On William Crossing

The leading chronicler of Dartmoor

Crossing's Legacy

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.

William Crossing in 1895
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.

Kes Tor
Kes Tor

The Early Years

William Crossing

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 whistle.

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.

William Crossing, Extreme Rambler

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
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 levels:

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 Commando Shuffle, 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.

Hard Times

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[1].

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 Inactive Years

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 meet.

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 Phillpotts.

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.

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[2] 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 it says:
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.

St Mary's Church in Mary Tavy
St Mary's Church, Mary Tavy

slate memorial tablet on Crossing's house in Mary Tavy
Commemorative plaque on Crossing's house
Headstone of William and Emma Crossing in Mary Tavy churchyard

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 80.

Crossing memorial and letterbox at Duck's Pool

A small Dartmoor letterbox installed at the same time is seen in the foreground.

Inside Crossing's Guide

Wright's 1896 biographical notes on Crossing suggest that he was gathering material for the Guide 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 [3]. Like the Guide, Perambulations was organized 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 explorations.

Fast-forward to the early twentieth century when the Guide finally saw the light of day.

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 all weathers.
.. 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.
Wallabrook Clapper, Scorhill Down
Wallabrook Clapper, Scorhill Down.

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.

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 day.

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.

illustration from Crossing's Guide
Illustration from Crossing's 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:

Double stone rows at Shovel Down
Double stone rows at Shovel Down
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.

The Changing Landscape

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 these:

  • 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 roadside
  • Extension of military training periods and expansion of firing ranges
  • Construction of radio, TV, and mobile communications transmission masts
  • 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 [4].
  • 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. A detailed account of the attempts to prevent this reservoir being built is given on this page. Part of the dam is seen on the left of the photo 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.

Reflections in Meldon Reservoir
Meldon Reservoir

To sum up, this is Eric Hemery, writing in the preface to his epic work High Dartmoor:

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.


See Amid Devonia's Alps, p32. [return]
Crossing 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, an 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 recent major publications on Dartmoor, and is dated 1988 (the latest reprint)! [return]
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 continues:
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.
The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust website explains why this much loved icon of Dartmoor's wildlife is now endangered. [return]


High Dartmoor - Land and People by Eric Hemery, Robert Hale, 1983.
Devon by W G Hoskins, reprinted with new introduction, Phillimore, 2003.
A Perambulation of the Ancient and Royal Forest of Dartmoor and the Venville Precincts by Samuel Rowe, pub. J B Rowe and Hamilton, Adams, &co., 1848, reprinted by Devon Books, 1985
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, 1965.
Hundred Years on Dartmoor, 1901, reprinted with new introduction, David and Charles, 1967.


The sketch of Crossing was based on the photo from West-Country Poets shown higher up on the page. It first appeared in the Western Morning News in 1904. I have reproduced this drawing from the introduction to the 1967 edition of Crossing's Hundred Years on Dartmoor published by David & Charles.