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Did the Devil walk the rooftops in a Devon village?

Posted in British Countryside, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery on Friday, 30 March 2012

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This edited article about British mysteries and legends originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 680 published on 25 January 1975.

Devil's footsteps, picture, image, illustration

Examining the diabolical footprints in a Devon village by C L Doughty

One evening early in February, 1855, snow fell in Devon. And with the snow came one of the strangest unsolved mysteries of all time.

For when the townsfolk and villagers awoke next morning, they noticed in the otherwise untrodden snow thousands of very odd footprints. They were not only on the ground, but also went straight across the rooftops of houses, over haystacks and high walls.

As the day wore on, travellers reported seeing the footprints in many towns. Curious folk followed the trail, and soon it was established that whoever or whatever had made the marks in the snow had travelled a distance of more than 100 miles in one night. Not only that, they had crossed the two-mile wide estuary of the River Exe.

In Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, Dawlish, Kenton, Newton, Withycombe-Raleigh, Woodbury, Bicton and Budleigh, and in many other villages and towns of Devon, curiosity turned to fear.

The prints were in a single track, such as only a two-legged creature could make. They were something like the hoof-marks of a donkey. But many of the impressions in the snow showed clearly that it was a cloven foot.

Satan’s footsteps!

The notion arose simultaneously in many communities across Devon. Fear kept people locked in their houses at night. Vicars preached sermons on the footprints. Newspapers interviewed many reliable witnesses who had seen the prints and traced their incredible journey.

The facts were established beyond any reasonable doubt. Each print was 4 inches long by 2 and three quarter inches wide, and spaced 8 and a half inches apart. The measurements tallied over the whole hundred miles. And they were exactly the same on the sloping roofs of houses as they were in the open fields.

Was it the Devil? Or a donkey hopping 8 and a half inches on one leg, then swimming a wide estuary before hopping off again to complete his 100-mile hike?

To serious investigators, both explanations were nonsense. So the detective work began.

The tracks in snow of all likely animals and birds were examined to check on any resemblance. None corresponded exactly. And as one on-the-spot investigator said: “No known animal could have traversed this extent of country in one night, besides having to cross an estuary two miles broad. Neither does any known animal walk in a line of single footsteps . . . Birds could not have left these marks as no bird’s foot leaves the impression of a hoof . . .”

Could the wind or some other atmospheric condition have so changed the prints as to make quite ordinary footmarks seem mysterious?

This was ruled out, because the prints of cats and dogs that had been out on the same night were absolutely normal, and because in one spot the strange prints went across the dusty floor of a roofed barn. The footsteps in the dust were identical with those in the snow outside the barn.

Also, the prints were so deep and so clearly defined that one investigator said they looked as though they had been burned in the snow by a hot iron. This statement reinforced the Satan theory. Presumably, coming from Hell, his traditionally cloven foot would have been pretty hot!

The Times newspaper and the Illustrated London News took up the story in great detail. One contemporary report told of a variation in the mystery. A party of trackers discovered footprints that apparently went right THROUGH a haystack instead of over the top, as in most cases. The prints simply stopped on one side of the haystack and continued out the other side. Three hours later the same trackers were rewarded with the sight of the prints marching on impressively OVER the roofs of half a dozen houses.

There was no shortage of theories about what made the footprints. Seagulls, cranes, swans, turkeys and moorhens were the first choices of the bird fanciers. Hares, otters and even frogs were favoured by those who rejected the bird theory.

A local vicar tried to calm his parishioners by telling them that a kangaroo was the culprit. Though what a kangaroo was doing roaming Devon in the snow was never explained.

A man named Tom Fox decided the prints were made by a jumping rat which had the ability to land all four feet together.

But when the British Museum and the Zoological Society were consulted, they were, of course, unable to support any of these notions. Nor were they able to produce any clue to the true explanation.

Next came a statement from Richard Owen, a famous naturalist. He claimed that the prints were made by badgers. A badger’s paw, he pointed out, makes a print bigger than itself. A badger also places its hind paws in the same place as its forepaws.

No one badger could have covered the distance and swum the estuary, admitted Owen. But, he added, many hungry badgers were about that night, and what seemed the work of one animal was in fact the work of many.

What Owen did not explain was how a prowling badger could climb up the sides of houses, haystacks and high walls. Or why. And if the whole matter was something as simple as this, why have such footprints never been noted before or since?

The people of Devon knew that such an explanation as Owen’s ignored many of the facts.

They plucked up courage and decided to hunt the culprit. In armed bands they set out across Devon. But all they managed to shoot were a few sleepy foxes. The latest theory, put forward only a year ago, is that the prints were made by some as yet unknown arctic bird which had strayed far from its icy home and wandered south in search of food.

Which seems at least as probable as badgers, a kangaroo – or Satan!

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