From Dartmeet, on the B3357
road towards Ashburton, proceed up the hill for about 600 yards where it
sweeps around to the left. Here, leave the road, continue in a straight
line on the moor and the stone will be found about half way across the
Grid Ref: 677 733
Map location: Click here to view map.
Purpose: This was a convenient boulder for pall-bearers to set the coffin down for a rest half way up Dartmeet Hill, on their route to Widecombe Church.
Size: The overall measurement of the boulder is 9 feet (2.74 metres) by 8 feet 4 inches (2.54 metres). The incised cross on the left hand stone in the photo is 7 inches high (0.18 metres) and 7 inches (0.18 metres) across the arms. There are two incised crosses on the right hand stone, which both measure 8 inches (0.20 metres) high and 5 inches (0.13 metres) across the arms.
Information: Between the mid 13th and the early 20th centuries, the bodies of all deceased persons in the Hexworthy and Dartmeet areas were physically carried to Widecombe for burial in the churchyard. On leaving Dartmeet, the pall-bearers would immediately have to ascend the steep Dartmeet Hill on Yartor Down. This was quite a laborious task and the Coffin Stone was handily placed on which to rest the coffin, while the bearers took a break to regain their energy for the next leg of the journey. The introduction of the motor car to Dartmoor early in the 20th century made it much easier to transport the coffin to the church.
The Coffin Stone was once a single boulder, which has been split into two, lengthways, by natural causes. However, legend has it that many years ago a very evil and wicked man had died and was on his way to burial at the Widecombe Churchyard. Following the normal routine, the coffin was laid on the stone, while the bearers took a break during their ascent up Dartmeet Hill. The Almighty, who was not happy with this person being buried in a sacred place like the Churchyard, sent a massive thunderbolt down to earth. This not only destroyed the coffin and its contents, but split the boulder into two as well.
Prior to 1260, the burial of all deceased persons who lived within the Forest of Dartmoor took place at the parish church of Lydford. The Forest of Dartmoor is the central area of high moorland as bounded by twelve knights, at the command of Henry III, in the 1240 Perambulation of the Moor. In simple terms, the Forest stretches from Cosdon in the north to Western White Barrow in the south and from Lynch Tor in the west to Dartmeet in the east. The inclusion of this area makes Lydford one of the largest parishes in the country.
The route to Lydford used by those who lived on the eastern side of the moor was named ‘The Lych Way’. The path started in the vicinity of Bellever and took a route across the moor, which would have normally crossed the West Dart River below Crow Tor, the Cowsic at Traveller’s Ford, the Walkham below Cock’s Hill and the Tavy at Cataloo steps. During the journey to this point, across the open moor, the body would have been carried on the back of a pack-horse, with the bearers walking alongside. It was in the area beside Cataloo Steps, appropriately named Coffin Wood, that the body would have been transferred to the coffin for the final leg of the journey into Lydford and the Parish Church. The total journey was something in the region of 12 miles during good weather. However, during periods of heavy rain, anything up to 6 miles could be added to the journey in order to find suitable crossing places on the swollen rivers.
It was recorded that, in the year 1260, Bishop Bronescombe of Exeter gave his permission for those living in the tenements of Babeny and Pizwell to be buried at Widecombe, rather than making the arduous journey across the moor to Lydford. It is quite likely that this was extended to all parishes and tenements on the eastern side of the moor soon after.
One custom associated with the Coffin Stone is that, on the death of a person who was highly regarded in the area, the procession would be accompanied by a stonemason. During their rest on Dartmeet Hill, the mason would inscribe the initials of the deceased on the Coffin Stone, together with a small cross. I have not been able to discover the owners of the initials (E.B. and I.P.) that can be seen on the left-hand stone in the above photograph. However, two others that I have been able to identify are S.C. and A.C., which represent Samuel Caunter of Dartmeet and Aaron Cleave of Hexworthy respectively.
It is thought that the last person to be rested on the Coffin Stone was Sally Satterley of Hexworthy, in 1901. Sally and her husband Tom were the builders of Jolly Lane Cot, the last house to be ‘built in a day’. They originally built it for Sally’s father John, in order that he could marry her stepmother Ann and provide a house for them to live in. When looking for a site for the cottage the local farmers were not keen to give up any of their productive land. However, on the day of the Holne Revel in 1835, all the local farmers went off to enjoy the fair and to make merry. In their absence, Sally and Tom gathered together a group of labourers and set about building the cottage. By the time the farmers returned home, late that evening and probably the worse for drink, the roof was on and a fire was burning in the hearth. In accordance with tradition, any man who could build a house and have a fire burning in the hearth in one day was entitled to the freehold on that house. So it was with John and Ann Satterly and some time later, presumably on death of her parents, the cottage was occupied by Sally and Tom themselves.