Robert Charles Hope tells us in ‘The Legendary Lore Of The Holy Wells Of England’ (1893) that ‘Cranmere Pool is believed to be a place of punishment for unhappy spirits, who are frequently to be heard wailing in the morasses which surround it’. Situated at a height of 1,837ft in the Okehampton Artillery Range, Cranmere Pool (possibly derived from The Lake of Cranes or Crow Meer) is the head of the West Okement River, though it is now described as little more than a depression that only fills after heavy rain.
Robert Hope was probably referring to the legend associated with Cranmere Pool and the ghost of Benjamin Gayer (Benjie Gear, Cranmere Benjie) from Okehampton. Gayer was said to be a wealthy merchant and ship owner who fell upon hard times after several of his ships and cargo were lost to pirates. In order to regain his lost wealth he invested money from a fund he was entrusted with by the local community, a fund to pay the ransom of local mariners captured by pirates. Luck was not with Benjamin and again he lost the latest cargo he had invested the stolen funds in. His business was ruined, he was a broken man, he was unable to repay the money he had stolen, and, by his selfish actions, he had condemned many local sailors who were in the hands of pirates awaiting payment. The guilt played heavily on his soul, his health deteriorated and he died guilty and tormented. For months following his funeral the ghost of Benjamin Gayer haunted the streets of Okehampton, crying and wailing throughout each night. A series of exorcisms were attempted by all the local clergy trying unsuccessfully to lay the spirit of Gayer to rest. Just as things were looking desperate for the people of Okehampton, the Archdeacon called upon a wise priest who lived in a remote part of Dartmoor.
This priest confronted the ghost armed with a bridle and accompanied by a horseman. He commanded the ghost to depart using the Arabic tongue and Gayer conceded that he must leave the mortal world. But instead of fading away, he turned into a black horse. The horseman put the bridle on the horse and whipping him harshly rode him up onto the moor. As they approached Cranmere Pool he sent the horse hurtling into the waters whilst jumping off and removing the bridle. The mysterious priest then arrived binding the spirit of Gayer to the pool until he could empty it of water using nothing more than a sieve. Years passed as the spirit toiled at his hopeless task, trapped at Cranmere Pool, then one day he found a dead sheep and using its skin he lined his sieve and found that it then held water. He began to empty the pool. He threw the waters from Cranmere Pool into the River Okemont whose waters rose and burst their banks, flooding the town of Okehampton.
The priest was called again from his remote home and tasked with tackling Benjamin’s spirit at Cranmere Pool. This time the ghost was given a tougher challenge, to make trusses of grit tied with plaits created from sand, a task that he is still, according to legend attempting to complete. His ghost is said to be seen and heard by the pool and on the moor shaped as both a man and black horse.
This idea of trapping a spirit at a location by giving it a seemingly impossible task is one that appears in other tales. At Hound’s Pool, also on Dartmoor, a very similar story exists, where a weaver’s spirit was transformed by a minister of religion into a black hound and led to the pool where he was bound with the unending task of emptying it of water using a nut shell with a hole in it. On Bodmin Moor in Cornwall the tormented soul of Jan Treagle was ritually bound to Dozmary Pool and tasked to empty it with a leaking limpet shell.
A granite letter box can be found at Cranmere Pool which is thought to be the site of Dartmoors first letterbox and dates from 1854, having been established by James Perrott of Chagford, which back then was little more than a bottle in which cards could be deposited.