Haunted Churches of Norfolk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunted Churches (St Peter & St Paul Honing)
St Peter & St Pauls Church, Honing, Norfolk

THE END

The Swaffam Peddlar’s Dream

Pedlar of Swaffham (Village Sign)In the county of Norfolk, between King’s Lynn in the west and Norwich in the east lies the market town of Swaffham. However while the town and its market have  been a centre for agriculture since the 14th century, the town is perhaps better known as being home to an oft-told folk tale. It’s a tale of a good man and good fortune, and frequently is mentioned when the subject of prophecies and dreams come up. It’s a tale that has been told many times, and its earliest incarnation is found in an old tome entitled An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk  by  Francis Blomefield  (William Miller, London, 1805-10). In Volume 11 of this truly compendious essay, we have a letter by Sir William Dugdale, dated 29 January 1652, and in it he relates the following tale:

“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey.  Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money.  Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.”  But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass.  After a time it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good.  Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it.  But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done.  But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.”

 

Now this tale has become famous the world over, and is much celebrated in the the town itself, lending its name the the Pedlar’s Hall Cafe and inspiring the carved wooden village sign for the town. However curiously, Swaffham isn’t the only place that has a tale like this. Indeed, an almost identical tale is told of Upsall Castle in North Yorkshire. In ‘Ihe Vale of Mowbray: A Historical and Topographical Account of Thirsk and Its Neighbourhood’ by William Grainge (Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1859) we have a story he entitles “Crocks of Gold”:

“Many years ago there resided in the village of Upsall, a man who dreamed three nights successively that if he went to London, he would hear of something greatly to his advantage. He went, travelling the whole distance from Upsall to London on foot, arrived he took his station on the bridge where he waited until his patience was very nearly exhausted and the idea that he had acted a very foolish part began to rise in his mind. At length he was accosted by a Quaker, who kindly inquired what he was waiting there so long for. After some hesitation, he told his dreams. The Quaker laughed at his simplicity, and told him he had had that night a very curious dream himself, which was that if he went to dig under a certain bush in Upsall Castle in Yorkshire, he will find a pot of gold; but he did not know where Upsall was, and inquired of the Countryman if he knew, who seeing some advantage in secrecy pleading ignorance of the locality; and then thinking his business in London was completed, returned immediately home, dug beneath the bush, and there he found a pot filled with gold, and on the cover an inscriptions in a language he did not understand. The pot and cover were however reserved at the village inn; where one day, a bearded stranger like a Jew, made his appearance, saw the pot, and read the inscription, the plain English at which was –

 “Look lower where this stood

Is another twice as good”

The man of Upsall hearing this, resumed his spade, returned to the bush, dug deeper, and found another pot filled with gold far more valuable than the first: encouraged by this, he dug deeper still, and found another yet more valuable.”

This story has been related of other places, but Upsall appears to have as good a claim to this yielding of hidden treasures as the best of them. Here we have the constant tradition of the inhabitants, and the identical but yet remains beneath which the treasure was found; an Elder, near the north-west corner of the ruins.

Now you will notice that this text boldly mentions that the tale is told in other places, and indeed it is. For to travel further north in the United Kingdom, we find it retold yet again and at an earlier date. In The Popular Rhymes of Scotland by Robert Chambers (W. Hunter, 1826), we learn the history of Dundonald Castle:

“Donald, the builder, was originally a poor man, but had the faculty of dreaming lucky dreams. Upon one occasion he dreamed, thrice in one night, that if he were to go to London Bridge, he would become a wealthy man. He went accordingly, saw a man looking over the parapet of the bridge, whom he accosted courteously, and, after a little conversation, intrusted with the secret of the occasion of his visiting London Bridge. The stranger told him that he had made a very foolish errand, for he himself had once had a similar vision, which directed him to go to a certain spot in Ayrshire, in Scotland, where he would find a vast treasure, and, for his part, he had never once thought of obeying the injunction. From his description of the spot, the sly Scotsman at once perceived that the treasure in question must be concealed in no other place than his own humble kail-yard at home, to which he immediately repaired in full expectation of finding it. Nor was he disappointed; for, after destroying many good and promising cabbages, and completely cracking credit with his wife, who esteemed him mad, he found a large potful of gold coin, with the proceeds of which he built a stout castle for himself, and became the founder of a flourishing family.”

Chambers, much like Grainge, goes on to remark “This absurd story is localised in almost every district of Scotland, always referring to London Bridge”. And indeed not only does the tale recur in other Scottish tales, but it appears in various other places in England and Wales too. Furthermore if we hop over the Channel to Europe, we find it flourishing there too, although of course with some other national landmark standing in for dear old London Bridge. The most famous example perhaps is found in the collections of folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm:

“Some time ago a man dreamed that he should go to the bridge at Regensburg where he would become rich. He went there, and after spending some fourteen days there a wealthy merchant, who wondered why was spending so much time on the bridge, approached him and asked him what he was doing there. The latter answered, “I dreamed that I was to go to the bridge at Regensburg, where I would become rich.“What?” said the merchant, “You came here because of a dream? Dreams are fantasies and lies. Why I myself dreamed that there is a large pot of gold buried beneath that large tree over there.” And he pointed to the tree. “But I paid no attention, for dreams are fantasies.” Then the visitor went and dug beneath the tree, where he found a great treasure that made him rich, and thus his dream was confirmed” (from Deutsche Sagen (1816/1818), Vol. 1, No. 212)

However the trail does not end there. Even earlier and further south, we discover an identical tale in that famous anthology of ancient tales  A Thousand and One Nights (AKA Arabian Nights). The 14th tale is called The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream and goes like this:

“Once there lived in Baghdad a wealthy man who lost all his means and was thus forced to earn his living by hard labor. One night a man came to him in a dream, saying, “Your fortune is in Cairo; go there and seek it.” So he set out for Cairo. He arrived there after dark and took shelter for the night in a mosque. As Allah would have it, a band of thieves entered the mosque in order to break into an adjoining house. The noise awakened the owners, who called for help. The Chief of Police and his men came to their aid. The robbers escaped, but when the police entered the mosque they found the man from Baghdad asleep there. They laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods until he was nearly dead, then threw him into jail. Three days later, the Chief of Police sent for him and asked “Where do you come from?” “From Bagdad” he answered. ” And what brought you to Cairo?” asked the Chief.

“A man came to me in a dream and told me to come to Cairo to find my fortune,” answered the man from Baghdad “But when I came here, the promised fortune proved to be the palm rods you so generously gave to me.””You fool,” said the Chief of Police, laughing until his wisdom teeth showed. “A man has come to me three times in a dream and has described a house in Baghdad where a great sum of money is supposedly buried beneath a fountain in the garden. He told me to go there and take it, but I stayed here. You, however, have foolishly journeyed from place to place on the faith of a dream which was nothing more than a meaningless hallucination.” He then gave him some money saying, “This will help you return to your own country.”The man took the money. He realized that the Chief of Police had just described his own house in Baghdad, so he forthwith returned home, where he discovered a great treasure beneath the fountain in his garden. Thus Allah gave him abundant fortune and brought the dream’s prediction to fulfillment”.

Now we cannot be sure of the exact age of the many tales collected in this volume, for scholars believe the first versions of the collection appeared in Arabic in the early parts of the 8th century, with various additional tales being added over the next few centuries. However what we do know is that this particular story of a most fortunate dream appears in as part of a poem by the 13th century Persian poet,  Jalal al-Din Rumia, who is best known in the West as simply Rumi. In his epic collection The Masnavi, we have the poem In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad which you can read in its entirety here.

So then, here we have a tale retold in many places and at many times, indeed it is one of those small number of tales that seems to recur everywhere. And folklorists have a catalogue of such stories – this one is commonly referred to as ‘The Treasure at Home’, and under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales it is number ATU 1646. Now given that we have several important literary landmarks for the story, it is widely though that this very popular tale was spread throughout Europe thanks the massive popularity of A Thousand and One Nights, and was adapted to fit local geography and history as it was retold in different places.

However the first European edition of A Thousand and One Nights was a French version translated by Antoine Galland that appeared 1704, and was first translated into English in 1706. We should also note at this point that the works of Rumi were not translated until considerably later, with the first English translations appearing in the late 19th century. However if you have been paying attention to the dates, we find that while the Arabian Nights theory could well account for the versions referenced by Grainge and Chambers, the oldest English version, comes from a letter written in the 1650s. Now while we cannot rule out this old Arabic tale been spread orally across Europe before its printed incarnations, it is certainly intriguing that the Swaffham version predates other European version by a good century or more. Furthermore Sir William makes clear that it was already an old tale when he set it down in his letter, and this is supported by the fact that the original Swaffham version has a sequel built in that many other version do not – the business of the inscription and a second pot of gold. For this kind of embroidery is typical of a tale been around for a good while, gaining additional details and extra subplots as it is retold by different generations.

Pedlar of Swaffham (Chapman & Dog)
John Chapman and his dog

Stranger still is the fact that our hero is actually given a name – John Chapman – something very unusual for a folk tale. But even more intriguingly, there is some historical evidence to back up the story, for John Botewrigh, the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 made an inventory of building and repair work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. And this tome is now known as the Swaffham Black Book, and in it we discover that in the mid 15th century the North Aisle of the church was rebuilt. And what is more, this renovation work was paid for by a fellow named John Chapman. And as part of this building work, new pews were installed and two of them are of particular interest for us: for their carved ends show a pedlar and his dog. Furthermore local tradition suggests that a third which shows a lady, is a representation of the shopkeeper in the story.

Pedlar of Swaffham 2Of course, none of that can displace the fact that a version of the tale was circulating in the East some centuries before, but certainly the pews and Chapman’s name appearing in the Swaffham Black Book does suggest that the story of his good fortune may have been doing the rounds while the goodly gent was still alive. Obviously Chapman, who served as a churchwarden, was a wealthy man, for construction work never comes cheap, particular in earlier times when a major building project may take years to complete. And given that in the 15th century, Swaffham was home to a thriving market, one wonders whether the tale had found its way to rural Norfolk thanks to travelling merchants, the very kind of folks Chapman would have been trading with.

Furthermore, in history we have many examples of less than virtuous men who in later life decide to bankroll various projects for their local churches. And usually these generous and charitable projects are seemingly done as a kind of penance for their earlier sins and misdeeds. Therefore it is tempting to speculate that the tale of Chapman’s fortune may well have been deliberately adopted to disguise the real origin of his wealth. And rather than repaying the good Lord for his luck by refurbishing his local church, as many versions of the tale suggest, he may well have been atoning for making a lot of money through less than virtuous means…

 

 

THE END.

Illness Remedies in Folklore!

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

Folklore (herbs)3

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

image

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

Folklore (skin desease)

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

Folklore (herbs)2

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

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

Folklore (Kings Evil)2

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

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

Folklore (bracelet)

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

Folklore (19th C tooth drawer)

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

 

Curious Tales about Broads Folk

By Haydn Brown

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

“Then, too, there are the wherrymen whom you meet in the evenings at the marshlandDutt 2 staithes and ferry inns. Approach them without displaying that ridiculous condescen­sion which is characteristic of too many visitors and amateur yachtsmen and you will find them able and willing to impart much curious information concerning the river life and wild life of Broadland. For these men are not simply fair-weather voyagers; they are afloat on the rivers from January to December, and see the broads and marshes under all aspects and in all seasons. Many of them have known no other life than that which is spent in cruising between the East coast ports and the inland towns; but it has taught them many things of which the world that lies beyond the borders of the marshes has little knowledge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That wasn’t too bad was it!

Ranworth: Its History & Myths

RANWORTH: ITS HISTORY & MYTHS

Ranworth Village 1

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.

ST HELEN’S CHURCH

Ranworth-Church 2

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

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-pacificus_weather

Ranworth Church and Patron Saints

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

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

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

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

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

The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:

ranworthantiphonerT

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

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

ranworthantiphoner2T

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

The Rood Screen

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

ranworth-rood_screen

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

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

LOCAL MYTHS

Brother Pacificus:

 Ranworth-pacificus 1

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 Helens Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.

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

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

Ranworth- Pacificus-Sophie Dickens

Ranworth- Pacificus-Sophie Dickens 3

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.’

Colonel Sydney and the Devil

Ranworth Hall (Old 1918)
Old Ranworth Hall 1918

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

Ranworth Hall 1
Old Ranworth Hall (demolished)

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

 

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

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

Ranworth Hall (Gatehouse)
Old Ranworth Hall Gatehouse.

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

Sleep well children, sleep well!.

 

 

 

Wassailing

Wassailing

by Ellen Castelow

Anglo-Saxon tradition dictated that at the beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health”, to which his followers would reply drink hael, or “drink well”, and so the New Year celebrations would start with a glass or two, or perhaps even a drop more! It is likely that such celebrations were being enjoyed many years before Christianity began to spread thoughout Britain from around 600 onwards.

Depending upon the area of the country where you lived, the wassail drink itself would generally consist of a warmed ale, wine or cider, blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two, all served in one huge bowl and passed from one person to the next with the traditional “wassail” greeting.

The Wassailing celebrations generally take place on the Twelfth Night, 5th January, however the more traditional still insist in celebrating it on ‘Old Twelvey’, or the 17th January, the correct date; that is before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar messed things up in 1752.

There are two distinct variations of wassailing. One involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. The other form of wassailing is generally practiced in the countryside, particularly in fruit growing regions, where it is the trees that are blessed.

The practice of house-wassailing continued in England throughout the Middle Ages, adapting as a way by which the feudal lord of the manor could demonstrate charitable seasonal goodwill to those who served him, by gifting money and food in exchange for the wassailers blessing and songs;

“Love and joy come to you,
and to you your wassail to;
and God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.”

The house-wassailing tradition has evolved into what we now recognise as carolling, where groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Some aspects of the original practise however can still be detected in the words of these carols; listen carefully as the wassailers demands begin, “now give us some figgy pudding”, and then as those demands turn to threats “and we won’t go until we’ve got some”.

The wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. This ancient custom is still practised across the country today, and is particularly popular in the cider producing areas of England, such as Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent and Sussex.

The celebrations vary from region to region, but generally involve a wassail King and Queen leading the assembled group of revellers, comprising the farmers, farm workers and general villagers, in a noisy procession from one orchard to the next. In each orchard the wassailers gather round the biggest and best tree, and as a gift to the tree spirits, the Queen places a piece of wassail soaked toast into its branches, accompanied by songs such as;

“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”

The wassailers then move on to the next orchard; singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and even firing shotguns, generally making as much noise as possible in order to both waken the sleeping tree spirits, and also to frighten off any evil demons that may be lurking in the branches.

Acknowledgement: The originator of this article is Historic UK.

 

Christmas Ghost Stories!

By Keith Lee Morris,

​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.

 

Mary Shelly (Frankenstein)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.

Christmas Carol (A.Rackham)

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.

Turn of the Screw

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.

The Raven
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

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.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow
Enter a caption

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.”

The Shining

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”.

The Dead

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…”

The Snow Child

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!

Norfolk’s own ‘Will O’ the Wisp’

Will o the Wisp 2Will o’ the Wisps are not unique to Norfolk – but the ones who frequent this County have their own special characteristics and tales. Today, we know that the name is given to little flickers of marsh gas, which many in the distant past thought to be evil spirits waiting to lure lone night travellers to their deaths! Our ancestors were ignorant of the fact that Will o’ the Wisps were the spontaneous combustion of marsh gas which occurred on warm nights in rotten swamps and bogs. Nowadays, better drainage has turned these apparitions into memories. We are told that past folk called them by various names like Hob o’ Lanterns, Corpse Candles or Jenny Burnt Arses.

Will o the Wisp 3jpgIn Norfolk there used to be a 19th century wise women by the name of Mrs Lubbock who lived in Irstead, near Neatishead. According to her, Will o’ the Wisp, or Jack o’ Lantern if you prefer, was often to be seen walking around her village before the Irstead enclosure of 1810. Today, Irstead is still an isolated village by the side of the river Ant, but unlike in Mrs Lubbock’s time the village is now a very desirable place, parts of which looking like an archetypal English village. It has held on to some of its thatched cottages and its church is a delight. Up until the 20th century’s better methods of drainage the village and surrounds would have been a very damp and unhealthy place, miles away from towns and the city of Norwich. It should be no surprise therefore that such remote communities were full of tales of the supernatural and paranormal.

Will o the Wisp 4jpgMrs Lubbock’s view of those Will o’ the Wisps was of the spirit of a man named Heard, who turned into this Lantern Man and was frequently seen in and around the village on a misty or ‘roky’ night, but particularly at a spot called Heard’s Holde in the Alder Carr Fen Broad, on the Neatishead side. We are told that it was there that a man of that name, and one who was guilty of many terrible crimes did drown in the peat stained water. In Mrs Lubbock’s own words:

 “I have often see it there, rising up and falling and twisting about, and then up again – it looked exactly like a candle in a lantern”. What would be the ignition of natural gas to us was, to her, the unhappy man’s spirit. “If anyone were walking along the road with a lantern at the time when Jack appeared and did not put out the light, he could come against it and dash it to pieces; and that a gentleman who made a mock of him and called him “Will o’the Wisp”, was riding on horseback one evening in the adjoining parish of Horning, when he (Jack) came at him and knocked him off his horse”

Will o the Wisp 5jpgMrs Lubbock also remembered that, as a small child, her father had told her that once when he was returning from money spending at the end of the harvest, in the company of an old man who whistled and jeered at Jack, the spirit followed them home and ‘torched up’ at the windows. However, many local folk were keen to lay Heard’s spirit to rest and did visit the places frequented by Heard when alive. Three men, in particular, tried to exorcise the ghost by reading verses from the Scriptures, but Jack always kept a verse ahead of them! Until, that is, a boy brought a pair of pigeons and laid them down at the apparition’s feet. Jack looked down at those birds and lost his verse, the one opportunity for those three men to “bound his spirit.”

Another tale relating to a Norfolk ‘Lantern Man’ comes from the seaside town of Cromer on the north-east edge of the County, as told by an old fisherman; this appeared in the Eastern Counties Magazine in 1900:

Will o the Wisp 6“There’s no saying what that will du to you, if that light on you! There was a young fellow coming home one evening and he see the Lantern Man coming for him and he run; and that run and he run again; and that run again! Now there was a silly old man lived down there who didn’t believe in none o’ them things and this young fellow he run to his house and say “O Giles, for Heaven’s sake, let me in – the Lantern Man’s coming!” And old Giles he say “You silly fool, there ain’t no such thing as a Lantern Man.” But when he see the Lantern Man coming for him, Giles let the young fellow in, and that come for them two, till that was the beginner of a pint pot!”

“And old Giles, he thought he would play a trick on the Lantern Man so he got a candle and held that out right high; and the Lantern Man, he come right low and the Lantern Man he come up above it. And then he held out right steady, and the Lantern Man he come for that and he burst it all to pieces. But they du say, if the Lantern Man light upon you, the best thing is to throw yourself flat on your face and hold your breath.”  

Baconsthorpe’s Spectral Sentry!

A TALE OF BACONSTHORPE CASTLE!

Baconsthorpe 5Hidden 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.

Baconsthorpe 93The 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.

Baconsthorpe 9The 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.

Baconsthorpe 2There 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!

Baconsthorpe 94So 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……………….!

 

A Monk’s betrayal at St Benets

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 intrigues and double-crossings which were part and parcel of powerful establishments.

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.

img_2541The 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 I don’t want to take you; these tales are for another day.

img_2533This leaves one particular apparition which has its roots firmly at St Benets, it is the one which is today’s subject – Remember! in common with all orthodox ruined abbeys and priories, St Benets and its surviving gatehouse is haunted!

Today’s apparition is often known as ‘The Shrieking Monk‘ and it is believed to be that of 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’. It is possibly to experience this particular spectre in the late autumn 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 wherryman who, some years ago, lost his way in such conditions and found himself, and his boat, opposite the ruined gatehouse of St Benets. Apparantly, this boatman moored because he heard screams and stepped on to the bank and a distant forward out of curiosity, only to witness the blurred outline of a monk swinging on the end of a rope above the gatehouse doors. They say that fear overwhelmed him more than he would have thought possible and he turned in panic to seek the safety of his wherry; unfortunately, he slipped in the early morning mud and fell into the Bure to be drowned! However, I digress a little…………

The story of the ‘Shrieking Monk’ goes back to those Norman’s and to the time when William the Conqueror was, apparently, experiencing great difficulty with taking St Benet’s Abbey. The story surrounding William’s difficulty is intertwined with that of the monk Essric and has since developed into a mythical tale that still intrigues many; it ends with an execution but always begins with the Abbey, as it was at the time, materialising out of thin air and the present ruinous Mill transforming itself into a stone tower from where the execution took place.

img_2542We 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 Essric, 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 Essric 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 indeed 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 the monk, asking him at the same time to, somehow, return with him to meet with the General; a safe audience was 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, Essric the highly flattered monk stepped forward and offered his services; he by then being totally intrigued by the general’s attention in him. The monk’s ego and aspirations were further enhanced when on arrival he was told by the general that he, Essric, was obviously destined for a better career than that of a humble bailiff monk. Now, if only Essric 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, Essric 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 Essric 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. The monk was naturally welcomed back and praised for his bravery in delivering the Abbot’s letter of refusal; whilst Essric held a burdensome secret that only he knew.

img_2537The 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 Essric’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 img_2544by Norman horsemen 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 and 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!

Essric, 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 released 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 on offer to anyone else, now under to authority of Norman rule, who dared to be treacherous for personal and selfish gain. The church authority may also have considered it appropriate that the individual who had fallen from both window sill and grace, was by then in the process of being judged by his Maker. We know now that tradition has decreed that the monk who once erred would, forever, be destined to continuously repeat his death, shrieking over and over again, as a warning to others of like mind.

How many, I wonder, of those today who choose to manouver their boats along the river Bure through early morning mist, or walk the same past the ruined Abbey, ever concern themselves about apparitions – particularly if the morning, from midnight onwards, happens to the 25th May? How many out on that day 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!

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