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St. Mary's church, North Leigh, and the Devil.

St. Mary's church, North Leigh, and the Devil.

Photo by Michael Garlick, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Devil's Nutting Day at North Leigh

27 February 2024

Young people of North Leigh beware! If local folklore is to be believed, the Devil himself is a surprisingly regular visitor to this West Oxfordshire village.

Hold on to your nuts, here comes the Devil!

The Devil was said to particularly target residents of North Leigh who were foolish enough to break the sabbath by gathering nuts on a Sunday. According to folklorist Katherine M. Briggs, the Devil would attempt to trick the pious by appearing as a gentleman and bending down branches so the most tempting clusters of nuts were within easy reach.

An 1863 illustration depicting a courting couple gathering nuts in the woods.

An 1863 illustration by Joseph Swain (1820-1909) depicting a courting couple gathering nuts in the woods. Careful love, he might be the Devil! Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Young people were urged to be especially wary of meeting the Devil on September 14th, also known as Holy Cross Day, a day when it was customary for young people to go 'nutting', or searching the hedgerows for newly ripened hazelnuts.This date had something of a saucy frisson to it, as nutting was an activity that both young men and young women could take part in, even (gasp!) together!

Away in the countryside, far from the watchful eye of parents, the practice of nutting on this date became synonymous with romance and seduction. As Katherine M. Briggs puts it in The Folklore of the Cotswolds,

Nutting is always a perilous pastime and girls indulge in it to the hazard of their maidenhood.

Katherine M. Briggs, Folklore of the Cotsworlds

This is likely the reason that young women were warned to watch out for the Devil on whilst nutting, even if the 'devil' in question was more likely to actually be handsome young Jack from lower farm!

Badger or devil?

It wasn't just hunting for nuts that could be fraught with peril. Pretty much any recreational activity could put you at risk of a devilish encounter if you indulged in it on the sabbath. Local folklore tells of a group of North Leigh men who decided to skip church one Sunday and instead go hunting for badgers.

A sepia etching of a badger

A badger. Probably not the Devil, but can you ever be sure? Credit: Public Domain, via the Wellcome Collection.

They managed to find and trap a particularly large and ferocious badger and, after a great struggle, forced it into a sack before heading home. On arriving home and opening the sack, they were shocked to find that that the badger had vanished, leaving only a whiff of brimstone to suggest who they had really succeeded in catching!

Hit for six by the Devil

Another similar North Leigh tale tells of a group of men playing cricket on a Sunday. They were joined by a man who they didn't recognise, yet who stunned them with his extraordinary prowess as a bowler.

An 18th century engraving of men playing cricket

An 18th century engraving of men playing cricket. Credit: Public Domain, via the Wellcome Collection.

As this talented stranger bowled out the last batsman, he, like the badger, vanished in a puff of brimstone! I can only assume that the alarmed cricketers were all back in the front pew of the church on the following Sunday, praying extra hard.

The Devil at St. Mary's Church, North Leigh

According to Katherine M. Briggs, there is a headstone on the north side of the churchyard at St. Mary's church that has a hole in it. There was a belief at one time that if you ran around the headstone 12 times and then looked through the hole, you would see the Devil.

Briggs notes that village children would dare each other to do this, and while some would start the process, their nerve would inevitably fail before they reached the 12th lap.

St. Mary's Church, Looking eastwards from near the south porch

St. Mary's church, North Leigh. Credit: .Michael Garlick, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Angela Parker, in a Folklore journal article on 'Oxfordshire Village Folklore', records that young woman in Oxfordshire were warned that if they spent too long admiring their reflection in a looking-glass, the Devil would appear behind her, grinning over her shoulder. A clear warning against excessive vanity!

Both these practices are reminiscent of more modern urban legends, such as the Bloody Mary myth (which itself inspired the Candyman movies) which state that if you carry out a particular repetitive action then you will be rewarded with a terrifying vision in some form or another.

It is also reminiscent of another legend told about St. Mary's church, which claimed that if an unmarried woman walked three times around the churchyard while sowing hemp seeds over her shoulder, after the third lap she would be able to look over her shoulder and see a vision of the man she was destined to marry following her and harvesting the crops that grew from the seeds. I've covered this story in more detail previously in my article on Tombs and Prophecies at North Leigh.

If you'd like to read more tales of the Devil getting up to no good in Oxfordshire, read my article 7 Tales of the Devil in Oxfordshire.


  1. 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by Katherine M. Briggs (Batsford Books, 1974, ISBN: 0713428317)
  2. 'Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain' (Reader's Digest, 1973)
  3. English Customs: The Devil's Nutting Day (graceelliot-author.blogspot.com)