Wednesday Weirdness: The Devil in Lancashire.

This fortnight I am delighted to welcome Melanie Warren to The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful. In advance of the publication of her book Lancashire Folk in November, Melanie shares with us some tales of what the Devil has been up to in Lancashire.


Somewhere near Greens Moor Quarry, close to the Lancashire town of Bacup, there is a large cairn of stones which was known locally as Hell Clough. As you’d expect, there’s a legend which explains how this came to be.

Close to this cairn there was once a natural pool which the devil was fond of using for bathing. One day a terrific storm swept over the moorland and the heavy rain so over-filled the devil’s favourite pool that the edge of it was in danger of giving way. If that happened, the pool would empty itself entirely down the hillside. The devil realised that he needed to construct some sort of dam to prevent this calamity, but how?

The devil looked around for an answer and down in the valley he saw a hayrick covered with thick sheeting for protection. This gave him an idea. He flew quickly down to the valley, took the sheeting and wrapped it round his waist, like an apron. Then he returned to his pool at a more leisurely pace, gathering boulders as he went along and carrying them in his apron. It was a good plan, but sadly his apron could not hold the weight he expected of it. Before he reached the pool, his apron gave way and all the boulders tumbled out to land in one huge pile on the moorland. It is this pile which later became known as Hell Clough.

As for the devil’s bathing pool, well, as he had feared, the edge of his pool did indeed give way and the whole of the contents poured away down the hillside. The handy bathing-pool was gone forever and the devil would have to find somewhere else to wash.

Hell Clough is not the only natural feature in Lancashire to be linked with the devil. On Pendle Hill there is another cairn, now rather smaller than it once was, which (coincidentally) has the name of the Devil’s Apronful. This is where the devil stood when he flung rocks at Clitheroe Castle, making a new window in its side – the window can still be seen. The devil also used to walk the streets of Clitheroe, trying to persuade people to sell him their souls for three wishes. However, he was beaten, defeated by cleverness and trickery, and flew to a bridge, a mile to the south, where he disappeared. Ever since that day, the bridge has been known as Hell Hole Bridge.

On Parlick Pike, there is a well of spring water known as Old Nick’s Watering Pot. The fabled ‘Old Dun Cow’ was reputed to frequent this place and give freely of her milk to anyone who asked, without ever running dry – until she was bewitched. (But that’s another story…)

On Rivington Pike, aghostly horseman haunts the moors and is sometimes identified as the devil himself. One day, some men out hunting took shelter from a storm in a ruined tower. As they waited for the storm to pass, a horseman galloped past and one of the men, Mr Norton, recognised the rider as a missing uncle, so he quickly mounted his own horse and set off in pursuit. The rest would have followed, if not for the intervention of one of their servants, who insisted that this was not Norton’s uncle, but the spectral horseman long feared in the area.

The servant then explained that his father had been out poaching one night when a similar man on a huge black horse had asked to be taken to the stones known as the Two Lads. When they arrived there, the stranger asked that one of the stones should be lifted and beneath it the servant’s father had seen a large pit, wherein lived the devil, and the smell of the pit was so terrible it had caused him to faint. When he woke up, the stranger was gone and the stone was as it had been before.

Once the storm abated, the rest of the hunting party went at once to the Two Lads, and found Norton unconscious on the ground, looking as if he had been in a terrible fight. When he eventually regained consciousness, he explained that the horseman had indeed been his uncle, at least in part. He had been claimed by the devil and allowed to return to earth only on condition that someone else could be found for the devil’s spirit to possess. As Norton had refused to submit, even to save his uncle, the devil would have to hunt for another victim.

A less terrifying tale comes from Fulwood, near Preston. Two Roman roads cross each other at Fulwood, one being Watling Street, and it was said that these roads stretched from sea to sea in every direction, north, south, east and west. The crossroads might well be at the place known locally as Withy Trees – a very old name which indicates that here was once a grove of willows. Here, Watling Street Road crosses Garstang Road. The former leads to Ribchester, the latter to Lancaster, both of which are Roman sites. Locally, however, the Romans were given no credit for these fantastic roads. Instead, it was said that the devil made them and, what’s more, he made them in just one night.

In Lancashire of old, it was definitely not acceptable to play games on a Sunday. It may have been a day of rest, but that didn’t give licence to have fun, especially if that fun involved any kind of gambling. Three men playing cards in the Three Lane Ends pub in Chipping one Sunday were joined by a stranger, who they accepted quite happily, until they began to notice that he wasn’t like other men. There seemed to be horns on his head, though he wore a hat to hide them, and when they looked down they saw that his feet were actually cloven hooves. One can only imagine the speed at which the panic-stricken men vacated the pub. A shame for the devil, who only wanted to play a game of cards!

Crawshawbooth, Copyright Richard Spencer.

One Sunday morning, the boys of Crawshawbooth were indulging in a game of football, despite the remonstrations of the vicar who warned against playing such games on the Lord’s Day. They paid no heed to his warnings but perhaps they should have done – because the devil himself came along to join in the game. He waited until the ball came in his direction and then he kicked the ball so high into the sky that it vanished and so did he, in an explosion of fire. And that was the last time the lads played football on a Sunday!

On another Sunday, some local men were playing a gambling game at a disused church in Haslingden – on a Sunday! One of them threw a halfpenny up in the air and all were puzzled when it did not come down again. All was explained, though, when they looked up to see the devil grinning down at them from the beams.

All Hallow’s Church, Great Mitton, 
Copyright Rude Heath.

The devil in a church? Certainly. He was not averse to churches and their ceremonies – one day he even hitched a lift on a coffin being carried to Brindle Church, the weight of him stopping the funeral procession in its tracks. The Vicar was forced to deal with him by reciting a prayer and ordering him to leave – and the funeral continued unhindered. He was also said to be responsible for moving one church, at Great Mitton, entirely. All Hallows Church was deposited in its current location by the devil, stone by stone, in a single night.

He was even – sometimes – beneficent in his own way, although there was always a price to pay. In Chatburn, he offered three wishes to a tailor who was feeling very unhappy with his life. Three wishes – in return for his soul, to be collected in seven years’ time. The tailor agreed, and so excited was he to have three wishes that he asked immediately for a side of bacon, a delicacy he hadn’t tasted for years. His wish was granted at once. Next, the tailor stupidly wished to be rid of his nagging wife and at once, it was done. He was immediately sorry he had made such a silly wish – who would bake his bread now, and knit his stockings? “I wish I had never said that,” he said and at once, his wife was returned to her place by the fire.

The tailor, having used all his three wishes and effectively sold his soul for a side of bacon, had seven years to reconsider what he had done and by the time the devil came back, he was ready for him. He talked the devil into giving him just one more wish, as he had sold his soul so cheaply. Foolishly, the devil agreed. “I wish,” said the tailor, “that you were on the back of the dun horse in that field over there, riding back to where you came from, and that you’re never able to bother me or any other mortals again.” At once, the devil was swept out of the house and set upon the dun horse, which galloped away, never to be seen again.

The story of the tailor’s great success against the devil spread across the county and people came from far and wide to meet the man who tricked the devil… and the poor tailor finally found a prosperous life by turning his home into an ale-house, for the use of his visitors. It became known as the Dule Upon Dun.

This same story is told about a tailor in Sawley, Nicholas Gosford by name, although in Nicholas’ case he was given twenty years, not seven, and his wishes were different. His first wish was used up quickly when he went home expecting a meal and there was only oatcake and butter to be had. His wife said, “Well, I wish I had a backstone for the fire, so that I could bake.” At once, a backstone appeared on the fire and Nicholas was so angered by this waste of a wish that he shouted, “I wish that backstone was smashed to pieces!” And so it was. The third wish was similarly thrown away next morning, when Nicholas wished he had some hot water for his shave.

The rest of the story is the same as that in Chatburn; Nicholas bartered for one more wish, which he used in wishing the devil on the back of a horse which would take him back where he came from, never to return. And Nicholas opened an Inn, and people came from far and near to meet the man who had tricked the devil.

Another old Lancashire story is claimed by at least three towns; firstly, Burnley. The story here tells of some boys at Burnley Grammar School who had discovered a method of raising the devil by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards. Late one night, they decided to see if this spell would actually work and, indeed, the devil dutifully began to appear, rising up through one of the flagstones in the schoolroom. The boys were so scared by their success that they immediately began to beat him back into the earth with a hammer. A black scorch-mark left by the devil on the flagstones remained visible for many years, until the floor was boarded over.

This same story is told about Clitheroe Grammar School. Here, the hapless boys were rescued by their Schoolmaster, who struck a deal with the devil – he must complete one task and if he succeeded, he could stay. The devil agreed and the schoolteacher ordered him to knit a rope of sand – which was, of course, impossible even for a supernatural being. Furious at being tricked this way, the devil disappeared again, beneath the hearthstone.

A third story comes from Blackburn, where the devil was raised by two men threshing corn in a barn. They were naturally horrified when the ritual worked and the devil began to appear, rising between them through the floor of the barn. They had little alternative but to beat him back down with their threshing flails.

The motif of ‘knitting a rope of sand’ recurs in another devil-tale, this time from Cockerham. Here, the devil had taken up residence in the village, much to the dismay of the residents, and once again it was the schoolmaster (the most intelligent man in the village) who came up with a way of banishing him. He set the devil not just one, but three, tasks.

The first task was to count the number of dewdrops on a hedge. This the devil found too easy, for when he went to the hedge to count, the wild wind caused by his arrival blew the hedge dry and there were only thirteen dewdrops left to count.

The second task was to count the number of stalks in a cornfield. Unfortunately, when the devil gave his answer, the schoolteacher realised he had no way of checking whether he was correct!

The third task was to make a rope of sand which would withstand washing in the river Cocker. The devil vanished, but in just a few moments he proudly reappeared with a beautifully woven rope of sand. His confidence soon faded, however, when he and the schoolteacher went to the river to wash the rope, which promptly dissolved away.

The devil was furious, but a bargain was a bargain and, accepting that he was beaten, the devil flew away to Pilling Moss and was never seen in Cockerham again. In Pilling, it is said that he landed on Broadfleet Bridge – and his angry footprint can still be seen there, stamped into the stonework.

Devil’s Hoofprint on Broadfleet Bridge
Copyright Bob Jenkins.

How easy it was to trick the devil in the old days! All it took was a clever man; a schoolteacher or a priest, with a bit of common sense and intelligence – for the devil, as we can see, at least in Lancashire, is not as clever as he thinks.

Incidentally, there is another story about the devil in Cockerham – but this time the devil was one unwittingly carved on a rood-screen by a singularly inept craftsman. The church’s original rood had been destroyed by order of Henry VIII, but when Henry’s daughter Mary came to the throne the churchwardens were obliged under law to find the money to provide a new one. They employed a man who was alleged to be skilled at carving to decorate the rood-screen with an image of the crucifixion. The image, when it was completed, was just terrible. The churchwardens refused to pay the bill, preferring instead to appear in court at Lancaster to explain their actions.

The Mayor of Lancaster, presiding over the case, was told that the image was so ugly and frightening that children were scared to come near it. The Mayor dismissed that argument, saying that the man deserved to be paid for his work, whatever their opinion of it. He then advised them to ‘clap a pair of horns on his head, and so he will make an excellent devil.”

This last story is no legend, for it appeared in local newspapers – one wonders what effect it had on the business of the hapless woodcarver!


This article is based on entries from the forthcoming book ‘Lancashire Folk: Ghostly Legends and Folklore from Ancient to Modern’ which will be available in January 2016. (Schiffer Publishing, ISBN13: 9780764349836 £16.99

Melanie Warren has collected British folk tales and ghost stories for almost four decades. For many years, she was a paranormal investigator and took part in innumerable ghost-hunts but never saw a ghost, although she did have several experiences she finds hard to explain… She was also BBC Radio Lancashire’s resident “paranormal expert” and co-authored two collections of ghost stories, which were broadcast on BBC local radio stations. Melanie is now concentrating on turning her extensive collection of stories and tales into a series of books, one county at a time. Melanie lives in Lancashire and has done so all her life. 

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