On the Fourth of July we celebrated America's expulsion from the British Empire in a truly appropriate way. We went to Princetown, a village situated high on Dartmoor on Duchy of Cornwall land. It is a charmless place and it would not warrant visiting if it was not for the fact that it is where Arthur Conan Doyle found the inspiration for and began work on "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and that it is the location of the notorious Dartmoor Jail. That we should be in Princetown on such an auspicious day was completely accidental as we had no idea beforehand that the prison was originally built to hold American and French prisoners of war in a manner befitting their treachery and uppitiness. The building was also where over one thousand one hundred conscientious objectors were locked up during WWI. At present, it houses only low risk prisoners undergoing rehabilitation. However, for most of its history it was a high security facility, the long term home of some of the country's most hardened and vicious criminals. It has been allowed, over the years, to become a somewhat dilapidated building and the government has it earmarked for closure. This would destroy the community that surrounds it and provides it with many of its staff members. Surely it could still be of use even in its current unsafe and unsanitary condition. I suggest that it goes back to being a place of detainment for those of an American or French persuasion suspected of naughtiness (which would be pretty much all of them). Our very own Guantanamo Bay if you will.
We commenced our visit with an energetic trudge, in unpleasantly hot and humid conditions, along the trackbed of the disused Princetown railway. At the beginning of the walk we passed Dartmoor Brewery where they make Jail Ale as well as various other acceptable libations.
Our path meandered across the once sparsely populated, now completely uninhabited, Walkhampton Common until we reached the abandoned Sweltor Quarries (which provided the stone for the old London Bridge, 1209 to 1831) where we gingerly made our way around the precipitous rim that surrounds the gaping hole in the moorland landscape.
A yomp across boggy, open moorland took us to the destination of our walk, the craggy summit of King's Tor, where we stopped for a frugal lunch of energy bars and water before setting off to rejoin the course of the old railway on which we retraced our steps back to the car park.
The jail looms across the village like a medieval castle over the parasitical settlement outside of its walls.
"Parcere Subjectis": be kind to prisoners (an instruction that I assume has not always been obeyed within the walls of this bleak institution.
The parish church of Saint Michael's is not regularly used nowadays, although it remains consecrated. It is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. The building was just too big for its small congregation to look after properly.
Legend has it that the prison was built by its first inmates but this is not true. However, the church was. The cruel foundation of this place of worship is commemorated inside by the flags of the USA, France and Great Britain and a stained glass window paid for with a donation from the United States Daughters of 1812. It is become a place of pilgrimage for many American visitors.
Before 1910 (if I remember correctly) prisoners who died whilst resident at Dartmoor Jail were buried anonymously. In the churchyard are rows of simple headstones on which are written just a set of initials and a date. Beneath them lie the bodies of the men who died whilst working on the construction of the church. For many years these graves remained anonymous but recent, painstaking research, has now identified and given a full name to every one of them.
Many of the graves in the church's cemetery tell an interesting story. Most of them are sad. One of the saddest is that of Ted "the Arab" Richards who died as recently as 1976. He was a prison officer of many years service who worked long hours and as many extra shifts as he could get in order to provide his wife and himself with a retirement that had no financial worries.
Ted dropped dead as he walked through the prison gates after his last shift on the day he retired.
A HEARTFELT PLEA
The MadGang are now entering the second week of their vacation. You can greatly increase their holiday happiness by contributing to this year's Saint Laika Summer Appeal. Every penny sent will be squandered on the consumption of cream teas (both Cornish and Devonish), Jail Ale from the Dartmoor Brewery, locally distilled gin and other extravagances not normally partaken of by an out of work mad priest and his long-suffering wife.
For full details click on THIS LINK.
God bless you.