Cryptozoology is a weird and wonderful area of study. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s basically concerned with examining creatures whose existence is disputed. Famous examples of cryptozoological animals include the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot.
Devon is brimming with strange cryptozoological stories. Given that one of my most recently completed books is about this sort of thing, I thought it might be fun to dedicate this week’s blog to all those peculiar folkloric creatures in the South-West!
Cryptozoology in Devon – the strange creatures of Dartmoor, Cornwall and more
The Beast of Dartmoor
The ‘Beast of Dartmoor’ (what a name!) is probably the region’s most notorious supernatural creature. There have been countless sightings of the Beast, with most describing it as looking like a panther. However, a few reports claim that it’s more like a boar in appearance. Even more weirdly, people sometimes come across the mutilated remains of sheep on the moor, and even the occasional wild pony that’s been torn to bits.
Possible explanations abound. Some suspect it might be an escaped zoo animal. Others, when presented with blurry photographic evidence, say it looks like a domestic cat (something I’m inclined to agree with). Interestingly, there’s also a Beast of Bodmin Moor, which is described in a similar way. A whole family of South-West Beasts, perhaps? Now there’s a thought!
Morgawr – the sea monster of Cornwall
Cornwall has a very special place in my heart, and this is partially due to its fabulous coastlines. Small wonder, given those craggy, hostile cliffs and lashing waves, that plenty of people have seen sea monsters, lurking in the depths!
Morgawr (which, broadly translated, means ‘sea giant’ in Cornish) is one of the county’s most celebrated cryptozoological offerings. First seen back in the late 1800s in Falmouth, people speculated whether it was a plesiosaur, which had somehow survived since the era of the dinosaurs. It was also spotted at Land’s End in the early 1900s, and then in St Ives in the 1920s. I could go on, as there are several sightings, with the most recent being in 1999.
Does Morgawr exist? Probably not, as most agree it’s an elaborate hoax, or just people’s imaginations, getting the better of them. However, it makes for a cracking yarn, which is the main thing.
The Owl-Man of Mawnan Smith
This is one of my favourite cryptozoological tales, and yet again, it’s in Cornwall!
The legend goes a little something like this. Back in 1976, two teenage girls (always the most reliable source when it comes to things like this – ha!), were holidaying in Mawnan Smith, near Falmouth. They took a stroll to the nearest church, only to see an enormous ‘bird-man’ standing on the roof, complete with feathery wings and a terrifying expression.
In that same year, another pair of teens decided to camp in the area. Guess what they saw one night, lurking outside their tent? You guessed it – an enormous man-bird, with glowing eyes and huge wings.
Most people agree that this all sounds very far-fetched. If anything, the creature was probably a large owl. Hey, we had an eagle owl on the loose in Exeter recently, so I can testify that it’s a feasible explanation – those things are huge. (And if you’re looking for more details of this tale, including the owl in question ‘attacking’ a bus driver’s bald patch, please read this.)
The Black Shuck
Dartmoor not only has its Beast; it also has a Black Shuck roaming around too! The Shuck (or ‘demon dog’) is reportedly a huge hound with blazing red eyes. To see it, some say, is a portent of evil and death. Others claim it’s the pet of the long-dead Richard Cabell – a local man who was so dastardly that dogs howled by his tomb on the night of his interment.
Rather wonderfully, it’s this creature that reputedly inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles. So there you go – the value of cryptozoology, right there!
The Devil’s Footprints
Okay, I admit, I have major obsession for this particular legend (and indeed, it’s the title of the most recent book I wrote). I won’t go into it too much, as I have written about it in the past – but basically, in the mid-19th century, several parts of Devon woke up to find thick snow outside their doors, and strange, non-human footprints running through them.
This trail of prints continued for miles. Even more peculiarly, they appeared to ‘walk’ through buildings and rivers, and continue on the other side. They didn’t belong to any known animal, though one person speculated they might have been created by an escaped kangaroo, or jumping rodents. Eventually, the people of Devon concluded that it must have been the work of a demon. As you do.
There are countless more that I could list – let me know if you think I’ve missed a really good one out!