Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Devil Walked in Devon

It's a shame the Devil hadn't gone walking in Somerset as that would be a good reason for all the flooding. But no, Devon it was. 

Snow fell all through the wee hours of February 8, 1855, in Southern Devon, a county in south western England.

When the sun rose at last, villagers throughout the county awoke to find a set of strange footprints stretching over 100 miles throughout the county. But it wasn't the length of the track or its sudden appearance that caused the most alarm. It was that the track at one point went right through a 14-foot-high wall, leaving untouched fresh snow on top of the wall. Elsewhere, the track went through a haystack, emerging on the other side. It was also found to enter a 4-inch drainpipe, and continue out the other end. In some places the track stopped inexplicably, only to reappear elsewhere. Most significantly, the track was found to have crossed a two mile stretch of river, picking right up again on the other side as if the maker of the footprints had walked on water. Theories and explanations abounded, until some clergymen suggested that perhaps the devil was on the prowl. From that moment on, the devil was said to have walked in Devon.

The area in which the prints appeared extended from Exmouth, up to Topsham, and across the Exe Estuary to Dawlish and Teignmouth. R.H. Busk, in an article published in Notes and Queries in 1890, stated that footprints also appeared further afield, as far south as Totnes and Torquay, and that there were other reports of the prints as far away as Weymouth (Dorset) and even Lincolnshire.

There were also attendant rumours about sightings of a "devil-like figure" in the Devon area during the scare. Many townspeople armed themselves and attempted to track down the beast responsible, without success.

There is little first-hand evidence of the phenomenon. The only known documents came to light after the publication in 1950 of an article in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association asking for further information about the event. This resulted in the discovery of a collection of papers belonging to Reverend H. T. Ellacombe, the vicar of Clyst St George in the 1850s. These papers included letters addressed to the vicar from his friends, among them the Reverend G. M. Musgrove, the vicar of Withycombe Raleigh; the draft of a letter to The Illustrated London News marked 'not for publication'; and several apparent tracings of the footprints.

Many explanations have been put forward for the incident. Some investigators are sceptical that the tracks really extended for over a hundred miles, arguing that no-one would have been able to follow their entire course in a single day. Another reason for scepticism, as Joe Nickell points out, is that the eye-witness descriptions of the footprints varied from person to person.

In a Fortean Studies article, Mike Dash concluded that there was no one source for the "hoofmarks": some of the tracks were probably hoaxes, some were made by "common quadrupeds" such as donkeys and ponies, and some by wood mice. He admitted, though, that these cannot explain all the reported marks and "the mystery remains"

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