Great Yarmouth’s Very own ‘Old Shuck’!

By Haydn Brown.

Both the source of this story and its author are unknown to me; it came into my hands via an old ‘Gestetner’ printed copy which was also undated and unsigned – I suspect though that the contents were written in the 1970/80’s, but please don’t ask me why. Having read it several times and arrived at my own conclusions, I thought I should broadcast it to a wider audience in the hope that such a tale will interest others. In doing so, I should say that the detail is unabridged and with persons’ names retained – as they appeared in the original. What litle editing has been done was aimed at ‘tweaking’ the grammer and syntax. Other than that I can only point out that I am merely the messenger here – so don’t shoot me!

“That enigmatic, legendary creature, in the form of a large black dog, crops up over and over again in the annals of East Anglian Folklore. From Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast, down through the region, through Broadland and the heart of Norfolk, through the Waveney Valley and down further along the Suffolk coast and into Essex – this creature has, from time immemorial, struck fear and terror into the hearts of our forebears. His name may vary between “Old Shuck”, “Black Shuck”, “Owd Snarley-how”, “Hateful-Thing”, “Galley-Trot” or “Shug-monkey”, but this infamous creature is known throughout East Anglia.

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Almost everything about ‘Old Shuck’, as he is most commonly known, is a mystery. Even the derivation of his name comes, according to some, from the old Anglo-Saxon word “Scucca”, meaning Satan or Devil; from the less imaginative, the name comes from the local worf “Shucky” meaning ‘shaggy’ – no doubt referring to the creature’s long, un-kept coat. Likewise, his origins are now veiled in the cloak of time. Here again, opinions differ, some say that he is Odin’s ‘dog of war’, brought over by the Vikings; while others, more practical minded people, say that the dog’s origins go back to the days of smuggling. It is, apparantly, true that tales of Old Shuck were put about to keep people indoors after dark, to keep them out of the way while the smugglers went about their clandestine activities. Even the descriptions of Old Shuck’s appearance do not remain consistent. Here he is a large black nebulous creature silently padding along the hedgerows, while over there he is a huge, one-eyed creature with a mournful howl and rattling chains.  Yet, despite all these ambiguities, not every aspect of him is quite so diverse. On one point, most of the numerous legends agree; he bodes death or misfortune to those who are unfortunate enough to see him. On another, no matter what his forgotton origins were, belief in him still is deeply rooted in the minds of East Anglians.

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In this, so called, enlightened and technological age it is easy to sit back and scoff at such stories as superstitious nonsense, or the imaginings of backward and ignorant minds. But, what happens when, in the midst of our marvellous technology, someone who is neither superstitious or ignorant but an educated and trained observer claims to have seen “Old Shuck”. Add to this, that he had never previously heard stories of Old Shuck, having only recently moved to these parts and we come up with a mystery as curious and enigmatic as Old Shuck himself!

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HM Coastguard lookout at South Pier, Gorleston near Yarmouth.

This is what happened in 1972 when a Mr Graham Grant, then aged 34 and an Officer with HM Coastguard, was keeping a lone virgil one rough windy night at the lookout station on the South Pier at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk. Mr Grant describes what happened”:

“…….while on duty at the Coastguard Headquarters on the Gorleston South Pier on April 19th 1972; dawn had just broken so I started to scan the coastline to the south of my station, then to the north. Both coaslines were clear but I did observe a black dog a quarter of a mile to the north of me on Yarmouth beach and at the time thought nothing of it. A scan out to sea confirmed that my area was clear for the time being, so I turned my eyes once again to the dog. It was running up and down the beach as if looking for someone; it was about 50 yards from the sea. The nearest description of the dog I can give is as follows: It was a large black hound-like animal, standing about 3 feet from head to feet. I did not notice its eyes at the time but I feel sure that it had two. Old Shuck has been reported with one eye, like a cyclops; I feel sure that if the animal had had only one eye it would have stuck in my mind without a doubt. Its mouth was open like any dog that has been running and I noticed nothing outstanding about its teeth. I observed the animal for some two minutes or more, never taking my eyes off it.

Then it just faded away as if a veil of silk had been drawn over it. At first I thought that it had dropped into a hole, but on looking more broadly at the beach with my big 30 x 80 glasses, this was out of the question. Bulldozers had been on the beach the day before to move the sand away from the sea wall and the beach was as flat as a pancake, plus the fact that the wind had levelled the sand so that the beach looked like a tennis court – no question of a hole. Also, the Coastguard Lookout is 26 feet above sea-level so at all times I was looking down on to the beach. The time of 04.48 was my last sighting of the animal, but I remained observing the area until 05.55 hours with negative results. My feelings at the time were a little mixed for I was a trained observer and have excellent vision and I told myself that things like this just do not happen. I was also very curious……..”

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“That was how Mr Grant described what happened on that stormy April morning. Remember, he was unaware of the ‘Shuck’ legends at the time as he had been transferred to Gorleston from the Isle of Sheppey that previous summer. However, this is by no way the end of this story, for Mr Grant happened to mention this experience to another member of the Coastguard staff, a Mr Harold Cox, who came from Cromer and who knew of the Old Shuck legends. What happened next was also described by Mr Grant”:

“……. after telling Mr Cox the story, he asked me if I was worried about the foreboding story that goes with the sighting of Old Shuck and explained that if anyone sees Old Shuck, some bad luck or misfortune will come to his family or friends the following year. I told him that this did not worry me too much (I wanted to know the story) and so he told me all about Old Shuck……”

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“At that time, Mr Grant was completely unconcerned with tales of ill-luck and misfortune, but soon afterwards something happened to make him change his mind; once again, Mr Grant takes up the story”:

“…….. Old Shuck was sighted by myself on the 19th April 1972. Mr Cox, who told me the story of Old Shuck, died of heart failure during the last week of June that same year. He collapsed in the same chair from which he told me the story; he was in his 50’s. In February 1973, my father died at home in Yorkshire, four weeks after I had told him the story – Heart Failure!……..”

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The Shuck with yellow eyes!

“There is one further point worthy of note which ties in with this story. Southdown Road, which runs parallel to the river and almost opposite to where Mr Grant had his experience, has long been associated with the ‘Shuck’ legend. This roadway was originally an ancient trackway linking Gorleston and Great Yarmouth. According to the legend, the Shuck that haunts this road is a rather more spectacular creature than that seen by Mr Grant. One account describes it as a hugh black, shaggy animal with large yellow eyes that glow like hot coals; around its neck hings a chain. The account goes on to describe how, if straw is laid across its path, the animal rattles its chains and howls in a loud and terrifying manner! Although this account is far removed from Mr Grant’s, it is still interesting to speculate on whether, or not, there might possibly be some connection between these two creatures.

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Those then are the facts passed on to me. It is up to readers to draw their own conclusions. Is there something in these legends after all? – or something we can all put down to imagination, coincidence or believing only that which we want to believe? Finally, perhaps the last word on Old Shuck should come from Mr Grant himself and whose experience left a deep impression on him:”

“………Now, when the wind blows from the north and is blowing a gale, I do not look on to the sands of Yarmouth beach for very long…………..”

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THE END

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Haunted Churches of Norfolk

By Haydn Brown.

This article is, by way of a change, intended to be a short ‘Guide’ to some of the churches in Norfolk which are reputed to be haunted. This list is by no means complete, but contains a cross-section of types and locations from the four corners of the County. Some of the hauntings referred to are of the ‘legendary’ kind, that is to say, although belief in them is probably common in the area, the ghost itself has not been seen for many a long year. This is not the case with all the stories where some of them have been claimed to have been ‘substantiated’ in recent years.

Perhaps this article will prompt some readers to visit the churches mentioned and, regardless of whether or not they meet with the ghost in question, they will nevertheless find the church interesting and well worth a visit. Please remember, however, that all of the churches mentioned in this article are still used, so please treat them and the surrounding churchyards with the respect that such places demand and deserve.

Haunted Churches (St Michael, Geldeston)
St Michaels Church, Geldeston, Norfolk

St Michael, Geldeston, Norfolk: Although the ghost here does not exactly haunt the church itself, it does figure in and around the churchyard so is certainly worth including. This story is recorded in the book ‘In the footsteps of Borrow and Fitzgerald’ by M. Adams, which recalls “A shall pond which often over-flowed and made the road impassable, was widened and in the mud was found a skeleton, around the neck of which was chained a circular piece of millstone. The Rector of Geldeston decreed that the millstone should be removed and the skeleton buried in the churchyard. Alas! the removal of the stone was a fateful decision; the ghost, relieved of this spiritual anchor, arose from its grave and now may be seen wandering about the area of glebe between the churchyard and Lover Lane. It is,apparantly, never seen in the churchyard itself or, by anyone in the churchyard, that being consecrated ground, but on and about the unhallowed glebe it walks with a clanking of ghostly chains”.

Another phantom which is said to haunt the vincinity of the Church, is a large black ‘Shuck’ dog, known locally as the “Hateful Thing”. It certainly used to be said, if not now, that the dog do come down Lovers Lane and disappear through the churchyard wall.

Haunted Churches (St Peter Spixsworth)
St Peters Church, Spixsworth.

St Peter, Spixworth, Norfolk: Traditionally, the ghosts of William Peek and his wife are said to rise from their tomb in the church at midnight and wander about the church and its grounds.

Haunted Churches (St NIcholas Yarmouth)
St Nicholas Minster, Great Yarmouth

St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk: The apparition of a monk, dressed in grey robes, is said to appear when walking through the front wall of Anna Sewell’s house, which stands close to the church. It then walks the short distance to the church and disappears through the churchyard wall. In the early hours of the morning on December 31st, 1961, Mr R E Simmett, a milkman, saw a very similar ghost around the corner of the church in Priory Plain. According to some sources, this is a ghost of a nun and not a monk.

Haunted Churches (St Helen Ranwoth)
St Helens Church, Ranworth, Norfolk

St Helen, Ranworth, Norfolk: This beautiful old church is said to be haunted by the ghost of a 15th century monk by the name of Pacificus – see our previous article:  “Ranworth: Its History & Myths”. Tradition has it that he was from nearby St Benet’s Abbey which across the other side of the river. Every day, Pacificus would row over to St Helens to restore and re-paint its famous Rood Screen. Not only is his ghost seen in the church, but also rowing down the river with his little dog sitting at the boat’s bow.

St Edmund, Thurne, Norfolk: Local legend asserts that, on very dark nights, a ghostly light appears in the tower of this church. It is said to be the light which was lit by the villagers in times of need, to signal for help from the monks of St Benet’s Abbey across the river and marches. There is a Curious ‘squint hole’ at eye level in the church tower which points directly to the Abbey; traditionally, this is linked with signalling the Abbey and does help to add weight to the story of the ghostly light.

Haunted Churches (St Peter & St Paul Cromer)
St Peter & St Paul Church, Cromer, Norfolk

St Peter & St Paul, Cromer, Norfolk: For many years, up until 1889 this church, which boasts the highest towere in Norfolk, lay ruined and sadly neglected. In his book ‘Cromer, Past and Present’, published in that same year, Walter Rye gives an interesting account of a rather grisly spectre which was seen in the ruined chancel. He says (referring to a path which had been made across the chancel): ” This path, now happily closed, was not much used after sunset, for the old ruins are an eerie place after dark and there are more than one ghost story lingering about them. An old man I employed some years ago to clear away some of the rubbish, told me that not long ago, as he was crossing the chancel at night, a little child-like figure, dressed in white, arose from the ground within an arms length of him and gradually increased in height till its face was level with his and that then, all of a sudden, a great gash appeared across its throat, the blood poured down in a great torrent over its white clothes, and it vanished in a flash – leaving a sighing sound in his ears”.

Haunted Churches (All Saints Church Weybourne)
All Saints Church, Weybourne, Norfolk

All saints, Weybourne, Norfolk: Here we find yet another ghost that finishes off its journey in the local churchyard! A phantom coach, pulled by four black horses and driven by a headless coachman, is said to hurtle through the village (traffic permitting !) and to finally disappear through the churchyard wall.

Haunted Churches (St Marys Burgh St Peter)
St Marys Church, Burgh St Peter, Norfolk

St Mary, Burgh St Peter, Norfolk: An interesting and unusual legend is recounted by Charles Sampson in his ‘Ghosts of the Broads’. It would appear that in the year 1101 AD, a a man named Adam Morland sold his soul to the Devil for a substantial sum of money, after which he left the country. Upon his return many years later, he erected a church at Burgh St Peter, on the foundations of which the present church was built.A few days after the church had been consecrated, Adam died and was buried in the churchyard with full religious rites.

Now, for some time prior the Adam’s death, an old man had been seen around the village, clutching in his hand a roll of parchment, speaking to no-one. On the day of Adam’s funeral, this old man was seen to become very excited and followed the cortege to the church, but would not enter. As Adam’s body was lowered into its final resting place, the old man was heard to swear that he would wait until the day of resurrection to collect Adam’s soul. That night, when the sexton went to lock up the church, he saw that the old man was still there and so asked if he could help him. The old man slowly lifted his head and the sexton saw, to his horror, that within the hood which the old man was wearing, a hideous grinning skull, glowing from within! Terror stricken, the sexton fled to the village to find the priest; both of them returned to the church armed with crucifixes and Holy Water.  As they approached, the hooded skeleton stood uo and vanished in a flash of flame, leaving behind terrible brimstone vapours. Every year after this incident, on the annisversary of Adam’s death, that terrible hooded figure was seen outside the church. When the old church was rebuilt in the 16th century,it was assumed that the apparition would no longer appear. However, this was not to be, for now not only did the hooded skeleton appear, but so did a host of others all around the churchyard wall! It is said that the awful apparition can still be seen on 2nd May each year, the annisversary of Adam’s death.

Haunted Churches (St Marys Worstead)
St Marys Church, Worstead, Norfolk

St Mary, Worstead, Norfolk: There is a very old tradition which says that a ‘white lady’ appears at this church each year as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve. In 1830 a local man, out of bravado, went into the bell chamber of the church that Christmas Eve to “give the white lady a kiss” When he failed to return, his friends plucked up courage and went to look for him. They found him, crouched in the corner of the bell chamber, his features contorted with fear, eyes rolling and lips gibbering, completely insane. He screamed, “I’ve seen her – There! – There!!, pointing wildly about. Then he lapsed into unconciousness and shortly afterwards he died with ever re-gaining conciousness again.

Haunted Churches (Holy Trinity Ingham)
Holy Trinity, Ingham, Norfolk

Holy Trinity, Ingham, Norfolk: Traditionally, on the night of 2nd August each year, the effigies of Sir Oliver d’Ingham and Sir Roger de Bois come aliveand leave their respective alter tombs in the church. Taking on flesh and blood appearance, the two knights leave the church and make their way down to Stalham Broad where they battle with an eastern looking soldier. After he has been disposed of, the two return to the church to resume their stony recumbent positions for anoth twelve months. The pit, adjoining the churchyard here, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a ‘woman in white’.

 

Haunted Churches (St Peter & St Paul Honing)

St Peter & St Pauls Church, Honing, Norfolk

St Peter & St Paul, Honing, Norfolk: A phantom white donkey haunts the road leading to the church. One witness described it as having smoke issuing from its nostrils and a strong smell of sulphur. It galloped down the road to the church and disappeared through the churchyard wall. As it passed the astonished witness, he noticed that he could see right through it to the hedge beyond!

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St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk.

St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill: It is said that St Mary’s Church has its own guardians, in the form of two Carmelite Friar ghosts.

We are told that their story starts with Sir Robert Neville who was buried in the churches’ south aisle (long since demolished) in 1270 after his execution at Craven in Yorkshire. His death was ordered by Henry III for holding a ‘criminal conversation’ with a lady of ‘certain standing’. It was thought that the lady referred to was the Queen.

A Chantry was set up in 1304 by Lady Mary Neville, (wife of Sir Robert Neville) and a house built near to the church for two Carmelite Friars, whose job it was to say mass daily for Sir Roberts soul. This continued until everything fell victim to Henry VIII’s anti-monastic campaign. It has been said that since then, one or other of these Carmelite ghosts are regularly seen in and around the church. No one has ever explained why only one of these ghosts is ever seen, but usually ‘he’ appears whilst restorations are being carried out; it is almost as if only one is needed to keep a watchful eye over things.

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The lady is standing to the right, the friar to the left. So, could he be one of S Mary’s friendly guardians?
The original of this photograph is on display in St Mary’s Church – and is far clearer. It was taken whilst the church was still in a very bad state of disrepair looking from the nave through the tower out towards the door. The lady who took the picture said that at the time of taking the photo there was no one else up at the church, apart from herself and the lady in the photo.

 

Stories of strange happenings have circulated over the years, one of which was during an official tour of the church when one visitor approached the church warden (Bob I think his name was) and asked:

“Who is the rude, robed wearing official, who ignored my questions and simply walked off without even speaking!”

The visitor had been near the south door at the time; which might have been of some significance since that was quite near the former south aisle where Sir Robert Neville was said to have been buried in 1270. One can only surmise that this particular visitor had had a chance meeting with one of these ghosts.

Then, there is the farm worker who one day, whilst following the combine harvester in the field to the east of the church, flew out of his tractor, shouting and waving his fists, certain that the machine had almost run over someone. Yet there was no one there! In desperation he ran over to the church warden (again being Bob; he, it seems, must have been quite familiar to such occurrences) who was busy tending the garden. The farmer worker enquired if:

“he had seen the stupid bloke in the long brown coat walking in front of the combine?…..and where had he gone?…… He could have been killed”!

It is said that the warden’s simple reply was that “you could not kill someone who was already dead”.

Inevitably, there are those who dismiss such stories and any prospect of seeing ghosts at St Mary’s. Like the workmen who, during the restoration of the north window, sheepishly reported that they too had witnessed one such visit; the ghost had entered through the south door (again near Sir Robert’s tomb), paused for a while and then left. Again, just before Christmas of 2003, one or other of the ghosts made an impromptu visit during a prayer meeting. Then on Friday 14 September, after an absence of nearly nine months, one of these guardian ghosts was seen twice in the afternoon.

THE END

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Illness Remedies in Folklore!

By Haydn Brown.

There is hardly a substance known to man that has not been tried as a medicine, nor any disease for which faith-healers have failed to prescribe.

Folklore (herbs)3

Even way back in Saxon days physicians recommended an ointment made of goat’s gall and honey for cancer, and if that failed, they suggested incinerating a dog’s skull and powdering the patient’s skin with the ashes. For the ‘half-dead disease’, a stroke, inhaling the smoke of a burning pine-tree was supposed to be very efficacious.

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In East Anglia people suffering from ague, a form of malaria characterised by fits of shivering, used to call on the ‘Quake doctors’. If the doctor couldn’t charm away the fever with a magic wand, the patient was required to wear shoes lined with tansy leaves, or take pills made of compressed spider’s webs before breakfast. A locally famous Essex ‘Quake doctor’ in the 19th century was Thomas Bedloe of Rawreth. A sign outside his cottage said, “Thomas Bedloe, hog, dog and cattle doctor. Immediate relief and perfect cure for persons in the Dropsy, also eating cancer” !

Folklore (skin desease)

Wart-charmers had many strange cures, some are still tried today. I know because when I was a small child, I tried one! One that is still used is to take a small piece of meat, rub the wart with it and then bury the meat. As the meat decays, the wart will slowly disappear. Another wart-charm:- Prick the wart with a pin, and stick the pin in an ash tree, reciting the rhyme, “Ashen tree, ashen tree, Pray buy these warts from me”. The warts will be transferred to the tree.

Folklore (herbs)2

Orthodox practitioners would never have guessed at some of the more bizarre cures that people tried in the late 19th century. Holding the key of a church door was claimed to be a remedy against the bite of a mad dog, and the touch of a hanged man’s hand could cure goitre and tumours. In Lincoln, touching a rope that had been used for a hanging, supposedly cured fits! To cure baldness, sleep on stones, and the standard treatment for colic was to stand on your head for a quarter of an hour.

Eye diseases came in for many weird remedies. Patients with eye problems were told to bathe their eyes with rainwater that had been collected before dawn in June, and then bottled. Rubbing a stye, on the eye-lid, with a gold wedding ring would be a sure cure 50 years ago. In Penmyndd, Wales, an ointment made from the scrapings from a 14th century tomb was very popular for eye treatment, but by the 17th century the tomb had become so damaged, the practise had to stop!

Folklore (Kings Evil)2

For hundreds of years, the kings and queens of Britain were thought to be able to cure, by touch, the King’s Evil. This was scrofula, a painful and often fatal inflammation of the lymph glands in the neck. Charles II administered the royal touch to almost 9000 sufferers during his reign. The last monarch to touch for the King’s Evil was Queen Anne, even though her predecessor William III, had abandoned the right.

Copper bracelets and rings have a long history. More than 1500 years ago, copper rings were prescribed as a suitable treatment for colic, gallstones and bilious complaints. We still wear them today to ease rheumatism, together with nutmeg in our pocket!

Folklore (bracelet)

Not all these folk remedies were useless; for example, the juice of willow trees was once used to treat fevers. In the form of drugs based on salicyclic acid it is still used for the same purpose today – aspirin! Penicillin of course recalls the mould poultices that ‘white-witches’ made from bread and yeast.

Folklore (19th C tooth drawer)

Treating tooth-ache in the 19th century could be a gruesome business. Pain would be relieved, it was said, by driving a nail into the tooth until it bled, and then hammering the nail into a tree. The pain was then transferred to the tree. To prevent tooth-ache, a well tried method was to tie a dead mole around the neck! Few people could afford a doctor, so these ludicrous treatments were all they could try, as most people lived out their lives in unrelieved poverty.

THE END

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Curious Tales about Broad’s Folk

Dutt 1William Alfred Dutt was born at Ditchingham, Norfolk, on 17 November 1870. Later in life he became well known as an author and journalist, writing about wildlife in East Anglia and many other East Anglian topographical works. His 1901 book “Highways and Byways in East Anglia” is particularly interesting for it refers to local myths and legends, but it also highlights the following which provides a fascinating insight into the Norfolk Broads of the early 20th century: its people, their environment and their distinctive way of life, particularly of the wherrymen (river sailors) and the marsh men who made their living by farming, hunting and fishing on the swampy land:

“Then, too, there are the wherrymen whom you meet in the evenings at the marshland staithes and ferry inns. Approach them without displaying that ridiculous condescen­sion which is characteristic of too many visitors and amateur yachtsmen and you will find them able and willing to impart much curious information concerning the river life and wild life of Broadland. For these men are not simply fair-weather voyagers; they are afloat on the rivers from January to December, and see the broads and marshes under all aspects and in all seasons. Many of them have known no other life than that which is spent in cruising between the East coast ports and the inland towns; but it has taught them many things of which the world that lies beyond the borders of the marshes has little knowledge.

Join a group of them some summer night when they are gathered in the low-ceiled bar-room of a riverside inn, or lounging about a lock or staithe in the midst of the marshes. Hear them talk of the voyages they have made when the ” roke ” (fog) was so dense as to hide even the windmills on the river banks; of the days when their wherries were icebound and the snow­drifts rose higher than the river-walls; of the marsh-fires (Will O’ the Wisp) which used to flicker over the festering swamps; and of the mist wraiths and phantom fishermen of the meres and marshes. Watch how their faces assume a fixed expression and their pipes are allowed to go out while some old man among them tells of a strange sight he saw one autumn night when his wherry was moored near the ruins of St. Benet’s Abbey”:

Dutt (Wherry & St Benets)
Wherry at St Benets Abbey

Behind all this is the Norfolk accent, which was and remains very distinctive, not one which many outsiders will often hear. The passage from Dutt’s book will allow you to get a taste of the accent, but only if you pronounce the words as you see them written. Do that a few times over and you will have an idea how it sounds. It really does work.

“There wor a full mune, an’ you could see th’ mills an’ mashes as clear as day. There worn’t a breath of wind, not even enow to set th’ reeds a-rustlin’; an’ for over anDutt (Wherry)3 hour arter sun­set you couldn’t hear a livin’ thing a-movin’ either by th’ river or on th’ mashes. I wor a-settin’ in my cabin along wi’ my mate Jimmy Steggles (him as used to hev th’ owd Bittern), an’ we wor a-talkin’ about one thing an’ another for a while afore turnin’ in for th’ night. All of a suddent we heered th’ quarest kind o’ screechin’ a man ever heerd, an’ lookin’ out o’ th’ cabin I seed a man a-runnin’ towards th’ wherry as hard as he could put foot to th’ ground. He soon got alongside on us, and I axed him what he wor a-screechi-n’ about. `It worn’t me, bor,’ he say ; ‘it wor suffin’ what come outer th’ shadder o’ th’ owd abbey. I wor a-goin’ home to Ludham, arter lookin’ arter some bullocks what are on a mash yonder, an’ I thowt I heard suffin a-movin’ about agin th’ ruins.

img_2524Thinks I, that must be one o’ them there cows what wor browt down here from Acle yester­day forenoon. So I went outer my way a bit to see if any­thing wor amiss. When I got within about twenty yards o’ th’ walls suffin come a-wamblin’ outer th’ shadder o’ th’ owd mill,’ (you know there wor a mill built on th’ owd abbey years agone) ` an’ started screechin’ like a stuck pig. I never stopped to see what it wor, but jist come for yar wherry like hell in highlows ! ‘

He wor a chap I knew well-his father had an eel-sett up th’ Thurne River-an’ he wor a-tremblin’ all over like a man wi’ th’ ayger. Both I an’ my mate went ashore, an’ I took my gun chance I’d wantin’ it; but all we seed wor an owd harnsee (heron) go a-flappin’ away acrost the mashes. An’ it worn’t a harnsee what made that screechin’, I’ll stake my life; though what it wor I never knowed. Whatever it wor it give that Ludham chap a funny fright, an’ he wouldn’t hear o’ goin’ home that night. So we had to find a berth for him aboard th’ wherry, an’ he went on to Wroxham Bridge wi’ us in th’ mornin.”

That wasn’t too bad was it!

Ranworth: Its History & Myths

The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and one of Europe’s most popular inland waterways. The area is managed as a national park and it is claimed that it attracts more than a million visitors each year from all over the World. Before the ‘Broads’ were known as such, its waterways made up an essential transport network for peat, thatching reed and marsh hay. Today, the ‘Broads’ is used for recreation, including such activities as sailing, motor cruising, fishing and enjoying the wildlife. Then there are the opportunities to visit the lovely villages that find themselves embraced by the Norfolk Broads, along with their medieval country churches.

Ranworth Village 1

Ranworth is just one such place with its Staithe, which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, fronting Malthouse Broad and aptly named after nearby malt houses. There are great waterside views around Ranworth and within the village with its pretty thatched cottages which makes for ‘chocolate box’ opportunities for photographers and painters.

Nearby, on higher ground, stands St Helens Church below which is a large nature reserve  winding its way through woodland to the Norfolk Wildlife Conservation Centre; a floating thatched building right on the edge of what is Ranworth Broad . This is the information centre for the Broads and its history, including models of local scenes depicting peat digging, thatching and duck shooting. On the upper floor of the building there are facilities, including binoculars and telescopes, for bird watching.

Ranworth-Church 2
Ranworth offers St Helen’s Church, often called the ‘Cathedral of the Broads’.

This church, set on high ground and overlooking the village and the broads beyond, is well worth a visit for its furnishings, views from its tower, its history and its myths. There have been previous churches on the site but the present one on view was completed as far back as about 1450. Furnished by prosperous wool merchants, its walls were painted with biblical stories, its windows rich in stained glass and a great cross suspended above an elaborate rood screen.

Ranworth (St Helens Church)
St Helen’s Church, Ranworth, Norfolk. Photo: John Harper.

Unfortunately, many of the church’s medieval treasures were damaged or destroyed during the Reformation, although a surprising amount did survive. The building itself also fell into a long period of decline and disrepair and it was only in the late 1890s that the church was restored to what can be seen today. Much of the original rood screen with its medieval paintings still survives, along with its stylized white roses of York painted on the back of the screen, one of the finest in England. The church also has a 15th century illuminated manuscript, the Ranworth Antiphoner kept in a steel case and on view to visitors.

The Church Tower:
The tower dominates the Ranworth skyline and it would seem that visitors love to climb the eighty-nine spiral steps and two ladders to the top of the flint-lined tower for the wonderful views over the landscape. It is easy to understand why when from its heights, on clear days, one can see five Norfolk Broads and the impressive wind turbines of the wind farm at West Somerton.

Ranworth (Church Tower)
The tower of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Photo: (c) John Harper

 In fact, much of the Norfolk Broads river system is visible, interlaced with boats that weave their way in a constantly changing pattern of light through farmland and marshes that grow traditional Norfolk thatching reed. A recent survey using a calibrated telescope listed nearly two hundred sites in the Cromer–Norwich–Great Yarmouth area, including 116 churches, numerous windmills and wind drainage pumps, Happisburgh lighthouse and even the top of Norwich Cathedral.

They say that, when conditions and timings are right, Brother Pacificus may be seen rowing either towards, or away from, the Church. For those who master the climb up 89 steps and two ladders to the roof of the the tower but fail to see Pacificus on the water below – just turn around and look up to the weathervain!

Ranworth-pacificus_weather

Ranworth Church and Patron Saints:
Early Christians used the word ‘saint’ for all the faithful. In time though, a saint came to be a person of outstanding devotion. The earliest saints acclaimed by common consent were the apostles, John the Baptist, the Holy family and the first martyrs. As the Christian church became more structured, bishops took control of canonisations within their own dioceses. It was not until 1170 though that Pope Alexander III insisted that only the Pope could canonise.

Portrayals of saints dominated Christian art until the Reformation when many icons were destroyed. It is miraculous that so much of the rood screens in Ranworth and any of the lovely Upton screen survived the ravages of the 1500s when reformers believed that portrayals of human beings might tempt congregations to treat them as idols. The reformers’ passion led them to daub all bare flesh, feet, hands and faces with tar.

ranworth-st_helenRanworth Church is dedicated to St Helen, a popular patron of ancient English churches with perhaps 135 dedicated to her throughout the country. Some accounts say that she was a princess, the daughter of King Coel, King of the Britons and was born in Colchester where she is the patron saint of the City. Others say that she was born in York although most historians have it that she was born in 242 AD in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosporus Sea. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Despite her status as empress, she helped the poor and distressed and was known for her charitable acts. Helen had a great influence on her son Constantine.

Helen became a Christian late in her life and it wasn’t until she was an old lady that she made her famous pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Christ was crucified. The story is that she uncovered three crosses under a temple on Mount Calvary that she had ordered to be torn down on seeing smoke issuing from the ground. Helen recognised the one True Cross when it touched a dead man that miraculously resurrected. Helen built a basilica on Mount Calvary for the sacred relic and later, built two other famous churches in Palestine that celebrate the nativity and the ascension. She returned from the Holy Land in her 80s and died in Rome in 328.

Saint Helen, known also as Helena, is celebrated on August 18th and is the patron saint of treasure hunters, nail-makers and is invoked against theft and fire. She is usually shown holding a cross, just as she is outside Ranworth Church.

The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:

ranworthantiphonerT

Those who do visit Ranworth Church should not leave before heading over to the cabinet just to the side of the main door; usually it has a cloth protecting its ancient contents – it is the Ranworth Antiphoner.

In medieval times, services were held 7 times a day and these would consist of prayers said or sung from a book of psalms. Lines were read alternately, ‘antiphonally’, between the priest and the choir. Ranworth Church still has one of its two Medieval Latin ‘antiphonies’; the other earlier and smaller one is in the British Library. The book dates from the 1400s and has 285 vellum (animal skin) pages illustrated with gleaming colour pictures and gold leaf edging.

ranworthantiphoner2T

In 1549, when services were first published in English in the Book of Common Prayer, antiphoners were banned. Ranworth’s somehow survived, reappearing in the reign of Mary Tudor when changes were made to its calendar (e.g. the feast of Thomas a Becket, which had been scratched out during Henry VIII’s time, was reinstated). The Holdych family whose family dates appear in the margins of the calendar probably hid the book during Elizabethan times. The Antiphoner eventually became part of a collection offered for sale at the beginning of the 20th century. Its link to Ranworth was soon traced and the Parish raised the money to buy it. The book is now on show inside a unique security case made by the inmates of Norwich Prison. Unfortunately maybe for some but the case cannot be opened to meet requests, but the pages are turned occasionally to display the illuminations and the plainchant music that the church choir sometimes sings.

The Rood Screen:
The painted rood screen in St Helen’s Ranworth dates from the early 1400s. The Great Rood that was once above the screen was destroyed in the Reformation.

Ranworth (Screen) 1

Ranworth (Rood Screen)
Left section of the Rood Screen. Photo: John Harper

The Rood (from the Anglo-Saxon for cross) is a large crucifix usually placed above the entrance to the choir in medieval churches. Some were very large, carved richly in wood and painted or gilded. By the 13th or 14th centuries, the great rood had become a feature of almost every church. The rood, however, was often eclipsed by the screen over which it was placed. Paintings of apostles and saints including St George and St Michael both slaying dragons, survive on the screen in St Helen’s Ranworth.

St Lawrence Ranworth
St Lawrence holding the gridiron on which he was martyred. RANWORTH CHURCH

LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):

Ranworth-pacificus 1
Sandra Rowney

Ranworth and Ranworth Broad are said to be haunted by a friendly ghost named Brother Pacificus. The early bird may be in the best position to catch a glimpse of the monk, though he may also be sighted on quiet summer evenings. Wearing his habit, he may be seen rowing a small boat across the Broad with a small dog standing in the prow.

The story goes that during the 1530’s the brothers at nearby St Benets Abbey undertook the work of restoring the rood screen of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.

One evening upon his return the Abbey, Brother Pacificus found to his horror that his brother monks had been murdered by the King’s Troops as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by Henry VIII. Devastated, Pacificus was to linger for years amidst the blackened ruins where he eventually died. The local villagers who knew of his devotion to Ranworth took his body across the Bure and lovingly laid it to rest in the shadow of St Helen’s, a church that he clearly loved and for which he had worked so hard.

To some, he still returns to carry out his work, accompanied by his little dog. They say that he also comes back to pray. Sometimes in the early hours of morning, when it is just light, his little boat may be seen moored up to the bank and sometimes his little dog asleep in it, just waiting. Inside, the aged monk will be kneeling in an attitude of prayer before the centre opening of the rood-screen, but with the approach of anyone he will simply fade into nothingness. On the other hand and if left alone, he may be seen returning at nightfall to his boat and rowing back to St Benet’s with his little dog sitting up perkily in the stern.

Ranworth- Pacificus-Sophie Dickens
Sandra Rowney

It is best not to laugh at such happenings as that which confronted Pacificus and his journeys to and from Ranworth centuries ago. For note, it is on record that a certain Reverend James Brewster, D.D. of Baliol, whilst on holiday in 1930 and about to enter a narrow waterway leading to Ranworth Broad, saw a boat being rowed towards him. Pulling into the side to make room, the visitor waited for it to pass by; as he did so he noticed that the rower was a monk in a black habit and although clearly aged, had the kindest face he had not previously seen on any man. The Benedictine smiled his thanks as he passed and before dissolving into nothing just a short distance on. Dr Brewster thought that there had been a small white dog in the boat, but he couldn’t be sure. Apparently, he was so moved by this experience that he felt he had to make enquiries hereabouts. At Horning he was simply laughed at whilst in Ranworth he was to learn:

‘That what he saw was our monastic friend, Brother Pacificus, going home after his labours and there is no real or known reason why it should not have been.’

LOCAL MYTHS 2 (Colonel Sydney and the Devil):

Ranworth Hall (Old 1918)
Old Ranworth Hall 1918

Summer visitors to the lovely Ranworth Broad may find it hard to imagine this beautiful spot being the scene of one of Norfolk’s spookiest legends, but so it is. In July the nights are warm and balmy, but the scene of this story is a wintry one, December 31 1770 to be precise. This tale is worth telling to children on the boats that chug the Broads there – they won’t forget it easily, and it may well keep them from venturing on deck in the dark. Ranworth then as now was an out of the way place, the church tower dominating the landscape. The east wind of the winter blows across the marshes and broads with seemingly little in its way from the cold North Sea.

Ranworth Hall 1
Old Ranworth Hall (demolished)

In 1770 Colonel Thomas Sydney resided in Ranworth Old Hall. The former soldier was such a foul character that in spite of his wealth and position he was struck from the list of JPs. Sydney was a rake-hell: a drunkard whose already evil temper got worse when he was in his cups; a gambler; and perhaps worst of all for the English, a bad loser. Not that he got much practice at losing, for he was a noted sportsman, and his neighbours were wary of getting on his wrong side by besting him in a contest.

At the New Year’s Eve hunt meeting that year Sydney challenged a neighbour to a race, matching their horses over the fields. But much to the Colonel’s surprise his neighbour outpaced him, heading it seemed for an easy win. Not so damn likely thinks the Colonel, who draws his pistol and shoots the neighbour’s horse from under him. The frightened animal rears and sends its rider flying, his neck cracking just as the beast’s hooves trample the body. The evil owner of the Old Hall wins, and devil take the hindmost – though here he can claim the winner too.

With his neighbours too scared to act against him Sydney has no compunction about appearing at the hunt ball he is holding that very night, dressed in his finery, his brain still more befuddled by continued drinking. He roars at the top of his voice, totally without shame.

Ranworth Hall (Gatehouse)
Old Ranworth Hall Gatehouse.

Crash go the doors to the Old Hall. At the threshold stands a tall and slender figure, dressed all black that merges his shape with the night behind him. No features of the face beneath the elegant black hat are visible. Sydney’s mouth gapes, for once he is silenced. The figure approaches and throws the helpless Colonel across his shoulder, marches him outside, and throws the frozen figure across his saddle. The head of the Wild Hunt has come to claim his own. With studied ease the devil mounts his black steed, and in a second he, the horse, and the terrified captive are racing across Ranworth Broad, steam rising from the water wherever a hellish hoof touches. Sydney finds his voice now, screams, begs, curses, but not a jot of difference will it make to his awful fate. He is bound for the pit. Colonel Sydney was never seen again, at least not alive. But every year on New Year’s Eve, or so it is said, the devil rides across Ranworth Broad, Colonel Sydney held across his saddle.

Ranworth (Ghost)
Colonel Thomas Sidney disappeared into the steam and mist!

Sleep well children, sleep well!

THE END

Sources:
https://www.herbertwoods.co.uk/blog/terrifying-tales-from-around-the-broads/
http://jollygreenp.co.uk/ypsnorfolkranworth.html

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