Encounters with the Devil himself

Torbay Weekly

I have written about the presence of the Devil on Dartmoor many times over the years, in various publications, and rightly so.

He has given his name to many features in the landscape that can be seen on the Ordinance Survey maps, and he crops up in many tales, told by generations of moorland dwellers, often portrayed as a figure to be feared.

Undeterred by his reputation, during our wild and windy adventure the other weekend, I took my friends in search of his alleged home at the impressive Dewerstone, that rises above the sleepy village of Shaugh Prior, in the South Western corner of the moors.

As we sat in the car, with wind and rain whipping around us outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rocky outcrop across the valley or even the Devil himself, no joy on either count sadly, I regaled my companions with tales of moorland dwellers, who had had the misfortune of encountering the Devil and his hunt during the course of their travels, and had lived to tell the tale! One with tragic consequences, the other more uplifting.

In the Celtic language, Dewer means Devil. Our ancestors must have had very good reason to think he lived there, to refer to it as the Devil stone. Residing in the rocky outcrop by day, it is said he rides out, under cover of darkness, to collect his Wisht Hounds, from their kennels at Wistmans Wood, to join him in his nocturnal hunt for wicked souls and unbaptised babies...any victims rounded up in this way, were herded towards the high edge of the Dewerstone and forced to jump off into the valley below!

The next morning, the broken bodies would be found by passing locals, and everyone knew what had occurred the night before. Nowadays, the rocky outcrops are favoured by adventurous climbers, and, in recent years, many fatalities have occurred amongst those attempting this dangerous pastime...could the Devil still be at work claiming souls?

What follows, are two stories of Dartmoor residents who survived a meeting with the Dark One...

One September, a farmer was returning home from the annual Widecombe Fair, having had a successful day at the markets, and, after celebrating well in the pubs, he had climbed, drunkenly, on to his horse, and pointed it in the direction of his farm, taking a route over the heights of Hambledon Ridge. Now, if there ever was a law against being drunk in charge of a horse, this guy had broken it big time!

As they crested the ridge, the farmer could make out, in the gloom, a pack of hounds coming towards them, accompanied by a figure wrapped in a hooded cloak. Getting closer, he couldn’t fail to notice all the hounds, and the horse, had flaming embers for eyes, whilst the rider sported a fine pair of cloven hooves instead of feet!

Realising he was being confronted by the Wild Hunt, and emboldened by his alcohol content, the farmer enquired if the Devil’s night had been successful? Smiling to himself, in the shadows beneath his hood, the Devil handed over a small sack to the farmer, and, without a word went on his way.  
Expecting to find a tasty morsel in the bundle, a rabbit or a hare maybe, he spurred on his horse, eager to share his good fortune with his wife, and brag about how he had bested the Devil himself!  

Finally, the horse found its way home, and, as they clip clopped across the forecourt of the farm, his wife came out to greet them. Falling off his mount, the farmer staggered into his kitchen, placing his prize on the table. Whilst telling her how he had come by it, they both gleefully unwrapped it, only to recoil in horror as the contents rolled out, revealing itself to be the body of a baby! Not just any baby, but their own child, that was a few months old. Rushing into the nursery, they found the cot empty, proving it was indeed theirs.

The couple now deeply regretted procrastinating over getting their baby baptised, for this is just what the Devil sought, unbaptised babies that died in their sleep. This story was most likely propagated by the church, in order to encourage attendance on a Sunday, and an increase in christenings to welcome newcomers into the fold.

Our second story has a happier ending, and concerns a widowed farmer’s wife, who finds herself struggling to make ends meet. Her hens were not being as productive as she would have liked, not giving her many eggs to sell at market each week.

One such market day, she was riding her horse along a lane on her way to sell her wares, when suddenly a large hare came running out of a field, and stopped in front of her horse, causing it to pull up short for fear of squashing the creature under its hooves.

Standing up on its hind legs, the farmer’s wife got the impression the hare was begging for her help. At that moment, she heard the baying sound of an approaching pack of hounds, and, without thinking, she grabbed the scared animal, and concealed it in her large panniers, beside her eggs.  

Before she could proceed, she found her path blocked by a hooded rider, accompanied by his pack of excited hounds, obviously on the trail of their prey. Without revealing his identity, the stranger enquired if the woman had seen a large hare running this way?

Realising the identity of her inquisitor, and without fear of lying to the Devil’s face, she told him she thought she had just seen one running through the field on the other side of the hedge. Thanking her for her assistance, the hunting party galloped off in pursuit of their prey.

Once she felt it was safe to do so, the farmer’s wife took the hare from her panniers, placing it on the ground, expecting it to run off. Instead, it looked at her and proceeded to run round and round in circles in front of her.

Suddenly the hare vanished, and in its place stood the figure of a beautiful young girl. She thanked the shocked farmer’s wife profusely for her courageous behaviour, explaining that she was now in spirit, but, as the life she had led wasn’t especially pure, in death she had been condemned to spending eternity in the form of a hare, forever running from the Devil and his pack, unless she could somehow contrive to get behind them...this she had now managed to achieve with the woman’s help.

Before returning to the spirit world, the girl said, as a reward for her bravery, she would never want for anything ever again, and, sure enough, the hens started to produce vast quantities of eggs each week for market, allowing her to live comfortably for the rest of her days...

Just recently, I found another version of this story, where the hare in question was a man who had committed suicide, and, not being allowed burial in consecrated ground, back in those days, had been buried at a crossroads just outside Bovey Tracey. His rescuer, in this instance, had been a poor farmer. This just goes to show you just how many versions of any given story there are, and that there is no right or wrong way to tell a Dartmoor tale!