Cranmere Pool lies about five miles (8 km) south of Okehampton, in the northernmost of the two great blanket bogs of Dartmoor. It is not a real ‘pool’ today, though it must once have been one, for the name Cranmere means ‘Crow’s Mere’. It consists, rather, of peaty puddles draining into West Okement Head, a few yards to the north. Stories from the nineteenth century, however, talk of the banishment of ghosts under water in this lonely and desolate spot – indeed, a contributor to Notes and Queries in 1851 called it ‘a great penal settlement for refractory spirits’:
Many of the former inhabitants of this parish [St Mary Tavy] are still there, expiating their ghostly pranks. An old farmer was so troublesome to his survivors as to require seven clergymen to secure him. By their means, however, he was transformed into a colt, and a servant boy was directed to take him to Cranmere Pool. On arriving at the brink of the pool he was to take off the halter, and return instantly without looking round. Curiosity proving too powerful, he turned his head to see what was going on, when he beheld the colt plunge into the lake in the form of a ball of fire. Before doing so, however, he gave the lad a parting salute in the form of a kick which knocked out one of his eyes.
Most notoriously, the pool contains the ghost of Benjamin Gayer (‘Benjie Geare’), who was three times mayor of Okehampton and died in 1701. One of his duties had been to administer the funds of a charity which ransomed English sailors held prisoner by Barbary pirates, and at some time during the eighteenth century a legend grew up to the effect that one year he secretly appropriated some of its money for himself, so his spirit could not rest.
There are several versions of how he was laid. Some time before 1869, a journalist was told by a local:
Old Mayor — was in the abbit of hanting his dwelling yander a gude while arter he was daid, but the passens [parsons] took en in hand, and laid en at Cranmere Pool, where he’s got to mak a sartain nimber of bindles of sand, and to bind em with raups of the same, afor he can com bak to trouble his howze agen.
According to a version in Murray’s Handbook for … Devon (1879), ‘a spirit (Bingie by name) is confined in it [the pool] by a conjuror, and condemned to the hopeless task of draining it with an oat-sieve; but one day Bingie found a sheepskin on the moor, which he spread across the bottom of his oat-sieve, baled out the water, and drowned Okehampton town.’
An account in the Western Antiquary in 1883 is the first to name the troublesome mayor. Twentythree parsons gathered and uttered prayers of exorcism in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English, but in vain; at length one, more learned than the others, tried the effect of Arabic. ‘Now thou art come, I must be gone!’ cried Benjie. They were then able to transform him into a black colt, and put an unused bit and bridle on him; a young man was told to ride him out to the edge of Cranmere Pool, never allowing him to turn his head, and there pull off the harness at once and let him go. The young man was given the Sacrament to fortify him for the task. The colt did all it could to throw the rider off, but failed, and when it reached the pool it dived in and was never seen again. (This young man, unlike the lad in the earlier version, obeyed orders exactly and got away scot free.)
Some twentieth-century informants told Theo Brown that as additional punishment, Benjie was ordered to go on baling out the pool, this time using a thimble with a hole in it; it is because of his toil that there is so little water there now. Others believed the ghostly black colt could still be seen near the pool, and that one could raise a thunderstorm by walking three times round the pool (or even round a table) chanting:
Benjie Geare! Benjie Geare!
If thou art here, do thou appear!