One of the most celebrated British supernatural creature stories has to be the tale of the Devil’s Footprints, which comes from Devon. The story dates from 1855 and relates to a geographic area that spans over 100 miles, starting in Exmouth and continuing to Dawlish. The tale was said to begin on the night of 8 – 9th February 1855. The night had been particularly dark. Heavy snow clouds blocked out the moon and its light and there were no stars to be seen in the sky. In a rural area in a pre-electrical age, this resulted in a deep, unrelenting darkness, a shroud of black, in which human vision was rendered useless. The night was accompanied by a light snowfall, perhaps a couple of inches deep, which was still laying on the ground the following morning.
When villagers in the area of Exmouth awoke on the morning of 9th February, they discovered strange cloven-hoofed footprints running through their neighbours. The tracks were first witnessed by a young farmhand, who mistakenly believed an animal had escaped from his master’s barns. However, when he made some older residents aware of the tracks, they were shocked to see that the prints were those of a bi-ped and not a four legged farm animal. The creature that had made these tracks walked like a man, striding and upright. Terror gripped the village and rumours spread quickly that the area had been visited by some diabolical creature during the night. A group of intrepid local residents took-up arms and decided to pursue the creature that had made the tracks, following the footprints from where they seemed to begin (near some local woodlands).
The tracks weaved and winded through the local village. On occasions they would lead right-up to the doors or windows of local houses, then turn away again. More terrifying was the fact that whatever made the tracks appeared to be totally unimpeded by any physical obstacle. The tracks would lead to brick walls and buildings that were many metres tall. Inexplicably, they’d continue on the opposite side of the obstacle, as if their maker had leapt over whatever had confronted it with one enormous hop. The tracks left the village and continued for many tens of miles through open countryside, until they reached the River Exe, which is a major British river. Astonishingly, the tracks appeared to continue on the other side of the river, extending for many more miles.
No one really knows how far the tracks went. The villagers are thought to have given up pursuing their prey when they reached the Exe. The discovery of the tracks on the other side had been made by a separate party on the hunt for the same creature. According to some, the tracks extended all the way to Torquay, or even Weymouth (in the county of Dorset). Understandably, the incident sparked panic throughout Devon and the surrounding area. Religious leaders were quick to advise their flocks that the evil was walking the earth, urging people to be vigilant to the tricks and temptations of the Devil.
The Devil’s footprints became big news at the time. The story is 156 years old. Many of us have learned recently that the now departed News of the World was 168 years old when closed down. Even back in the early Victorian times, ambitious newspaper proprietors were not beyond reporting sensational stories in order to shift their copies. The public interest in the case led to a flood of similar stories being brought to light, as well as claims from several reasonably credible witnesses that they had actually seen the Devil roaming the countryside on the night the tracks were made. One report from Scotland claimed that residents of the highland area of Glenorchy had repeatedly witnessed such tracks. The Times described the Scottish tracks as being made by an animal which was “unknown at present in Scotland” and not like those of any other quadruped, being closer in pattern to those of a biped.
Interestingly, this story emerged again in 2009, when, on the morning of 12th March, residents of Exmouth were again met by mysterious and unidentifiable tracks, which had been made overnight by some unknown creature. On this occasion, the panic was less and was confined to the local area. Nonetheless, the 2009 incident left many questioning whether Devon was playing host to some diabolical creature. It’s at this point that I should confess a personal interest in this story. I am not local to the Devon area, but recently I heard a related story, coming from an area near Brighton, which was based on an account given by two very credible witnesses.
In November 2007, a middle-aged couple from Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, were driving home from a restaurant in the near-by village of Bramber. It was about 10.00pm and the night was particularly dark. The couple are both respected local residents. The husband owns a local successful business and the wife is a school mistress at a local prestigious public school. The road they were travelling on mainly runs through farmland and countryside, passing only an abandoned cement works and one row of Victorian houses as it follows the contours of the near-by River Adur. As the couple’s car approached an area of woodland, they noticed some movement in the undergrowth some distance in front of them. They had initially thought they’d spotted a deer. However, they soon realised that it was no deer, when the creature burst from the trees into the full glare of their headlights. They described seeing a cloven-hoofed, incredibly thin, bearded being, resembling Pan (or Mr Tumnus), who trotted into the centre of the road, stopped, turned and looked straight at the approaching car. They claimed the creature let out a bone-chilling cry, “halfway between a tyre’s screech and a cow’s moo”. It then disappeared back into the undergrowth. Particularly terrifying was the couple’s description of the creature’s movement. They stressed just how thin and stick-like the entity was, with movement like that of a stop motion figure from an old claymation movie, being both disjointed and angular.
I can’t overstate just how well respected this couple are. They are known personally to me and they are definitely not the kind of people to indulge in fantasies and then make them known. They were convinced by what they saw and will accept no challenge to their account. Interestingly, their sighting was only a couple of miles from Brighton’s famous Devil’s Dyke. Reputably in local folklore, the Dyke, which is a glacial gorge formed at the end of the last ice age, was dug by the Devil, who wanted to flood Christian Sussex by creating a deep channel to the sea. Obviously, the science of geology mortally wounds this supernatural explanation of the Dyke’s presence, but scratch the surface of the myth and things become more interesting. For many centuries, the Dyke has been the location of Devil sightings. The sightings are thought to be the origin of the Devil’s Dyke myth and not vice versa.
Read about the Devil’s Daughter.