Thursday 2 February 2017

More Devonshire folklore for The Coach of Bones

Last August, I half-seriously suggested writing an adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, set in Devon during the chaotic aftermath of Monmouth's 1685 rebellion and provisionally entitled The Coach of Bones. Since then, my work commitments have kept me from getting very far with it, but I do still keep an eye out for material I might want to use in it from time to time. In November I posted a list of 20 Dartmoor legends for potential incorporation into the module, and since then I've gathered a bunch of other Devonshire folktales and ghost stories which I feel could fit right into a spooky D&D adventure. If you used everything from both lists you'd have enough material to stock an entire hexcrawl set in seventeenth-century Devon - which is pretty much what I may end up writing, if The Coach of Bones ever gets beyond the drafting stage...

If anyone's interested, I mostly got these from Devon Ghosts (1982) by Theo Brown.

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Tavistock Abbey, circa 1784.

The Tunnels of Tavistock Abbey: According to local legend, there is a hidden network of vaults and tunnels beneath the ruins of Tavistock Abbey, stretching out beneath Tavistock itself. A local clergyman once found an entrance to these tunnels, and walked in them for some way before being surprised by the sudden appearance of a pair of monks, who bowed politely to him before disappearing back into the darkness. Spooked by this encounter, and deeply uncertain whether the 'monks' he had just met were ghosts or living men, he left the tunnels, and was never afterwards able to locate their entrance.

Squire Cabell: Wicked Squire Cabell of Brook Manor used to abduct local girls, whom he imprisoned in his house at Hawson, just across the valley; he was also rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil. When he lay dying in 1677, the demonic 'wish hounds' of Dewer the Huntsman gathered around his house, howling horribly; and they have howled for him ever since, calling him to join them in their hunts. The people buried him outside Buckfastleigh church, with a large stone slab over his grave to stop him climbing out of it, and a heavy stone tomb on top of the slab to weigh him down even further. In the side of the tomb is a solid oak door with a large keyhole, a door which is never opened or unlocked. The local children sometimes dare one another to place their fingers inside the keyhole, to see if Cabell will bite them off...

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William De Tracy and his comrades murder St Thomas Becket, 1170.

William De Tracy:
After the murder of St Thomas Becket, one of his killers, Sir William De Tracy, is said to have hidden himself in a cave near Ilfracombe, where he was sustained by the provisions that his daughter lowered down to him in a basket. He later died in the Holy Land; but his ghost is said to have returned to Ilfracombe in death, where on stormy nights he rides furiously back and forth across the Woolacombe Sands.

The Spreyton Haunting: In 1683, the residents of a house in Spreyton were tormented by a malicious spirit which appeared sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a horse, and sometimes as a monstrous, fire-breathing hound. Under its influence windows broke, objects moved, laces crawled across the ground like snakes, and a cravat attempted to strangle its wearer; once a man was even hurled bodily into the air, only to be found later hanging from the branches of a tree in a nearby bog, apparently in a state of trance. Finally, a bird flew in through a window carrying an odd brass object, with which it struck one of the household on the head. The people broke this brass object into pieces, and shortly afterwards the haunting apparently came to an end.

The Sokespitch Barrel: The Sokespitch family of Marsh Barton, who held the same land from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, were at some point granted a magical beer-barrel by the pixies, which was enchanted never to run dry. They kept this barrel for many generations, until one day a curious maidservant opened it up to look inside it. Within she found only masses of cobwebs, and beer never flowed from the barrel again.

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The ruins of Frithelstock Priory.

Our Lady of Frithelstock: In 1351, the monks of Frithelstock Priory were condemned by the Bishop of Exeter for their unauthorised erection of a stone chapel containing a statue of a woman, which had rapidly become an object of veneration among the surrounding population. The monks claimed that the statue was a representation of the Virgin Mary; the bishop, unconvinced, replied that it looked more like 'proud and disobedient Eve or unchaste Diana', and ordered the destruction of both statue and shrine. Odd psychic phenomena have occurred intermittently in the area ever since.

The Hairy Hands: The road across Dartmoor from Princeton to Moretonhampstead is haunted by something which manifests as a pair of huge, hairy hands. The hands grab travellers, throw people from carts and horses, and scrabble at windows after dark: all who see them are filled with instinctive horror, and feel intuitively that they are malevolent to human life. Some locals speculate that the area was once home to a race of hairy men, who inhabited the region before the humans came, and whose spirits still hold a grudge against the people who displaced them.

The Roborough Down Cannibal: A man was once travelling across Dartmoor with his two children in a severe snowstorm when he chanced across an isolated house, inhabited by a single old woman. He and his children sheltered with her for the night, and he then left his children in her care while he proceeded to Plymouth through the snow: but upon his return she claimed they had gone missing during the night. Subsequent investigations revealed that she had killed and eaten them, and that she had in fact been murdering and eating vulnerable travellers for some years. After her death, her house was allowed to fall into ruin, and is now said to be haunted.

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Beetor Cross.

Beetor Cross: Beetor Cross was once the site of a gibbet, posted to deter the highwaymen who used to lie in wait there for travellers. Presumably the ghost of one of them still lingers there, as travellers encounter an unseen presence which seizes hold of them as they pass, sometimes attempting to drag riders from their horses. Then again, the haunting may be much older, as local traditions claim that the area was once the site of a great battle between the Saxons and the Celts...

The Battle of Fenny Meadows: In 1549, the Prayerbook Rebels were massacred by the king's army on the banks of the River Otter, near Fenny Bridges. On moonlit nights the old battlefield can sometimes be seen to fill with phantom horsemen, wading knee-deep in human blood.

The Phantom Cottage: Near Buckfastleigh once stood a cottage inhabited by an elderly couple, who had a very evil reputation with the local people. After they died, the cottage decayed until only its foundations remained; but travellers at twilight sometimes see it still standing on its old site, with the old man and woman still sitting inside it, warming their wicked hands by the fire.

Tantrobobus: A gigantic ghost by this name is said to roam the North Devon coastline.

The Headless Goat: A headless goat wanders Dartmoor in the region of Sherril, blood dripping from its severed neck. Sometimes it leaps out of hedges to surprise passing travellers.

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Longaford Tor.

The Foxes of Longaford Tor: The foxes of Longaford Tor have a taste for human flesh, sometimes attacking lone travellers in the winter, tearing their bodies apart, and dragging their bones down into their holes. They are especially active around midwinter, when the locals are careful to avoid them for fear of being devoured.

The Dark Men of Dartmoor: Small, dark-skinned men dressed in animal skins are occasionally glimpsed on Dartmoor, sometimes in the act of climbing out of or disappearing into hidden holes. Locals disagree on whether these are the ghosts of the land's original inhabitants, or an actual lost race which has remained hidden underground ever since.

The Village of Changelings: In a village near Chudleigh, it was noticed that the villagers tended to be unusually small. The people of the surrounding region attributed this fact to a long-ago pixie raid in which all the children in the village were stolen away and replaced with changelings, whose fey blood and diminutive stature was naturally inherited by their descendants.

Cutty Dyer: This river-giant lives in the River Yeo. During the day, Cutty Dyer sleeps beneath the water, under the shadow of bridges; but at night he sometimes rises up and tries to pull passers-by into the water to drown them, or else grabs them from behind, cuts their throats, and drinks their blood before throwing their corpses into the water. It is said that he was once a miller named Christopher Dyer, although how he came to take on his current monstrous form is unclear. His grim exploits are remembered in a local children's song:

Dawn't'ee go down the riverzide:
Cutty Dyer du abide.
Cutty Dyer ain't no gude:
Cutty Dyer'll drink yer blood!

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  1. Wow Joe you keep turning up some great inspirations. I'll have to link to this and the other two posts.

    It does seem like you have enough weird tales and legends to seed a campaign. I'd add some mundane stuff like politics, romance, inheritance and family squabbles, wreckers, smugglers, pirates, and a map to buried treasure and a few rival local nobles to serve as patrons or enemies (or the players could be members and retainers of one of the noble families if you want to ground them in the locale) and you could keep a group occupied for years of real-time play.

    I'd think an OSR with a Devon/Cornwall focus might find a market in the present gaming environment. I'm don't even play D&D style games and it sounds interesting to me.

    1. Well, if/when I actually write 'The Coach of Bones' it'll be about 1685 specifically, so the supernatural material would be very heavily intermingled with historical threats (e.g. getting lynched by Kirk's Lambs or caught up in the Bloody Assizes). So the Devonshire material would just be the backdrop for a single adventure, rather than a campaign setting in its own right.

      I agree that the 17th century south-west could easily be opened out into a full campaign setting, with its own distinctive tone: cliffs and moorlands, pixies and Yeth hounds, wreckers and smugglers, and so on. But it might be a bit of a minority interest!

  2. A request from your American audience, could you perhaps post about some of this geography? It seems that all of these have a very specific local, which is one of its greatest virtues. But it leaves me lost, the places mean next to nothing for me.

    I looked up where Devon is, know I know, but that area of the UK doesn't have a distinct cultural schema to me like Scotland or Whales do.

    Thanks for the post though! It's obvious that you are doing some careful reading of folklore, well done.

    1. Very briefly: Devon is a large (by British standards) county in south-west England, whose natural boundaries are set by the River Tamar to the west (which divides it from Cornwall), the Bristol Channel to the north, the hills of Blackdown and Exmoor to the east, and the English Channel to the south. It's not very far from London as the crow flies, but the amount of rough terrain between Devon and the south-east has historically meant that it's often functioned more like a miniature nation rather than a province: when it takes a minimum of two weeks to get a message to London and back, you pretty much *have* to be able to make your own decisions.

      Devon had its own distinctive dialect (often near-impenetrable to outsiders), and a reputation for being rural and remote. Exeter, its only real city, was seen as the westernmost outpost of English civilisation: beyond that lay only the increasingly wilder lands of Dartmoor, Bodmin, and the Cornish peninsula. (This is reflected in the fact that, until 1876, the Bishop of Exeter had spiritual responsibility for the whole peninsula, from Blackdown to the Scilly Isles.) The people of the Devon coasts were famous mariners: Drake and Raleigh were both Devon men, and what you probably think of as a 'pirate voice' is actually a Hollywood version of a Devonshire accent. Smuggling was a major local industry.

      The interior of Devon is dominated by two large stretches of moorland, Dartmoor and Exmoor, which remained very thinly inhabited until the later nineteenth century. They had (and have) a reputation for being wild and haunted, a haven for ghosts and outlaws, and Dartmoor especially is famous for its ghost lore. Two creatures from Dartmoor folklore - the pixie and the yeth hound - have even found their way into D&D!

      So... think of moorlands, and lonely coastlines, and smugglers, and pirates, and places where central authority seems very far away. Think of remote villages, and red rock cliffs, and medieval ruins. Think of warm, wet weather, and rain, and fog, and 'roads' that are often mistaken for waterfalls by outsiders. That's more-or-less the backdrop for these stories, and for 'The Coach of Bones'...

    2. Joseph, thanks so much for the thoughtful response! That's exactly the kind of stuff I needed to know. It's awesome that you can take the time to respond to questions like this, it's much appreciated.