Updated: Jan 16
Imagine the year is 1921, just over one hundred years ago. Dartmoor is a remote and isolated waste, far from civilisation. There are few cars on the road, and those that travel upon the moor do so infrequently.
It's late at night, misty, and the headlamps of Dr Helby's motorcycle barely intrude on the darkness. He approaches a bend in the road to Princetown at a carefully low speed. In his sidecar, his two young daughters shiver from the cold.
He knows the road well, Dr Helby, having ridden on it many times. He is, after all, the medical officer for nearby Dartmoor Prison, whose ghastly edifice awaits at the end of his journey. Helby tries his brakes as he reaches a small bridge over a moorland stream known as 'The Cherrybrook'. To his surprise, his motorcycle doesn't respond by slowing down.
Instead, it veers sharply to the left, skidding off the road altogether. The two girls are thrown from their sidecar, but to safety; a soft carpet of heather cushions their fall. The doctor himself isn't so lucky. His vehicle slamming into a chunk of Dartmoor granite, he is instantly killed.
At the time, nobody thought anything strange about the tragedy. It was an accident, caused by a combination of tiredness, a narrow moorland road, the weather and unreliable mechanics. At the inquest, the coroner heard evidence that the motorcycle's wheel spokes and axle must have broken up.
However, when another crash occurred shortly afterwards, there were suddenly reasons to believe something altogether different was to blame.
26 August 1921 and an Army captain from Okehampton Camp rode his motorcycle on that same stretch of road. Like Dr Helby, this man, whose name has been lost to the sands of time, knew the area very well. Surviving the crash, he gave a most unusual explanation. He claimed a pair of hairy, muscular hands had clamped over his and forced him off the road. The legend of the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor had begun!
This last photographs shows the spot where most accidents occur. And there have been many accidents, some predating the army captain's terrifying experience, which even made the headlines of the Daily Mail newspaper. Starting around 1910, people in the area reported their bicycles and traps being turned over by an unseen foe. Being gentle vehicles, travelling at low speeds, their strange assaults didn't result in any fatalities. Merely cuts and bruises were suffered.
Local author Beatrice Chase, whose exploits are mentioned in the story of Kitty Jay's Grave, came up with a theory of her own. Writing to the Western Morning News, she said, “these things may be due to magnetic rocks, of which there are many on Dartmoor. This extraordinary season may have increased or altered the magnetic currents. It would appear to have some connection with metal, and the steering wheel or handle bars would act as conductors, and an electric shock might account for the strange sensation described by the young officer. In the interests of the public, it would be nice if someone with the requisite instruments could test that road from the top of Merripit Hill to Archerton.”
The Hands Strike Again!
Nothing was done to follow up Miss Chase's suggestion. Then later that year, a charabanc carrying tourists crashed at the same spot. Many passengers were thrown from the upturned vehicle and suffered serious injuries. Interviewed by crash investigators, the driver said a disembodied pair of hairy hands had seized control of the steering wheel and deliberately forced the charabanc onto its side.
In 1947, a young man riding a motorcycle suffered the same fate experienced by the unfortunate Dr Helby. Slowing down as he approached the Cherrybrook Bridge, his vehicle mysteriously began to defy his instructions, speeding up and then careering crazily off the road. His girlfriend was riding in a sidecar and she survived the crash. The poor man in question died of a fractured skull.
Giving evidence at the inquest, PC Tancock of Princetown confirmed the rider had been perfectly sober when leaving the village. The recorded verdict was accidental death.
Fifteen years later and a visitor to Dartmoor claimed to see the Hairy Hands. Florence Warwick said she was driving along the road when “I looked up and saw a pair of huge, hairy hands pressed against the windscreen. I tried to scream, but couldn’t. I was frozen with fear.”
When the writer becomes the story, part II
The folklorist Theo Brown suffered arguably the most famous encounter of all. Enjoying a caravan holiday on the moor in the summer of 1924, she camped in the grounds of the ruined Powder Mills, which sit adjacent to this reputedly haunted stretch of road. Waking one night, she felt an overpowering sensation of evil surrounding her.
To her immense horror, Theo saw the Hairy Hands crawling of their own volition up the outside of her caravan. They were approaching an open window! She said she knew by instinct that the hands meant her husband harm; that if they reached the window, and came inside, they would attack him.
Theo made the sign of the cross, at which point the Hairy Hands immediately withdrew. She closed the window, settled back to sleep, and the couple left the area the very next day.
What are the Hairy Hands?
Of course, no one knows for sure whether the Hairy Hands really exist beyond the imagination of those who claim to have seen them. But if they do, what are they? One theory is that they are the spectral remains of an especially hairy Italian fellow, whose life ended in July 1851 during an explosion at the nearby Powder Mills gunpowder factory. But why he should choose to strike so arbitrarily at innocent passersby? That has never been satisfactorily explained.
Recent Woes and My Own Experience
Stories about the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor continue to the present day, This isn't an old piece folklore, nor a legend dreamt up during less enlightened times, and nowadays blamed by outsiders on the drunken whims of uneducated local peasants.
Far from it! As recently as 2008, a motorist said he saw what looked like a huge pair of hairy paws grab his steering wheel in that spot. He fought to retain control of his vehicle and managed to keep from crashing at the Cherrybrook Bridge. Once the bridge was successfully passed, the 'paws' disappeared.
When I owned a pub in the Dartmoor village of Mary Tavy seven years ago, an elderly woman came in for a drink and bite to eat. A friend of one of my best regulars, chap called Paul Bluett, she told me that her late husband used to farm on the moor near Cherrybrook. Making what I thought was a joke, I asked whether he'd believed in the Hairy Hands. To my great surprise, she told me that he didn't just believe in them, he'd actually seen them himself!
Apparently, he travelled home to the couple's second farm at Lydford after working late one summer evening. Approaching the Cherrybrook Bridge, the steering wheel of his tractor was seized by the Hairy Hands, which proceeded to drive it off the road and upturn it.
"My late husband were a brave man, an' as strong as an ox," this old lady told me. "Nothin' ever frightened him. But as for the Hairy Hands, they terrified him. He came home shakin', an' poured hi'self a large Scotch. An' he made sure he never drove up there after dark ever again."