"John & Joan",

A Close Reading


Though little known in this era, ‘the man with the magpie mind’ Sabine Baring-Gould – Reverend, lyricist, author and raconteur– was a prolific 19th and 20th century writer, amateur archaeologist, folklorist, and ethnomusicologist from the South West of England who focused much of his abundant talent on chronicling life in Dartmoor.  Though now best known for his hymn ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ over his ninety year life Baring-Gould amassed a huge body of work– about one hundred and fifty books by E.W. Martin’s account!– both written by himself and gathered from country folk.   Among these were large numbers of lyrical ballads and parish hymns, such as are collected in his Songs of the West: Folk Songs of Devon and Cornwall, many novels set in the West– a number specifically set in Dartmoor, such as Urith: a Tale of Dartmoor– and several collections of short fiction, fantasy and ghost stories such as Red Spider, and legends from the area.  Dartmoor Idylls is one such collection, covering a range of tales and folklore from all over the Moor as recounted by Baring-Gould.  Published in 1896, it is a compelling, often humorous collection of nine stories– “John and Joan”, “Daniel Jacobs”, “Snaily House”, “Ephraim’s Pinch”, “Little Dixie”, “Jonas Coaker”, “Goosie–Vair”, “The Hammetts”, “Jolly Lane Cot”, “Green Rushes, O!”, and “An Old Cross”– taken from rural life on Dartmoor.  Set in both the open Moor and the villages and towns which dot it, each tale reveals an entertaining piece of the region’s interwoven cultural and physical history, illuminating the unique relationship between landscape and population.  Each tale offers different insights into the people of Dartmoor, but just as importantly they are fun to read, as all good folk legends should be. 


            Baring-Gould was often very precise in his descriptions of both the history of the people on the land and its physical terrain: his insight into and description of an isolated, often harsh Dartmoor and the unique landmarks which dot it is often as captivating as the characters who inhabit it.  Landmarks are especially important to travelers on Dartmoor, where the sudden rise in mist or an unexpected storm can leave one hopelessly lost and stranded in dangerous conditions.  Natural features such as the ‘Frog Rock’ of “John and Joan”, a granite post erected next to an old mining leat (commonly found across the moors) which keeps old Joan safe from exposure and alerts John against falling into the Tavy river while searching for his snow–covered wife, are often mentioned in these folkloric tales, both by Baring-Gould for their authentic detail and by their original tellers as vital landmarks.  For the same reason, Public houses such as the Warren House Inn from Baring-Gould’s “Snaily House” and “Jonas Coaker” where the travelers might seek shelter from the elements, which still exists today on the road to Post Bridge, are essential to life and passage on Dartmoor

The Warren House Inn is an excellent example of Baring-Gould’s story telling: while it appears in the two stories “Snaily House” and “Jonas Coaker” more as a passing detail than a central point to each, but the notable role it plays in Dartmoor legend is nonetheless emphasized from the author’s repeated references.  The Warren House, so named because of the rabbit warren near by, has stood in the same spot as it does today since 1845, after the old building, on the same spot but other side of the road, burned down.  An Inn of some type, the original called Newhouse or in more recent times Warren House itself, has been documented to be standing in this place from at least the 1720s, likely because the road on which it now stands has been a packhorse way from ancient times (Martin, E.W., Dartmoor,19).   In Baring-Gould’s contemporary J.L. Page’s book An Exploration of Dartmoor, the New House was thought to be one of the oldest on the Moor, whose sign read “John Roberts lives here, Sells brandy and beer, Your spirits to cheer; And should you want meat, To make up the treat, There is rabbits to eat,” (Page, 170).  The story of the house, related by Baring-Gould in “Jonas Coaker”, must have appealed to his interest in the fantastic and macabre (also among Baring-Gould’s story collections is Devonshire Characters and Strange Events).  Not only does Baring-Gould give us the unusual legend of Warren House Inn within the larger story about Jonas, the “poet” of Dartmoor who lived in the village of Post Bridge down the road from the Inn, and from whom he may have gotten the story originally, but in Baring-Gould’s telling of it he makes sure to include the character of the hosts and the difficulty of winters on Dartmoor –both for travelers and those who have permanent residence there.  In “Snaily House”, the Warren House Inn is the last stage of Joanie and Janie’s trip from Chudleigh, outside of Dartmoor, to the Snaily House to live with their elderly aunt.



Throughout these stories are many specific details on the land and its people: the route of one of his characters lost in a famous blizzard is mapped out for the inquisitive in “John and Joan”, as is the way to get to the “Snaily House” via carriage.  One of the main occupations for the people of Dartmoor was mining; thus “Little Dixie”, set under Doe Tor near Lydford, and ‘Jolly Lane Cot”, whose hero lives at the Moor’s edge in Walkampton and helps the farmers of Holn, are two stories of miners and the lengths they go to acquire wives which are set in situ around the mining areas of Mary Tavy and Swincombe.  Though mining as a profitable occupation for the people of Dartmoor was in its final years when Baring-Gould was writing Idylls, it was, and remains such an important part of the culture that it is no surprise several stories are devoted to mining families.  Many of the mine works, the blowing houses, and other now–abandoned tinning and mining facilities dating back from ancient to early 20th century times still dot the Moor today.  One of the best preserved sites, protected by the National Trust for its significance to Dartmoor economy and life style, is Betsy Wheal, just outside of Mary Tavy.


            Baring-Gould goes to great length to include for his readers background information not only on the various physical features of these places, but also the histories specific to each place, delving into the means by which land was parceled out from the Duchy of Cornwall– and how it was delightfully exploited in “Jolly Lane Cot”–  to those who lived on Dartmoor, the practice of tinning and other forms of mining that took place there – mentioned at various points in several of the stories listed above– and the idiosyncrasies of his various real-life characters.  For these reasons Dartmoor Idylls is in itself a wonderful collection of insights which give outsiders glimpses of folk tradition and life, as well as a better understanding of the landscapes, life styles, and rich cultural heritage of this too–often–overlooked portion of the country.


© Copyright Anna Hale 2007


Sabine Baring Gould-

A Brief Biography

Mining on Dartmoor

Story Scans and Synopses

Local Route Walking Tour




The old ‘Warren Inn” was the scene of the well gruesome story of the benighted   traveler who was taken in one snowy winter evening and placed in a bedroom where was an oak chest.  During the night he woke, the moon shone in at the little casement on the chest.  It had dispersed the clouds.  His imaginations began to work.  He was uneasy as to this chest; he got out of bed and crept to it, threw up the lid, and saw a dead man in it.  Of course, no more sleep for him that night.  Next morning he came down to his breakfast off a rasher of salt bacon, and eyed the cheery host and hostess with some suspicion.  At last he ventured to mention what he had seen.

     “Oh!” said the hostess, “it’s only old vayther [father].  The frost be that hard, the snow that deep, us can’t carr’n  yet awhile to Lydford churchyard to bury ‘n, so us   has salted ‘n in.”

The traveler pushed from him his plate with the rasher untouched.

                                                                        Baring-Gould, S.  “Jonas Coaker” 149–150