On Eden Phillpotts

Literary chronicler of Dartmoor par excellence


Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) was a prolific writer of fiction in a Dartmoor setting. He spent most of his adult life in Devon, and was a close friend of another of the county's famous literary icons, Agatha Christie, who claimed to be influenced by Eden in her early years as a writer. This extract from Children of the Mist, one of his 20 volume Dartmoor Cycle of 18 novels and two volumes of short stories, evokes the dramatic moorland landscape unfolding from Steeperton Tor to the south-west of Belstone.

Eden Phillpotts

Cranmere Pool
Cranmere Pool
From that distant sponge in the central waste, from Cranmere, mother of moorland rivers, the man presently noted wrinkles of pure gold trickling down a hillside two miles off. Here sunshine touched the river Taw, still an infant thing not far advanced on the journey from its fount; but the play of light upon the stream, invisible save for this finger of the sun, indicated to the solitary that he approached his destination. Presently he stood on the side of lofty Steeperton and surveyed that vast valley known as Taw Marsh, which lies between the western foothills of Cosdon Beacon and the Belstone Tors to the north. The ragged manes of the latter hills wind through the valley in one lengthy ridge, and extend to a tremendous castellated mass of stone, by name Oke Tor.

Today Cranmere Pool is no more than a depression in the moorland peat, having been drained in the early 19th Century. The phrase 'mother of moorland rivers' should not be taken literally as the pool is incapable of holding water in any quantity. However three of the major rivers of Dartmoor, the Dart, the Taw, and the Okement all rise in the morasses that surround it. Crossing[1] relates this folk tale accounting for the Pool's emptiness:

Tradition tells us that the pool was drained dry by one Binjie Gear, who being condemned for some reason, but what the legend does not inform us, to dip out its waters with an oat-sieve, one day found a sheep skin on the moor, and covering the sieve with it was enabled to empty Cranmere, and no water has ever collected within it since.

Phillpotts revisted Steeperton Tor seven years later in The Secret Woman to paint an even more dramatic word picture; an eloquent image of this rugged terrain being wondrously transformed by the ever changing light of the autumn sky. Here we have protagonist Jesse Redvers sitting aloft reflecting silently on his recent misfortunes, when he suddenly awakens from this reverie to be overawed by the magnificence of his surroundings.

Steeperton Tor
Steeperton Tor
So silent Jesse sat that heath-larks fluttered to his feet. His eyes narrowed again to focus distance, then fell on Taw river where she glittered, an infant stream, from her cradle in Cranmere. And still the sun reigned over the north, burst the cloud-meshes, and scattered glory into the amphitheatre of a mighty vale, where it spread, all decked for the pomp of the time, between Cosdon and the jagged Belstones. Here Nature, working in loneliness upon the loom of morass and winding river, water-worn gravel reaches, heather ridges, vast banks of furze and slopes of dying fern, had fashioned a triumph for the victory of Autumn. Blended, inwrought and inwoven; leavened with the light that burns on the brink of rain; like a jade cup brimming with jewels; rich in all imaginable harmonies of primary colour; stately in primitive strength of huge and simple forms, there spread forth the marshes of Taw. Here the mists generate, and the great cloud shadows sail; here is a trysting-place for rainbows and the rain; and here lie regions wide enough to display the whole pageant of the seasons, to exhibit the ephemeral procession of all the hours.
Children of the Mist, A.D.Innes, 1898, and The Secret Woman, Methuen 1905, both by Eden Phillpotts.
Crossing's description of the Legend of Bingie Gear is taken from "The Land of Stream and Tor" by William Crossing, reprinted by Forest Publishing, 1994.
Thanks to Richard Knights for permission to reproduce the Dartmoor images on this page from his spendid Dartmoor Walks site.