The Ghostly Highway, Devon
The following story is reproduced from the book Supernatural England.
The unsettling story of a lonely road, the hairy hands and a spate of unexplained road accidents.
Many roads in Devon are said to be haunted by phantoms either visible or audible to many people. Usually there is a pervading aura of something tragic or evil which some say accounts for otherwise inexplicable accidents. Obviously, of all these, those on Dartmoor roads must come top of the list. The atmosphere anyway is eerie, and it is easy enough to become disorientated in the low mist which often occurs.
And there have been many unexplained incidents where the traveller sees or feels a huge pair of hairy hands interfering with handlebars or steering wheel.
So is there some kind of reserve of psychic power in the area? Is it simply a manifestation of force? In this case there does not seem to be any mention of it before the second decade of the 20th century. Perhaps it is the presence of some malignant influence or matter which once created can never be destroyed - neither of the human nor of the spirit world but earthbound between the two, freed from the body but not from the scene of some crime committed during life on this earth.
Perhaps violent death and emotions can leave imprints on the ether, concentrated with such force as to form definite emanations. Is this more far fetched than imagining what effect it would have had on a prehistoric man if he had seen a personality on a television screen, appearing out of a box, which is something we take as perfectly normal today.
These particular happenings occur between Postbridge and Two Bridges in the Ancherton region of the Moor.
This area became of interest to the general public in the early 1920s. In 1921 there were three motoring accidents near the gate of Archerton Drive on Nine Mile Hill, reported in the Daily Mail on 14th and 15th October.
The first had been in March when Dr Helby, the prison doctor from Princetown, had been asked to attend an inquest at Postbridge. He was riding a bike with a sidecar containing two children, daughters of the Deputy Governor of the prison, and his own wife, Mrs Helby. Suddenly the machine swerved, the engine literally detaching itself as he was flung into the ditch and his neck broken. The children and his wife fell on the verge and were not seriously hurt but naturally terrified.
Having written an account of this, I had a letter from a Dr Adkin of Exmouth. He told me that when he was a small boy he and his family were staying on holiday at Cherrybrook Farm near to Archerton not far from where the old powder mill and buildings still stand, and recalled this incident well.
They were passing a small gravel pit dug out by the road men to repair potholes before the days of tarmac - the family were on their way to their holiday cottage on the farm. There were signs of an accident a little way ahead and his father, a doctor, telling his family to stay where they were, went to see if he could help.
He realised immediately that the man was dead. He managed to get some words out of the wife, who said that as they approached the place where the accident occurred her husband had cried out that he had lost control of the machine and something about 'hair' and 'hands' which made no sense.
A few weeks later a coach mounted the bank on the Lake side of the road and one woman was badly hurt. The driver said, 'I felt hands pull the wheel towards the Lake side', but no one listened to him.
Later that year, on a dull, foggy Friday - 26th August - an army officer was riding a motorbike and was again thrown on the verge in exactly the same place. He only suffered shock and scratches but he was a very experienced rider. He said, 'It was just not my fault, something seemed to wrench me off the road, a huge hairy pair of hands closed over mine on the handlebars. I tried to fight them but they were too strong.
As all these stories gradually gained prominence, the Daily Mail sent investigators to the spot and their report appeared that October. Eventually the camber of the road was altered, but it made no difference and in any case all these vehicles had turned over upwards to the Lake side, both the coach and the officer's cycle travelling uphill.
Forty years later, in 1961, a young man was driving from Plymouth to Chagford when his car overturned on exactly the same spot. He was found dead underneath it. In spite of a thorough examination of the body by forensic experts, and of the mechanism of the car, no explanation of the accident could be given.
In 1991 a doctor from Somerset turned his car over at the same place. He said, like the others, it was as if some malignant force had sent it out of control. The atmosphere inside the car was deathly cold, literally paralysing him. He shook all over and again said, 'It was as if something evil was actually inside the car with me, the steering wheel went wild and was wrenched out of my hands.
Someone else who knew much about this drama was Theo Brown, that expert on all to do with folklore, mystery and ghosts in Devon. She told me what a Mrs Battiscombe had described to her; she was the widow of the successor to the prison doctor from Princetown who had been killed.
A young man who was a guest at Penlee in Postbridge undertook to run in to Princetown on his motorbike to get something for his hostess, she said. 'In about an hour he returned to Penlee very white and shaken saying he had had a most frightening experience. He had felt his hands gripped by two rough and hairy hands which made every effort to throw him off his machine. He never got much beyond the clapper bridge.'
Theo's own parents knew the area very well; for a month each summer they used to park a caravan among the old ruins of the powder mill a mile west of Postbridge, half a mile north of the haunted road.
One night when the family were asleep in their bunks in the caravan, Theo had woken up with a premonition of danger. Suddenly she was wide awake and looking up at the little window above her bunk she saw fingers and the palm of a very large hand with hairs on it - it was clawing at the top of the window which was a little way open.
'I had the feeling that the owner of the hand was about to harm us - it was no human hand.' She made the sign of the cross and prayed to God to keep them from harm. Slowly the hand sank down the window out of sight. They stayed on for the rest of the holiday, but she never felt any evil near the caravan again.
One curious fact about these hauntings is that four of the people affected in accidents were doctors, including Dr Helby, Dr Adkin Sr who helped at the accident, and his son, Dr Adkin. Number four was the doctor from Somerset whose name we do not know. Possibly this spirit, ghost or whatever, had a special grudge against the medical profession for some reason.
This story is reproduced from the book, Supernatural England, by Countryside Books, which contains dozens of spooky tales featuring ghosts, poltergeists and hauntings from across the country. To find out more, click here
- Alex Batho