February the 8th, 1855. As the sun sets and day turns into night, a heavy snowfall lands on the neighbourhood of Exeter. The winter has been far colder than usual, and the snow that evening settles on that of the night before, and the night before that, refusing to melt. Before sunrise, the local residents begin to stir as the new day begins.
But something strange awaits them out in the snow.
Hundreds upon hundreds of mysterious tracks are found. Around four inches long and three inches across, the tracks resemble that of a hoof, and lay between eight and fourteen inches apart, in single file. When traced, these tracks have a combined length of over fifty miles. Even stranger, whatever left these prints seemed undeterred by any obstacle. The tracks continue, unbroken, over snow-topped roofs and frozen rivers, high walls and haystacks.
More hoof-marks are found the next night. And the next.
At a loss for an explanation, the locals dub them ‘the Devil’s footprints’, on account of their cloven nature.
The people grow fearful, and, for a time, refuse to go outside after midnight. Eventually, as with all such events, things return to normal, and the incident passes into local legend.
Several theories are proposed to explain the prints, ranging from the tracks of wood mice, whose leaping exploits leave a mark that resembles a cloven hoof, to an ‘experimental balloon’ accidentally released by workers at nearby Devonport Dockyard.
As is typical of such theories on the paranormal, all of these possible explanations solve one problem, but inadvertently raise another.
For instance; leaping mice may explain the shape of the prints, but even the most energetic of mice in the warmth of spring cannot leap onto the roof of a house in a single bound.
An escaped balloon, with its trailing ropes and errant shackles, may solve the issue of the tracks being made on raised surfaces, but it is unlikely that those tracks would be as uniform as the ones seen at Exeter that morning. Indeed, one would expect to find drag marks at least somewhere along the trail.
Perhaps it was the work of badgers, or even an escaped kangaroo from a private menagerie. Perhaps it was the work of unnamed ‘pranksters’, that much maligned but never identified group who are so easily blamed for such occurrences.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, something unknown really was stalking the fields of Exeter those dark and snowy nights.
But all this happened over a century and a half ago and, without a repeat of such an event, it is unlikely we will find answers in the here and now.
However, a curious account was bought to my attention a few years ago that, while not exactly the same, is similar enough to allow parallels to be drawn with the events of 1855.
June 1st 2016
Amanda Banford is a cheery woman, with a big smile and a motherly demeanour. She invites me to her house, a small but cosy two-up two-down in the Nottinghamshire village of Bunny, to discuss her ‘funny little tale’, as she puts it. Over numerous cups of tea and endless offers of cake that I eventually give up declining, she recounts her story. Her dog, a friendly Jack Russell terrier named Barnabus, loiters by my feet, gratefully hoovering up any crumbs the moment they hit the floor.
‘It happened a few months back, in January, those few days when it snowed really heavily. I like it when it snows. I like how quiet it gets. It’s so… peaceful, you know?
‘It was early, maybe four, half four. Barney was barking like mad. He’s not normally like that. He’s a silly little thing, but not a barker. Are you, Barney? No, you’re not. You’re a good boy.’
She picks up the little terrier, fussing over him and, much to my surprise, smothering him with kisses before placing him back on the ground.
‘Anyway, I put my robe on and went downstairs, and I noticed how cold the house was. It was so cold I could see my own breath. I got into the kitchen where Barney was yapping away and would you believe it? The back door was wide open.
‘Now most people’s first thoughts would be something like ‘oh no! I’ve been burgled!’ but all I could think about was something my Dad used to say; ‘if you have the heating on but leave a door or window open, you’re paying twice: once to heat in here and again to heat out there.’
‘I bet your parents used to say something similar. Cake?’
She thrusts another slice of Victoria sponge at me. I take it and ask her to continue.
‘Okay. As I was going to the back door, I noticed there were these big, wet footprints on the floor. Bare footprints, like some fella had just stepped out of the bathtub. They started by the fridge and then walked across the kitchen, straight out of the backdoor.
‘I picked up Barney and took a look out into the garden. The snow was quite deep at that point, at least a good few inches. The footprints carried on, in the snow. You could see the outlines of the toes and everything.’
What did you do next?
‘Well, I was intrigued, I suppose. So I get dressed, popped Barney on his leash, and went out into the garden. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone; take Barney for his walk and see wherever this barefooted chap ended up.
‘Now, this is where it gets odd.
‘I followed those footprints, by the light of the streetlamps.
‘They went down the garden, out into the street, all the way into town, and then out into the fields.
‘I must’ve followed them for hours. I didn’t have work that day, so it wasn’t a problem. The further they went, the more I wanted to know what this guy was doing, walking about barefoot in the snow in the early morning.
‘The sun had just started to come up when I got to the end of the tracks. They just stopped, right in the middle of a field.
‘Literally, step, step, nothing. No more footprints. I couldn’t believe it.
‘There were no other signs of anything anywhere nearby. I mean literally nowhere near. The only other prints were those behind me, the ones that me and Barney had made. It was like this guy just vanished, or was lifted up into the air, you know? Poof! Gone!
‘I was more than bamboozled, let me tell you.
Fortunately, Ms Banford was quick enough to take some photos of the last few footprints on her mobile phone, before reporting them to the local constable.
He too followed the tracks. He too was unable to explain how they came to such an abrupt end.
The constable estimated that the tracks covered at least eight miles.
So what was the identity of this mysterious, barefooted nocturnal visitor? Why did his journey begin in Ms Banford’s kitchen? And what was his ultimate fate? Did he just vanish? Or was there some other agency at work here?
There are similarities that can be drawn between the incidents at Bunny and Exeter. However, unlike in the case a hundred and fifty-odd years ago, I feel it is reasonable to conclude that whatever occurred in that small Nottinghamshire village, it was not the work of leaping rodents, rogue balloons, fugitive kangaroos or even those ever-resourceful yet unidentified pranksters.
A local reporter did actually come to interview Ms Banford the following day, taking a copy of her photographs, and nodding sympathetically at her ‘funny little tale’.
The paper did not run the story.
It seems mysterious footprints in the snow no longer elicit the same excitement they once did.
Dr Thomas Gotobed
I remember my Nan telling me all about the Devil’s footprints when I was a kid, it seems to be one of those things that has been absorbed into the nation’s consciousness. Also vanishing individuals is fast becoming a recurring theme in the good doctor’s notes. Where do all these people go?? – C.R.