Last November my publishers asked David and me what amendments we wished to make to our book ‘The Hare’ (published 2005) as they are intending to bring out a new edition in April. In the intervening 14 years David has amassed a large number of new pictures as any holidays we have are normally planned around opportunities to photograph hares. The last break we had was catching up with friends and relations in the south and we started off by visiting my ninety year old uncle who lives in Okehampton on the edge of Dartmoor. Once upon a time there were probably a lot of hares round there but now a-days the best place to look for them is in the churches, which may seem odd. I will explain.
The Three Hares motif is a circular design of what looks to be three hares with only one ear each, but giving the impression of having two. It has actually been around for centuries although no-one knows for certain its origins. As they are often found at sacred sites they are thought to have a religious connection. There are innumerable seventh century ‘Three Hare’ or ‘Three Rabbit’ symbols in China dating back as early as 581AD. These have been found painted on the ceilings of Buddhist cave temples. The symbol also appears on fabric, coins, tiles and other objects; a copper coin found in Iran was dated 1281. It is thought the hare design may have originated in Persia and from there been spread, by way of what is known as the silk route, through its use on precious textiles such as silk which were traded around the world. In the UK it appears mainly in the West Country where it also became known locally as the ‘Tinners’ Rabbits because it was adopted by the tin miners as their logo. In Devon these motifs are found as medieval wooden roof bosses where cross members of the roof intersect. 17 churches in Devon, particularly around Dartmoor, contain a total of 29 of these bosses. In addition they appear in Somerset, Cornwall and Wales. Examples of the motif can also be found in Selby Abbey, North Yorkshire (roof boss), Chester Cathedral (medieval floor tile) and another tile dates back to c1235 at Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. It also appears on gravestones, in coats of arms and in the church at Long Melford, Suffolk there is a small medieval glass motif window above the north door, presumably representing the Trinity. The Three Hares symbol is also common in other countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Southern Russia and modern China. The church in Chagford on Dartmoor has two ‘Three Hare’ roof bosses and the symbol appears in many places throughout the town. A guide titled ‘The Three Hares Trail’ lists where the symbols can be discovered in Dartmoor and Mid Devon.