Seven-year old Nancy Holman lay back on the short green turf of the river bank and gazed contentedly around her. Evening light played on the peaty water of the West Dart and, above the foaming cataracts, glancing sunbeams danced to the music of the river. Overhead a buzzard wheeled, searching for its supper, whilst the sun dipped slowly, a great red ball behind Dartmoor’s western hills.
Below her, brother Paddy and cousin Christopher splashed about in the shallows, recounting tales of boarding school life. Both nine years old, they had much in common apart from family ties and it was good to be together again on this the first evening of the annual family camp on Dunnabridge Farm.
Paddy and Nancy’s father, Dr Alec Holman, was one of nine children and following his father’s death when he was nine years old, he had spent a great many holidays at the home of his guardian, Dick Howard, who farmed at Brimpts above Dartmeet. Through Uncle Dick had come his passion for fishing and a deep love of the moor which he had passed on to his own children. The family ties with Devon and Dartmoor reached back many years to the Reverend Holman Mason, first vicar of St Michael’s and All Angels in Princetown and one time Vicar of Widecombe-in-the-Moor.
The year was 1928 and, for several summers now, the Holman ‘clan’ with their families had gathered at Dunnabridge Farm for much of August, although the little ones stayed in the care of a Nanny at a nearby cottage. With the kind permission of Farmer Caunter they set up their tents near the plantation above the river. The little camp included a caravan owned by Dr Holman and a log cabin built by Auntie Eve and Uncle Sidney Richards, Christopher’s parents, to accommodate their family of five children.
On arrival Nancy and Paddy had spread great armfuls of bracken on the floor of the big bell tent they shared with their cousins as a soft mattress for their sleeping bags. Here they eventually fell asleep, lulled by the sound of the summer breeze in the pine trees and the calling of night-owls along the valley.
The following days were, as always, magical. Did the sun always shine on those long-ago childhood holidays? Mornings began early with a splash in the river before a breakfast of river trout and bacon cooked on the big open fire, discussing plans for the day ahead. Everyone helped with chores - fetching water, washing up, collecting produce from Mrs Caunter at the farm or preparing a picnic. Sometimes the children gathered whortleberries from the slopes of Laughter Tor which the kindly farmer’s wife made into delicious pies for them. Sometimes they hired ponies from Brimpts and rode for miles over the moor, envious of Newman Caunter, the farmer’s son, who rode his pony to school in Princetown throughout the year.
The morning of the 19th August dawned bright and clear and was spent at a favourite spot on the Dart where the river tumbled over rocks into a deep, wide pool known as Hurdle Pool. Many of the cousins had learnt to swim here, cheered on by their families until they reached the flat rock in the middle. After a picnic lunch some of the ‘clan’ drifted off to walk or indulge their passion for trout fishing but Christopher, Paddy and Nancy, all excellent swimmers, stayed beside the pool. For a while they attempted to make a stone-age hut on the opposite bank by dragging stones from the river and then, tired by their efforts, the boys settled down to read while Nancy set out her paintbox and brushes to use her budding talents as an artist to capture this special scene.
When the adults returned Christopher asked if he might stay and read on for a while as his book was very exciting. Reluctantly, Nancy followed the rest of the family up the hill, but stopped beneath a rowan tree just out of sight of the river, hoping to accompany her much-admired cousin back to the camp. Tired of waiting, she eventually peeked over the brow of the hill. Christopher was still engrossed in his book and as he turned another page, Nancy gave up her vigil with a sigh and made her way up the hill. At teatime Christopher’s sister was sent to hurry him up but she returned, saying that she couldn’t find him. Puzzled, but not necessarily worried, everyone set off to search.
It was his mother who eventually found him. He lay fully clothed, face down in the river beneath an overhanging section of the bank. His book, It Happened Like This by Eden Phillpotts, floated close by. All attempts to revive him failed and so a happy, family holiday came to a tragic end. The subsequent inquest revealed little. Christopher was a normal healthy boy and an excellent swimmer and it was assumed that, having fallen asleep, he had rolled into the river where the shock of the cold water had caused him to choke.
They buried him in Princetown’s churchyard amongst the hills he loved, although a commemorative stained glass window depicting St Christopher carrying the infant Jesus across a stream was placed in St Sampson’s Church, Cricklade where his father was Vicar. The following winter, at the request of the family, Farmer Caunter erected a roughly-hewn granite cross beside the West Dart close to the place where he died.
For Nancy Van der Kiste (nee Holman), the sole survivor of that family group, this cross will always be Christopher’s true memorial. We have been friends for several years now and during that time she has shared many of the memories which stem from her life-long association with Dartmoor. Now a sprightly 82, her own article telling the story of Christopher’s Cross was published in the Dartmoor Magazine during 1990. It is with her kind consent that I have re-told it here for Devon Life readers.
With the permission of Mr and Mrs Roger Winsor of Dunnabridge Farm we walked along the faint fishermen’s path to Hurdle Pool on a day in June when blue-winged damsel flies played through the lush grasses beside the river. Covered with lichen, the cross today resembles those of much greater antiquity to be found on the moor. Other crosses, too, have been erected as memorials, but few represent a more poignant tragedy than the one which unfolded here on that August day in 1928 when, in keeping with the age-old rhyme, the beautiful River Dart claimed yet another heart, this time that of a nine-year old boy named Christopher Holman Richards.
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