A Search for Pixies Holt

Something to seek out once the restrictions are lifted.

In my talks with Dartmoor walkers I’m always surprised at how few have ever been to Pixies Holt.  Many confused it with the education adventure centre on the hill out of Dartmeet, which bore the same name and in truth the legendary lair of the little folk of Dartmoor is not very far away. I suspect that one difficulty is finding the cave in the first place.

It took me a long afternoon of searching to locate the Holt, when I first looked in the 1970s.

It was a hot and balmy day and I tramped up and down the hillside above the Dart for a good few hours without success. Then I dug William Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor out of my rucksack and scanned it for a clue.

In an almost throwaway line the great Crossing points out that “an old track is carried from this (St Raphael’s Chapel) to Week Ford at Wo Brook Foot. By following this the Piskies Holt may be reached”.

Well, that was what I had done. So far, so good. Then I noticed the bit I had overlooked: “It is marked by four sycamores”. The problem was there were lots of trees in the vicinity and a fair few sycamores.

In the end I came upon the cave quite unexpectedly, and it was much nearer to Dartmeet than I had envisaged, and a trifle further away from the river.

But it was quite a cave. I knelt down to crawl inside and then found I could stand up. It was good and dry inside and curiously light. Others had already found their way here, for tucked into one wall were a fair number of silver coins and silver pins, no doubt deposited to propitiate the little fellows. It was a long cave and there was a further ‘emergency escape’ entrance at the far end through which I climbed up to the surface.

I dug once more into my rucksack and brought out my copy of Crossing’s Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies. Here was a lavish description of what I had just seen and I cannot better William Crossing’s description:

“It is a long narrow passage formed by large slabs of granite resting on two natural walls of the same. It is curved in form and extends for a distance of thirty-seven feet. Its width is about four feet, and it is of sufficient height for a man to stand upright in it. The entrance, which is but two-and-a-half feet in height is at the eastern end, and at the other extremity is a small aperture through which it is possible to climb out of the cave. The floor is covered with decayed leaves, blown in by the wind”.

Having exited from the far end I went back to the main entrance and crawled inside once more. The leaves on the floor had shown no signs of disturbance on my first exploration, but clearly someone had been in very recently, for a brand new five pence had fallen down from the wall. In fact there were several pounds worth of silver coins and around a hundred pins lining the wall. Clearly someone had great faith in Piskies.

I dwelt for a while on the phenomenon of Dartmoor Piskies. In fact they have a number of other supposed lairs on Dartmoor, not least the famous cave on Sheepstor. Tales of their antics abound. I commend William Crossing’s volumes or Ruth St Leger Gordon’s Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor, if you wish to delve further into the subject. I might as well say here that I have never personally seen a Dartmoor Pisky, though I have observed a lot of odd things on Dartmoor and had several weird experiences.

Years ago, I used to know a Dartmoor vicar who often walked northern Dartmoor. He assured me in all seriousness that he had often witnessed “pisky” activity in the more lonesome stretches of his parish. He told me of a number of instances when he had had a close up view. Whether I believed him or not is hardly the point. He clearly believed in what he was saying.

In those days I used to spend a great many nights on Dartmoor, bivvying amidst whatever shelter I could find. It seemed to me that the Pixies Holt would make an admirable halfway point for long expeditions across the Moor. I tried it out a week or two later. After a hot day’s walking and a dip in the Dart, I crawled inside for the night. It was a peaceful and restful experience.

And I didn’t see a single pisky – despite the couple of pints I’d enjoyed at the Forest Inn at Hexworthy on my journey. What I do recall feeling was a wonderful sense of security, as though I had a force field wrapped around me. I used the Holt as one of my Dartmoor bedrooms on many occasions after that.

I have to confess that I haven’t been to the Pixies Holt now for many years. I hope it is the same and unspoiled and that other visitors have left silver coins and pins to keep the Piskies happy. If you do visit please treat their home with respect and leave a silvery tribute. You never know – they might be watching you!

Published by John Bainbridge

Rambler, hillwalker, stravaiger and trespasser, access campaigner. Novelist writing historical and period crime fiction.

5 thoughts on “A Search for Pixies Holt

  1. Kind of makes me wonder if that is where we get the word “pesky” from… as in “darn that pesky crow for stealing my daughter’s bracelet!” Seems suspiciously possible it started out as “pisky”…


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