In a small field near Shuckleigh there is a symbolic labyrinth. It consists of a spiral of grey stones, and a few white ones, sunk into the earth to make a pathway. Labyrinths similar to this one were used in churches for people to walk and pray, instead of undertaking long and difficult pilgrimages to holy shrines — but the labyrinth in the field is no Christian thing. No-one knows who made it, and it has been there for at least three hundred years.
The stones have a little growth of pale green and yellow lichen, but the grass has not overwhelmed them, even though the landowner says he does nothing to keep them free of weeds.
Sometimes local children come to play the game of ‘Beat the Devil’ here, running as fast as they can around the spiral from start to centre avoiding all the paler coloured stones. The game originates in the story associated with the stones. It goes like this:
A girl stepped onto the spiral stones one day, intending to walk the whole thing. She stood on the first stone, looking ahead and seeing how some of the stones shone white, unlike all the others. She assumed that these were the sacred stops on the route to whatever destination lay at the centre.
As she approached the first white stone she saw a small, ugly man, dressed in ragged clothing, standing on the stone.
“Could you stand aside, please?’ she asked.
‘What will you give me?’
‘What do you want?’
‘I want one hair from your head.’
The girl had very beautiful long hair that she was proud of.
‘Why?’ she asked, not happy with the request.
The tiny man gave a strange, angry smile and jumped up to pluck one long hair from her head, and she squealed. He tied the hair in a knot, and threw it onto the white stone at his feet, where it turned into a fat, juicy, pink worm. Tied in a knot.
The little man disappeared.
The girl had to pick up the worm to stand on the stone. She held it in her hands, where it wriggled slowly, trying to untie itself.
A little afraid, she carried on over the stones along the spiral.
The next white stone had a large grey toad squatting on it, which, when she asked it to move, just looked at her and smacked its jaws together.
She threw the fat worm onto the stone in front of the toad. He snapped it up and moved aside.
When she stepped onto the toad’s stone, the girl was sorry for throwing the worm to be eaten. Perhaps she should have tried to un-knot it and let it go into the grass, but then the toad would not have been fed.
Oh, well. Too difficult to work out the right of that. She moved on, and as she did, the stones rose into a staircase ahead of her. One step after another, steeper and steeper, up and up, like a mountain, into the clouds.
When she got to the next white stone, a big black raven stood on it, with a beak like a shining axe.
Afraid of the bird, but unable to go back because the stones behind had vanished, she was forced to approach.
‘What can I give you?’ she asked, spreading her hands to show that she had nothing.
The raven leaned forward, and with one quick lunge snipped off her little finger and flew away with it.
The girl screamed and cried, wrapping her wounded hand in her handkerchief. After a few minutes, she gathered enough strength to carry on, trembling and still crying.
Once she stepped onto the raven’s stone, the stones before her began to descend back to the ground as she set foot on them.
She was not happy to see the little man once more, standing on the next white stone, but she took a deep breath and walked on, holding her wounded hand against her chest.
‘What can I give you?’ she asked, afraid of what he might want.
‘The Raven is greedy, but I am not,’ he said. ‘All I want is one hair from your head.’
This time the girl did not argue, but plucked a nice long hair for him. He took it, twisted it about as if he was knotting it. The hair turned into a fine gold chain which he wound about the girl’s wrist. He stepped aside, and she proceeded to the next white stone, the last, at the centre of the spiral.
She stood on that last white stone, and her tears and her blood dripped down onto the stone in front of her. There was a hissing sound, and a great white bird rose up from the stone, the blood and the tears.
The bird looked down at the girl with its golden eyes, curved its neck and coughed, one, two, three times. Three large, perfectly white pearls fell from its beak.
The ugly little man ran up and leapt onto the bird’s back, laughing.
‘You have your thanks,’ he called as the bird beat its vast wings and rose into the air.
They were gone in a moment, and the girl was alone in the field, a gold chain about her wrist and three pearls at her feet.
To this day there is a hole where the central stone should be. The locals say it leads straight to hell, and the little man was the Devil.