Brentor Church

The Devil in the Westcountry – A Halloween Special!

With Halloween just around the corner, we’ve handed the reins of the Westcountry Weekender blog over to Laura-Jayne Fox of Weird Westcountry. We’re big fans of Laura’s Instagram which is full of curious Westcountry tales and local history hotspots, so we were very excited when Laura agreed to write a delightfully devilish blog post just for us. So sit back, grab yourselves a toffee apple and allow Laura to take you on a whistlestop tour of the Devil in the Westcountry!

Greetings chums, history lovers and Halloween enthusiasts. So how the Devil are you?

The theme of this post is one that has interested me for a while now, as I’ve poked and prodded the cumbersome history of the Westcountry from the comfort of my sofa. Namely, the Devilish connections between Lucifer and our beloved lands, with stories spread far and wide across the Westcountry.

Devilish Dartmoor and ghoulish Gunnislake

A short while ago I was chatting to a good friend of mine who mentioned that the bridge across the river Tamar into her hometown, Gunnislake, was being closed again for repairs since motorists have a certain fondness for taking the corners too fast and knocking chunks out of it.

‘It’s funny how they’ve built it with such sharp turnings, isn’t it?’ said I.

‘Oh, that’s so the Devil can’t cross over’, she breezily replied.

‘Err…..what now?’

Reader, I was shocked. How could I, Weird Westcountry, purveyor of all that is, well, weird in the Westcountry have never heard tell of this Satan-averting tactic? And this is not restricted to just Cornwall. Living on the edge of Dartmoor I often go whizzing about in my tiny car and in hindsight realised that yes, many of the typical, moss-covered bridges, all looking a little the worse for wear (motorists!) had a sharp turn both before and after the crossing. Who’d have thought it?

Clitters Mine, Gunnislake
The remains of Clitters Mine in Gunnislake. Image: Laura-Jayne Fox.

The tale of the Devil and the pasty

Now, as interesting a concept as this is, that thwarting the Devil was a serious consideration for medieval bridge-builders across the counties, it is in direct contravention with another well-known Cornish tale, one which follows thus; (ahem)…..

The Devil, out on one of his rampages, dealing death and destruction throughout the country, did reach as far as Torpoint from whence he saw, across the water, the making of a great many local pies. Terrified, he fled Cornwall never to return, afeared that he too would be chopped up and used as a pasty filling.

How charming! Although I have to say, it sounds a little too easy to dispense of the Devil if all it takes to put the wind up the Lord of the Damned is the threat of a Cornish pasty.

The Devil in the Westcountry

All this Devil talk got me to thinking of all the places I knew that were named for the Devil. Reader; there are many. It would appear that the Westcountry has a long and intriguing history of Devilish goings-on and it’s not hard to see why.

First, have a look at the geography. Wild, rolling moorland where men and animals could be swallowed in rapidly descending mists never to be seen again, populated with all manner of nefarious ghouls, the quiet pierced by the howls of distant beasts.

Devilish Westcountry placenames

It is said that Old Dewer (ancient Celtic word for you-know-who) rides out at night with his wild pack of wisht hounds* and drives unwary travellers over the craggy Dewerstone to their deaths. A few miles on and you meet the might of the roaring sea, bestowing life before snatching it back, inhabited by the souls of drowned men and nameless creatures from the fathomless depths. Colossal granite megaliths, carelessly scattered about the land by gross, invisible hands. ‘Tis how the Helstone (Hell Stone) got its name. Icy cold, clear rivers cross the land, swirling endlessly, onward, onward, before pounding down into tumultuous subterranean caverns. Why, could only be Dartmoor’s Devil’s Cauldron at Lydford, or the Devil’s Brook in Dorset.

Devil's Cauldron Lydford
The Devil’s Cauldron at Lydford. Image: Laura-Jayne Fox.

The Devil’s Punchbowl, Devil’s Point, the Devil’s Bellows…the list goes on.

*Westcountry Weekender says: Be sure to check out Laura’s Wistmans Wood video for more about the wisht hounds!

Westcountry imps and knockers

And then there are the man-made influences on the Westcountry. When the land was rent with gigantic quarries, and chimneys belched black smoke into the sky and men tunnelled their way to the very bowels of the earth itself. Little wonder that amidst the heat and sulphurous stink of copper and tin works the miners were plagued by imps and ‘Cornish knockers’, stealing their tools and causing endless mischief.

The church of St Michael de Rupe on Brentor

The striking church of St Michael de Rupe on Brentor (St Michael of the Rock) has its origins tied with Old Nick. Legend says that a merchant at risk of drowning at sea promised to build a church on the first high land he saw in return for his deliverance. His prayer was granted and, true to his word, he began work on a church at Brent Tor, Dartmoor. But alas, the Devil was a tad miffed and would nightly throw down the stones that had been constructed that day. The merchant prayed again and that night the Devil was confronted with St Michael, not too chuffed himself at all this church-wrecking nonsense. Thus, he heaved a mighty rock which struck Lucifer in the heel and sent him packing. Job done. Coincidentally, it was also St Michael who thwarted the Devil back at Helstone, after he met Old Hobb flying a great stone across Cornwall to block the gates of hell. A mighty battle ensued, the stone was dropped and the place became known as Helstone. The locals still dance the annual Furry Dance (no jokes please) to celebrate.

Brentor Church on Dartmoor
The Church of St. Michael de Rupe (St. Michael of the Rock), Brentor. Image: Laura-Jayne Fox.

Cloven hooves on the Exe Estuary

But perhaps the most infamous of all devilish Westcountry stories is the night Lucifer stalked the Exe Estuary and left miles of cloven footprints in his wake. The morning of 9th February 1855 dawned cold and crisp, the land carpeted with a thick blanket of perfect snow. Puzzled residents on both sides of the river awoke to find the footprints of a cloven-footed beast, like those of a donkey, cut clear through the snow to the ground, almost as with a great heat. The prints were those of a two-legged animal and were set roughly 8 inches from one another. Most miraculously of all, the maker of the footprints seemed unimpeded by any obstacle; a local newspaper reported that the prints were found ‘in all kinds of unaccountable places – on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards, enclosed by high walls and pailings, as well as in open fields.’ They were even said to end at the bottom of a drain pipe before resuming up at the guttering. In all, the mysterious prints were reported in over 30 locations in the area; terrified locals believed that Satan had stalked the area for the souls of sinners, the footprints halting at doorways and windows, only inches away from the sleeping household within.

Wellcome Collection image of the devil and a judge
Witchcraft: the devil talking to a gentleman and a judge in a circle. Woodcut, 1720. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Fiendish final thoughts

So what do you think, dear reader? Does the Westcountry bear a special relationship with the Devil? Are there other Devilish tales I’ve missed which you think deserve mention?

About Laura

Laura Fox is a collector of Westcountry stories and creator of quite interesting videos on her Youtube channel Weird Westcountry. You can also find Laura on Instagram: @weird_westcountry

Guest blogging

If you’ve got a Westcountry story you’d love to tell, from local history to a favourite walking spot or an event you want to share with the world then get in touch to discuss writing a guest blog post for us.