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 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.
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:
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:
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:
In no time the waters of the Cherrybrook and nearby leats began to rise to dangerous levels:
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.
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 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 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 80.
A small Dartmoor letterbox installed at the same time is seen in the foreground.
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 . 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:
Fast-forward to the early twentieth century when the Guide finally saw the light of day.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
To sum up, this is Eric Hemery, writing in the preface to his epic work High Dartmoor: