea level RAF Davidstow Moor, built in 1942, still has the highest altitude runway in the UK. It was originally built to try and avoid the sea fogs that were causing problems at other lower level airfields in the region. But the weather on the moor came with its own problems! The airfield was the base for a number of squadrons, including Polish and American, from late 1942 until the end of the war and it continued to be used for exercises and training up until 1954. Liberators, Hudsons, Spitfires, Wellingtons and Beaufighters as well as many others took off from these runways.
In 1945 most of the buildings, including the hangers, were removed but the iconic control tower remains to this day. And this now derelict building is one of the places on the old airfield said to be haunted by the ghosts of departed aircrew.
The excellent Davidstow Airfield and Cornwall at War Museum has a ‘Book of Remembrance’ which lists the names of 83 men who flew from here and never returned. Steve Perry, the wonderfully knowledgeable and welcoming owner of the museum, tells visitors that local people claim to have seen a ghost plane and it’s crew landing on the old runway in the dead of night.
There were several fatal accidents or near misses on the airfield, the most notable of which occurred in the summers of 1943 and 1944. On 29th July 1943 a Wellington X from 304 Squadron Polish Air Force RAF Davidstow Moor crashed on take off. The two pilots, Janicki and Rodziewicz were killed. The rest of the crew escaped with just minor injuries. Then the following year on 31st July a Vickers Warwick ASR of 282 Squadron again crashed on take off, this time three were killed including WAAF Sybil Mullins.
The Davidstow Airfield & Cornwall at War Museum, which houses a fantastic collection of memorabilia, weapons, vehicles and planes, in some of the original restored airfield buildings, is also said to be haunted. The paranormal investigation team, Soul Searchers Kernow, runs regular and seemingly hair-raising ghost tours there. One of their guests reported:
“As you would probably expect, there were spirits of aircrew all around and who were kind enough to make contact with us. We experienced a glass flying around a table, with just the very tips of our fingers lightly touching it, a table racing around the squash court, with us all hanging on for dear life, spirits communicating with us using a planchette to write with and the sound of movement and the feeling of being watched in the mess hall.”joanne
Shadowy figures of airmen, unexplained noises and footsteps as well as objects moving of their own volition have all been reported.
A couple of weeks ago I parked my car on the old airfield and walked out across the open moorland to Lanlavery Rock. This large granite outcrop sits in impassive isolation above Crowdy Marsh. The silence that day was heavy. There was hardly a breath of wind. As I walked back towards Davidstow someone let off some kind of flare in the old derelict Control Tower. Clouds of bright red smoke billowed out, spreading wide like an unearthly fog in the still air. For some reason it sent a little shiver through my bones. With or without the strange events and spooky goings on, this area of the moor, with its expanse of untamed scenery, is mesmeric.