A LEGENDARY GRAVE
Dartmoor, the great expanse of granite moorland that lies at the heart of Devon in south-west England, has long been a favourite place for tourists and holidaymakers. Alongside the areas of natural beauty and the historic and prehistoric sites, one of the minor tourist attractions lies just to the north-west of Hound Tor and a few miles north of Widecombe-in-the-Moor. Like many such places on the moor, it seems to lie on a road that goes from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular. The site is on the road that runs past the west side of Cripdon Down, at a point where a trackway branches off. It is marked as ‘Jay’s Grave’ on large-scale Ordnance Survey maps, at National Grid Reference SX732798.
There are several graves on Dartmoor, and many stone markers and crosses, some of which are thought to mark graves, but the essence of Jay’s Grave is its anonymity. It is quite easy to drive past without even noticing it. The actual site is a small, very low mound on the roadside, with a kerb of small granite blocks. The most distinguishing feature are the flowers in a jam jar.
The legend about this site, which can be found in any number of recent books, is that this is the grave of a young woman called Kitty Jay. She was an orphan brought up in the poorhouse sometime in the early or mid-19th century. At an early age she was apprenticed as a general servant on a farm at Manaton, where she was seduced by a young farm labourer. When it became obvious that she was pregnant, her employers hounded her. In despair, she committed suicide. For this reason, she was denied burial in consecrated ground, but was buried instead in an unmarked grave at the spot now known as Jay’s Grave. Shortly afterwards, on moonlit nights, a dark figure could be seen kneeling over the grave with its face in its hands. This ghostly figure was interpreted as either that of Kitty Jay or more often the spirit of the man who had seduced and abandoned her and who was now condemned to watch over her grave. According to a more recent legend, the flowers on her grave are freshly cut daily and no-one knows who puts them there. Some people will tell you that they are brought by the local fairies or pixies, and this story is particularly popular with the sellers of pixie charms and concrete statues of pixies.
That, at least, is how the legend stands now, but once you dig deeper to try to find if it is based on any evidence, there is an immediate conflict of facts. There seems to have been a local tradition that the site was the grave of a suicide who may have been called Kitty Jay or Mary Jay. This story was already old and poorly remembered by the end of the 19th century. One of the earliest references to the story is in the first volume of Devon Notes and Queries, published in 1901:
Jay’s Grave … by the side of the Ashburton and Chagford road, where the Heytree and Hedge Barton Estates meet. A workman of mine, aged 74, informs us that about forty years ago, just before he came to Ashburton where he will have lived thirty-nine years next October, he was in the employ of Mr. James Bryant, of Hedge Barton, Manaton, when he remembers Jay’s Grave being opened, in which a young unmarried woman who had hung herself in Cannon Farm outbuildings, which is situated between Forder and Torhill, was said to have been buried, but no one then living at Manaton could remember the occurrence. The grave was opened by order of Mr. James Bryant in the presence of his son-in-law, Mr. J.W. Sparrow, M.R.C.S. Bones were found, examined, and declared to be those of a female. The skull was taken to Hedge Barton, but was afterwards placed with the bones in a box and re-interred in the old grave, a small mound raised with head and foot stones erected at either end. Such is the present appearance of the grave.’
This 1901 account of Jay’s Grave, which was repeated and embellished in several subsequent books about Dartmoor, appears to be the main published source of the story. It places the opening of the grave ‘about forty years’ earlier, which would be around 1860.
… AND FINDING AN OLD WOMAN
There is an earlier mention of what appears to be this same grave, where the suicide is described as an old woman by the name of Kay. It appeared in 1876 in Things Old and New Concerning the Parish of Widecombe-in-the-Moor and its Neighbourhood, which was edited by Robert Dymond FSA, a local antiquary. He moved from Exeter in 1869 to live at Dunstone Manor, Blackslade, near Widecombe, only a few miles from Jay’s Grave. As he took a keen interest in the locality, it is highly probable that he was reporting a story that was then current:
‘Regaining the line of the Chagford road,’ Dymond wrote, ‘we observe on our right the bold fortress-like mass of Houndtor … half way between the Tor and the road from which we have diverged, is another good specimen of the kistvaen [a prehistoric stone-lined burial], not covered, in this instance, by a cairn, but surrounded by a circle of once upright stones. A simple mound and unwrought headstone by the roadside marks the site of a more modern grave. A poor old woman, called Kay, having hung herself, was laid here under cross roads without the rites of Christian burial. There are many such graves of suicides hereabouts, and the country folk shudder as they pass the whisht [eerie or ghostly] spots by night.’
While the location of what was then a ‘modern grave’ is not given in sufficient detail to be absolutely certain it refers to Jay’s Grave, it does feel the same. Robert Dymond was also quoted as the source for a similar account by John Page that appeared in 1889 in An Exploration of Dartmoor and its Antiquities with Some Account of its Borders. In this book, Page talks about a kistvaen ‘between the Tor and the road to Chagford. Close to the wayside, where a moor road crosses the highway, is a suicide’s grave, that of an old woman named Kay, who hung herself. The rough headstone which marks the mound has no inscription. Following the road, we soon reach stony Hayne Down…’
Of all these accounts, the only facts that we have are that bones were found and reburied at this site around 1860. As the bones were examined by someone with medical knowledge, it should be safe to assume that their identification as human is correct. Since we do not know how much of the skeleton survived, the opinion that they belonged to a young female is less reliable. We are left with the possibility that Jay’s Grave may actually be ‘Kay’s Grave’, if the early accounts originating from Robert Dymond are correct. The similarity between the names ‘Jay’ and ‘Kay’ and the stories of the two women are so striking that it is tempting to see a true tale about an old woman called Kay being ‘improved’ by changing her age and name. Certainly, from the point of view of tourists, the grave of a young woman betrayed and abandoned by her lover makes a more romantic tale than that of an old woman about whom we know nothing. This alone would account for the subsequent growth and embroidery of the story.
Or it may be that a real story about Kitty Jay has become attached to the grave of a woman with a similar name. With so little hard evidence, the opportunities for speculation are almost endless. The most popular version of the legend has now reached a wider audience after the local singer and songwriter, Seth Lakeman, had a hit with his song ‘Kitty Jay’ and his album of the same name.
As to the posies of fresh flowers on the grave, there is a partial explanation. It is widely believed that flowers were secretly placed there every day by Beatrice Chase. She was a writer and this was her pen name. Her real name was Olive Katharine Parr. She was born in Middlesex, but settled in Venton near Widecombe sometime in the early 1900s and often walked the surrounding moorland. She died in 1955 and is buried in Widecombe churchyard (see the picture above). Even while she was alive, her flowers on Jay’s Grave were often supplemented by flowers from tourists and passers-by, but after her death a person or persons unknown has continued the tradition. As well as flowers, tourists now leave coins on the small granite block that serves as a headstone.
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