The Devil Comes to Widecombe by Antonia Van Zandt
My new novel – Freya’s Choice – is set in the charming, picturesque and seemingly tranquil small town of Abbey St. Francis. Chocolate box thatched cottages sit alongside a meandering river. Birds of every hue sing and chirrup. The world moves at a slower place in communities like this, doesn’t it?
Well, don’t you believe it! In my small town – hardly much more than a village really – strange things happen within some of those cottages. Unnatural, spooky things. The river transforms into a raging torrent when it feels like it. A massive bird takes to the air and a new resident has moved in. One that will change everything for this peaceful little backwater.
In England there are many places like Abbey St. Francis.
Many of them hide deadly secrets. Oh yes, a lot can – and does – go on in the heart of rural England…
Take the charming village of Widecombe-In-The-Moor. It lies not far from Tavistock in Devon, in the heart of the dramatic Dartmoor National Park, and was immortalised in an old English folk song, Widdicombe Fair, which contains the oft quoted line “…and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.”
In October,1638, a terrible thunderstorm struck its parish church of St Pancras, just as the congregation were worshipping on a Sunday. One of the four pinnacles of the church tower was struck by lightning and came crashing through the roof, killing four parishioners. Parts of the tower were found 400 yards away, so it must have been an incredible explosion. At least, that is the official version. There are others.
Legend has it that one day, a man dressed entirely in black stopped at a nearby inn for refreshment and to ask directions to the village of Widecombe. He must have presented a strange sight, as he had cloven feet.
He rode a jet black horse. He was offered a mug of ale which he accepted and, as he drank it, the other customers heard a hissing noise as the liquid went down his throat. When he returned the mug to the bar, it was so hot, it scorched the wood.
The dark stranger left, but all who remained knew they had been in the company of the devil. He then proceeded to Widecombe Church and collected the souls of the four who died there. They had been playing cards as the service progressed. One of them – Jan Reynolds – was actually asleep. Must have been a riveting sermon!
An account of this event in Wikipedia states that the devil, “… captured Jan Reynolds, and rode away into the storm. As they flew over nearby Birch Tor, the four aces from Jan’s pack of cards fell to the ground, and today, if you stand at Warren House Inn, you can still see four ancient field enclosures, each shaped like the symbols from a pack of cards.”
Another version of the Devil’s visit to Widecombe states:
“That the Devil came to Widecombe to claim the soul of a man who was playing cards in the back of the church. The Devil tied his horse to one of the pinnacles, grasped the person, and in his haste to gallop away forgot to untie the horse, this pulled the pinnacle over, resulting in it crashing through the roof. As he galloped away across Dartmoor the four ‘aces’ fell out of the sleeve of the card player and landed on the ground and turned into four fields – they are visible today in the shape of a Heart, Diamond, Spade & Club.”
There are indeed four fields – part of an old tin mining project.
On old wall boards at the back of the church, a contemporary account of the Great Thunderstorm is given and reports:
“Men so perplexed were, they knew not one another’s faces. They all or most were stupified that with so strange a smell… One man was scorched so that he lived but fourteen days and died …Some had their skin all over scorched, yet no harm in their clothes …One man had money in his purse, which melted”
In 1980, the American actor, Daniel Stern, was on honeymoon with his wife and, on their way to Tavistock, they stopped in the village and were quite unnerved by what they saw.
On a TV programme called Celebrity Ghost Stories, they reported seeing 30-40 people, dressed in black, wandering around, silently. Stern and his wife needed directions, so they approached a woman outside the church. She had her back to them. They had the shock of their lives when she turned around. Her eyes were milky-white. She was very old and spoke in a foreign – or archaic – language they couldn’t understand.
By now, thoroughly spooked, they drove out of the village as fast as possible, but less than half a mile away, one of their tyres blew. Even though they could still see the spire of the church, they were too scared to return to the village. Their car limped the ten miles or so to Tavistock where, at the hotel, they were told they had visited the ‘haunted village’.
Explanations? For a start, the people of Widecombe-In-The-Moor refute allegations that their village is haunted by a load of wandering zombies. In fact, as a close-knit community, where everyone knows everyone else, the villagers tend to wear black when one of their number has died. They usually know that person and come to pay their respects at their funeral. The old lady probably had a strong Devon accent, complete with local dialect, which could prove difficult to understand for someone from the USA, or even from somewhere else in Britain! As for the milky eyes, I would suggest cataracts and hope she has by now had the necessary operation to restore her sight.
As for the Great Thunderstorm – did the devil come to Widecombe that day? We will probably never know…
Freya’s Choice is published by Amber Quill Press. Here’s the blurb:
Nothing much happens in Abbey St. Francis, but Freya’s about to change all that…
Eve Lawson is no stranger to heartbreak. Three years ago, the man of her dreams betrayed her and left her unwilling to trust anyone ever again. So when gorgeous hunky farmer, Mark Latimer, starts to take more than a casual interest in her, she is cautious and nervous of committing either her mind or her body to him. But the attraction is there, and it’s growing. All Eve needs is just a little more time.
Abbey St. Francis—a sleepy, pretty village where nothing much happens and traditional values are held true—has been Eve’s home all her life. No one suspects that the beautiful young woman who has just moved into West Lodge is anything other than a wealthy and generous benefactor. But Freya Nordstrom is not what she appears to be.
Then the mysterious stranger takes more than a passing interest in Mark, and Eve knows she has a battle on her hands. But never in her wildest dreams could Eve have imagined the nature of the forces stacked against her…
And here’s a short extract:
…A loud flapping startled me. I looked up and couldn’t believe what I saw. The most massive bird I had ever seen flew past me and hovered, silhouetted against the moon. Then it flew directly toward West Lodge. I glanced back down at the cats. Their ears twitched, but nothing more. I searched the sky for the giant bird again, but it had disappeared. Could I have imagined it? Surely not. I certainly wasn’t imagining those cats or the malevolence in their eyes.
My knees buckled from my unaccustomed crouching position, but I was scared to make any rapid movement, and Freya’s cats continued to stare at me. Their eyes narrowed, as if at any moment they would pounce and tear me to shreds. But their hackles didn’t rise, they didn’t arch their backs, spit or make any of the warning gestures cats employ to let you know they’re about to strike. They just sat there, like statues. Waiting.
My knees ached and I had no choice or I would simply keel over. Slowly, I rose to my feet, wobbling with the effort, while I kept my eyes on the animals.
Their gaze traveled upward with my movement. A chill wound itself around my spine, spiraling the length of it, and I shivered.
Then, as if receiving some signal I couldn’t hear, they blinked in unison and turned away. They slunk down my path before jumping over the wall and out of sight. I continued to watch and, in the light of the streetlamp at the bottom of Freya’s drive, saw them emerge and pad slowly up her long drive. They matched each other step for step, their tails held high.
Then I saw a tall figure striding down Freya’s drive toward me. He passed the cats, apparently without acknowledging their presence. Too dark and far away to make out his features, my heart still lurched.
Mark. I could see the familiar long hair fanning his shoulders, the white shirt and dark pants. Tears pricked my eyes. At that moment, I wished with all my heart I hadn’t seen him. It couldn’t be happening again. Surely he wouldn’t betray me as John had. After all he’d said to me. And I’d believed every word.
So Freya had been telling the truth. Somewhere along the line she’d made his acquaintance, and now I knew why he hadn’t answered his phone. He’d been with her.
I told myself to calm down. There could be a hundred innocent explanations for his visit. But unless I asked him, I wouldn’t know. I hurried down my path and opened the gate.
“Mark! Hi!” I hoped I sounded nonchalant, but a note of desperation had crept into my voice.
He reached the end of her drive and turned left. He was directly opposite me now, in shadows, on the other side of the lane. Any second and he would cross over.
He must have heard me, but not a flicker. He never broke his stride. Just carried on walking, farther down the lane, away from me, while I stood and watched him, my insides turning to mush in dismayed disbelief…
You can buy Freya’s Choice here:
Barnes and Noble
Antonia van Zandt has been writing since someone stuck a pencil in her hand at the age of around five. Sick of finding their wallpaper covered in scribbles, her parents relented and bought her an exercise book. This was the beginning of a trend. At the age of nine she progressed to her first typewriter, and can now spend hours happily tapping away at her keyboard while all around her descends into chaos. She has recently made the transition from writing erotica to paranormal adventure, with some pretty heavyweight Norse gods thrown in for good measure. She adores cats, fine wine and dramatic scenery. ‘Freya’s Choice’ is her first novel for Amber Quill.
You can connect with Antonia here: