Hidden from the busy roads around Holt is a hint of a prosperous past; a past that comes in the form of a ruin of a once-magnificent manor house which was originally the home to the Heydon family. This ruin is a hidden gem, now owned by English Heritage; the guardians of not only what remains of brick, stone, flint and mortar, but of a place that boasts a very curious caretaker – that of a spectral sentry!
It is Baconsthorpe Castle of which I speak, a peaceful place standing proud in the middle of open meadows and farmland with an impressive moat and lake offering an image of its lost grandeur which once was lent to this gentle corner of Norfolk. What meets the eye is also a stony reminder of how far one can fall from grace.
The Heydons began building work on the fortified manor house in 1450, adding extensions as their wealth grew. The person who started the whole project was lawyer, Sir John Heydon who was born the son of William Baxter, a peasant in Heydon. It is thought that Sir John changed his family surname to his village name to disguise his humble beginnings. In time, Sir John Heydon was appointed Recorder of Norwich in 1431, but soon became so unpopular with townsmen that he was dismissed as Recorder by May 1437; he was also accused of giving the City’s documents to Norwich Cathedral priory during a dispute. It was clear that John was, by nature and profession, an unscrupulous lawyer, hard man and opportunist; as an old Norfolk rhyme states: “There never was a Paston poor, or a Heydon a coward.” It also seemed to matter not to John that there was always a possibility that he may need those around him to help him see off enemies! One of these was Lord Moleynes whom John was to incite when he laid claim to the Paston Estate at Gresham, a claim that resulted in Margaret Paston and a dozen retainers being attacked by a mob of around 1,000. John also clashed with the Paston’s patron, Sir John Fastoff in disputes of property.
If turbulent relationships was not enough, John Heydon, during the intensive Wars of the Roses, often switched political allegiances to serve his own means. However and despite being also linked to extortion, duplicity and underhand tactics, John Heydon proved to be an astute survivor. At least two of those close to him were beheaded but John managed to not only stay alive but managed to retain his seat in Baconsthorpe, his property portfolio and his wealth.
The Heydons lived at Baconsthorpe for 200 years, their fortune built on the wool industry. But the family were poor estate managers and Christopher Heydon, who died in 1579, left his son William with growing debts. It was him and his eldest son Christopher who were the ones who wrought the family’s downfall; both were hot-tempered and clashed badly. Christopher lived at Saxlingham Hall with his wife Lady Mirabel. William was forced to sell off parts of the manor house.
In the late 16th or early 17th century, an ornamental mere was created to the east of the moat and formal gardens were created, but by the mid-17th century, the insolvency of successive Heydons forced them to demolish most of the castle and sell the stone, some of which ended up at Felbrigg Hall. The remains of the castle was sold to merchant Daniel Bridges in 1673. The gatehouse was eventually converted into a private dwelling and occupied until 1920 when it collapsed and the building left to decay.
There is so much more to the history of the Heydons and all of it would be very interesting but, unfortunately, there is not enough space here to document it. However, there is another side to Baconsthorpe that not many know about; it may surprise and intrigue you. It is that when visitors come to the castle and wander through the shattered remains to the moat, some will witness the silence broken by the unmistakeable sound of stones breaking the still waters – stones clearly thrown from some height! This and the sight of ripples spreading to either side and along the moat may well cause confusion with a few, but on turning inward to the ruin they will see clearly from where the stones were thrown. Not only that, but they would not fail to catch sight of a ghostly sentry or medieval soldier standing on the castle walls, throwing these stones – as if to pass the time maybe? A few visitors may well be startled but, always remember, no one has ever reported feeling threatened by this stone-throwing spirit!
So be at ease, for this experience is only a further reminder that a spectral sentry was, at one moment in the distant past, detailed to be on guard at Baconsthorpe. There is every possibility, as things stand, that this lone soul may well stay there until such time as a counter order is issued from the appropriate authority for him to stand down. Until then……………….!
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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.
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.
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.
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!
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……..”
“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……”
“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!……..”
“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; the Road was originally an ancient trackway linking Gorleston and Great Yarmouth. According to the legend, ‘Old Scarfe’ – for that is what the animal is refered to in the town –haunts this road, but is described as being a rather more spectacular creature than that seen by Mr Grant on the beach. 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! It is also said that ‘Old Scarfe’ resides in the cellars of the Dukes Head Hotel in Yarmouth.
Although the above 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. 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…………..”
So Tom Cox of The Guardian thought when he wrote the following article way back in 2011 – apparently, he enjoyed scaring himself so much at the time. Eight years have now passed and nothing in the County, we don’t suppose, has changed since then. Maybe it’s a good time to remind readers of the fruits of his efforts – unabridged, but without the advertisements and extraneous matter which can detract from the qualities of a good story. Take it away [again] Tom:
The remains of New Buckenham Castle are situated on a mound of unnervingly perfect circularity 16 miles south of Norwich, behind a moat and large, padlocked iron gate. I’ve done the six-and-half-mile walk that goes past it several times in the last few years, as it features a pretty cool donkey and, if you’re there at the right time of year, a couple of impressively macabre scarecrows, but until last week I’d never quite had time to visit the castle itself.
On my previous attempt, I’d been determined to collect the key to the 12th-century ruin – for which one must pay £2 at the petrol station down the road – but been waylaid by a nice bearded man called Roger in a local pub who wanted to tell me about his Indian wife’s cooking. Hence, last weekend, on bonfire night, as my girlfriend Gemma and I approached Castle Hill Garage, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in our way: not the gathering November gloom, not the damp, flared bottoms of my ill-chosen trousers, not the fact that my car, and any form of warmth, was three miles away.
The garage is one of those charmingly shabby ones at which Norfolk excels, harking back to the days when you still needed to say petrol pumps were “self-serve” to acknowledge they were different to the norm. The establishment’s specialty is ‘Robin Reliants’, of which a dozen or so are parked around the front of the garage. A key to a venerable ancient structure is something folklore tells us will be presented to us by a bearded mystic or, at the very least, a civic luminary, but in this case, you get it from a man in late middle age called John, with two-day stubble and oil-stained overalls, from whom you can buy some surprisingly cheap Fruit Pastilles.
I’d expected a bit of a grumble, what with it being late, but John clearly relishes his role as gatekeeper (the family who actually own the castle live over 100 miles away, so the arrangement is convenient for them, and the small fee helps for the grass to stay cut). He told Gemma and me of a conspiracy theory suggesting that New Buckenham Castle, then owned by the Knyvet family, was where the gunpowder plot was born. “Is this confirmed?” I asked. “Yep,” he replied. “By me.”
I’m not sure how thoroughly John believed in what he was telling us, or if he had a different castle-related story for every big date on the British calendar. Whatever the case, after five minutes he’d lost us, partly because the story we might be about to be part of was potentially more involving than the one we were being told.
It had all the hallmarks of the beginning of a tale you might find in An Anthology of Supernatural Rural Brutality: a dark night, a pair of young(ish) lovers, a haunted ruin, a couple of country types in overalls. It didn’t help that Gemma was wearing a bright red coat with the hood up and I’d not long since rewatched the film Don’t Look Now. We stood on top of the mound as night hurtled down, looking at the cobwebby remnants of the earthworks, taking in the silence, and imagining all the people who’d died here. “This would be a great place for a Grand Design house,” I said. “Good transport links, too,” said Gemma.
As we walked back along the road to the sister village of Old Buckenham in the pitch black, cars hurtling towards us around each bend, I tripped into a ditch, lucky not to break my ankle, and reflected on just how often I did this sort of thing: put myself needlessly in a remote, spooky part of Norfolk, at nightfall, often while alone. I thought back to the previous week, when I’d walked uneasily past some doggers near Whitlingham Broad, just outside Norwich, after misjudging the hour change. Or last year, when I’d been on a walk near Blythburgh in Suffolk, in tribute to the Black Dog legend of the local church, accompanied by my friend’s black spaniel, and the breaking down of the river walls had necessitated that I took a three-mile detour through spooky marsh country. In truth, I probably brought it on myself every time.
During Norfolk holidays in the 80s, as a pre-teen obsessed with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books and a rudimentary form of Dungeons And Dragons, I would wander off on my own into woodland, fighting warlocks and orcs. By the time I was an adolescent this seemed pretty stupid, but really what I spend a large amount of my leisure time doing now is a scarcely more grown-up version of the same. The difference is that instead of going sword-to-mace with goblins to win the hand of elf princesses, I’m in my own unwritten MR James story, equally as bleak and unsettling as Jonathan Miller’s phenomenal 1968 adaptation of ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’. I like the countryside, and I like scaring myself, so combining the two seems an obvious thing to do. If it were at all useful, you might call it a hobby.
The ghost stories of James, written in the early 20th century, are all about the power of suggestion, and for this reason it’s not surprising he set so many of them in Norfolk and Suffolk. Despite the fact that the area’s most famous ghost is a demon hound, its spookiness is not a gnashing, toothy one of aggressively frightening terrain. It’s a more subtle, eerie spookiness: that of a hillock filled with dead Saxons rising out of an otherwise flat landscape from behind a copse, or a mist rising off a broad with a decaying windmill in the background. Yet it feels awash with ghosts and legends in a way that, in all Britain, perhaps only the West Country can match.
Oddy, the ghost walks in Norfolk’s county seat didn’t start running until 1997. Their host, Ghostly Dave, retired four years ago, and has now been replaced by the Man in Black: a narrator with a skull-headed staff and an impressively hawkish, Victorian face. His mystique is in sharp contrast to, say, the ghost walks in Dudley, which a West Midlands-dwelling friend reliably informs me are hosted by a man simply called “Craig”. That said, The Man In Black’s blood-red business card does lose something of its aura by having an ad for ‘Richard’s Driving School’ on its flipside!
I’ve been on a ghost walk in Norwich twice now, and I can’t think of a more appropriate, more inherently Norfolk, way to spend an early winter evening. As well as the ghouls and witches paid to jump out at punters on the walk – including The Faggot Witch who will curse you with her sticks, a skull-faced man who my friend Michelle offered a tenner to stop growling at her, and the Grey Lady and Lonely Monk who lurk amidst the plague pits in the city’s Tombland district – you get the odd unexpected extra. During my first ghost walk, a local wino tagged along for a while to see what all the fuss was about, and the owner of a new Chinese restaurant stole away into a dark corner in a churchyard to make a deal with the Man in Black, allowing him to hand flyers out to that evening’s ghost walkers advertising cut-price chow mein.
Later, the Cathedral Close area – the beautiful inspiration for the unforgettable final scenes in John Gordon’s 1968 young adult horror novel The Giant Under The Snow – became a lot more chilling when a notorious local bag lady emerged out of the fog from her favourite bench behind us, especially to my friend Jenny, who had an apple thrown at her head after trying to give her spare change.
We chuckled at the atmosphere-puncturing banality of it, but there was also the possibility that this was a preview to a future age of Norfolk ghosts: an era when, just as the rotting specter of the rebel Robert Kett still sometimes hangs beside the castle in his gibbet, The Phantom Bag Lady And Her Demon Braeburn would intimidate ecclesiastical enthusiasts in the cloisters and The Ghoulish Man Of The Pumps would be condemned to drive for eternity in circles around Old Buckenham in his Robin Reliant, searching for his key and the pesky couple who bent it slightly in the lock while trying to get his gate shut.
It is not clear when it finally faded away, but from 1971 to the early 1980’s, the Borderline Science Investigation Group (BSIG) claimed to be the premier organisation investigating unexplained phenomena in East Anglia. Its quarterly journal was called ‘Lantern’, in which about 40 issues were published between the Winters of 1971 and 1982.
One of the more interesting stories published by this group, and written by their Ivan Bunn, told of the experience of a Lowestoft man on the new (A12 now A47) Hopton Bypass, a mile or so north of Lowestoft, during late 1980. Apparently, so the story goes, at 5.15pm on the 23rd November of that year, PC Frank Colby, who had been 29 years in the British Transport police, was driving back to Lowestoft with his wife. As his car reached the southern section of the Bypass, he saw what he thought to be a man crossing the dual carriageway in front of him. Mr Colby described it at the time as being:
“……. About 5 foot 6” – or a little more, stocky in build and wearing a calf-length shapeless garment. Its head was hunched into its shoulders and it appeared to have What I thought was very spiky hair. There appears to be trousers or some sort of thing on its legs, but what caught my eye – I know it sounds daft – was its fantastically huge footwear. These boots were very big and he was lifting them up well as he plodded along.”
Mr Colby braked and remarked upon the figure to his wife, but she could not see it. The figure was just outside the range of his headlights, but as it crossed the central reservation barrier, Colby claimed that he saw it pass through it and disappear. He immediately stopped his car and examined the spot where the figure had vanished, but there was nothing there – as you might expect! He then returned to his car and made notes of what he claimed he had seen and drew a sketch of it. Mr Colby’s encounter was investigated by Ivan Bunn of the BSIG’s team and his report received press coverage both locally, in the Lowestoft Journal, and nationally on the eve of Christmas 1980. (See figure 2 on Map).
Approximately twelve months after Mr Colby saw the spectral figure in Hopton, on Monday, 2nd November 1981 to be exact, a Mr Andrew Cutajar was driving towards Great Yarmouth; it was very wet and very miserable. Somewhere near to Hopton he noticed what first appeared to be a grey mist in the middle of the carriageway ahead of him. As he drove closer, he could see the figure of a man:
“Tall and dressed in a long coat, or cap, coming well past his knees. He had on old-fashioned heavy laced up boots and his grey hair was long and straggly”.
The figure was unmoving as Mr Cutajar braked to avoid a collision but, in the wet conditions, the car began to skid, passing straight through the figure, ending up facing the other way on the grass verge. At that moment there was no trace of the ghostly figure! Apparently, a number of other single vehicle accidents had occurred at the same spot – and it was speculated at the time if any of these incidents had taken place in similar weather conditions!
These two instances of the 1980’s were not the first, or only, accounts of a spectral figure appearing along, or near, the village of Hopton. One of the earliest came from a Mr Roger Hammersley of Lowestoft who, at the beginning of 1957, was driving in convoy with a friend, Mr R Gardner from Yarmouth, to their home town. Just before midnight, on the old A12 (now the A47) just south of Hopton, both men separately saw what Mr Hammersley described as the figure of a man wearing very large boots, a large fawn overcoat and a hat, crossing the road in front of them. Mr Hammersley drove close to the tall figure before realising it was no longer there, although he did admit that he could not remember seeing the spectral actually disappear. During an interview with Ivan Bunn of the BSIG, Mr Hammersley admitted that many times prior to this encounter he had often felt distinctly “uneasy” driving along this particular stretch of road, and that after seeing the ‘ghost’ back in 1957 he avoided the Hopton stretch of the old A12 whenever he could. (See figure 3 on Map).
In the 1970’s there was yet another claimed sighting of what may have been ‘The Old Man of Hopton’; this story came to light following the Press coverage of PC Colby in 1980. It was said to have happened on 24 December, Christmas Eve, in 1977 when 24-year-old Mrs Rita Rose of Bradwell was driving along the old A12 through Hopton with her mother. It was about 5.30pm when they approached a road junction quite near to the Hopton Post Office – (marked ‘1’ on the map). Mrs Rose’s car was travelling north towards Great Yarmouth and just before they reached the junction, she saw the figure of a man in here headlights, standing on the edge of the nearside kerb. As she drew level with the figure, it stepped off the kerb and under the front wheels of the car. Mrs Rose instinctively did an emergency stop which resulted in her mother being flung against the windscreen; at the same time, Mrs Rose said she felt the impact as the car appeared to hit this man. Despite getting out and searching neither she, nor her mother, could find anyone one either in front or underneath the car.
Mrs Rose, who was a qualified nurse at the time, described both the incident and the ‘man’ to Ivan Bunn, the BSIG investigator. “………he was a bent-over old man wearing a trilby hat and a heavy overcoat……”. She was particularly struck by his “ashen face and cold look….. He was looking directly at the car as it approached him, but gave no indication that he was about to step off the kerb…..he had an odd expression, as if he knew what was about to happen”. Mrs Rose’s mother later confirmed to Ivan Bunn more or less what her daughter had said; saying that she herself never saw the ‘old man’ or felt the impact. In fact, she said that she was absolutely unaware that anything was amiss until she was, unceremoniously, thrown out of her seat when her daughter “stood on the brakes”. (See figure 1 on Map).
There have been other reported encounters with a ‘ghostly pedestrian’ and a few unsubstantiated ones. Another one which seems to have a ring of authenticity about it was one that occurred on a stretch of the old A12 road in March, 1974. At about 9.15pm one evening the driver of a car claimed to have seen a ‘sneering face’ illuminated by the headlights of his car. He braked hard to avoid what he thought was a person but, to his horror, “the car went though it!”. This witness also recalled that on other occasions before this incident, he felt “decidedly uneasy” on that stretch of the road “for no apparent reason”. (See figure 4 on Map).
It was also on the old A12, back in in December 1960 that a Mr Ernest Tuttle of Lowestoft was killed when the fish lorry which her was driving left the road for no apparent reason and hit a tree. Mr Tuttle, who had frequently driven along this road, had often told his daughter that it was “The worst road he had ever driven on….and there was something odd about it”. A month or so before his fatal crash, Mr Tuttle had told his daughter that he had seen “a grey shadow, a mist, going across the road.” At his inquest, an open verdict was returned; in his address, the Coroner said to the Jury:
“ The evidence, regarding the cause of the accident, did not amount to much, and most of it was negative……one naturally tries to find some explanation of something that would otherwise be a complete mystery”. (See figure 5 on Map)
As to the identity of this ghostly figure – well, no one knows. One theory suggested that it was a William Balls, Hopton’s postman who had worked himself to death in January of 1899, having spent 22 years serving the village. He was found in a field, close to where the hauntings occurred, at 10.30am on 2 January 1899, lying face down in a pool of blood after having succumbed to pneumonia which had developed from winter flu. It was said that he was buried at Hopton church, which must have been the present St Margaret’s since the St Margaret’s Church of old was burned down in 1865 – the remains of which still exist as a ruin.
Ivan Bunn was told about William Balls by Gwen Balls – the postman was her husband’s grandfather who died aged just 40 and who had been warned by his doctor just days beforehand that he would die without rest. “What am I to do? I must do my duty,” he replied. On the day of his death, as usual, he set out on his 16-mile round at 6am and worked until 9.30am at which point he started for home and a rest before restarting work at 4.20pm. He was found in his father’s field by a farm worker and left behind a pregnant wife, Angelina.
For centuries, folk have told tales of a large black dog with malevolent flaming eyes (or in some variants of the legend a single eye) that are red or alternatively green – take your pick – and they are described as being ‘like saucers’. Not only that but according to some, the beast varies in size and stature from that of simply a large dog to being the size of a calf or even a horse. Sometimes Black Shuck, or Old Shuck is recorded as having appeared headless, and at other times as floating on a carpet of mist!
According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, but particularly in and around Norfolk. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia described the creature thus:
He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So, you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Shuck you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.
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 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 indeed well known. Norfolk in particular, can justifiably claim to have the strongest connections with such an animal. Whilst the towns of Bungay and Blythburgh are very closely linked with stories of Black Shuck, or Old Shuck – or even Shuck, there are other places such as Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and Salthouse, on the north Norfolk coast, that have also staked their claim. Today, it is this latter place which will have pride of place with the following Tale:
Back in the 1970’s a certain Walter H Barrett wrote that some sixty years previously (shall we say around 1910) he was passing through the village of Salthouse, which lies on the North Norfolk coast road, between Cromer to the east and Cley-Next-The -Sea to the west. There he came across the Dun Cow public house which happened to be conveniently placed to afford him some liquid refreshment at a moment when he really needed it. As he entered, he noticed an aged man sunning himself near the door and feeling rather hospitable bought him a drink and joined him on his seat “Nice and warm in the sun” he enquired. “Tis today, but you want to be here in the winter when a Nor’ Easter is blowing in from the sea – that’s the time when this place is known as the Icehouse, he replied. Walter Barrett gathered that this chap’s name was Sam Rudd and that he had lived in the village all his life; also, he still got a fair living digging lug worms for bait.
Sam Rudd sat quiet for a short spell, and then asked Walter “Ever heard of Old Shuck, the ghost dog? “Yes I have,” said Walter “but several places around this county claim they have an Old Shuck. “Huh! They may do” was Sam’s reply “ but there is only one ghost dog – and he is only seen between here and Cley……. Now, sit you down quiet and I will tell you: I have not only seen him, but I have had to run like hell when he chased me home one night when I was very much younger” ….. Sam eventually continued, having composed himself for the task in front of him: –
“That night, I had been bait-digging as usual, but just as dark was falling I had to give up because the tide was rising fast. I started on my four miles’ walk back home along the beach, keeping a sharp eye on the high-water mark to see what had been washed up. That was in the days of sailing ships, and often drowned sailors from wrecks would be left high and dry when the tide turned. Sometimes I would find one. Sailors in those days wore gold rings on one finger. This I would remove; turn out his pockets. Anything there was mine. If he had come ashore in the parish of Salthouse, I would, after relieving him of anything worthwhile, drag him back into the water where the ebbing tide would carry him out to sea; there, the current would carry him along the coast, until he came ashore near Cromer. Now – the reason for me doing this was because all washed-up dead sailors were buried by the parish in whose boundary they were found. That was all right for the parson, undertaker and grave-digger, who each took their cut, but it was hard luck on us folks who had to find the poor rate levied by the churchwardens to pay for the burial, – and beside this, Salthouse had only one churchyard. Cromer, on the other hand, had a large cemetery with plenty of room to plant those men. As it was, I did not find anything that evening and having reached the beach road which led to the village, I clambered over the shingle bank and was no sooner on the road when a heavy sea mist came swirling down – then a pitch-black darkness set in.”
“I then heard a dog howling some distance behind me. It was so loud it drowned the roar of the sea pounding the shingle bank. I was wearing a pair of heavy thigh boots and after kicking them off I ran like a greyhound in my stockings. The faster I went, the nearer came the howling. When, at last, I reached my home, I opened the door; entered and bolted it as quickly as I could. When my father asked me where my thigh boots were, I told him not to worry about those but to listen to that big dog howling outside.”
“Father heard and got up out of his chair right quick like; took his fowling gun off its hooks on the wall; put in the barrel a double charge of gunpowder; rammed it down with a wad of paper. He then put about half a pound of heavy lead shot on top, and having put a firing cap on the gun nipple, went upstairs; opened the window; saw the dog squatting on its haunches; took aim and fired – but that did not stop the dog howling. When father came downstairs, he said that he had pumped swan shot into that dog but it did not fall over nor stop its howling. That was Old Shuck right enough! In the morning we went outside. There was no sign of the dog but the ‘privy’ door, some distance away, was riddled with shot holes, which proved to my father that the heavy shot had gone right through this ghost dog of ours – just as water would run through a sieve.” With these words, Sam Rudd suddenly stood up, thanked Walter Barrett for the drink and left.
Shortly afterwards, this Walter Barrett also took leave of the Dun Cow and retraced his steps back to Cley-Next-The-Sea to call on the Rector there, the Reverend Everett James Bishop, who informed him that the story he had heard at Salhouse was nonsense; the telling of such tales is the usual ruse that Cley and Salthouse fishermen use to ensure that the locals kept indoors whilst they, the fishermen, were making a smuggling run. This comment further increased Barrett’s interest and he thought he would get a second opinion from a local old fisherman, who was also a wild-fowler; his name was Pinchen. Pinchen scoffed and told Barrett, in no uncertain terms, to pay no regard to what the Rector had said – because he had not been in the parish very long; one had to have his roots in Cley for many years to really understand folk, their traditions and folk tales. Pinchen then remarked, “I can tell you the ‘true’ story of our Old Shuck – from its very beginning. Listen carefully because I have to take you back some 200 years!”:
“The night of 28th January 1709 was one of those which seafarers dreaded when they tried to sail their boats through the unpredictable waters which still keep these shores in check – particularly between nearby Blakeney and as far as Mundesley just south east of Cromer. The waves that night were twenty-feet high, rising foaming white and threatening as the result of a howling gale that tore at the sea surface and land like a screaming spoilt child. Almost in unison, these foaming waves flayed everything in their path before crashing on to these raised shingled beaches; beaches that are here to protect the marshes and villages hereabout. The inevitable rush of water breached the shingle on that occasion and rush headlong over the marshes to cause havoc among the trees and undergrowth and close to houses and churches which nestled on a slight rise in the land at the edge of the marshes. I can tell you – local folk prayed for God’s deliverance whilst some more hard-headed individuals anticipated the pickings from an unfortunate wreck……”
“And there was such a shipwreck at Salthouse that night and it was a Brigantine – some did say afterwards that it was the ‘Ever Hopeful’ but I tend to think that its name, if indeed it did survive, did not register with those who were there for the salvage only; the ship’s name that crept into the original tale may well have reflected someone’s sense of humour. Be that as it may, that Brig., registered in Whitby, had been caught by that storm whilst returning to Yorkshire from London and carrying a cargo of fruit, spices and other foodstuffs. Apparently, the Captain and crew tried hopelessly to control their small craft but were carried towards the shallow shoals just off the coast; a coast which was in almost total darkness, save for a couple of flickering beacons at Cromer and Blakeney. Inevitably, the ship was driven on to the shingle bank at Salthouse, followed by wave after wave which shattered her timbers and breaking up, spars, doors and rails, throwing everything aloft and into the waters.”
“The screams of the doomed crew added to what must have been a nightmare and they, together with the Captain had abandoned ship, collectively making a desperate bid for life. Seizing his large wolf-hound pet by the collar, the Captain followed the crew and, like them, was swallowed up by the sea and drowned – every last one of them. Their bodies were washed ashore and in the calm of the morning the villagers came amongst them and the scattered remains of the once proud ship, its cargo and crew. Whilst salvaging the valuable wood and flotsam they saw the dead, but particularly the Captain who still had a firm hold on the dog’s collar – and the dog’s jaws still clamped tightly to the Captain’s reefer jacket in their desperate attempt for survival. Those of Salthouse’s folk who were present debated the fate of the wreckage and the crew in a hushed tone as if they did not want the dead to hear. One thing that was certain, they decided to bury master and pet separately. A hole was dug in a rare patch of sand that lay amongst the shingle and the wolf hound was thrown in – such was the treatment of animals, as for the Captain, he was taken to Salthouse Church, on the hill overlooking the village, and buried in an unmarked grave. One wonders what say the rector had in the matter! However, and more importantly in this tale, no one thought of any possible consequences of disregarding the latent thoughts and feelings of an animal who must have loved his master to the point of never wanting to leave him.”
“Within a very short time, people hereabouts had claimed to have seen a very large black dog sniffing about and howling as if calling for his master. As the years passed, they say its appearance became more grotesque as if in increased frustration, grief and anger! He now has large red eyes; his coat as black as ebony; shaggy and the size of a calf. Many have sensed a hound padding silently behind them as if in two minds as to whether or not to vent its perceived anger. But I can tell you that over the years there has never been a story of anyone who has escaped the jaws of Old Black Shuck when that apparition had chosen its victim. Apparently, our Shuck is most active on those nights around the 28th January and whenever the sea is stormy. Then, his terrible howl rises above the wind and crashing waves. It is at that particular time when those who disbelieve should look over their shoulder!
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there there is no witness around, does Shuck still walk regardless?
Reference Sources: East Anglian Folklore and other tales, by W H Barrett and R P Garrod, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Folktales & Legends of Norfolk, by G M Dixon,Minimax Books Ltd, 1980.
Photo: (Feature Heading): Royal Museum Greenwich
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.
Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”
Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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:
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.
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.
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.
LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
There are numerous ‘phantom’ horses and coach’ tales in Norfolk and indeed throughout East Anglia; however, actual first-hand accounts of them are few and far between. The following account was sent to the Editor of the BSIG’s ‘Lantern’ magazine in 1975 by a lady who, at the time was living in Diss, Norfolk. It is interesting…….!
“Last September (1975) I had just moved to East Tuddenham, Norfolk. One evening late in September on a cold, slightly windy evening with a full moon, I was taking my dog for a walk. I had walked up Common Road, past the Post Office and up to Mockbeggars Hall. I had walked up the road and had just reached some old cottages, when I heard the sound of ‘loose’ horses galloping towards me. My dog was upset and so I started to turn back for home. I thought that they were live horses and I was terrified as I was not able to get off the road as there were thick hedges on each side and I was afraid of being trampled underfoot.
I turned back for home running as fast as I could and hoping to get near some cottages to get off the road by getting into one of the gardens. I could still hear the sound of the horses following, and then I had to stop to get my breath – and the noise stopped! As I ran off again, the noise started again and stopped when I was able to get off the road. As it was a straight road and moonlight, I looked up the road and saw nothing but as I looked a car came down the road with lights on – but there was nothing to be seen.
In my youth I rode a lot and can distinguish between horses on fields and those on a hard road or cobbles. This was definitely a hard road sound of horses. Once I realised that it was a sound and not the real thing I was no longer afraid, but my dog was very upset and eager to get home.
I asked in the local shops if anyone had heard of this happening to anyone else and was told that there was a local man who had had the same experience………!
It is not uncommon for tales of apparitions to have grown up around the sites of former monestries. In the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, and either side, monks were thought to have had supernatural powers and were associated with mysticism and superstition in people’s minds. It is not surprising therefore that several tales about villainous monks at St Benets Abbey have circulated over these years – and indeed, still flourish.
Mostly these tales have been linked to political and religious intrigues and double-crossings; many of which were simply part and parcel of powerful establishments. One example relating to St Benets is when, in an attempt to transform the Abbey into a pilgrimage centre to rival Walsingham and Bromholm, the monks there invented the cult of St Margaret of Holm who, according to a medieval chronicler, was strangled nearby in Little Wood at Hoveton St John in 1170. This barbarous act recalls to mind the crucifixion of the boy saint William of Norwich in 1144 (see here for separate Blog), which was within living memory of those monks at St Benets!
St Benets, or to give it its full name of St Benedict’s-at-Holm (or Hulm) Abbey, has been a Norfolk Broad’s landmark for almost 1000 years. Situated on the banks of the river Bure, the Abbey has long been reduced to just the ruins of the former gatehouse, into which an 18th century farmer built a windmill. This strange ruin, as small as it is, holds many stories and hides more than a few mysteries.
The tales which have survived the test of time include attacks by the Normans then, 300 year’s later, the Peasants Uprising when the Abbey was stormed and its deeds and charters destroyed. There are also those mythical stories and legends relating to images and sometimes terrible things that had once been a part of this once sacred place and have since been periodically returned by what may well be magical means! They include the recurring story of a monk from St Benets who, on quiet evenings, can still be seen rowing between the Abbey and Ranworth in a little boat, accompanied by a dog. It is said that he is quite harmless and concentrates only on his regular task of maintaining the rood screen in Ranworth church. Then there is the Dragon which once terrorised the village of Ludham and ended its life at the Abbey. The Legend of the Seal is another tale dating back to the days of King Henry I when a legacy of ancient carvings depicting the story were built into either side of gatehouse entrance and can still to be seen today. However, let us not be carried away in directions that would take us away from the following Tale – an apparition which has its roots firmly at St Benets. Just Remember! in common with all orthodox ruined abbeys and priories, St Benets and its surviving gatehouse is still believed to be haunted!
This tale is known as ‘The Shrieking Monk‘ and it is believed to be that of Ethelwold (some say Essric?), the young bailiff monk who basely betrayed the Abbey in the hope of becoming its Abbot. This spectre has a fearful significance – and it screams! Like many, it has an anniversary date for appearances, but it is just as likely to be seen at other times of the year when ‘conditions are just right’. They say that it is possible to experience this particular spectre in the late autumn, on All Hallows Eve, or winter on dark nights between midnight and early dawn, particularly if the dawn is shrouded in a heavy mist and there is a distinct chill in the air. Even today, few would care to pass the old ruin when such conditions are abroad – particularly when they hear the tale of a certain Ludham marshman who perished one night near the ruined gatehouse of St Benets. Apparantly, according to William Dutt’s ‘Highways and Byways in East Anglia’ (1901) – this marshman was on his way home from his bullocks. As he draws near the gatehouse and sees something in the shadows that ‘started screeching like a stuck pig’. Some years later this story was further elaborated when retold by the Stalham folklorist, W H Cooke; he call it ‘The Shrieking Monk’. It tells how this monk terrified a local wherryman one foggy night – All Hallows Eve and he rushes away to seek the safety of his wherry which is moored nearby; he slips in the early morning mud and falls into the Bure and is drowned!
Following in the tradition of gilding each ghost story in its re-telling; here, we again go back to those Norman times and to the moment when William the Conqueror was, apparently, experiencing great difficulty with taking St Benet’s Abbey. This version of the story again surrounds William’s difficulty and the monk Ethelwold who falls to temptation , opens the Abbey gates to the Normans – but subsequently is executed. Imagine now the Abbey materialising out of thin air, along with the obligitory mist; the present ruinous Mill transforming itself into a stone tower from where the execution referred to took place.
We are told that the Monks of St Benedict’s successfully withstood attacks from King William’s men for months on end and could have held out for much longer had it not been for the act of treachery by Ethelwold, the young bailiff monk. The strong walls of the Abbey had proved impregnable and there was enough food to feed those inside for at least twelve months; some also believed that a trust in God by the Abbot and the rest of the Abbey’s monks also played an important part in staving off the enemy. Unfortunately for all concerned, the young monk held aspirations which did not match his low position in the church. His aspirations, if legend and myth are to be believed, also made him a prime candidate to be bribed.
The Norman army deployed around the Abbey had been on the verge of giving up on their task but the general in charge decided that maybe a different tactic might work, having identified the monk as a possible solution. What was needed was for a messenger to be sent to the Abbey with a letter urging the Abbot to surrender, but at the same time to, surreptitiously, slip a tempting offer to this particular monk. This plan was put into operation and a messenger was despatched on horse back, carrying a white flag to guarantee entry. Once inside and before meeting the Great Abbot to hand over the general’s letter, the messenger managed to hand a separate note to Ethelwold, asking him at the same time to, somehow, return with him to meet with the General; a safe audience would be guaranteed.
On receiving the general’s letter, the Abbot bluntly refused to contemplate his demand and quickly sought a volunteer to convey his decision back to the other side. Unsurprisingly, Ethelwold, the highly flatterable monk, stepped forward and offered his services; he by then being totally intrigued by the general’s attention in him. This monk’s ego and aspirations were further enhanced when on arrival he was told by the general that he, Ethelwold, was obviously destined for a better career than that of a humble bailiff monk. Now, if only he would help the general’s soldiers take over the Abbey he, the humble monk, would be elavated to Abbot of St Benedict’s Abbey – for LIFE – a gift that would be far beyond the menial’s wildest dreams! The general added that the young brother had absolutely nothing to lose, for if the Abbey held out, despite impressive defensive walls and generous stocks of provisions, the army would attack in even greater force and inflict a terrible result on the religeous order. But, if this “Abbot Elect” would just open the gatehouse doors that same night, everyone would be spared.
Although clearly naive, Ethelwold was not without a degree of intelligence. Surely, he questioned himself, the other brethren would punish him if he was ever found out; they would certainly not accept him as their Abbot? He was not even an ordained priest – for heaven’s sake! Even here, the general had anticipated such doubts but seemed to have no difficulty in convincing the monk that by using his new elevated rank of ‘conqueror of the Abbey’ the brethren would accept their new Abbot, in pain of losing the present incumbent and anyone else of a rebellious nature. With this assurance, the now traitor returned to St Benet’s in both excitement and with not a little fear. Ethelwold was naturally welcomed back and praised for his bravery in delivering the Abbot’s letter of refusal; whilst he held a burdensome secret.
The final days of May that year were full of sunshine, bridging the final days of spring to the start of summer; the evenings were however deceptive with one culminating in a sudden dissolved dusk displaced by a very chilly, dark and eerie night. The bell in the Abbey tower rang out eleven times, each ring echoing across the night ladened marches whilst Ethelwold’s heart pounded at an ever increasing pace as he waited for the final chord. This was followed by the sound of three knocks on the gatehouse door; the expected visitors had arrived! The nervous bailiff slowly withdrew the well lubricated bolts and was about to slowly release the door quietly when it was flung open and the monk was brushed aside as soldiers burst through and set about their task. Very quickly the monks realised a betrayal and offered no resistence because shedding blood was abhorrent to their beliefs; any arms were put aside and a truce quickly agreed, followed by an order that all must essemble in the Abbey Church the following morning.
There, on a morning that reflected the prevailing mood of the defeated, the young ‘Abbot Elect’ was paraded in with great ceremony and in front of the assembly was anointed and then dressed in cope and mitre. The Abbot’s crovier was placed in his hand, followed by a pronouncement that the once monk was now the Abbot of St Benedict’s-at-Holm – for LIFE! To complete the ceremony, the new Abbot was escorted the length of the Abbey by Normans in ceremonial armoured attire and banners flying – but with no applause except for that coming from the Normans. The defeated audience watched in total silence. The new Abbot was, however, full of himself and he ignored a part of the spectacle that was clearly of no importance to him. That changed all too quickly; the Abbot’s face, so flushed with utter pride one moment, turned deathly white as his hands were suddenly thrust behind his back and tied unceremoniously. Still dressed in his glittering robes, this ‘newly annointed abbot’ was dragged off – Norman’s abhor treachery!
Ethelwold, shrouded by a realisation that he had been completely fooled and foolish, cried for mercy but his cries were ignored. His march from the throne to an open window in the bell tower was further ignominious. There, he was hoisted up on to a makeshift gibbet made of a simple stout pole protruding out from the widow that faced a still misty river and marsh beyond. Then, no sooner had the noose been placed around the unfortunate’s head, when he was pushed to swing in full view of those who had gathered below. Those who were further away and out of sight of this summary execution would have their chance to witness the result. They would understand the stark message that was directed to everyone under to authority of Norman rule; all who dared to be treacherous for personal and selfish gain would meet the same fate! The church authority may also have considered the outcome appropriate and that the individual who had fallen from both window sill and grace, was now in the process of being judged by his Maker.
This story makes you wonder! – How many of us today, would choose to manouver their boats along the river Bure in early morning mist or walk the same path past the ruined Abbey, and concern themselves with apparitions? – particularly if the morning, from midnight onwards, happens to be misty? How many out on the 25th May would quicken their stride or increase water speed – just in case! Maybe all it takes is to be alone in the dark or in an early mist, a mist that was thought to be rising, but drops again suddenly at the same moment as the temperature takes on a deeper chill……! One thing is certain; all that is needed beyond these conditions is for a lone lapwing to swoop close by and send forth its pre-emptive cry of what might follow!
Sources: Dutt, W., Highways and Byways in East Anglia, 1901
Cooke, W.H., The Shrieking Monk, 1911
Tolhurst, P., This Hollow Land, Black Dog Books, 2018
Photos: Wikipedia, Google, Spinney Abbey.
As the flames licked the stone walls and the building began to crack and fall, parishioners feared nothing would remain of their beloved church at St Peter and St Paul’s church at Tunstall, a beacon for ships on the edge of a long-lost estuary which is now lonely marshland that stretches towards Great Yarmouth.
Once, the church faced the sea, now all that remains is a striking shell, the sky taking the place of the roof. Although a fierce fire ravaged the church, its bells were left unscathed – but although they had escaped the blaze, falling on the floor quite safely, they became the white hot centre of a blazing row between the parson and the churchwardens who battled over who should have them.
While the argument raged, the Devil saw his chance to settle the dispute and stepped into the smoking timbers of the ringing chamber and carried the bells away. He was spotted by the parson who began to furiously exorcise him as he stalked away from the church: “stop, in the name of God!” called the parson. In a bid to make a swift getaway, the Devil scrambled his way through the earth and towards his underworld lair, taking his stolen loot with him and creating a boggy pool of water, known locally as ‘Hell Hole’, which still ominously bubbles in the summertime which local folk used to attribute to the continual sinking of the bells on their endless journey through the bottomless pit.
Another version of the same tale has the parish priest deciding to steal the bells, sell them and pocket the spoils at the same time as the churchwardens cooked up the same plan. When the parties met again in church, both tried to take the bells for themselves and as the quarrel grew and harsh words were spoken, a gigantic black form materialised, seized the bells and disappeared with them.
The priest and the churchwardens temporarily forgot their row and joined together to chase the arch fiend but just as they appeared to gain ground, he vanished, diving straight through the earth while clutching the bells, leaving a dark pool in his wake, bubbles rising for years afterwards to mark the spot, less than a mile west of Tunstall.
Above Hell Hole is an adjoining clump of alder trees known as Hell Carr – and sometimes, on quiet nights, across the bogs and marshland can be heard the muffled peal of bells, ringing still for the Satanic Majesty who claimed them for his own.
The church of St Peter & St Paul – ruined tower and nave
In Roman times the River Bure flowed into a large estuary extending from Acle to present-day Great Yarmouth; Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk shows the then coastal villages of Tunstall, Halvergate and Wickhampton on a spur of higher ground that was surrounded by Moulton Bog (west), Acle Wet Common (north) and the Halvergate Marshes (east). According to old records the church had fallen into disrepair by 1704; the chancel arch was bricked up in 1705 and a plaque above the doorway into the chancel informs that it was rebuilt by Mrs Elizabeth Jenkinson > Link. More repairs were carried out in 1853. In 1980 the church was declared redundant and a Trust was formed to help repair and maintain what remains of the church: the chancel is still intact and visitors are welcome.