Lancashire has many tales about the Devil’s local hijinks. CHRIS NEWTON tells us his favourite, involving a Cockerham schoolmaster who outsmarts Old Nick through clever challenges
The Devil is no stranger to Lancashire. He was walked here often, and his hoofprints are all over the county, often literally.
Such is the case in Sabden in Pendle, where he landed on a rock at Ratten Clough and left his mark for all to see.
Then of course, there is the Devil’s Window in Clitheroe Castle. Old Nick tried to destroy the castle by hurling boulders at it from Pendle Hill. He gathered the rocks in an huge apron, but the apron broke and, in his anger, the Devil threw down his ammunition and littered the Pendle hillside with stones. These days they call it the Devil’s Apronful.
There were also some schoolboys in Clitheroe who were said to have succeeded in summoning the Ould Lad by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards. (The cracked hearthstone, from beneath which the Devil appeared, remained until the school was torn down in the 1830s.)
But perhaps the most interesting to me – probably because it’s closest to where I live – is the Devil’s Footprint in Pilling.
The tale of the Devil in Cockerham
They say that the Devil was abroad in Cockerham, a small Lancashire village just south of Lancaster, and when Old Nick himself had taken up residence in your area, trouble was sure to follow.
Hens would refuse to lay, milk would turn sour, crops would fail. Accounts as to why Mr Splitfoot himself was in the village differ. Some say that a group of local boys conjured him by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in reverse. (Although they could be conflating this with the Clitheroe legend.)
In despair, the villagers turned to the local schoolmaster, the wisest man in Cockerham. The schoolmaster approached The Devil – who was cavorting in the local churchyard – and demanded that he leave. The Devil was not so easily banished. However, he loved a challenge, and so he struck a bargain with the teacher.
“Set me three tasks,” said the Devil. “If I cannot complete them, I will return and never come back. But if I succeed – then your soul will be mine for all eternity!”
The schoolmaster agreed to the Devil’s bargain and challenged him to count the dew drops on a nearby hedge. The Devil laughed, for this was an easy task! In no time at all, he had counted the dew drops and demanded his next task. The schoolmaster thought for a moment, and then bade him count the stalks in the cornfields. This, too, the Devil accomplished with ease.
“Chose your third and final challenge carefully,” warned the Devil, “for if I you cannot thwart me this time, you will be returning to Hell with me this very night!”
The schoolmaster thought long and hard about his last chance to escape damnation, and eventually came up with the solution. “Weave a rope of fine sand from Pilling Moss,” he instructed. The Devil howled with glee – too easy! – but the schoolmaster held up a finger to stay him. “I haven’t finished yet! Weave a rope of sand, and then wash it clean in the River Cocker!”
The Devil snapped his fingers, and hellish imps appeared, bringing him piles of sand from the Cocker shore. Within moments, the Devil had expertly woven a rope of sand, but when he tried to wash it in the river, the rope dissolved until there was nothing left.
The Devil snarled in a rage, insisting that the schoolmaster had tricked him – an ironic claim coming from the Father of Lies himself! – but the schoolmaster insisted that a bargain was a bargain and the Devil begrudgingly agreed. He was never seen in Cockerham again.
Anyone who doubts this tale would do well to visit Broadfleet Bridge in Pilling, where they say the Devil landed when he leapt all the way from Cockerham church, crashing down with such infernal fury that he stamped a footprint into the stone bridge which can still be seen to this day.
There is a retelling of this tale in my novel, The Fylde Witch, in which the Devil is not so easily outwitted. But who knows? Perhaps, if the mood takes you to speak the Lord’s Prayer backwards this Halloween, and Old Scratch appears before you, you will be lucky.
Like the Tailor from Clitheroe, who outwitted the Devil and sent him riding off on a dun horse. Perhaps. But, if I were you, I wouldn’t risk it.