Here’s a gem of a story from a little book I just got, ‘Devon’s wild & Wicked Weather’. Devon is on the south coast, adjoining Cornwall, and for most of its history was a very isolated region, especially round the windswept Dartmoor. This story sounds like a practical joke, but if so it was by a very determined person. After a heavy snowfall in February 1855, locals
“noticed a row of hoof-marks forming a single line. It was later realised that this crossed Woodbury Comon twice, and led to a point just beyond Totnes in the south of the county. Those who followed the footprints discovered that, on reaching obstacles such as houses, or even mansions, instead of detouring around they went up and over them. Naturally there was much conjecture to what or to whom they belonged. The line was too convincing to be a hoax and theories included some fanciful notions: a one-leged abominable kangaroo; the Great Bustard… a two legged donkey! Others looked to the supernatural for an explanation – and the devil became suspect no. 1. although most hoof-prints could be indentified, nobody had taken the Devil’s gait before; the 8 1/2 inches gap suggested a lively little fellow.
The News of the World and The Times covered the story but the London Illustrated News featured it in greatest detail. All the reports noted that the route carefully avoided Exeter, where the Cathedral was probably a suitable deterrent to ward off this evil character.
Woolmer’s Exeter & Plymouth Gazette was also on hand, but carefully managed to avoid any mention of the Devil by name. Dawlish, famed for its mild climate, also felt the icy blast and its paper indulged in the following speculation.
“The weather during the past week has beenn intensely cold… Dawlish readers ill find.. many curious particulars relating to the extraordinary foot marks which have caused so much excitemet on both sides of the Exe estuary.
In connection with the above “mysteries”…. “His footprints were traced through the greater part of the town. They resembled somewhat those of a donkey, but to add to the effect of the mystery, it was rumoured in some instances they were “cloven”. so great was the excitement produced by the reports which got abroad that a party of tradesmen and others armed themselves with guns and bludgeons and spent the greater part of the day in tracing the foot-prints. From the churchyard they proceeded to the grounds of Luscombe and Dawlish Water, and thence to Oaklands. At length, after a long and weary search, they returned as wise as they set out. Some considered that the footprints were those of a large bird from a foreign shore, and others believed that they were those of a kangaroo or wolf, or some other beast escaped from a travelling menagerie.”
The greatest mystery was that in no place could there be traced more than two impressions, which were about 16 inches apart. It will be rememberd that we had a heavy snow fall about 4 inches deep on the previous evening…
Churchgoers to Dawlish’s parish church sought out the vicar to ask him how they could protect themselves against the beast. Some years later, the vicar’s dautghter, Henrietta Fursdon wrote : “the footprints appeared during the night… they looked as if they had been made by the foot of a goat and continued in a never-ending line into the distance. I clearly remember how I saw the footprints and… was overwhelmed by fear… Yet not only we children were frightened, the servants refused to go out after dark even to lock the gates. ”
The foot prints formed a continuous line of about 110 miles, travelling from East Devon into South Devon and ‘visited’ 17 towns and villages along the way. ”
What most intrigues me about these footprints is that this was farmland. Most of the people knew what footprints looked like, far different from today. How could they be so unsure of what it might be?