Walking in the land of the Hairy Hands

Ponies grazing on Dartmoor

Ponies grazing on Dartmoor. - Credit: David Phillips

Last Sunday I took my walking group to the Powdermills on Dartmoor and shared with them the story of the Hairy Hands, which are said to haunt this particular landscape, and tried to explain the origins of this legend.

My group meets once a month on a Sunday and go for an afternoon stroll, led by yours truly, over some part of the moor, usually involving a search for letterboxes, where I share relevant tales from our surroundings, followed by an evening meal at a nearby pub.

I’ve been running this for many years now, originally set up with a friend who now lives in New Zealand but the name of the group still retains a memory of him, Dartmoor Monthly Walks with David (and Mark!)... you can find us on Facebook.

It’s mainly for friends, or anyone who happens to hear about us usually through said friends.

There is no charge to join as, although I’m an experienced walker, I’m not a registered or qualified guide, but those that choose to follow where I lead have expressed great faith in my abilities, even if our route might take us through moist areas, they always come away smiling having enjoyed even that part of the experience.

If you fancy walking on Dartmoor then please check us out.

Our latest stroll started off from the car park at the entrance to Bellever Forest and followed the track to where it crosses the main road heading towards Powdermills.

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Having started walking in hazy conditions and seeing Longaford and Higher White Tors on the ridge in front of us shrouded in fog, it was a relief to see the mist lift and walking conditions become sunny and quite hot as we were heading in that direction!

Entering the walled enclosure around the ruins, having passed a pack of ponies at the gate, we crossed over the Cherrybrook as it flows towards the Higher Cherrybrook Bridge, where tales of the Hairy Hands of Postbridge emanate from.

Settling in the shade of the Powdermills chimney for a lunch stop, and having been reminded of the infamous legend, I regaled my companions with the tale. 

The Powdermills on Dartmoor

The Powdermills on Dartmoor. - Credit: David Phillips

As Dartmoor legends go, this one is fairly modern in its origins. Back in the early 1900s, when motorised transport was taking over from horse-drawn vehicles and access to the moors was being improved, there came reports of accidents occurring in the vicinity of the Higher Cherrybrook Bridge, in between Two Bridges and Postbridge, on what is now known as the B3212.

These accidents were quite serious, usually involving vehicles being driven off the road and resulting in significant injuries or even death.

One of the most notorious incidents concerns the resident doctor at Dartmoor Prison and his two children, some say it was the governor’s girls that were travelling in his side-car, either way as his motorbike approached the bridge, he felt the sensation of his hands being covered by something hairy that was steering him off the road!

He shouted this to his passengers as they careered into the stone wall and he was tragically killed.

Mercifully the girls were thrown clear and survived to tell the tale to their rescuers... and so was born the legend of the Hairy Hands!

Over the years the bridge has seen more than its fair share of accidents, involving cars and charabancs, even horses and carts, many drivers all telling the same story that disembodied Hairy Hands have taken hold of their hands and thus the steering wheel or reins and forced them off the road.

This all seemed to come to a head one night when a woman, staying in a caravan in the Postbridge area, was awoken by the sound of tapping at the window.

Opening her curtains to investigate the noise, she was horrified to find a pair of disembodied hairy hands clawing at the window trying to get in!

Being a Christian woman, she grabbed her crucifix and started reciting the Lord’s Prayer, watching as the hands disappeared in front of her... hoping that they wouldn’t bother anyone again!

However, accidents do still happen at this same location...

A most curious story, but what causes these manifestations to take place at this location and no other road on Dartmoor?

The most logical explanation, that rational people went with, was something to do with the camber of the road at the bridge, but even after remedial work was carried out accidents still happened.

After I’d recounted the story, my friend Kathy, who shares my interest in all things Dartmoor, said she had recently heard an explanation involving the Powdermills.

Now the mills were where batches of gunpowder were tested prior to them being used in the mining and quarrying industries on the moors.

They had chosen this remote location to minimise the fall out should any accidents happen, and over the years several did.

The one that could be behind the Hairy Hands concerns a worker who made a fatal error on his final day at the mills.

It was strict health and safety that all hob nail boots be removed before entering the premises for fear of any sparks generated causing an explosion.

On his last day his colleagues threw him a leaving do and afterwards, having to retrieve his belongings, he re-entered the building forgetting to remove his boots, perhaps due to the consumption of alcohol, and the inevitable happened.

Sadly he was killed in the blast, his hands being severed and, yes, they were particularly hairy!

This still doesn’t answer the question why do his hands haunt the bridge?

It’s still a fair distance from the mills, and if he is returning as a ghost why doesn’t the whole of him appear?

I have my own explanation, which I think fits better.

Around the time of the first incidents, our Victorian ancestors were starting to explore Dartmoor from an archaeological perspective, and their methods weren’t as painstaking or preservative as they are today.

In the vicinity of Bellever Forest, through which the Cherrybrook flows, there are many remains of burial mounds and chambers that once held our Neolithic ancestors.

These hairy, nomadic residents of the moorland had a very strict idea of crime and punishment, if you were found guilty of theft your punishment was to have your hands removed so you couldn’t steal again.

These appendages, now surplus to requirements, were probably disposed of by burial and more than likely not in the same grave as their owner who may or may not have survived the amputation.

Years later, along come the Victorians, haphazardly digging up the landscape and inadvertently disturb the resting place of some severed hands, which somehow become energised by the sacred spiritual nature of their surroundings, and are sent off in a fruitless search for its lost body.

Now spirit is attracted to water and so the hands follow the brook to the bridge where it encounters the living, which may be where they belong, and in a desperate attempt to reattach themselves, they inadvertently cause accidents... it's my theory and I’m sticking with it! 

Whatever the cause, they are still out there, so please drive carefully over the moors and don’t have nightmares!