The Commodification of Legend

While searching through Devon’s myths and folklore, one thing that really interested me was how different places advertised or talked about their myths. Mythology and tourism go hand in hand, but I was intrigued by how some locations tended to downplay their myths while others maximized the commodification of their myth. 

Now, when I say commodification, I don’t intend to attach the negative connotations of the word. I simply want to use the term to emphasize how the myths become a selling point for these places.

In my travels around Devon, I came across three pubs that exemplified these various levels of commodification. Whether you’re looking for a garish fantasy or a subdued place with deep-rooted history, there’s something on this list for all legend-lovers.

 The Well House Tavern

Wells House

Since I got to Exeter, people have insisted that I needed to go to “the pub with the skeleton in the basement.” Many didn’t even know the pub’s name, just knew that it existed.

After some research, I found the Well House Tavern and its history. People originally thought the skeletons were the remains of a victim of the Black Plague. Upon testing, researchers discovered the remains were of two different people, and locals connected the skeleton with the “tragic love story” of a local nun and monk. Because society forbid their love, the two three themselves down the well in the Cathedral Yard – the same well that gave the Well House Tavern its name. 

However, again and again, fellow travellers complained of their difficulty finding the skeleton, and the tavern didn’t advertise its rich mythology. In fact, when I entered the pub, I found only a laminated piece of paper taped to a beam on the ceiling that pointed me to the skeleton.

We descended the small staircase tucked in the far right corner of the bar into a damp, musty cellar. Because of the clutter and poor lighting, I almost missed the glass case on the left that contained the remains I’d read so much about.

Skeleton Wells Tavern

While I fretted about the lighting and unsuccessfully tried to take photos of the skeleton, Alex stumbled upon the famous well amongst various tools and kegs. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in the whole experience. The tavern seemed content to literally shove all its rich mythology out of sight. The experience can be a fulfilling one if you’re willing to do your own research or just want to have a casual time at a pub with a rich history.

Wells Tavern Well

The Warren House Inn

Warren House Exterior

Dartmoor has no shortage of odd inns and rich mythology, but the Warren House Inn may be one of the most interesting inns you can go to – if you can get to it!

As one of the most isolated inns in Dartmoor, the Warren House Inn used to rely only on fires to keep them through the brutal Dartmoor winters. One of these fires has been continuously burning since 1845. Though the inn now has generators and heaters, the fire still burns today and has become the stuff of local fame.

Fire Warren House

Going into the inn, I expected to hear only about the fire. However, the woman behind the bar was kind enough to share the inn’s rich history.

Because of the inn’s isolation and the intensity of Dartmoor’s winters, those who died in the winter couldn’t be buried. The closest parish church at Lydford is many miles away, and bodies couldn't be transported because of the heavy snow on the lych roads (or funeral roads).To combat this problem, people would salt their corpses and put them in boxes to preserve them for the winter. Though this seems like an ancient practice, just a few years ago, a woman’s husband died and she put the body in a freezing outbuilding because the helicopter couldn't land in the storm to transport him to the morgue.

The barwoman continued to speak of her own experiences with Dartmoor winters and crafted a narrative of the place that brought the inn’s history into the modern day. Though the Warren House Inn had a history that was not as heavily advertised as its famous fire, it was a place with a warm atmosphere that encouraged imagination and discovery. I would highly suggest this inn if you’re looking for a cozy area to learn some local lore.

Warren House Inn Bar

The Highwayman Inn

Highwayman Entrance

One of the top tourist spots, the Highwayman Inn has an eccentric style and rich history that’s made it famous. While researching, I was struck by how unabashed they were in the advertising of their myths – they even had a “Hauntings” tab on their homepage. 

Built in 1282, the inn was called “The New Inn” until 1959, when John Buster Jones bought the house and remodeled it to what it is today. Jones famously added the Galleon Bar with the door from the Diane, a ship that was lost in the Artic and had 13 passengers die. The Galleon Bar is not the most haunted area of the inn, and people claim to most often see a ship captain and mariners wandering through the pub.

Highwayman Inn Diana

Driving up to the inn is an event in itself. With garish decoration, large wooden cut-outs, and a portion of the building painted like a carriage, the inn stands out among the otherwise simple setting. 

The garishness continued to multiply as we went inside. The Galleon Bar has been converted to look like the inside of a ship and has many little souvenirs that reflect this nautical inspiration. Beyond the pub, every corner of the inn was stuffed with odd and interesting items: small plastic fairies, a sarcophagus, even a bull doll dressed in a full suit of armor. A barwomen even offered to read tarot cards next to a light-up tree. 

This was a place that wore its legends on its sleeves, one that was actively playing up its strangeness to give all customers what they wanted, and though I didn’t always understand how all the items fit together, I had so much fun experiencing the overwhelming nature of the inn.

Highwayman Inn Bar Photo


Text © Emily Daluga, Photos © Alex Kirshy and Emily Daluga


Works Cited

Cornforth, David. “The Well House – Cathedral Close.” Exeter Memories. 2012. Web. 23 March 2016.

“The Highwayman Inn.” The Highwayman Inn. Web. 20 April 2016.

Jones, Richard. “The Highwayman: The West Country’s Most Haunted Inn.” Haunted Britain and Ireland. 2011. Web. 20 April 2016.

“A Short History of the Warren House Inn.” The Warren House Inn. Web. 20 April 2016.

“The Wells House Tavern.” aBode Exeter. Brownsword Hotels. Web. 24 March 2016.