The Wild Hunt and Old Crockern


There is a legend that appears in many places in the British landscape, and indeed throughout Europe, of the fiendish spirits and spectral hounds that ride like a storm across the countryside, exhibiting all the spectacle of a great sporting chase, like a fox hunt.  This Wild Hunt has so many associations and connections with other bits of folklore that it is no surprise that it thrives here, in Devon, as well.  Devon’s connections to the myth, however, are many, complex, and varied, and their fascinating and in-depth interplay creates a sense of the weaving and evolving that all myth is subjected to.

The Wild Hunt is made up of any number of spirits, some versions of the story making them faeries or similar beings, others ghosts of the dead.  Almost always it is considered to be a bad omen, bringing death or other dire fates to those that witness it.  In Chambers’s Encyclopaedia in 1901, the hounds were said to “portend death or calamity to the house over which they hang”.  It is said to be a loud, overwhelming thing as the spirits fly across the sky, over rolling hills and endless rocks, in pursuit of something. In Devon, the hounds are known as Yeth or Wisht hounds, and are considered to be fiendish hellhounds (Sandles "Wistman's Wood").

Asgårdsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo - Image in the Public Domain

Often when the myth is portrayed, such as in this painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, it is accented with a storm, a rainy sky, thunder, and long rolling clouds which are, themselves, full of the ghosts or spirits riding like Valkyries. 

Having been out on the moor in the rain and wind, I can say with certainty that the reality of Dartmoor is evocative and challenging. The landscape stretches out far to all sides, spotted with gorse, ponies, and windswept and worn clitter and rock formations, and for me it was impossible not to associate the place with great power and potential for stories.

Dartmoor’s association with the Wild Hunt may be even easier to understand, as one listens to the wind whipping over the moor, is doused by the almost-horizontal rain, or sees the rolling, stormy clouds that can blow by quickly overhead as they stand atop countless rolling hills.  The myth, though, is associated not only with Dartmoor in general, but with some specific places too.


 Hound Tor

When one looks out over Hound Tor, and considers the name, there is no difficulty in understanding why this place is as associated with ghostly hounds and the Wild Hunt as it is.  The rocks on its peak jut out in all directions, and occasionally you can see, in a stack of massive boulders and stones, one of the “hounds,” the formations that give the Tor its name.  They are large and evocative, and you can walk between them and look down at the valleys, the hills, and the wildlife.

 Hound Rock

Hound-like Rock Formation 

One can easily see the ancient remains of the walls of a medieval village from the top of Hound Tor, where only the walls now remain. This is particularly affecting when one considers folk history.  It makes one wonder if the people of that village had myths associated with this place.  They almost certainly did.  Does the Wild Hunt, or the idea of the hounds turned to stone, have roots in or similarities with stories they told their children as they lived and worked here centuries ago?  It begs a lot of questions.  But mostly, for me, it begs awe.

Also, the wide range of the story of The Wild Hunt means that it encapsulates and combines with many other myths and legends.  Legendary figures, kings, and gods have all been said to ride with The Wild Hunt, including Norse gods and King Arthur (Wikisource).  It only makes sense then that Sir Francis Drake, who lived on the moor, and who was such an important legendary folk hero, would be associated with it as well.  Some say that his ghost, far from restful, flies from Buckland Abbey in Tavistock when the hunt is on, to join Old Crockern and the other heroes and spirits in their frenzied, frothing chase (Westwood).

The myth of Old Crockern, discussed below, ties in with The Wild Hunt as well, an interesting testament to how legendary and mythic figures, from the historical to the supernatural, can be tied together as folklore tales grow and evolve, and how interwoven those things can be.

It is clear, though, when one stands on the top of the Tors, or scans the valleys and hills with your eyes, that this landscape is particularly affecting, and an inspiring place to tell, and make, a story.

Old Crockern and Wistman's Woods

In Devon, the Wild Hunt is especially associated with Wistman's Woods, and Wistman's Woods are especially associated with Old Crockern.  Old Crockern, a ghostly rider, is sometimes said to ride with The Wild Hunt across Dartmoor from his home near Wistman’s Woods (Sandles "Wistman's Wood"). 

There are at least two commonly occuring themes in the varying descriptions of Old Crockern.  Sabine Baring-Gould described him as  "the gurt old sperit of the moors, Old Crockern himself, grey as granite, and his eyebrows hanging down over his glimmering eyes like sedge, and his eyes as deep as peat water pools" (Baring-Gould).  

This description is closely aligning him to the source of his name, Crockern Tor, a tor of Dartmoor known for being an important sight for the Stannery court in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, because many feel as though they see a face in the rocks there.  This lines up with one of his classic descriptions, as a local god of the moor (Sandles "Old Crockern").


Crockern Tor - By Smalljim [GF or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

However, he is now more commonly known as a grimly described figure, spectral and sinister, who rides his skeletal horse across the moors.  In this incarnation, he is most strongly associated with the Wild Hunt, as a ghostly huntsman himself.

Though there is little that remains consistent across accounts of Old Crockern, his legend is made more interesting by the things that are.  The biggest connection that is always made is between him and Wistman’s Wood.


He is said to keep his fiendish hounds stabled there between hunts, where they wait impatiently to ride again (Sandles "Wistman's Wood").

The fact that this myth ties so closely to that of the Wild Hunt in Devon—right down to the fact that Wistman’s Woods is said to be the source of the Wisht hounds—is not surprising.  The interconnectedness of these myths, Bowerman’s nose, and other such places, is indicative of the way that myths progress.  There are elements that seem similar in each of them that are readily accessible aspects of Devon folklore.  Certainly these characteristics, such as the fiendish hounds and the ghostly huntsmen, must be tied to Dartmoor even today, as Wistman’s Woods and its associated myths leave their mark on things as relevant as The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  This type of interconnectivity of folklore is part of why it is so fascinating

Before seeing Wistman’s Wood myself, I simply assumed, due to the myths I had read, that it would be a gigantic ancient forest, the likes of which a camper could get lost in, and where one would be unable to see the likes of a spectral rider on a skeletal hound, or be able to escape snapping hellhounds.

I was surprised, therefore, on approach, when it appeared to be relatively small, oval-shaped forest clearly at odds with the surrounding fields, which were as clear as any in Dartmoor, and the brook below.


Wistman's Woods in the Distance

As we got closer, however, I began to understand.  Where I had expected a more traditional forest, there was instead an intensely rocky, clitter-strewn grove of ancient, gnarled trees.


Coated in moss and crooked as they were, they were the type of trees that, given time to grow their leaves, would clearly have shaded the wood intensely even in the sun. Cover

It would be impossible, I imagine, to not grasp why the woods are so associated with myth.  It is hard to see into them, and hard to see far through them, as the hill slopes and the ancient trunks block your path.

Someone, most likely local Neopagans, had traced magic symbols in the moss on the rocks which massed on this hill in impossible numbers, and had hung ribbons from the trees.Swirl

It is an old, quiet place, where one is likely to fall between or slip on rocks, and which has the potential to be dark, to conceal.  As I climbed between those rocks, I finally understood why it would have to be a particularly tough—or supernatural—dog that could survive and thrive here, and why people would be so fearful of entering to see if they were there at all.


A Cave in the Wood... Perhaps a Hound Hides Within?

Eventually I had to leave Wistman’s Woods, a beautiful ancient forest, and an all-too-logical haunt for spectral, ghostly riders to keep their hounds before screaming across the stormy moors.




Works Cited

Baring-Gould, S. A Book of the West; Being an Introduction to Devon and Cornwall. London: Methuen, 1899. Print.

Briggs, Katharine Mary. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon, 1976. Print.

Chambers's Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge. London & Edinburgh: Chambers, 1901. Print.

Sandles, Tim. "Old Crockern | Legendary Dartmoor." Legendary Dartmoor. Legendary Dartmoor, 26 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 May 2016.

Sandles, Tim. "Wistman’s Wood | Legendary Dartmoor." Legendary Dartmoor. Legendary Dartmoor, 31 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 May 2016.

Westwood, Jennifer. Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain. London: Granada, 1985. Print.

Wikisource contributors. "The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Wild Hunt." Wikisource . Wikisource , 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.

Works Referenced

Underwood, Peter. Ghosts of Devon. Bodmin: Bossiney, 1982. Print.


Text and images copyright Alex Kirshy unless otherwise noted.