Recognised as the leading authority on Dartmoor and its antiquities during his lifetime,
William Crossing's Guide to Dartmoor, first published in 1909, has been reprinted
on numerous occasions, and even today is considered the definitive topographical survey of
the moor by most commentators. Apart from the Guide, Crossing wrote books about
the antiquities and folklore of Dartmoor, as well as poetry and plays. The best known of
his other books on Dartmoor are One Hundred Years on Dartmoor, Gems in a
Granite Setting, The Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor, and a collection of
personal memoirs of his rambles on the moor, Amid Devonia's Alps. Many of these
titles have been reprinted for the benefit of the modern reader.
All true men of Devon must feel proud of Dartmoor, for it is one of the very few spots in
our island where the eye may behold Nature in her wilder form, and its more remote parts
rest upon a broad expanse where man has not intruded his handiwork. ... Here the weary
wanderer may find a restful land, a land of babbling brooks, a land of freedom, where grows
the heather and the broom, and the golden furze.
William Crossing, The Land of Stream and Tor, 1891.
William Crossing was born in Plymouth on November 14th, 1847. He inherited a taste for
antiquities and local lore from his mother, and was introduced to Dartmoor at an early age,
spending family holidays in a cottage on Roborough Down between Plymouth and Yelverton.
After leaving elementary school in Plymouth, young William went to the Independent College
at Taunton, then returned to Plymouth to finish his education at the Mannamead School. He
showed an interest in drama and in writing poetry and romantic fiction while still at
school; at the age of fourteen one of his poems appeared in the Young England magazine.
Following a short boating trip to Wales in 1863 he developed a liking for the sea, and in
1864 he boarded a vessel bound for Canada that narrowly avoiding being crushed by an
iceberg. This put an end to his maritime ambitions once and for all. On return from this
voyage he worked for his father in Plymouth for a while from where he resumed his
explorations of Dartmoor, and pursued his other great love, the theatre, contributing
topical verses for performance by the repertory company at Plymouth's Theatre Royal.
At this juncture Crossing was offered the chance to develop his leadership qualities when
his father put him in charge of the family business in South Brent making sail-cloth, but
away from parental oversight William had an even freer hand to pursue his twin passions:
Dartmoor and drama. He started up a local theatre but after some initial success this
endeavour foundered when the funding dried up. Undaunted he formed a professional drama
group which he took on tour. When this venture failed also, he returned to the mill in
South Brent and abandoned his theatrical ambitions. In later years his talent as a lively
entertainer honed during this period would delight the moor-men. Sitting with them round
the fireside in the evenings after one of his extended moorland rambles, Crossing would
improvise a verse on the happenings of the day and maybe play a tune or two on his tin
Perhaps because of Crossing's lack of interest in the business, but mainly because of the
decline in demand for sail-cloth in the age of the steamship, the mill soon closed down and
Crossing was able to resume his Dartmoor explorations with renewed energy. In 1872 he
married Emma Witheridge and they settled down in South Brent. At this time William began
collating his Dartmoor field excursion notes more methodically with the intention of
gathering them together in a book. By now he had resolved to eke out a living as best he
could by writing about the moor, which he did for the rest of his days, barely earning
enough to get by.
The entry for Crossing in Wright's 1896 biographical treatise West-Country Poets
highlights the exhaustive, and often exhausting, criss-crossing of the moor that he
embarked on in the years after his marriage, resulting in the accumulation of the mass of
detailed knowledge that would be presented later in the Guide:
..his chief delight is in an extended ramble and a chat with the Moor-men, amongst whom he
is a great favourite. Mr. Crossing's wanderings have been mostly on foot, sometimes
starting soon after daybreak, and not returning till after midnight. Sometimes his rambles
have extended to two or three days. He has never set out à la tourist, to 'do'
Dartmoor, or gone about 'learning' it in any set fashion; but by constant association his
knowledge of the district has gradually grown, until in the course of years he has crossed
and recrossed it in every direction.
The Dart Valley seen from Combestone Tor near Hexworthy
Often William and his wife would use the Forest Inn at Hexworthy as a starting point for
their lengthy rambles, sometimes using it as home from home for many months at a time. In
Amid Devonia's Alps Crossing gives an anecdotal account of some of these arduous
moorland treks, with Emma and his faithful dog Snap very much up for it. After one ramble
from Hexworthy to the East Dart head, Crossing comments:
Our's had been a long day's walk - not less than 25 miles, and this my wife had
accomplished without once showing a sign of flagging - a very creditable exploit for a
lady. A good part of the journey, too, had been over very rough and fatiguing ground - some
of the most difficult to travel over in all Dartmoor. Snap, our true little companion, and
who accompanied us on many a ramble, seemed glad to get home too, for his journey had been
far longer than ours.
It is well known to those familiar with Dartmoor that the weather can take a sudden turn
for the worse, and Crossing gives this graphic account of a violent thunderstorm he
experienced on a ramble with Emma near the head of the Cherrybrook:
...First a pattering of big rain drops, and then, apparently at no great distance above our
heads, a tremendous peal of thunder. The old moor seemed to tremble beneath the shock, and
the hills around echoed and re-echoed the deep roar. Vivid flashes of lightning darted out
from the inky clouds, and appeared to strike the dark crags which towered near us, and a
drenching rain descended with a loud hissing noise. There was no cessation to the roar of
the thunder. Peal after peal crashed out from the heavens, all nature seeming as if in the
throes of some tremendous struggle. The storm was most appalling in its severity, and there
was no place to which we could turn for shelter from its pitiless fury.
...we made the best of our way forward, splashing over the boggy ground, and drenched to
the skin, the storm continuing to rage all the time with unabated fury.
In no time the waters of the Cherrybrook and nearby leats began to rise to dangerous
On drawing near the watercourse - or leat - which supplies the powder mills, we saw that it
had overflowed its banks, and the little bridge formed of granite stones laid across it,
and which was in our track, was not to be seen, being entirely covered by the swollen
stream. It was seemingly impossible to discover where the bridge was, but knowing its
situation I waded into the water, and feeling about with my staff at last found it, and
looking carefully down, could just discern it beneath the dark brown stream. I had to be
very cautious in my movements, for the banks being under water, a false step would have
plunged me into the leat. Carefully noting the position of the bridge, I returned to the
spot where I had left my wife, and lifting her in my arms, again waded towards it, and made
my way slowly across it, landing safely on the other side.
The "Long Tramp" episode recounted in the appreciation of Crossing on legendarydartmoor
involving a 35 mile ramble with a friend, started after a sleepless night on the tiles at
the house of his friend's father stands out as an epic test of stamina.
Feats of endurance on Dartmoor, a typical day's trekking for Crossing, now take place annually with mass participation.
These are well-organized events raising money for charity such as The
, and the Ten Tors Expedition
, a challenge for
young people that takes place over a week-end in May, with an overnight stopover
under canvas. In 2007 the Ten Tors was abandoned at the end of the first day when already
swollen rivers and mires across the moor were drenched by further rain.
Coming from a family whose forebears included Devon civic dignitaries and a businessman
father, Crossing started his adult life a man of not inconsiderable means. On settling in
South Brent after his marriage in 1872 he could afford to retain a man-servant, George, who
sometimes accompanied William on his rambles
By the time the family moved to Brentor in the early 1890s, all Crossing's energy was
devoted to Dartmoor: trekking the moor and writing articles about it for magazines such as
The Western Antiquary, and the annual publication Doidge's Almanac,
neither of which paid much, if anything, to their contributors. His early books only earned
him a modest income at best. He had been a founder member of the Dartmoor Preservation
Association and a member of the Devonshire Association, but was so impoverished by this
time that he had to let his subscription to both bodies lapse.
The frequent soakings that Crossing had endured with such fortitude in his lengthy moorland
rambles began to take their toll and by his early fifties he was stricken with chronic
rheumatism. He found it increasingly difficult to walk, eventually becoming more or less
house-bound. Meanwhile the couple were now so poor that they were barely able to make ends
A public testimonial for the ailing Crossing was organised in 1904, this being the usual
means at the time for providing financial assistance by subscription to worthy individuals
who had fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. The signatories included such
notable contributors to Dartmoor's literary canon as Sabine Baring-Gould and Eden
This enforced physical idleness gave Crossing the opportunity to concentrate on his
writing: The Dartmoor Bibliography gives a long list of his articles that appeared
in various newspapers and magazines in the early 1900's. In 1906 he had the good fortune of
acquiring a patron, Mr W P Collins, who was to provide for Crossing's needs for the
remainder of his days.
St Mary's Church, Mary Tavy
Collins paid Crossing to tutor his sons in English and the Classics, and offered him a
house in Mary Tavy rent free. This arrangement gave Crossing the chance to complete his
Guide in parallel with this tutoring, and the first edition was published by the
Western Morning News in May 1909.
This Mary Tavy house
was later renamed Crossing
; subsequently a slate
memorial tablet was attached high up on the wall facing the road. Unfortunately the
engraved inscription cannot be read from the pavement without binoculars, but this is what
In this house William Crossing (1847-1928) lived for many years and wrote his "Guide to
Dartmoor" and other works. The Dartmoor Preservation Association, 1952.
On his 70th birthday Collins arranged a further public subscription for Crossing, but
soon after this his wife Emma became infirm and the couple moved to relatives in
Ivybridge; Emma was eventually admitted to the Tavistock Institution where she died in
1921. Collins again provided accommodation for Crossing in Mary Tavy, but in 1924 he was
heart-broken by the loss of a life time's labour: his copious notes for a planned history
of Dartmoor were incinerated when he was away. The lady who came to clean found them to
be damaged by mice and treated them as refuse.
In July 1925 William was no longer able cope on his own and was moved to the Tavistock
Institution; some time later Collins found a place for him in a private nursing home in
Plymouth where, paid for by Collins, he remained until his death in September 1928 aged
80. He was laid to rest beside his wife in the churchyard of St Mary's in Mary Tavy.
Crossing's passing was honoured by the Dobson's Moormen walking group in 1938 who attached
a plaque to a boulder at Duck's Pool that reads:
In memory of William Crossing, author of many inspiring books on Dartmoor, whose Guide
is a source of invaluable information to all lovers of the moor. Died 3rd Sep. 1928, aged
Wright's 1896 biographical notes on Crossing suggest that he was gathering material for the
as early as thirty years before its publication. Surprisingly, he had never
come across the earlier Dartmoor classic, Samuel Rowe's A Perambulation of the Ancient
and Royal Forest of Dartmoor
, first published in 1848 and, according to the
bibliography section of W.G. Hoskins' Devon
, is still the most comprehensive book
on Dartmoor ever written 
. Like the Guide
as a sequence of excursions starting from different locations on the periphery of the moor.
After Crossing's marriage in 1872, according to Wright:
...he knew nothing of the literature of the Moor, and had never seen Mr. Rowe's
'Perambulation.' From that time to the present he has continued his explorations, aiming at
one day producing a work work which shall be an exhaustive one; but he confesses that the
more he has learnt of Dartmoor, the less inclination he has to carry out his early project,
unless it can be in a thorough manner. Although Mr. Crossing has written and published
several books about Dartmoor, and many articles and scattered papers, he is still
accumulating notes for his greater and more formidable task, which we trust he may be soon
able to accomplish. In 1878, while staying at Hexworthy, on Dartmoor, he taught himself
phonetic shorthand, receiving great assistance from his wife, who acted as reader; this he
has found of great service, by enabling him more easily to make notes of his daily
Fast-forward to the early twentieth century when the Guide finally saw the light
This Guide to Dartmoor was written with the purpose of furnishing the visitor with such
directions as would enable him to find his way to any part of it from whatever
starting-point on its borders he might choose; and to give him a description of the
scenery, antiquities, and other objects of interest.
So begins the Preface to the Second Edition of the Guide published in 1912.
In the introduction to the 1965 reprint, Brian Le Messurier gives his reasons for
championing it as the best book ever on the topography of Dartmoor:
This is because no other writer has explored the moor so extensively in all seasons and in
.. He gained the confidence and respect of Dartmoor people and from them learned the
customs and obscure place-names that enables the Guide to speak with rural authority... It
may be relied upon to present the authentic Dartmoor, unadorned by flights of fancy, and it
has stood the test of time.
After brief sections on the extent of Dartmoor and the hazards a rambler might encounter
such as mires and mists, the Guide continues with a most useful and informative
glossary of local terms. For example:
Clapper.A bridge composed of immense slabs of unwrought granite
laid upon buttresses and piers of the same. Their rude and massive appearance renders the
larger ones very striking, and this is perhaps in some degree responsible for their age
having been overestimated. They are mostly on the line of pack-horse tracks, and were
probably built by the farm settlers in the forest. The finest example is on the East Dart
at Post Bridge.
Wallabrook Clapper, Scorhill Down.
There follow sections on objects of interest and antiquities, followed by an account of
the ancient tracks and paths across the moor. The bulk of the work is given over to a series
of long and short excursions starting from each region bordering the moor, and ends with a
chapter giving 17 routes to Cranmere Pool, a place of particular fascination to Crossing. It
is the location of the first Dartmoor letterbox placed there by the Dartmoor guide James
Perrott of Chagford in 1854. This is mentioned in the Guide and this reference is
credited with sparking interest in the letterboxing pursuit, which remains popular to this
Crossing needed an illustrator for the Guide and obtained the services of one
Philip Guy Stevens, the boyfriend of the daughter of the landlord of the Duchy Hotel in
Princetown. Philip worked at Dartmoor Prison as an administrator, as well as having some
artistic talent and a knowledge the moor. Crossing would ask him for a particular view
which often entailed the artist making a 10 mile round trip starting out at 5am before
beginning his day-job at the prison. To my eyes the line drawings are not particularly
helpful, and without the annotations at the top and bottom the location would not be
identifiable. This is the last such illustration in the Guide.
It is a pity that the Crossing didn't have the luxury of a digital camera to bring to life
his text. As it is, he had to describe each feature in fine detail. Here we see the pair of
stone rows at Shovel Down laid out in a northerly direction pointing towards Batworthy
Corner. These would be encountered in Excursion 20 of the Guide from which the extract
below is taken. The double row shown here is the first of the pair referred to:
Exactly 300 yards S. by W. of Batworthy Corner is a group of stones forming the remains of
three concentric circles, and if the visitor first makes his way to this he will be better
able to follow the brief description of the monuments here given [... ...] Standing in the
triple circle and looking northwards the visitor will have before him two double stone
rows, one running almost due N., and extending for about 140 yards, and the other running
N. by W. for about the same distance.
A friend who has trekked across the wilderness of Dartmoor on countless occasions over the
last forty-five years tells me that the Guide is still an invaluable source of
information for the intrepid rambler. Nevertheless, if he were alive today Crossing could
not fail to notice many changes to the landscape since his guide was published.
Some of these developments have been surrounded by controversies that rumble on to this
day. Among the man-made changes that have occurred since the Guide was written are
- Building of new reservoirs and expansion of existing ones
- Widespread plantation of conifers
- The decline and closure of railway branch lines and the ascendancy
of motor transport, requiring road widening and the laying out of numerous car-parks by the
- Extension of military training periods and expansion of firing
- Construction of radio, TV, and mobile communications transmission
- Construction of water pumping stations, etc., by South West Water
and its predecessors
- The dramatic decline in the number of indigenous Dartmoor ponies
whose number has fallen from a total of 30,000 forty years ago to as few as 400 breeding
mares today .
- In more recent times, the massive loss of heather and
whortleberry as a consequence of over-grazing by Commoners' stock.
Meldon Reservoir on the northern fringes of the moor south-west of Okehampton was created
by damming the West Okement river. It is the most recently built reservoir on Dartmoor, and
was completed in 1972. Part of the dam is seen on the left of this image showing Longstone
Hill reflected in the man-made lake on a sunny day in 2006.
Set against the changes listed above, the granting of National Park status to Dartmoor in
1951 restricted development by imposing more stringent planning constraints. A Dartmoor
National Park Committee was then established within Devon County Council to act as the
steward for the heritage and ecology of the National Park. Following the Local Government
Act of 1972 that laid out how National Parks should be governed, in 1974 the committee was
given greater independence and funded largely by a direct government grant; its remit was
widened to cover planning matters. In 1997 this committee was replaced by the Dartmoor
National Park Authority, the fully autonomous body we have today.
To sum up, this is Eric Hemery, writing in the preface to his epic work High
Nearly seventy years have elapsed since William Crossing published his unique Guide to
Dartmoor. Although the great upland has changed imperceptibly in that time, man has done
much and plans to do more which would have saddened the impecunious but devoted author of
that classic. Our knowledge of the past has become more exact, too, and access and modes of
access to many features described by Crossing have characteristically changed.
is the first house on the left after passing the MARY TAVY sign on the
main road from the Okehampton direction. [return]
Hoskins makes no mention of Crossing in the original 1954 edition of Devon
inexplicable omission that is rectified in the Bibliographical Supplement to the 2003
reprint of this seminal work where the Guide
pops up in the list of
major publications on Dartmoor, and is dated 1988 (the latest reprint)!
Regarding Wright's claim that Crossing knew nothing of the literature of Dartmoor and
wasn't familiar with Rowe's Perambulation, this was most certainly not the case by
1901 when Crossing's Hundred Years on Dartmoor was published. The last chapter of
this book contains a thorough appraisal of the writings on the moor up to that time.
Indeed, he is unstinting in his praise for the Perambulation. After describing it
as being recognised as one of the finest topographical works in the English language he
Though by no means exhaustive, it yet deals with all that is most important on the moor,
and the information it contains is conveyed in so delightful a manner as to compensate in a
great measure for its want of fullness. Its correctness is a strong point: it is quite
refreshing when following the stumblings of some who have written on Dartmoor to turn to
the Perambulation, and to feel one is standing once more on safe ground.
High Dartmoor - Land and People by Eric Hemery, Robert Hale, 1983.
Devon by W G Hoskins, reprinted with new introduction, Phillimore, 2003.
West-Country Poets: Their Lives and Works by W H K Wright, Elliot Stock, 1896.
The Dartmoor Bibliography compiled by Peter Hamilton-Leggett, Devon Books, 1992.
Works by William Crossing quoted from on this page:
Amid Devonia's Alps, 1889, reprinted with new introduction, David and Charles, 1974;
The Land of Stream and Tor, 1891, reprinted with new introduction, Forest Publishing, 1994;
Guide to Dartmoor, 2nd edition (1912), reprinted with new introduction, David and Charles,
Hundred Years on Dartmoor, 1901, reprinted with new introduction, David and Charles, 1967.
| | last modified on
05 Mar 2015