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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Paul Haresnape: The Black Dog of Black Dog

The small village of Black Dog is on one of the highest ridges of land between Dartmoor and Exmoor, in the county of Devon, England. At 695 ft. above sea level it enjoys superb views of both moors, especially Dartmoor to the south. The pace of change in these rural parts has been slow and many of the small hill farms that surround Black Dog have been occupied by the same families for generations.

The village and its 18th Century Inn bore the name of ‘Black Boy’ until the emancipation of the slave trade in 1807/8 when it became ‘Black Dog’. [1] The former name is perhaps evidence of Plymouth’s involvement in the slave trade extending into rural Devon; but what of the latter name, by which both the village and Inn are still known today?

Theo Brown, in her book Devon Ghosts points the way:

'In the parish of Washford Pyne there are two hamlets, Upper and Lower Black Dog. These take their name from the Inn of that name which stands on a cross roads which was once a wild open heath. Though now a few houses have clustered around it, beside the crossroads is an old well. The local tradition is that there used to be a tunnel leading from the cross roads to the earthworks (Berry Castle) nearly a mile to the south. The mythical tunnel leads from the old well, and at the time of the Civil War, the entrance was guarded by the ghostly BLACK DOG. I heard this from a resident of the hamlet.' [2]

Perhaps this is the same Black Dog that - a few miles to the East - is reputed to haunt the road between the villages of Morchard Bishop and Copplestone? Intriguingly, this spectral hound appears to have put in a relatively recent appearance, being witnessed in 1993 by local resident Robin Brooks. The following graphic account, with a distinctly Fortean twist, was told to his daughter, artist Kirsty Bonning, who owns the Black Dog Studios:

"One late summer evening, I had gone for a walk up to Berry Castle (a mile to the south-east of Black Dog). It was a beautiful evening, calm, still and warm. [I] sat down against the bank of the hedge, how long for, I don't know. I must have fallen asleep. When I woke, I felt a slight chill. I remember looking at my watch, but I don't remember the time. I noticed that the cattle, who [sic] had been at the far end of the field, grazing, had now moved much closer and now I could see that there were about 30 of them, some with claves. They were mostly laid down and chewing the cud. I could hear the soft sounds coming from their contentment. Quite why I did not get straight up, I do not know. I wanted to, but I did not. "

"As I lay there, I became aware of what I can only describe as a presence. The sun had set and all was quiet, except for the soft sound of the cattle and in the distance 3 crows, making their way to roost, silhouetted against the sky. Now I became aware of a large black dog. Why I had not noticed him before, I did not know.

“I remember thinking, "Oh damn, someone is about," and I began to feel anxious and annoyed with myself for not being alert enough."

"I lay there still. I wanted to get to my feet, but somehow I could not. The dog was about 40 feet away. He did not move, or at least hardly so and stood tall and strong. His noble head held high as he sniffed the air, in that way that dogs do when they seem so aware of something that we humans, with our limited senses of hearing and smell do not know. Whose dog?! Where was the owner? A slight disturbed feeling was still in my mind, not given by the dog, but by the thought of the owner, who must be close, but who I could not see."

"I knew of people in the village who owned a large black Labrador dog, but this dog, in build and stature, was not really like that. How many moments had passed from my waking, I do not know, maybe it was only seconds. As I watched, the dog now stepped from the shadow of the bank and still looking in the direction of the village, without paying the least attention to me, he trotted directly towards the cattle. "

"And now, the strangest thing. No-one called or whistled him, but stranger yet, the dog walked right through where the cattle lay. He appeared to go with purpose and made no sound and the cattle, even though some were with calves, seemed completely unconcerned and did not even seem to see him. They were not disturbed in any way and it was a totally unreal experience. The dog disappeared into the darkness of the hedge. This whole thing must have taken only moments. "

"I got up, still wondering at what I had just seen and still expectant of seeing the dog's owner. I made my way back to the lane and then home. All this time, I saw no-one. I have never seen this dog since and as far as I can tell, no-one in the area has seen a dog as I have described. I do not know what I saw. I only know that it was as I have described it. "

"Did I see the ghostly Black Dog of legend?” [3]

I am attending a family lunch this weekend just a mile or so from Black Dog and am looking forward to a stroll to where this sighting occurred; so fingers crossed that the ghostly Black Dog of Black Dog may - just may - put in a rare appearance….

[1] http://www.kirstybonning.co.uk/black_dog_story/legend_of_the_black_dog.shtml
[2] Extract from DEVON GHOSTS by Theo Brown,Published by Jarrold Publishing 1982 ISBN 0-8530-6961-1
[3] http://www.kirstybonning.co.uk/black_dog_story/legend_of_the_black_dog.shtml

3 comments:

Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

Reading this article, I am struck by a number of things. First and foremost the author has a preposterously bad sense of direction; looking at the map the earthworks of Berry Castle are clearly marked to the south west of Black Dog, and even accounting for a "Jon Downes" exaggeration of distance, the place is no more than half a mile from the crossroads of Black Dog.

The embanked section of the castle hedge runs along the northern and western sides of the enclosure and looks to be topped with quite tall trees; the rest looks to be standard hawthorn hedge. The terrain is grass, so assuming the hedge to be stockproof and the author not to be insanely athletic, he/she came into the field from the gate on the east side (a track that is a public footpath runs down there), and likely moved up north towards the embanked hedge to sit down.

So, what likely happened is that the person sat down and fell asleep. Cows, generally speaking aren't all that bright but they are extremely good at finding the one spot in a field that is warm, dry, sheltered and is the best spot for a lie down and assuming the prevailing wind is westerly, in that field the sweet spot would be up in the north-west corner near the hedge. So, as evening drew in, the cows would head off to the sheltered bit to sleep, which would be close to the author whom I'm assuming is up on the northern bit of the bank.

The dog here doesn't have to be supernatural at all, just a local Labrador cross which regularly roams that area (and there are some houses quite close to the Berry Castle enclosure). Cattle normally only take notice of a dog if they don't know it, or if it is a herding dog; if they know the dog and know it to be harmless then they won't pay it any mind at all, and the cattle paying no attention is the only unusual thing going on here at all.

Not noticing something in half-light is completely normal for people; we have rather poor eyesight at night (as many a poacher knows) and as long as there's no sudden movement or flash of light-coloured skin to tip someone off, people can be completely unaware of other people quite close to them at night.

All in all, I'm quite skeptical of this report.

shiva said...

It sounds a little like a sleep paralysis experience to me, particularly the bit about wanting to get up but being unable to. Perhaps it was the same phenomenon as the "Night Hag", but manifesting in a superficially different form due to the outdoor environment?

Paul Haresnape said...

Thank you for your salient observations.

Berry Castle is indeed SW and not SE of Black Dog although as regards the distance I feel some benefit of the doubt might be in order. We don't know the route that he took to the Castle and it could have easily been at least a mile:in my experience people describe a distance as how far they travel, rather than the distance as to how the 'crow flies'.

As regards the cattle and their reaction to the dog, I agree with you, cattle with calves would not permit a strange dog to pass by so close/through them. However, the witness (a local man) states that he has never seen this dog before or since. What of course we don't know is how frequently he made this walk. If it was a regular occupation then I feel it is reasonable that he would have encountered this dog before or since, given that the cattle were comfortable in its' presence.

The legend of the Black Dog runs strong through the local community and Jon has challenged me to investigate this further(how could I refuse?). One facet of this will be to delve further into this particular sighting, which is intriguing but notably lacking in glowing red eyes!

Regrettably my visit to the area last Sunday fell foul of the wintry weather; we arrived for lunch an hour late after being towed up an ice-sheeted hill by a kindly local farmer, and thus I was unable to visit the area in question. There were some nice views of the snow on Exmoor and Dartmoor however!

Paul Haresnape