10 Scary Stories & Urban Legends of Devon & Cornwall

dartmoor-crazywell-cross (Image: Herby; scary stories and urban legends abound across Southwest England)

The Southwest peninsula of the United Kingdom has long been a hotbed of spooky tales and urban legends. Battered by the Atlantic waves, shrouded in thick fog, and home to two of Britain’s bleakest, most-beautiful moors (Dartmoor and Bodmin), it’s a region utterly drenched in atmosphere.

From the ancient cliffs of Cornwall, to the misty peat bogs of Devon, there’s no shortage of scary stories to be found here. Some are tales that were once told by poor tin miners centuries ago, which have been passed down and enshrined in the oral traditions of the region. Others are more recent urban legends related to cities and advancing technology. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all wonderfully spooky.

Scary Stories: The Beasts of Dartmoor and Bodmin

big-cats-cornwall-devon (Image: Wikipedia; scary stories of big cats are a popular Southwest urban legend)

A collection of wandering rivers, blasted granite tors and peat bogs stretching over an area of land larger than the country of Bahrain, Dartmoor is one of Britain’s last true wildernesses. A bleak, brooding landscape often lost under a thick layer of cloud, it’s exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find strange, spooky tales. One of the most scary stories being the Beast of Dartmoor.

Like its Cornish companion the Beast of Bodmin, the ‘beast’ of Dartmoor is creepy not because it’s supernatural, but because it’s eerily plausible. Since the early 1900s, there have been sightings of big cats living wild on the moors – exotic pets that were released by owners who no longer wanted them. Claw marks and footprints are occasionally found, as are sheep with their throats ripped out. During the 1970s, there were so many sightings even local police believed a big cat was stalking the moors. Many people worried it was only a matter of time before the Beast of Dartmoor killed someone.

With vast tracts of Dartmoor being no-go areas kept back for military training, it’s been suggested that a small population could survive undetected. Even smaller Bodmin could conceivably sustain a tiny number. Could it be that the ‘beasts’ of Dartmoor and Bodmin are less legends and more scarily fact? Many scientists dispute this theory, though such urban legends are eerily compelling.

The Devon and Cornish Knockers

knockers (Image: Heinrich Schlitt)

An old folk tale from the time of the Southwest’s great tin mines, the ‘knockers’ are infinitely less plausible than big cats on the loose, but no-less fascinating. Between the 1600s and the early 20th century, many of the region’s men spent their days toiling down dark, dingy and dangerous mines. Working in cramped conditions with little in the way of health and safety, these Cornish and Devonshire men turned to the supernatural to protect them. One of the most-frequent creatures invoked was the knocker.

Said to be tiny sprites or goblins that inhabited the subterranean world beneath the moors, the knockers were known only by their distant tapping heard in the depths of the mines. Ambivalent to humans entering their kingdom, they could occasionally lead you to a rich seam of ore. Just as easily, they could lead you into a roof collapse or a pitch-black dead end. For miners, they were creatures to be respected and even sometimes feared. If a knocker took a dislike to you, it could easily lead you to your death.

Today, it’s widely-accepted that the ‘knocking’ sound the miners heard, recounted in scary stories for centuries, was due to air pockets. Yet the legend of the knockers gives a fascinating glimpse into the minds of workers back when Cornwall was at the centre of Europe’s tin industry.

The Devil’s Footprints

scary-stories-devils-footprints (Image: davidd)

One of the creepiest Dartmoor stories is also one of the area’s most-famous. On February 7, 1855, villagers living either side of the River Exe went to sleep to a deep snowfall. The next morning, they awoke to something truly strange.

Cloven hoof prints were pressed deep into the snow, leading down to the water’s edge. Eerily, they traveled in a perfect straight line. When a wall was reached, the prints would continue uninterrupted on the other side. When a building was reached, they would carry on across the roof, as if nothing could stand in the way of the creature making them. They even carried on across the river, leading down one bank and up the other, many hundreds of feet away.

Eerily, there was only one occasion when this pattern of straight travel was interrupted. When the prints passed close by the window of a house, they were seen to detour towards it and become muddied – almost as if whatever made them had stood on the street side of the frozen glass, silently peering in.

Like other scary stories that swept the region, the Devil’s footprints captured the public imagination, and sense of dread, even appearing in the Times. As the name attached to the prints suggests, most locals attributed them to Satan himself, taking a stroll across Devon. To this day, the phenomenon remains unsolved.

The Lights of Pengersick Castle

Pengersick-Castle (Image: Ken Ballinger; Pengersick Castle is supposed to be one of the most haunted in Britain)

Right near the tip of Cornwall, where the land meets the harsh winds of the Atlantic, lies one of Britain’s most-haunted castles. Pengersick Castle was built in the 12th century over a site inhabited since at least the Bronze Age. Modest to look at as castles go, it’s nonetheless said to hold a spooky secret. People who visit Pengersick have been struck with feelings of cold dread, and a terrifying feeling that they’re being watched by something malevolent and inhuman.

The feeling isn’t helped by reports of strange orbs of light being seen descending on the grounds, or lurking in the corners of rooms. Visitors have allegedly seen them appear from nowhere, winking into existence in the depths of the shadows. While there are doubtless many rational explanations as to what these strange lights are and where they come from (ball lightning has been frequently suggested), we won’t blame you if you avoid spending a night in Pengersick’s dark and echoing halls… just in case.

The Spooky Cinema in Plymouth

reel-cinema-plymouth (Image: Google Street View)

The Reel Cinema in Plymouth town centre seems like an unlikely place for any urban legends to blow up. A 1930s building with an Art Deco front, it still screens blockbusters on a regular basis. One of the few buildings in the city to survive the Luftwaffe, it’s historic only because of the almost total destruction meted out to the rest of Plymouth. But scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find chilling reports of spooky goings on and other scary stories.

One of the spookiest has to do with screen 2. A small number of customers have reported a strange feeling of being watched while occupying certain seats. Others have found themselves inexplicably falling ill, only to recover the moment they stepped outside again. Some even said they had experienced sensations of dread or horrible unease, as if something terrible was about to happen that they couldn’t quite put their fingers on.

The Christmas Ghost of Exeter

scary-stories-prospect-inn-exeter (Image: Google Street View; scary stories surrounding Exeter’s Prospect Inn)

From the outside, the white Prospect Inn in Exeter seems just like any other pub you might find across the Southwest. A couple of centuries old, it’s now a popular place for locals and students to sink a pint or two. Yet this anonymous tavern also happens to be home to one of the strangest ghost stories in the whole of England.

The story is odd because it specifies the ghost only appears on Christmas Eve. As the night draws in, it’s said a little girl with a rag doll can be seen traipsing her way up the stairs toward the living room. As she reaches this shadowy, claustrophobic spot, she supposedly gives visitors a chilling, knowing smile before fading away to nothing.

The reactions of those who claim to have seen her vary wildly. Some find her smile and appearance strangely sweet. Others have said the way she looked at them was disturbing, like she almost recognized them. With sightings having been reported semi-regularly since 1870, it seems likely there will be many more encounters with this strange girl yet.

The Mirror Ghost of Jamaica Inn

jamaica-inn-bodmin-scary-stories (Image: MilborneOne; Jamaica Inn, popularised by Daphne du Maurier)

Perhaps the most-famous building in Cornwall, Jamaica Inn sits isolated on a lonely stretch of Bodmin moor. Built in 1750 and once used by smugglers, it is now associated widely with Daphne du Maurier, who spent a night there once and based her book on it.

Sadly, things are noticeably different since the author’s day. A great main road now runs past the inn, shattering the illusion of peace. Nonetheless, many scary stories have arisen around Jamaica Inn. The pub is still regarded as one of the most-haunted buildings in Cornwall, not least due to the creepy mirror ghost.

Located in room 5 of the building, the ghost is said to be that of a small child trapped behind the glass. Sometimes, the spectre appears with its anguished young mother in tow. On other occasions, it simply sits alone, staring out at guests with blank and hideous eyes. Whatever the story – or urban legend – of this spooky child might be, there’s no doubting that its alleged presence has been known to creep guests out.

The Grave of Kitty Jay

kitty-jay-grave (Image: Smalljim; fresh flowers on the grave of Kitty Jay)

Not all myths and legends of Southwest England are creepy or unsettling. Some are simply sad, such is the case with the story of Kitty Jay on Dartmoor. A 19th century farmworker, Jay became pregnant only to have her lover disown her. Poor, rejected, and unable to afford a child in the uncaring world of Victorian England, Jay instead chose to hang herself. Buried beneath a crossroads without a funeral service, she was left to be forgotten.

Interestingly, though, something about Jay’s story touched a lot of people. Rather than forget her, they incorporated her into the legends of Dartmoor. People began leaving fresh flowers on her grave. Those flowers have been left there every day now for nearly 200 years.

While many like to attribute a supernatural origin to the fresh flowers, it’s likely they’re the work of locals who know the story and feel sorry for the long-dead Jay. Though her sad tale has been woven into the urban legends of the region, it’s inspiring to see this virtually-anonymous girl being remembered so many years later.

The Bottomless Pool of Bodmin Moor

scary-stories-Dozmary-Pool (Image: Steve G; scary stories of the ‘Bottomless Pool’ near Bolventor)

Dozmary Pool near Bolventor is one of the bleakest areas in the whole of Cornwall. A leaden grey lake sat amid a desolate, blasted heath, it’s the sort of place that seems ripe for ghosts and other scary stories. Dozmary Pool delivers this in spades.

Said to be bottomless, the mysterious pool appears in Arthurian legend as the place where the dying king casts Excalibur. Yet it’s a more modern urban legend that’s likely to spring to mind if you spend any time alone here. At night, there have been reports of a shadowy figure, sitting hunched over by the lifeless pool and crying to itself. Supposedly its wails are so loud they can be heard even above the loudest gale.

There are many theories as to who this mysterious figure might be. Some say the ghost of Jan Tregeagle, a 17th century magistrate who sold his soul to Satan, is the source of the Cornish urban legend. Others that it’s a serial killer who lived almost 200 years later. The only thing we know for sure is that those finding themselves on the shores of Dozmary Pool as sunset approaches should beware of any hunched figures crouching by the water’s edge.

The Hairy Hands of Dartmoor

beardown-man-dartmoor (Image: Jon Constant; Beardown Man on the bleak, brooding expanses of Dartmoor)

One of the strangest of alleged Dartmoor hauntings is that of the hairy hands. A pair of disembodied hands that are said to occasionally appear in the early hours along an empty stretch of road, they have a habit of grabbing hold of steering wheels and sending drivers tumbling to their deaths.

The Devon urban legend first emerged in the 1920s, just as motorcars were starting to become a not-so-uncommon sight along Dartmoor’s winding lanes. But there are other scary stories about them also. One of the creepiest involves a woman who had parked her caravan up by a stretch of lonely road high on the bleak moorland. In the dead of night, she awoke to a gentle scraping sound. Wondering what it was, she opened her eyes and saw two pale, dead hands with long nail scratching at the glass of her window, trying to find a way in.

Others overnighting on Dartmoor have claimed to hear the hands gently trying door handles. It’s said that if you’re out too late on a particularly dark and evil night, you may just feel them closing around your throat… So long as, that is, the Beast of Dartmoor doesn’t get you first.

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