East Devon's ghostly residents
PUBLISHED: 07:00 29 October 2017 | UPDATED: 11:16 28 November 2019
Devon is a county awash with stories of ghosts and the supernatural. And plenty of these tales herald from the east with one east Devon town reported to be the most haunted in the county. Steve Jennings went ghost hunting.
On the face of it Devon provides the perfect backdrop for ghostly tales and spooky stories of the supernatural; flanked by a rugged coastline hiding smugglers caves and ship's wrecked, full of ancient towns with manor houses, coaching inns and churches that have stood for centuries and containing miles of misty moors with Celtic ruins providing a reminder of battles from days gone by.
Such tales form so much of the local folklore and popular culture.
Pretty much all of the major towns in the region can boast their own ghoulish legend. Take Ottery St Mary, for instance, a town famed for tar barrels and its magnificent church that has stood since 1337. In that churchyard stands the tomb of John Coke, a landowner and decorated soldier from the 17th century who was quite literally stabbed in the back by his brother during an argument about the family estate. He died on March 26, 1632. In life he had commissioned a tomb that showed him standing up and it is reported than on the anniversary of his death his effigy climbs from the tomb and walks the church grounds. Satisfied his brother is not buried, there he returns to rest. For another twelve months at least.
Out of Ottery, at Gittisham common, you find the Hare & Hounds on Putts Corner on the Sidmouth to Honiton road. Previously known as Hunters Lodge, in the 17th Century it was a popular haunt for poachers and smugglers due to its isolated position. Legend says that several murders were committed there and criminals were buried nearby, maintaining a tradition of burying at crossroads away from settlement's to 'confuse the dead'. There have been many sightings of these criminals aimlessly wandering the common. At the front of the public house is the large ghostly 'Witches Stone', also known as 'Slaughter's Stone', where witches allegedly sacrificed their victims. When the stone hears the bells of Sidbury church it rolls down the hill to the River Sid to cleanse itself of the blood and poison before making its way back up the hill. Visit at 3am and you may see the stone move!
Another moving stone is talked about in Honiton. 'Old Nick' is a rock in Church Hill and is all that remains after the Devil and the locals threw stones at each other. It says that this rock was first placed at St Michael's Church but moved gradually - inch-by-inch - until it settled about 50 yards away and can be seen today under a metal bench.
One of the more famous stories is the phantom soldier who haunts Marlpits Lane, and is believed to be one of Monmouth's men that fought in the Battle of Sedgemoor. A party of schoolchildren watched a dazed man stagger past them oblivious to their attention. They huddled together in terror but when a car appeared the 'man' disappeared. The two school mistresses present were unable to see him but were so convinced by the children's obvious horror they did some research which confirmed a Honiton resident, who lived in a cottage in Marlpits Lane, had fought at Sedgemoor but deserted to make his way home. Spotted by soldiers only a few yards from his house he was brutally killed for his desertion in full view of his wife and three children. His ghost has been seen in the area throughout the 20th century, but only by children.
One little known tale that features on a website called paranormal360.co.uk tells of the haunting of Blackbury Camp, an Iron Age hill fort situated in Southleigh near Sidmouth. Recalling a November day in 1969 when he worked as a RAC Patrolman, a man named Terry had stopped at the camp to enjoy his packed lunch and coffee. The grey sky and deathly silence contributed to an eerie atmosphere as he left his van to look around, his boots crunching the leaves and twigs on the ground. Then Terry heard a whooshing sound behind him followed by a solid thump and he saw a thick branch of wood rolling down from where it had landed just four or five feet away. Within minutes another whoosh was followed by a thud and another large branch landed near him. Certain they had not fallen from any tree Terry looked to see who had thrown the logs at him. They would have to be close but no-one was present and there was nowhere to hide behind the slender trees. And they made no noise. He decided to leave and walked hastily to his van. Before he made it, three more large logs landed within inches of him. And then, when in his van, there was a loud bang on the roof closely followed by another. He looked in the wing mirror to see a log fall from the van. He drove away and stopped about three miles from the fort and surveyed his vehicle which had two large dents in the roof. In the Iron Age large wooden objects would have been used as weapons, so had Terry inadvertently witnessed a battle from a bygone age?
But not all ghosts have to be threatening. In February 1959, a former archaeologist who lived near Hole Mill in Branscombe watched his aging neighbour walk by, accompanied by another woman dressed in early twentieth century clothing. When he later enquired who the strangely dressed friend was, the neighbour replied that it was just a ghost who she had made contact with. As you do!
There is a famous tale of a hairy hand in Postbridge in Dartmoor, that 'helps' drivers off the road. Closer to home Farway has a similar ghoulish hand that is said to have entered the vehicles of hapless drivers heading to or from Honiton and Seaton and direct them to the roadside. Although no-one has been seriously hurt such 'help' would make the hairs on the neck stand on end somewhat.
The Tourist Information Centre in Plymouth reports Colyton to be the most haunted town in the county! There are certainly some tales to tell. The church, famed for its oddly-shaped tower, is haunted by a lady in grey who turns her head away from those who look at her, either in modesty or shame. And, by the rivers, that so often flood when the rains come, the spirit of a girl stands on the bank and stares longingly into the waters. Described by the many that have seen her as being startlingly attractive, no-one seems to know who she may be but some believe her to be the ancient pagan of the waters, worshipped in roman times.
Above the village is a stone bench at the end of Hillhead Lane placed in the 1930s by the Reverend Roderick Barnes so he could sit there and take in the views as part of his daily walk. Many have reported seeing the shadow of a man smoking a pipe apparently sat on the stone, but with nobody present.
Then there is the tale of Bob Levett, the running man. In the early 1900s he was struck by a car travelling at great speed while he was walking and taken to the Dolphin by locals but died before help could arrive. His ghost is said to walk the road between Colyton and Gatcombe Chase, where the accident happened, with local myth saying the ghost is seeking the car and driver who caused his untimely death. The Western Morning News even ran a story of a ghostly hitchhiker in the 1950s. A lorry driver had to break quickly to avoid a man standing on the roadside and stopped his vehicle thinking he had struck the pedestrian. But when the driver pulled over there was no victim, just empty road.
The ghost of Bob is even seen running at fast speed - faster than the devil they say - and one frightened traveller, totally unaware of the local legend, called at the Dolphin to inform he had been chased by a man who ran faster than his car could drive. Others have made similar claims, many times, with some saying Bob speaks to them while he is 'in the cab with them'.
Just down the road Shute Barton is one of the most important non-fortified medieval manor houses in England. One former resident still walks the gardens as a grey lady. Her identity is for debate with some claiming it to be the ghost of Lady Jane Grey, the so-called 'nine-day Queen'. Others, however, say it is one of the descendants, Lady de la Pole, who was hanged in the garden for being a Royalist during the Civil War. Witnesses have described her as having a determined face and that she walks about 'as if she owns the place'. Which, at one stage, she probably did!
There are also reports of a phantom feline that looks quite normal, until it walks through something solid.
Bovey House in Beer was originally a medieval manor house before becoming a hotel. After the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles II took shelter at this manor, then owned by a Royalist supporter. His headless ghost, dressed in blue silk, is said to haunt the house leaving behind the odour of lavender. This smell is often reported even today but the ghost has not been seen for years.
Many people believe Beer caves are haunted with both visitors and staff witnessing events or hearing things they cannot explain. The caves were of great use to smugglers as they could store contraband away from the excise officials. Some say the ghost of Jack Rattenbury, nicknamed the 'Rob Roy of the West', walks the caves. Born in Beer in 1778 he went to sea from the age of nine and became involved in smuggling at sixteen. He died aged 65, and was buried in Seaton churchyard close to the north transept.
Famed for its carpet industry, Axminster can boast a few tales of phantoms and spirits. The ghost of a Jewish pedlar murdered in the Dolphin Inn in the 17th century was seen by many people in the pub after death. The building has since been demolished. A ghost coach pulling out of the town towards Honiton was even reported in the local press in the 1970s, such was the interest. Just out of the town stands Warlake Hill, the scene of a bloody battle centuries ago involving the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. It is said that five kings died in these battles and were buried where they fell. But the royal warriors are clearly not resting in peace and have been seen walking the battlegrounds and heard shouting their war cries before returning to their graves.
The ghost of the Duke of Monmouth haunts the road around Yawl heading to Lyme Regis, where he had landed to face a rebellion from his own uncle James II. Monmouth's men were beaten in battle at Sedgemoor with the Duke captured and ultimately beheaded. Riding his white horse dressed in fine clothes Monmouth appears to be waving to a cheering crowd. A return to happier time's maybe?
The Talbot Arms in Uplyme, on the very edge of east Devon before the Dorset border, was originally called the Black Dog in the 15th century. It was originally the home of a farm labourer who found his fortune chasing a phantom black dog into his attic. With his poker, the man disturbed a treasure trove of coins and, with this good luck, opened up his house as an inn naming it after the hound. To this day the beast still roams the pub and the lane behind it.
These are just a few of the hundreds of tales of ghosts and the supernatural in East Devon. There are plenty more; some documented in books and on film but most told over a cold pint in the local pub. Yet we are told there are no such thing as ghosts. Don't you believe it!