Legend and Archaeology

Dunkery Beacon - created from the Devil's spoil? © ENPA 2009

(Dunkery Beacon - created from the Devil's spoil? © ENPA 2009)

Legends have grown out of an oral history tradition and must originate from the desire to explain what was in the past unexplainable. The narrative of a place or object evolved in order to provide the storyteller and the audience with a sense of understanding. Often the facts are almost as interesting and amazing as the fable that has grown up around them. On Exmoor there are recurring themes or, more to the point, recurring culprits – the devil and pixies. This reflects the no particular predilection to the area as they were equally active elsewhere in the country, but perhaps at the heart of the myth, especially the pixies; there is some deep seated element of fact.

The Devil

If the saying is correct and the devil has all the best tunes then the same is true of archaeological sites. It appears that the devil is responsible for some of the best loved and most visited beauty spots on Exmoor.

Tarr Steps clapper bridge (© Hazel Riley 2013)Tarr Steps - Legend has it that the clapper bridge was built by the devil for the purposes of sunbathing. Those familiar with the Exmoor climate and the cool shades of its deep wooded river valleys would appreciate that the devil was clearly looking for some respite from the fires of hell to relax to the sound of running water in the dabbled rays on the Barle. Needless to say it was impossible to cross the river on the days when the devil had a little leisure time and the inconvenienced locals prevailed upon a local parson to attempt a negotiation with the devil. The devil unleashed a verbal attack that should not be heard by Christian ears and the parson, being well versed in the ways of the world was able to match the devil word for word. The impressed devil decided then that whilst the bridge is principally his sun lounger that people would be able to cross when he was not in residence. The reality of the bridge is that it is claimed to be a clapper bridge of ancient origin, reputed to be the oldest bridge in Britain. This is a little suspect as the bridge, a Scheduled Monument, has in the past floated off. It can not be denied that the natural ford at Tarr Steps is an ancient crossing point. It has been suggested that the bridge is actually part of a wider designed landscape that incorporated the leats and a cascade above the picturesque crossing.

Mounsey Castle – To construct Tarr Steps it was necessary for the devil to import a quantity of stones and he did this by carrying them in his apron. The strings of the apron broke and this resulted in the stony construction known as Mounsey Castle. Mounsey is located about 2 miles south of the clapper bridge and is actually an Iron Age Hillfort occupied from about 700BC. It is remarkable that much of the impressive stone rampart is still visible and it forms part of a much wider Iron Age landscape with Brewers Castle on the other side of the river and Oldberry Castle further south down the Barle, above Dulverton.

After his exertions on the Barle the devil went for a walk on Winsford Hill. Struck by thirst he decided to sink a borehole thus he created the Punchbowl and the resulting spoil he discarded over his shoulder, and this resulted in Dunkery Beacon. Research suggests that the Punchbowl is a small glacial cirque basin that may have formed during severe climatic conditions associated with the southerly advance of ice sheets during the Anglian cold stage, but a very rare event as the site is about 30km south of the perceived southern limits of the ice and that it may have formed from the accumulation of windblown snow from the adjacent plateau. Dunkery Beacon is undoubtly the most popular destination for visitors to Exmoor, but it also is one of the largest Bronze Age barrow cemeteries on Exmoor.

The Whit Stones are the result of a throwing competition between the devil and a giant. The stones were thrown from Hurlstone Point and the result of the competition is unknown, but as the stones lay close together the author is assuming it was a draw. The Whit Stones are a pair of late Neolithic or early Bronze Age (c2000BC) Standing Stones and the slopes of Hurlstone contain a relict medieval field system.

It is also unknown whether this is the same giant that lived for some time at Dunster, basing himself at Grabbist and the conveniently named Giant's Seat – the natural geological deep on the south side of Grabbist Iron Age Hillfort. Apparently he was very friendly and in fact Dunster prospered whilst the giant was in residence.


There are a great many place names relating to pixies on Exmoor – Pixie Copse at Bury, Pixie Meadow at Selworthy, Pixie Lane at Minehead and Pixie Rocks at Challacombe. Pixies were reputed to be of small stature, with quick movement and lived in low turf covered dwellings with an ability to flit unnoticed, and with a knowledge of moorland and woods; perhaps this has it’s origins in the Saxon and Norman attitudes to the Celtic population of Britain.

Legend has pixies living in the crevices of Pixie Rocks; the area is now known as Swincombe Rocks and is the steep coombe that links the remarkable prehistoric ritual landscape around the Chapman Barrows to the medieval settlement of Challacombe. Radworthy, a deserted medieval farmstead and relict field system is located at the top of Pixie Rocks, so the stories of habitation of the coombe are not at all far fetched.

Cow Castle - built by pixies?Tradition has the King of the Pixies residing at Knighton Farm, Withypool until the family could stand the ring of the church bells no longer. Farms around Withypool seemed to have benefited from mysterious thrashing of corn at night, and Cow Castle was built by pixies. The reality is that Cow Castle (see image, left) is a univallate hilltop enclosure presumably of Iron Age date. It occupies a steep-sided isolated knoll within the valley of the River Barle at its confluence with White Water, and therefore dominates the Barle valley. On the southern side of the enclosure a stone revetment is visible on the external face of the rampart where it is best preserved.

Jack O’Lantern was once a very active impish blue pixie that would bewitch and distract travellers across the moorland. Blue is the clue to the truth behind this legend and it originates from the methane gas that would come off the moorland. Jack O’Lantern has not been seen since the large scale moorland drainage (example between Hangley Cleave and Long Holcombe) of the 19th and 20th century and it will be interesting to see if through the current moorland rewetting programme, whether Jack makes a reappearance.

The third Earl of Carnarvon speculated that the family seat of Pixton Park was actually derived from Pixie Town, is it possible that pixies are in some way responsible for the curse of Tutankhamun?

Jessica Turner