by Dan Shone
History and Heritage
‘And the highwayman came riding – Riding – riding – The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.’
Devon’s maze of winding country lanes, deep valleys and wild moorland provided the perfect hiding places for highwaymen. Despite their criminal exploits, these men of mystery have an enduring romance. Is it their fearless daring, gallantry or wanderlust?
In Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’, it’s not clear whether black-eyed Bess’s heart was won by the French cocked hat, the claret velvet coat, the doe-skin breeches, the thigh-high boots or the jewelled weapons, but something irresistible provoked the fatal musket shot, self-inflicted to save her highwayman’s life.
As you wander the unspoiled Devon landscape, it’s easy to see what inspired poets and novelists to pen romantic accounts of highwaymen to make pulses quicken.
‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.’
These are all real dashing highwaymen who roamed the Devon countryside – and some have never left!
Tom Faggus was a talented 17th century blacksmith of North Molton, until he lost his living and his fiancée after a legal battle with a wealthy Devon family who were jealous of the prize he won for best-shod horse in north Devon.
Turning to crime, he proved to have a talent for highway robbery. He spurned violence and treated his victims with courtesy, stealing only from the rich, including the aristocrat responsible for his downfall.
With the help of his legendary ‘enchanted strawberry mare’ Winnie, he escaped numerous traps, even jumping Winnie over the parapet of Barnstaple’s bridge and dropping 40ft into the river when cornered by constables.
His doom came via a constable disguised as a beggar to whom he offered a drink in a tavern; realising the danger, he whistled in vain for Winnie who was already killed in her stable. His fate is unrecorded, but he achieved immortality as a character who won a king’s pardon in the Exmoor novel Lorna Doone and fond recollections of his gentlemanly nature have been passed down local generations.
Watching Place, a lonely Dartmoor crossroads near North Bovey, is now peaceful, but it was once the main route from Exeter to Tavistock. There’s strong evidence the name originates from a highwayman, John Fall, who lurked here, waiting for travellers to accost. Others believe a gallows stood here and those connected to convicted highwaymen watched and waited to cut down the bodies, left as a warning to would-be robbers.
Whatever the facts, there’s little doubt that the area was a highwayman’s haunt. There are several accounts of a ghostly, cloaked figure standing by the granite cross, empty eye sockets fixed on the road ahead, sometimes manifesting itself as a disembodied hand which grabs the bridles of passing horses. Animals, especially horses, are reluctant to pass the crossroads.
In the 18th century, sleepy Rackenford, near Tiverton, enjoyed the regular visits of a wealthy young stranger who spent lavishly at the Stag Inn on food, drink and entertainment. Much later, villagers discovered they’d hosted the West Country highwayman who was tempted away by Dick Turpin to rob wealthy merchants around London.
All went well until the two highwaymen were accosted by Bow Street Runners and in the melee Turpin accidentally shot Tom King who died by the roadside. His ghost returned to the Stag Inn where he rides into the courtyard, strides into the bar and looks furtively out of the porch.
Witherington was one of five brothers, all eventually hanged. He won fame in the 17th century for his courage and duelling skills on joining a military regiment, until he was expelled from the regiment for challenging his captain. He bought a good horse with the spoils of gaming and turned highwayman.
His subsequent career was prolific and audacious, until he sought refuge in an old inn near Chudleigh, now The Highwayman’s Haunt. He was eventually discovered in the chimney breast and hung at Newgate.
Barnes was a taverner and presbyterian, apparently a sober family man until he took on an inn in Cullompton. There he threw off the ‘religious mask’ and became embroiled in ‘debt and evil courses’. One of his creditors was a blacksmith, who he convinced to join him in robbing the Exeter carrier en route to London.
Together with a woolcomber, they held up the carrier and galloped home to Cullompton with £600. They’d been identified, but were able to escape from Exeter Gaol after the blacksmith released their fetters with a file secreted about his person. Two, including Barnes, were recaptured and he confessed to a litany of other offences at his execution.
In a lonely spot near Sourton on the edge of Dartmoor, this ancient inn is said to be haunted and, for all its warm welcome, it’ll send shivers down your spine. The porch is the old Okehampton to Launceston stagecoach, bars are fashioned from tree trunks and coins glitter in every crevice, wedged there to appease the Dartmoor fairy folk. It is quite possibly the most unusual pub in Britain.
Take a look at our Devon cottages, all safe havens from the enduring mystery.
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