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.
Sleep well children, sleep well!
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!
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 following article appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on 2 February 1908:-
“A luminous owl (for there may be more than one!) was captured on Wednesday morning by Mr Edward Cannell at Lower Hellesdon and died from purely natural causes a few minutes afterwards.
A “John Knowlittle”, wrote “A Daily Press reporter, who has enquired into the circumstances, may be relied upon to weep for the luminous fowl. I have only to do with the facts, which are these”:-
“Mr Edward S Cannell is the engineer at the Norwich City Asylum (John Knowlittle will chuckle at that, I have no doubt) but Mr Cannell does not live at the Asylum – he is a trained and highly responsible man and is known to nearly everybody). I asked Mr Cannell to tell me how he came to find the owl.
“Yesterday morning” said Mr Cannell, between 6.00 and 6.30 when it was still dark, I went out into my garden. I had my dog with me. There is a grass bank about 2.5 feet high on one side and a grape vine on a wall on the other. I saw something shining on the grass bank, which for a moment startled me. It fluttered down, crossed the path and got up against the grape vine. I had no trouble in catching it and I did not hurt it in any way. It was an owl and it was bright and luminous. I should say that it was an ordinary owl, but the taxidermist will tell you all about that.
I carried it indoors and put it on a stool, then went out into the garden again. I do not think the dog saw the bird at all. When I came back into the house the bird was dying. It was still luminous, but perhaps the glow was not so strong as when I first saw it.
When I came into breakfast the bird was quite dead. Of course it was daylight then and I could see no luminosity in the bird; it’s light had gone out. I have no doubt at all that the bird was luminous when I saw it first. It was the diffused light which first attracted my attention. The luminosity appeared to me to be phosphorescent in its nature”. – “There are a number of owls that fly about among the trees at the Asylum every night but I have never seen a luminous one before”!
“Lost Hearts” is a classic ghost story by the British author M.R. James. James read an early version of the story at a Cambridge literary society gathering in 1893, and the short story was published in the December 1895 issue of the Pall Mall Magazine. The story was later collected in the anthology Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904).
The story opens with a young orphan named Stephen arriving at Aswarby Hall, the country estate of his elderly uncle, Mr. Abney. Although Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, Stephen learns that he is a kind man who has taken in other disadvantaged children in the past. Those children did not stay long, but Stephen is quite happy in his new life at the Hall. A few months after his arrival, however, Stephen begins to experience some mysterious and disturbing events.
“Lost Hearts” was one of the earliest stories written by M.R. James. Although the author himself did not care much for the story, some consider it one of James’ best. The story has been adapted for television and radio.
In September of 1811, a young boy named Stephen Elliot arrives at Aswarby Hall in Lincolnshire. Stephen was recently orphaned, and his elderly cousin, Mr. Abney, has generously invited him to come live at the Hall. The invitation was unexpected, for Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, an expert on ancient pagan religions who is wrapped up in his books.
Mr. Abney eagerly welcomes his young cousin, and he appears delighted to learn that Stephen’s twelfth birthday is nearly a year away. He tells Parkes the butler to take Stephen to the housekeeper, Mrs. Bunch. Mrs. Bunch makes Stephen feel completely at home, and they quickly become great friends. Stephen, an adventurous and curious boy, learns much about Aswarby Hall and its gardens from Mrs. Bunch who has been at the Hall for twenty years.
One November evening, Stephen asks Mrs. Bunch “Is Mr. Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?” Mrs. Bunch tells him that his uncle is the kindest man. She then talks about other children Mr. Abney has taken in. The first was a little girl who had no family. Mr. Abney brought her back with him from his walk one day about two years after Mrs. Bunch first came to the Hall. After three weeks, the girl suddenly left before anyone else was up in the morning. Mr. Abney was distraught and even had the ponds dragged, but the girl was never seen again. Mrs. Bunch believes she was taken away by the gypsies who were seen in the area. The second was a young foreign boy who came around with his hurdy-gurdy seven winters ago. Just like the girl, the boy left suddenly one early morning. Mrs. Bunch has no idea why he left or what he did, for he left his hurdy-gurdy behind.
That night, Stephen has a strange dream. He is looking through the glazed door of an old disused bathroom down the corridor from his bedroom. Lying in the bath tub is a thin figure wrapped in a shroud. There is a faint and dreadful smile on its lips, and its hands are pressed tightly over the heart. Then it begins to moan and move its arms. Stephen wakes terrified and finds himself standing in the passageway. He walks up to the bathroom door and takes a peek to see if the figure is there. Finding the bath empty, Stephen goes back to bed. Upon hearing about the dream in the morning, Mrs. Bunch puts a new curtain over the bathroom door. Mr. Abney also shows interest in Stephen’s story and makes notes in his book.
As the spring equinox approaches, Mr. Abney repeatedly advises Stephen to take care and shut his bedroom window at night. He explains that the time of year was considered by the ancients to be critical for the young. One day, after Stephen has a particularly uneasy night, Mrs. Bunch finds his nightdress torn. There are long parallel slits on the left side of the chest. Stephen cannot explain the slits but tells Mrs. Bunch that there are similar scratches on the outside of his bedroom door. Mrs. Bunch goes to look at the door. The marks, which are too high up to have been made by an animal, look like fingernail scratches. She advises Stephen not to say anything to Mr. Abney and to lock his door at bedtime.
The following evening, Stephen is in Mrs. Bunch’s room when Parkes comes in looking uncharacteristically flustered. Not realizing Stephen is there, the butler begins to complain about the wine cellar. He is disturbed by noises coming from the far storage room. Mrs. Bunch points out that there are rats. Parkes replies that, if those are rats, they must be the kind that can talk. Mrs. Bunch protests that he is frightening Stephen, and Parkes finally becomes aware of the child. Stephen asks questions but Parkes will not say any more on the subject.
On March 24, Mr. Abney speaks to Stephen after lunch and asks him to come to his study at 11:00pm. He wishes to show Stephen something important connected with his future life, and tells Stephen not to mention it to anyone else. That evening, Stephen sees his uncle in the library. There is a silver cup filled with red wine and some sheets of paper on the table. Mr. Abney is sprinkling some incense on a brazier from a silver box. Stephen goes up to his bedroom unseen.
Around ten o’clock, Stephen looks out from his bedroom window over the country. The night is still and there is a full moon. He hears strange cries from time to time, not quite like owls or water birds, from across the pond. They seem to come closer and closer, but then the cries stop. Then Stephen sees a boy and a girl standing on the terrace along the side of the Hall. The girl reminds Stephen of the figure in the bath he saw in his dream. She stands half smiling, with her hands over her heart. The boy, thin and in ragged clothing, raises his arms in a gesture of hunger and longing. His nails are fearfully long, and on the left side of his chest is a gaping rent. Stephen hears, not with his ears but in his brain, those desolate cries he heard earlier. Then the boy and the girl noiselessly move away and disappear.
It is now nearly eleven. Stephen, although quite frightened, decides to go down to Mr. Abney’s study. He knocks on the door but receives no reply. He hears his uncle speaking. Then he hears him trying to cry out and choking. In the silence that follows, Stephen frantically pushes open the door.
Later at the inquest, the coroner concludes Mr. Abney was killed by a wild animal that entered the study through the open window. Mr. Abney was found in his chair with a terrible laceration on his chest exposing the heart, and his expression was frozen in a mixture of rage, fear, and horrible pain. There was no blood on his hands or on the knife that lay on the table.
Some years later, Stephen Elliot studies Mr. Abney’s papers and finds a different explanation for his uncle’s death. Through his studies of ancient texts, Mr. Abney had become convinced that one could gain supernatural powers – such as the ability to fly or become invisible – by consuming the hearts of three human beings below the age of twenty-one. The hearts were to be removed from living victims, reduced to ashes, and mixed with red wine. Mr. Abney chose children who would not be missed. The first heart was removed from a gipsy girl on March 24, 1792, and the second from a wandering Italian boy on March 23, 1805. The children’s bodies were concealed in the disused bathroom and the wine cellar. Mr. Abney chose Stephen as the third subject in his experiment. He hoped to gain powers to enable him not only to escape from justice but also to defeat death itself. Although he was aware of the ghosts of the children, called “the psychic portion of the subjects” in his papers, Mr. Abney believed them incapable of harming him.
“Lost Hearts” was adapted for television as an episode of the Mystery and Imagination series with Freddie Jones as Mr. Abney. The episode was first broadcast on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on March 5, 1966.
The story was adapted as a short television film for the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas series with Joseph O’Conor in the role of Mr. Abney. It first aired on British television on December 25, 1973. The movie features hurdy-gurdy music, and the ghost of the boy is seen playing the instrument.
On December 26, 2007, BBC Radio 4 aired a 15-minute dramatization of “Lost Hearts” as part of the M.R. James: Ghost Stories series. Derek Jacobi, as M.R. James, introduces the story which is told as a recollection by the grown-up Stephen Elliot (James D’Arcy).
- ↑ The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas consists of twelve TV movies which were first shown on British television between 1971 and 2013. Of the other eleven films in the series, two are original stories. The rest are adaptations of the short stories “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral“, “A Warning to the Curious“, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas“, “The Ash-tree“. “A View from a Hill“, “Number 13“, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “The Tractate Middoth” by M.R. James and the short story “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens.
- ↑ Other episodes in the five-part BBC radio mini-series R. James Ghost Stories from December 2007 are based on “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad“, “The Tractate Middoth“, “The Rose Garden” and “Number 13“
At nearly midnight in November 1898 a Lowestoft Smack lay close-hauled under a double reef weathering a North Sea gale. The third-hand, clad in yellow oil-skins, sou’wester and long sea boots had the watch. His left arm was hooked around the mizzen rigging as a safety precaution against the pitching and rolling deck. The wind was howling and shrieking through the rigging and stays; all around was a black, tumbling, crashing sea. The dark waves, like huge mountains with crests covered in snow, went snarling by. Occasionally one hit the vessel and masses of water came swirling along her decks.
Instinctively the third-hand hooked his other arm through the rigging. Over his shoulder he could see the red glow from the port light – somehow that glow reminded him of the open fire side in the cosy little cottage sitting room in Pakefield. It seemed a long way off tonight. He reckoned that the fire would be out by now fot it was getting late and the missus would have gone to bed. His gaze wandered to the lee side when stark fear and panic took possession of him. With a yell he tumbled down the companion way that led to the Skipper’s cabin below. The skipper sat beside the table as the third-hand burst in.
“Skipper” he gasped “there’s a young woman walking on the sea”. The skipper noticed the terror-stricken face and shaking limbs of the third-hand; in an endeavour to calm him down he said, “All right old man, let’s go up and help that lady aboard. “Don’t joke skip” wailed the third-hand, “I saw her, she’d got her arms outstretched. “There’s somebody she’s come after on this ship”. “You’re nuts” snapped the Skipper. “See, “there’s nothing here. Your gal friend’s cleared off”.
Later that night, as the sea continued to behave as if it had a particular grudge against the Smack and the crew were hauling down the reef, a huge wave rose high and hurled itself across the open deck. All the crew managed to hold on, except the third-hand who was swept cleanly away, along with his worries, fear, panic and life – to rest peacefully in the arms of the Sea Maiden.
There is an old and, some have thought, strange tale relating to the shingled beach at Weybourne; it is that it is haunted.
This haunting, if that is what it is, takes the form of a persistent whistling sound, which is be heard out on the foreshore just as dusk is descending – particularly on nights when the moon is full. The whistle is not random or casual but sounds more like the sort of signal given by a person who is trying to attract someone’s attention. You may well think that this form of distress call is quite normal from anyone seeking help; but you would be of a different mind if anyone ever suggested that no earthly lips were making this sound. But, many have said in the past that this is so!
The fact is, a moon’s glow is sufficient to see if anyone is on Weybourne beach who could be making this whistle; if it’s only you there and you hear it then there is a puzzle to be explained away. Some people have tried and even attempted to track down the source of this whistling, assuming at the outset that it may be someone in difficulty in the surf – but, to date, no one has ever been found. Then there are the locals, the ones who should know; a few of them have, in the past, described being right on top of the spot where the whistle is coming from and, even they, have still not been able to see anyone; but, of course, there have been a few exceptions in the past – the privileged few!
Some of these have indeed reported that after the whistling had gone on for a while, and then stopped, they had seen the vague outline of a man on the edge of the beach, where the sea strokes the shingle. Fully clothed in what appeared to be old-fashioned clothing, he appeared to have roamed along the foreshore whilst staring out to further reaches of the water. But, then he just vanished before anyone could go to investigate closer what appeared to be an apparition. The moment this ghostly image disappeared, the whistling recommenced, but it has always been impossible to pin-point its exact source.
Local legend has it, that it is the ghost of John Smythe who was a smuggler from long, long ago. It is said that one night, when the moon was full, he and his fellow crew mates came ashore at Weybourne to replenish their provisions, something they had done frequently in the past. On this occasion John Smythe, who was very, very friendly with the daughter of the local inn’s landlord, told the rest of the men that he would meet them back at shore at a slightly later time than had previously been the case. But despite this extension to his time away, John Smythe was to lose track of time which, understandably, would have been caused by the extent to which he and his young girl were, shall we say, ‘improving further’ their relationship. However, unbeknown to Smythe, the Custom’s men had been alerted to the presence of the smugglers and had made haste to Weybourne to try to catch them before they returned to their ship. At the same time, the smugglers who were there to pick up provisions, learnt of this entrapment and, together, hurried back to the beach and their boat. When aboard, they waited just off shore for Smythe, who they had not been able to locate before their hasty departure. But time was slipping away beyond the moment when Smythe should have returned; and still there was no sign of him. Understandably, they assumed that he had been captured and so began to row away from the shoreline and out to their ship.
As for the Custom’s men, they had not realised that their prey had already fled and hid themselves amongst the sand dunes and waited. Within a short while, John Smythe approached the rendezvous, hurrying down to where the rowing boat had been left, but all he could see were tracks leading out into the water’s edge. In the dim twilight he managed to pick out the rowing boat making its way out to the ship. Being, somewhat a cautious man for a smuggler, he began to whistle for his mates’ attention, which in itself was rather strange since both methods of signalling for help would attract attention. This problem was compounded by the fact that the tide had turned and the sea was on its way in – and coming in fast!
On hearing Smythe’s whistle the custom men sprang from their hiding place and ran towards him. He, in turn, decided to take his chances in the sea rather than be captured; bad choice for, unfortunately as was normally the case in those days, Smythe did not know how to swim. Nevertheless, his decision to wade out into deeper water was in the hope that his fellow smugglers would see him and return to rescue him. In doing this, he knew that the Custom’s men would not follow because they too could not swim. They remained on the foreshore, witnesses to Smythe’s whistling as he ventured further away from their grasp.
John Smythe waded out from a beach that drops steeply; the sea quickly rose higher and higher. What happened next will probably never be known but somehow he must have lost his footing or perhaps the current was so strong that it swept him off his feet; whatever the reason, he disappeared below the waves and drowned; the last sight of John Smythe was his one remaining outstretched hand trailing his body below, a body that was never to be recovered.
Photos: Google Images,
Photo: Folkestone from the Sea © Tate 2013. https://www.tate.org.uk/about-us/policies-and-procedures/creative-commons-licences-tate
Feature Photo: A Sea Ghost, 1887 by George Frederick Watts:
The Le Strange family have had their ancestral home in Old Hunstanton, in the County of Norfolk, England, ever since they first came over from France in 1100, thirty-four years after the Battle of Hastings and the emergence of ‘William the ‘Bastard’ Conqueror’ on English soil in 1066,
The Le Strange ancestral home, since the 12th century, was originally known as the Old Moated Hall. The Estate boasted a magnificent coastal Mansion of carrstone and with Gothic battlements; the whole building was indeed surrounded by moats. The Mansion also had a large orchard, a deer park with an octagon pond, a park house and a banqueting house. There also was an orangery, pleasure grounds and a terraced walk. As Hunstanton Hall, the mansion came to be filled with amazing treasures and precious jewels rested in ornate boxes. Silks, velvets and satins were hung, waiting to be paraded by beautiful ladies and silverware, polished by servants, glistened by candlelight in every room; each room containing rarities from across the world and leather-bound books filled the library. That was not all – in time the Mansion was to inherit a ghost of a grey lady whose wrath was incurred by the destruction of her beloved Persian carpet!
This tale, the first of two about the Le Strange’s, is about a certain Dame Armine Le Strange who inherited Hunstanton Hall, in Old Hunstanton, in the mid-18th century to become the Lady of the Manor after her brother Henry died childless. One of Armine’s favourite possessions was a beautiful Persian carpet which was a gift from the Shah of Persia, which she she brought with her and placed in the Drawing Room of the Hall; the carpet showcased the exquisite talents of Far Eastern weavers . Whilst Armine loved this carpet, she was somewhat less enamoured with her son Nicholas who was a feckless gambler, hell-bent on stripping the Hall of its saleable assets in order to fund his gaming habits. While Armine bore the loss of many treasures by her son, she was determined that her precious carpet would not end up on the floor of one of her Nicholas’s creditors.
In 1768, as Armine lay on her deathbed, she made her son promise that the carpet would remain at the bosom of the family and in its place in the Drawing Room of Hunstanton Hall. She warned Nicholas that she would watch the progress of her carpet from her new heavenly home and if he broke his promise and removed it from the Hall, she would return, via the grave where her earthly remains were left, and haunt both the house and him with ghostly wrath.
Fearful he promised to keep his promise but was not enamoured with the now slightly moth-eaten carpet. Eventually, he picked up enough courage to instruct his servants to remove it from his sight, but place it in a wooden box and firmly nail it down to prevent him being tempted to forget his vow. The boxed carpet found a new home in a distant part of the attic. Now, some might think that this course of action would have resulted in Nicholas, the unfaithful son, being haunted by his dead mother for going back on his promise – but no, but the curse was to be passed on from generation to generation after Nicholas’ death in 1788.
Some 80 years later, Emmeline, the new American mistress of the Hunstanton Hall arrived in Norfolk having married Hamon Le Strange. Keen to put her own stamp on the mansion, she began enthusiastically renovating the Hall, discovering rooms which had been left untouched for decades. Fighting her way through the dust, cobwebs and rusty nails, she came across an interesting-looking wooden crate in the Attic. Emmeline instructed her servants to prise open the box, only to find, to her disappointed, that the box contained nothing but a dirty old carpet. However, wishing to be a good housekeeper and flex her philanthropic muscles, she instructed for the carpet to be cut into pieces and then she herself would ride out and distributed the ‘new’ but much smaller pieces of carpet to the poor and needy of Old Hunstanton.
Returning home, replete with goodwill, she felt that she was being watched. Instinctively, she glance up to one of the first floor windows and was surprised to see an older woman dressed in grey and glaring down at her. Her features were, unmistakably, those of her husband’s relatives and Emmeline assumed that a relation of her husband had come to visit; the countenance of the visitor caused, maybe, by the fact that she had been kept waiting upon the newly wed mistress of Hunstanton Hall. But once settled indoors, Emmeline was surprised to find there was no visitation from a Le Strange matriarch which left her more than a little puzzled. She decided to wait up for her husband who was due home that evening from a business trip.
Emmeline was still a bit unsure of her newly acquired position as mistress of Hunstanton Hall and felt it her duty to relay her story to her husband immediately he had settled into his favourite chair. On hearing the details of this women in grey, her husband realised that his wife’s description of her matched that of his ancestor, Armine Le Strange. He also remembered the family curse concerning the Persian Carpet, but became angry when Emmeline told him what she had been up to earlier that day with finding a carpet in a box, cutting it up and distributing the pieces amongst some of the people of Old Hunstanton. Her husband immediately insisted that all the pieces must be collected and returned forthwith but. at first, she refused. to agree.
That night, she and Hamon were disturbed by pacing footsteps outside their bedroom door – Hamon went to see who was there, but could see nothing. As he climbed back into bed and snuffed out the candle, the footsteps restarted. The next day, when Emmeline had looked at a family portrait of Armine and recognised her as the face she had seen at the window, she retraced her steps to the town and retrieved every one of the carpet pieces. Then she had her seamstress sew them all back together again – after a fashion! Those from whom the pieces were taken were each given a new replacement.
It would appear, however, that Armine was not appeased by the resurrection of her treasured Persian Carpet and was to continue her nightly haunting throughout Emmeline’s lifetime – and beyond. It was indeed too late: Lady Armine’s last wish had been ignored and that was unforgivable. Some say, she can still be seen wandering through the Hall today, despite it surviving two bad fires in past years and having been converted into flats in recent years. The spectre of a lady, all dressed in grey, still wanders lamenting the loss of her beloved carpet’s unsullied beauty.
This second tale brings us into the second millennium and to the 7th September 2002. It was told by a Jonathan Moor of Ludlow, Shropshire in a ‘Spooky Isles’ article. Let him tell you his tale in his own words; it is as follows:
“I was spending a few days over in Norfolk, taking a dozen or so rubbings of memorial brasses in several of the parish churches in the north of the County. On the 7th September I was at St Mary’s, Old Hunstanton, to take a rubbing there of the brass commemorating Sir Roger Le Strange who died in 1506 during the reign of Henry VII. It is a large brass placed on top of an altar tomb and to complete it I knew would take me a good three hours, if not longer.
I arrived at St Mary’s about 10 o’clock in the morning, having brought with me a packed lunch. Weatherwise, I recall the day was a mixture of sunshine and showers. Thereafter, having been rubbing for a couple of hours, I stopped for lunch. I suppose it must have been about midday. I went outside and sat myself down on a seat adjoining the churchyard path leading from the church gates by the roadside down to the south porch of the church.
While I was having my lunch, something caused me to glance up the path towards the church gates where I saw a little old man – grey jacket and dark trousers – accompanied by an elderly lady who was wearing an old fashioned “pork pie” hat. More than that of her appearance I didn’t take in. I carried on eating my sandwiches. Then suddenly, I remembered that it grew very cold; it was as if a bank of cloud had passed across the sun, which I suppose it might well have done. But, at the same time with regard to the old couple, I was conscious of several things. Firstly, I hadn’t heard the gate at the end of the path either open or close – so what was it that caused me to look up in the first place? And, despite walking on gravel, their feet had made no sound whatsoever. Rather more to the point, what had become of them? They hadn’t passed by me, and from where I was sitting to the gates the path was lined with thick shrubbery, so they could not have left at any point between the gates and myself.
I can offer no satisfactory explanation for any of this, but I have it in mind that – and I don’t know where the idea originated – that the elderly couple had come to tend a grave!
Feature Photo: (c) John D Fielding, Flickr May 15, 2015