Dartmoor Explorations

A collection of walks, discoveries, insights and pictures of exploring Dartmoor National Park

The Three Hares

The ‘Three Hares’ is a well known symbol which can be found around Dartmoor National Park. The earliest examples of the ‘Three Hares’ symbol (chasing each other in a circle with ears joined giving the illusion that they each has two ears in spite only three ears in the symbol) dates from A.D 581, which was found in Buddhist caves in Mogao, Dunhuang, China. The symbol is thought to have been brought to the UK via the Silk Route (possibly transported via designs found on expensive oriental ceramic). In the UK they are mainly found in Medieval churches (especially in Devon). The three hares circular symbol / motif has also appeared in sacred sites in East Asia, the Middle East and historical synagogues in Europe.  The symbol has been known to be used as an architectural ornament, a religious symbol, in works of art (from tattoos to jewellery and paintings) and on coats of arms. Some examples of where the ‘Three Hares’ appear include on 13th century Mongol metalwork, a copper coin, found in Iran dated 1281 and on an ancient Islamic-made reliquary (container used for holy objects) from southern Russia.

The full meaning of the ‘Three Hares’ symbol is not fully known but historians think it might have relate to peace and tranquility or could have symbolic or mystical associations with fertility and the lunar cycle. When used in Christian churches (like those found in Devon), it is presumed it is a symbol of the Trinity.

The ‘Three Hares Symbol’ appears on 29 roof ‘bosses’ across 17 churches in Devon. Of these churches, 7 are within Dartmoor National Park boundary and are covered in this post. The author has also included Tavistock (which lies just outside the park), which with the other 7 National Park churches, contain 9 ‘Three Hares’ roof bosses between them. The churches within the National Park with ‘Three Hares’ bosses are Bridford, Chagford, Ilsington, North Bovey, South Tawton, Throwleigh and Widecombe-in-the-Moor. Additional to the church bosses, the author is aware of other depictions of the ‘Three Hares’ symbol at Lydford (a stained glass window), at Warren House Inn (a sign) and at Routrundle Farm (as weather vane). There may be others !

Dartmoor Tinner’s appear to have adopted the ‘Three Hares’ symbol and these are often referred to as “Tinner’s Rabbits”. Some researchers believe the adopted symbol is most likely because as the mines generated wealth in the region they funded the building and repair of many local churches, and thus the symbol may have been used as a sign of the miners’ patronage. That said, no direct link between the tinners and the churches has ever been found by researchers and it is interesting to note that the symbol is “all but absent from the tin-producing areas of Cornwall”.

Also of interest (example of which can be found in Dartmoor churches) is that in many locations the ‘Three Hares’ are positioned adjacent to the ‘Green Man’ symbol, which is commonly believed to be associated with the continuance of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic paganism. It is suggested that this juxtapositions may have been created to imply the contrast of the divine with man’s sinful, earthly nature.

Bibliography

  1. Three Hares Trail Map by Eleanor Ludgate
  2. Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_hares
  3. The Three Hares Blog – https://thethreeharesblog.com/2019/07/28/why-three-hares/
  4. https://devonchurchland.co.uk/
0. Map
Locations of the ‘Three Hares’ symbols covered in this post. The other churches in Devon with ‘Three Hares’ roof bosses are Ashreigney, Broadclyst, Cheriton Bishop, Iddesleigh, Kelly, Newton St. Cyres, Paignton, Sampford Courtney and Spreyton. Broadclyst has 9 ‘Three Hares’ roof bosses!
1. List
List of the Three Hares’ symbols covered in this post. Note there are 9 roof bosses across the 8 churches with Chagford (St. Michael Archangel) having two.
2. Three Hares Logo
The ‘Three Hares’ symbol showing each chasing each other in a circle with ears joined giving the illusion that they each has two ears in spite only three ears in the symbol.
3a. Bridford Church Outside
Bridford St. Thomas Beckett Church, dating from 15th century albeit the first record of a church was from 8th November 1259 when Bishop Bronescombe of Exeter dedicated a church here.
3b. Bridford 3 Hares a
The ‘Three Hares’ symbol in a striking red on the ceiling vault in St. Thomas Beckett Church
3c. Bridford 3 Hares b
Devonchurchland website suggests that: “The Three Hares boss can have both holy and unholy meanings, at the same time too. The Holy Trinity is a good one. Lust and sexual immorality is a bad one, something which hares were famous for”.
3d. Bridford Inside Church a
View of the St. Thomas Beckett Church interior. The rood screen from the early to mid 1500s are one of the first things to catch the visitors eye.
3e. Bridford Inside Church b
Rood screen (top left) is from early to mid 16th century; Carvings (top right) of prophets, apostles and saints including Holy Father and St Genesius ; Grisaille painting (bottom left) of the Master of Ceremony; Part of rood screen carvings (bottom right) showing Poppy heads and Pomegranate pods growing out of the crowns of the Elect, symbolising everlasting life through the church.
3f. Bridford Inn Sign
Bridford Inn sign showing the ‘Three Hares’ symbol. The Inn has only been here since 1969 in what was formerly two cottages and originally a 17th century farmhouse. The original Inn in the village (Harriers Inn) was near the church and is now a private residence called Old Harriers.
3g. Bridford Inn Plaque
Bridford is twinned with Saint-Vaast-sur-Seulles, a village in the Normandy region of France. This picture, complete with three hares is on the wall of the Bridford Inn and relates to the 50th anniversary of the twinning.
4a. Chagford - Outside Church
The church in Chagford was dedicated to St Michael the Archangel on July 30th 1261 by Bishop Branscombe. The church underwent a major renovation circa 1888 with some lesser works between 1888 and 1925. The tower is 21 metres (69 feet) high. Originally the tower had pinnacles at the top corners but these have been removed. The tower was restored in 1915 with the other roofs being repaired around 1960.
4b. Chagford - Agnus Dei
The “Agnus Dei” is a small headless stone figure (lamb) on the ridge of the church marking the division of the present chancel from the nave. The Agnus Dei, indicates Chagford’s importance as a wool town. The words “Agnus Dei” translate into English as “Lamb of God”
4c. Chagford - Three Hares a
One of two “Three Hares” bosses in St. Michaels the Archangel Church. It has been painted gold and is picked out in red. Most bosses are quite plain.
4d. Chagford - Three Hares b
The second “Three Hares” boss in St. Michaels the Archangel Church
4e. Chagford - Church Interior
Inside the church. The nave and chancel are under a continuous roof with full length north and south aisles, both with east end chapels. 
4f. Chagford - Church Swifts
The bell tower became a nesting site for Common Swifts for the first time in over 25 years around 2016, when a project to re-introduce them included introducing 32 specially designed nest boxes were placed behind louvres, and the strange screaming calls of the swifts were played through a small speaker to attract them.. The author was delighted to find a “swift cam” system showing the birds in July 2021. Nick Baker, a local naturalist and TV presenter said in 2020 “There were swifts in the church when I first moved here in the ’90s, but since then the church has been re-appointed, it’s been restored, and in doing so, all the little cracks and crevices that are so important to swifts for nest sites were blocked up and lost, and once you break the continuity of a colony, the birds disappear.” The website has the details: https://exeter.anglican.org/live-swift-cams-in-dartmoor-church/
4g. Chagford  - Stannary Place
Stannary Place  is a recent development and was a garage until 1994. The “Three Hares” symbol and date is located on the side of the building. Behind Stannary Place was once a livestock and annual pony sales market.
5a. Entrance to Church
Ilsington. This is the western gateway (lych gate) into churchyard of St. Michaels Church with room built above. The original room was once used as a school house for 30 boys until it collapsed in September 1639. The rebuilt archway now serves as a war memorial.
5b. Saint George
To right of west front of the archway is a niche containing a stone statue of St. Michael, which was ‘Restored in 1977 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’
5c. Ilsington Outside Church
St. Michaels at Ilsington dates from late 13th or early 14th century and was enlarged and partly rebuilt in 15th or early 16th century. The main body of church was restored in 1856 and 1884, with the tower in 1908 (at the same time as the Western gateway).
5d. Three Hares Boss
The ‘Three Hares’ roof boss in St. Michael’s at Ilsington has a crack through the middle (unless of course it was sculptured in two parts)
5e. Inside Church
The church has a fine wagon roof and a simple altar piece
5f. Stained Glass Windows
Stained glass windows at St. Michael’s Ilsington
6a. Castle Inn
Castle Inn at Lydford. The building is thought to be 16th or 17th century and was first known as the White Horse Inn. It changed its name to the Castle Inn in 1807. 
6b. Three Hares
‘Three Hares’ in a stained glass window at the Castle Inn. It can be found in the lobby area leading to the Tinner’s Bar. It was crafted in 1974 by James Paterson.
6c. Green Man
Also at the Castle Inn is a fine stained glass window of the ‘Green Man’
7a. North Bovey Outside Church
North Bovey Church of St. John the Baptist comprises a 13th century chancel, with the remainder being 15th century. It has various 19th and early 20th century restorations. 
7b. Three Hares a
The ‘Three Hares’ have been painted gold with red and blue background
7c. Inside Church a
The interior of North Bovey St. John Church
7d. Inside Church b
The rood screen is 15th century
8a. Routrundle Farm
Routrundle Farm near Walkhampton has a connection to the Dartmoor ‘Three Hares’ story
8b. Routrundle Three Hares
On an outbuilding at Routrundle is a rather splendid ‘Three Hares’ weather vane
9a. South Tawton Lych Gate
The Lych Gate at South Tawton Church dedicated to St. Andrew.
9b. South Tawton Church external
The church dates from 15th and 16th centuries with a major renovation taking place in 1881. St Andrew’s is a Grade 1 listed building and was re-roofed in 2013 following extensive fundraising
9c. Three Hares a
The ‘Three Hares’ at St. Andrews, South Tawton are quite intricate and have a wonderful 3 dimensional feel to them. There are carvings to be found along the beams adjacent to the boss
9d. Three Hares b
Close up to the ‘Three Hares’ with the securing bolts evident. The church has a total of 170 or 171 roof bosses, depending on which source reference is taken (including the Three Hares, which is located in the centre row of the South Aisle).
9e. South Tawton Church internal
Interior of St. Andrew’s at South Tawton.
9f. Stained Glass Windows
Stained glass windows at St. Andrews, South Tawton.
10a. Tavistock Church Exterior
Just outside Dartmoor National Park is the large parish church of St Eustachius, located in Bedford Square, Tavistock. The Church dates back to 1318 being much enlarged and rebuilt mainly between 1350 to 1450. It was built on the proceeds of the Tavistock cloth trade. It was restored in 1844-5.
10b. Three Hares a
The ‘Three Hares’ roof boss in St Eustachius, is another where the hares have been painted gold similar to North Bovey and Chagford. The background being red and green.
10c. Three Hares b
Close up of the ‘Three Hares’. Of interest is that these hares or “Tinners Rabbits” should appear in Tavistock as well as Chagford with both being a Stannary Town. Is this just co-incidence?
10d. Tavistock Church Interior
Internal view of St Eustachius
10e. Stained Glass Windows
Stained glass windows of St Eustachius
11a. Throwleigh Church Exterior a
Throwleigh Church of St. Mary The Virgin
11b. Throwleigh Church Exterior b
The earliest parts of Throwleigh Church date from the late 13th early 14th century, but it was largely rebuilt in the 15th century. 
11c. Throwleigh Church Exterior c
Throwleigh Church was restored in 1884 
11d. Three Hares a
The ‘Three Hares’ in Throwleigh Church. The symbol appeared in a book owned by a Bishop of Exeter in the 14th century.
11e. Green Man
Throwleigh Church is another location where the ‘Three Hares’ are positioned adjacent to the ‘Green Man’ symbol. The Green Man commonly associated with the continuance of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic paganism. Therefore as previously suggested in this post, this is a juxtaposition which may have been created to imply the contrast of the divine with man’s sinful, earthly nature.
11f. Stained Glass Window
Throwleigh Church stained glass windows. The window on the right shows scenes from Christ’s life, all surrounded by intricate foliage.
12a. Warren House Inn from afar
Warren House Inn
12b. WHI
The Warren House Inn with the ‘Three Hares’ sign above the doorway. With the close proximity to the tin mines of Birch Tor / Vitifer Mine and Wheal Caroline, there maybe a tenuous link here with the name ‘Tinner’s Rabbits’.
12c. WHI
The original Inn here (before 1845) was named New House.  The name ‘Warren House’ (from 1845) relates to nearby rabbit warrens (e.g Headland Warren) which presumably were a major part of the miners and local residents diets. 
12d. WHI
The ‘Three Hares’ or ‘Tinner’s Rabbits’ symbol was the assay mark of the Vitifer tin mine, which is located in Redwater valley below the inn.
12e. WHI
Three Hares artefacts in Warren House Inn
12e. WHI
The present Inn has a builder’s slate plaque set into the eastern gable wall which reads “I Wills / Sept 18 / 1845” and marks the completion of the new building.  The original inn stood on the opposite side of the road.
13a. Widecombe Church Exterior
The Church of St. Pancras in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, is also known as the Cathedral of the Moor. The church is Grade I listed.
13b. Three Hares a
The painted ‘Three Hares’ roof boss in St. Pancras
13c. Three Hares b
There is a wonderful large postcard which provides descriptions of each of the roof bosses within the church. The ‘Three Hares’ description is shown on the right above.
13d. Green Man
In Widecombe-in-the-Moor church, as with other churches, there is a ‘Green Man’ roof boss near to the ‘Three Hares’ roof boss. The bosses in St. Pancras have all been nicely painted.
13e. Widecombe Church Interior a
The interior of St. Pancras
13f. Model
Lovely model of the church. The nickname “Cathedral of the Moor” is because of the church’s huge 120-foot tower and relatively large capacity for such a small village.
13g. Widecombe Church Interior b
Stained glass window and roof vaulting at St. Pancras
13h. Widecombe Fair Model
Harry Price from Drewsteignton took up wood carving in later life (when over 70 years old) and one of his mechanical models was of Uncle Tom Cobley and the Grey Mare (Widecombe Fair) which is kept on display at St Pancras Church.
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