BILLY Bluelight was a Norfolk eccentric who – in the absence of a welfare state lived on his wits and his charm. This most iconic of characters was famous for racing the steam pleasure boats along the River Yare from Bramerton to Norwich – hoping for spare change from the passengers on board.
At half past eleven or so every morning, the tinkle of a bell would intrude upon the cooing of the wood pigeons; it heralded the approach of the Yarmouth Belle or the Waterfly, both deep in the water as a result of their heavy freight of Yarmouth trippers, all bound for Norwich.
As if on cue, a strange figure would appear on Bramerton’s river bank and take up a familiar stance. Clad in shorts and a singlet and hung with a prodigious array of medals, his expansive smile, matched at a higher level by the peak of his gaily-striped cricket cap. From the river bank he would call out:
“My name is Billy Bluelight, my age is 45,
I hope to get to Carrow Bridge before the boat arrive.”
With these words, he would sprint off along the river footpath of the Yare. At Woods End he would be no more than level, but once out of sight he always gained by taking a short cut across the Whitlingham Sewerage Farm, to reappear still neck and neck by the time both man and boat had reached the old limekiln at Crown Point. There, Billy would again disappear from view, and while the boat passed very slowly through unsuitable bends and narrow waters, Billy would make a detour over Trowse Bridge. By the time Carrow Bridge was reached, there would be Billy, ready to receive the well-earned plaudits of the trippers and the coppers thrown on to the path by the Boom Tower.”
Year after year this performance was repeated, but Billy’s age remained 45! This may have been for the sake of the rhyme, but there was enough of the Peter Pan in him to have justified it on other grounds.
Bluelight, whose real name was William Cullum is one of many interesting ghostly characters that still lingers on the 35-mile route along the Yare from Norwich to Great Yarmouth. He was born in the slums of his home city of Norwich, eking out a living selling cough medicine, firewood and blackberries. He never received a formal education, but he did however teach himself to read and worked briefly at Caley’s chocolate factory. By 1907 he was already legendary for his racing and street selling activities and continued racing boats into the 1930s, when he was considerably older than 45 – He is said to have remained ’45’ for many, many years. He never married and lived with his mother, until her death around 1930. The two lived at several addresses in the city including Oak Street, Colegate and Pkyerell House at St Mary’s Plain. After his mother’s death, he was reported to have entered Woodlands, part of the West Norwich Hospital. By the 1940s he was living at Palmer Road on the Mile Cross Estate which was built between the wars. In his eighties he entered the West Norwich Hospital and was later moved to St James Hospital at Shipmeadow, Suffolk where he died in 1949. Five years after his death, writer R L Potter wrote this description of him:
“That over-worked term ‘nature’s gentleman’ was never better exemplified than in the gentle, unpretentious character called Billy Bluelight. It may seem astonishing that a humble little man could imprint his personality so widely on a large city, but it was so. ”
— R L Potter, EDP.
In 1994 Woodforde’s Brewery renamed their outlet The Freemasons Arms in Hall Road, Norwich to The Billy Bluelight, but since March, 2005 and after a change of ownership, the pub reverted to its former name. However, close to the Woods End Inn in Bramerton and on the Wherryman’s Way long-distance footpath stands a life-size statue of Billy. This particular footpath is named after the men who operated the distinctive flat-bottomed sailing barges that were the HGVs of the 1700s, when Norwich was England’s second city, and a prodigious amount of cargo was ferried between the Low Countries and Norwich via the Yare. This was thirsty work and its legacy, happily, lingers in an unusual wealth of riverside pubs, there to refresh the walker en route – although never Billy Bluelight, who was teetotal.
Many theories have been put forward to how he received his name. In 1907, a reference was made to the ‘bluelight’ of his eloquence; another suggestion was that of his blue nose in winter, or that he sold blue-tipped matches. ‘Bluelight’ was also a Victorian term for teetotaler or temperance worker and William Cullum did speak out against the dangers of alcohol.
There have been several reminders of him in the Norwich area over the years since the days when he graced the River Yare and Norwich, from a pub, a statue and the Apache theatre company’s play about his life in recent times, entitled “Nature’s Gentleman – The Story of Billy Bluelight.”
There were once claimed to be 200,000 coypu in East Anglia; well, if that figure was ever remotely correct then it can be fairly safe to say that now it is zero – or as near as makes no difference! This population descent, of somewhat astronomical proportions, was due to trapping campaigns that started way back in the 1960s and which eventually eradicated the creatures, but at some cost both in time and tax payers money. Let’s look back at the early circumstances behind what is something of a contemporary tale in these here parts.
Maybe, the first question to ask is just how did an orange-toothed South American beaver end up as East Anglian public enemy number one?………
Well, it all began with a dodgy fence, and a would-be fur magnate with a name straight out of a P G Wodehouse novel. There was, however, nothing comical about the aftermath of an accidental release of a group of animals from farmland at East Carleton, Norfolk in 1937. These creatures were known by their more familiar name – coypu. Their story remains a fascinating one which once encompassed bitter rows between farmers and conservationists, landowners and politicians, along with a generous helping of cutting-edge science and, at times, more than a hint of old fashion farce as well!
Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that it was a story which ran and ran to the point where some probably became fed up………(just like Bexit in 2019!). In fact, the roots of this particular story goes back more than 80 years, to 1929. That was the year when aspiring entrepreneurs in this country began to import a species of large rodent from Argentina.
At up to 3ft long including the tail, and weighing perhaps 9kg, the coypu was an impressive creature – for a rodent. It was not quite a capybara or a beaver, but much bigger than the common rodents such as mice, voles and squirrels that we were used to in our part of the world. In many ways, you could consider the coypu to be something like a monstrous water vole, living along rivers and in swamps and marshes, and feeding on a wide range of mainly plant foods. With its combination of walrus whiskers, stumpy body, webbed hind feet and large orange front teeth it was never going to feature on the list of the most elegant animals in nature. In fact, it could be presented as rather a fearsome creature, which might explain why it was exhibited at the Great Yarmouth Easter Fair in 1935 as the ‘giant sewer rat’, accompanied by a rather lurid painting of two sewer workers fending it off with shovels!
The local farmers were not, of course, interested in the coypu’s looks; neither were those entrepreneurs out to make a profit. It was the creature’s fur that was the big attraction, its stomach area yielding a fine, soft undercoat of fur known as ‘nutria’. Twenty-two pelts were enough to make one fur coat and this was the attraction for those hoping to make a lucrative living. Notable amongst these was the delightfully-named landowner Philip Tindal-Carill-Worsley (1881-1946) was living at East Carleton Manor and saw an opportunity to make a profit from some very wet land along the stream that formed the border with the Mulbarton parish. This stream orginates from behind Catmere Herne, borders ‘The Meadows’, passes under the B1113 at Mulbarton Bridge, flows through the lake of The Grove (Cheshire DisAbility), across Intwood Ford and on to join the River Yare near Keswick Mill. The stream and an adjacent area north of Catbridge Lane was fenced off and pens built for the animals. Here, Tindal-Carill-Worsley set up his coypu farm on what was a 120-acre site – alongside a silver fox farm which was also set up for the same reason. Gamekeeper Charles Edgar George Schofield was put in charge – and by 1938 there were 300 animals. The coypu pelts, or nutria fur, were sorted at East Carleton and sent off to the London market. Tindal-Carill-Worsley was one of three Norfolk landowners who were to dabble in the nutria trade.
Things were fine at first, that is up until the year of 1937 when heavy rain caused some galvanised iron sheets to collapse. Some coypu, recognising an opportunity of more freedom, immediately seized this one possible chance to head for the nearest watercourses. A year after their escape coypu were noticed at Cringleford, near to Norwich, and within a few years they had reach Oulton Broad and the lower Yare and Waveney. At first, they were rarely spotted at all due to the fact that they are naturally very timid and tended to vanish at the first sign of danger. Their presence was only betrayed by tell-tale fast moving bubbles, and that distinctive whiskery snout when they came up for air.
Despite the fact that all of the country’s nutria farms had closed by 1940, the consequences of the 1937 escape meant that their numbers grew rapidly and would linger on for decades, well beyond the period of war when people had much more on their plates to deal with than an oversized renegade rodent and its ‘voracious vegetarianism’. Back in 1943, they simply ‘noted’ its presence, despite the fact that complaints about Coypus clearly damaging reed beds had started to be recorded.
Like herbivores the world over, the coypu’s principal survival mechanism is to out-breed their supposed predators – there were not many of those around in the East Anglian region, but the coypu were not to know! Maturing after only eight months, coypu bred up to five times in every two years and with up to nine young in each litter. This, of course, made them very popular with the fur farmers, as one pair of coypu could produce 60 descendants over their three-year lifetime. All very lucrative, at least in theory, but once the creatures were out in open country, it was quite another and serious matter entirely.
Soon people were harking back to the case of the musk rat. Introduced into Europe in the first years of the 20th century for its fur, it too had escaped. Five animals wriggled out of an estate near Prague in 1905 and had become, according to one fanciful and suspiciously exact estimate, 100,000,000 by 1932. In this country the musk rats were eliminated by 1928 but only after a long and expensive eradication campaign. Then, just one year later, there we were importing another voracious non-native herbivore. It’s strange how some people never seem to learn! In mainland Europe the musk rat was blamed for burrowing into, and weakening, river banks – the reason why they are still tightly controlled in the Netherlands to this day – and this charge was soon being levelled at the coypu. This claim would be made again and again over the years but of this, at least, the coypu may have been unfairly pilloried.
By 1945 Mr H W Palmer, Pests Officer to Norfolk War Agricultural Executive Committee, was saying: “We have trapped and killed hundreds, especially in the Cringleford and Broads areas. They have become a feature of our fauna.” He also went on to say that in his opinion they were “harmless and purely vegetarian, living largely on the shoots of young rushes, and I do not think they do much real damage.” He said there was ‘no evidence’ that they damaged river banks. It was clear that it was its large increase in numbers that some people found unsettling.
The bitter winter of 1947 saw off many of the coypu, and population crashes were to be a feature of every sharp winter from then on. In wintertime, too, they were easy to spot, and therefore easy to kill, as they tended to huddle together for warmth. But as soon as spring came, numbers rapidly grew once more. By 1948 coypus had reached the mouths of the Nar at King’s Lynn and the Yare at Gorleston. There was still much debate raging about the creatures impact, but not everyone bought into the ‘giant rat’ image. In fact the coypus were so popular in the 1940s with some children, particularly in Cringleford – one of their early strongholds – where they would deliberately spring the traps to free them.
Ted Ellis, that past doyen of Norfolk naturalists, would be closely involved over the years. At this time, he was pointing out that the coypus were mainly eating reeds, and said they only ‘very occasionally’ damaged sugar beet crops. “I have watched coypus at close range often enough and found it hard to wish them ill,” he said. But at the same time he recognised that they were affecting rare plants on Surlingham Broad, and reluctantly concluded that “their increase must be checked by man”.
Later that year the Great Ouse Catchment Board reportedly made – and quickly withdrew – a £5 reward offer for each coypu skin handed in. Someone, it seems, had had a gentle word in the ear of officials and pointed out that if they offered that much (worth £160 in today’s money) then very soon the fly ol’ country boys would be busy catching coypus, all right – for breeding!
The trouble was no-one could really agree how damaging the coypu were. The ‘official position’ was that it was a ‘potential menace’ on its artificially banked waterways, but the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board chief engineer said he had not seen a single case of coypu damage in ten years. Someone else wrote to the local newspapers about his fears of tunnelling, fearing a ‘major disaster’. But fellow landowner Henry Cator, of Woodbastwick, countered that the coypu were keeping the Broads waterways open ‘free, gratis and for nothing…’ by clearing out the bullrushes. It didn’t help the debate that there were just so many myths and half-truths floating around, just like the coypus’ habit of growling when cornered – plus those orange incisors! This led to some people fearing they would soon ‘attack’ Broads boating parties. J M Last of Corpusty had to write in 1960 – to point out that “coypus do not lurk in banks and hedges to leap upon passing cyclists.” However, the knack of these animals suddenly appearing in unexpected places such as suburban gardens, beaches and even Great Yarmouth Fire Station did not exactly endear them to local people. In one startling 1961 incident a coypu even turned up in an outside loo at Litcham which prompted the comment “What puzzles us, is how it got there in the first place and managed to lock itself in.” Well, the animal might have been ‘caught short’!
After its escape from fur farms in the late 1930s it had taken to munching through rushes clogging up Broads waterways, thereby keeping them clear for boats. The debate ranged and went on and on. Did they eat crops? Did they tunnel into riverbanks? So, In an attempt to bring some science into the matter Norfolk naturalist, Dick Bagnall-Oakley, kept some Coypus for six weeks and discovered they were ‘hopeless’ at burrowing; they liked sugar beet best, followed by kale and other root crops, but didn’t really care for potatoes. He argued that their crop-eating was more than outweighed by their usefulness in keeping those rivers weed-free. It was an argument that was not going to cut any ice with local farmers, who became increasingly strident as the 1950s wore on. Soon they were banging on the doors of their local MPs and the Ministry demanding action, but the reply at first was that there were ‘no plans’ to bring in controls’.
In 1958, the National Farmers’ Union county meeting in Norwich asked the ministry to list them as pests because of damage to sugar beet near waterways. Suffolk NFU followed suit a few months later. But the newspapers were still predicting that ‘an all-out attack on coypu in Norfolk was unlikely’, and people continued to write in claiming the damage reports were grossly exaggerated.
The public mood, though, was definitely with the farmers. one of whom said how coypu had cleared three-quarters of an acre of beet from his land:
“They took them when the beet were about as big as your thumb. They went right along the line, pulling the little beet up. They bit off the root and left the leaf lying on the ground. Rabbits were never as bad as that”…..“Two years ago I used to think they were pleasant animals. I even use to feed one near the Broad. Now I kill all I can.”
In 1960 the language took on a military hue, with a ‘War on coypus’ reported. They were soon killed in their thousands, or rather tens of thousands, aided by a 1962 Order under the Destructive Imported Animals Act which aimed to wipe out coypu and mink within five years – but still the numbers grew. More than 100,000 were reported killed in the year to September 1962 in the East Suffolk and Norfolk River board area alone. Rabbit clearance societies were called in to help tackle the problem. Meanwhile, in the decidedly non-Broads setting of the Jupiter Road industrial estate in Norwich, a new ‘weapon’ was being introduced. The Coypu Research Laboratory would spend years finding out as much as it could about the coypus’ habits, even fitting them with radio transmitters so their movements could be tracked.
A massive publicity campaign was launched at the same time, using everything from local television to post office noticeboards to warn the public of ‘the coypu menace’.
For a while, it looked like the battle would be won quickly. The terrible winter of 1962-63 had wiped out tens of thousands, with guns, traps and dogs accounting for thousands more. By February 1965 a campaign was being launched to clear Wroxham Broad, described as the coypus’ ‘last redoubt’ – a claim which turned out to be wildly optimistic. In the same year Coypu Control was set up, with five trappers working full time – which with hindsight was simply not enough. In 1966 the £72,000 campaign had cleared 2,500 sq miles of Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire, way above expectations. But still the coypu appeared. Every year saw upwards of a thousand trapped, giving the lie to reports of a battle won. Then a series of mild winters in the early 1970s saw numbers rocket once again. In 1973 there were 7,601 caught – more than six times the 1971 total.
By now the campaign, which was originally supposed to cost £12,000 a year over five years was up to £30,000 annually with no sign of it ending. Critics began to point out it cost £6 to wipe out each coypu, but no-one had ever actually worked out in monetary terms how much damage they were causing. It was time for a fresh look and in 1977 the Government set up an independent Coypu Strategy Group to look at long-term control issues. Then in June the following year, a £1.7 million masterplan was unveiled to wipe out the coypu within ten years. Just as well, with Coypu Control reporting the rodents had developed an alarming new taste – for cereals!
This time, 24 trappers were employed and the 10-year project started in 1981. With the aid of careful ongoing analysis, including dissection of bodies to understand population structure, this approach was successful and the coypu was effectively extinct by 1989. Interesting elements of this strategy was that included was an absolute decision that the project would end after 10 years, whatever the result, and that if the trappers were successful they would get a bonus of up to three times the annual salary, declining as the 10-year deadline loomed. The trapping was carried out using weldmesh cages baited with carrots, and the captured animals were despatched using a .22 pistol. Also, one of the more interesting developments to emerge during the project was the adoption of trapping rafts. As well as being relatively safe from interference, the rafts kept the baited traps at water level and attractive to coypu, throughout the cycle on tidal waters such as the Norfolk broads.
Overall, it was felt that this ‘final’ push would mean the end for the orange-toothed invader. In 1984 a total of 2,300 coypus had been killed; the following year scientists claimed that there were fewer than 20 adults left. Then in1987, the last colony was found near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, and only a dozen were caught that year. In 1988 just two solitary males were reported – one at Barton Bendish, and one near Peterborough. So, in January 1989 agriculture minister (and our local MP) John MacGregor was able to declare that, at last, the coypus were gone for good. Each of the trappers was stood down, with a £20,000 bonus for their efforts.
Was that the end of the story? Well not quite. In December 1989, a male coypu was caught at the Little Ouse at Feltwell and there continued to be 40-50 possible ‘sightings’ each year for some time thereafter but nothing was ever substantiated. Coypus did live on in Norfolk for a while, but only at Great Witchingham Wildlife Park where, unlike the dodgy fencing incident of the 1930’s, this time round the critters were securely penned in, drawing to a close East Anglia’s coypu saga. It only took 50 odd years and more than £2.5 million of tax payers’ money to get rid of a problem caused by “man’s greed and women’s vanity.”
The Reedham Ferry is a vehicular chain ferry which was hand operated until 1949. It continues to operate on the River Yare in Norfolk, crossing the river near the village of Reedham and forming the only crossing point between the city of Norwich and Great Yarmouth and saving users a journey of more than 30 miles. The ferry carries up to 3 cars at a time with a maximum total weight of 12 tonnes. This contrasts to the original ferry which was called the Norfolk Horse Ferries which, unsurprisingly, carried horse drawn wagons – the main users of the ferry boat at the time. The current ferry was built in 1984 and was designed and built at Oulton Broad by the late Fred Newson & the present owner David Archer.
The Reedham Ferry has been operating this service since the 17th century, supported by the nearby Reedham Ferry Inn whose licensees have been responsible for running the river Ferry to present day. Since the 1770’s the Inn’s licensees have been:
JOHN SHEPHERD pre 1773
JOHN HOGGETT 1773 – 1803
MARY HOGGETT 1803 – 1829
JOHN HOGGETT 1829 – 1831
JEREMIAH HOGGETT 1831 – 1843
MARSON MANTHORPE (marsh man) 1861 – 1865
JOHN BENNS 1865 – 1881
GEORGE FOWLER HALL 1881 – 1884
GEORGE FORDER 1884 – 1917
CHARLES EDWARD STONE 1917 – 1944
ARTHUR JOHN BENNS 1944 – 1949
NORMAN ARCHER 1949 – 1969
DAVID ARCHER 1969 – Present
Norman and Hal Archer took over the Reedham Ferry Inn, then a small ale house, in 1949. They came from London, along with David their son soon after the Second World War. Right from the beginning the family were to demonstrate a true commitment to the task of operating a ferry which required Norman to winch it across the river by hand. However, within 12 months, in 1950, he had the ferry fitted with a diesel engine. At that time, he had no way of knowing that this would be the start of the family pioneering the last working chain ferry in the East of England. Keith Patterson, a past ferryman at Reedham Ferry spoke to WISEArchive at Acle on 18th December 2017
“……Then in October 1958, I started at Reedham Ferry and was there permanently until 1963 as the ferryman. After that I did the job part-time right through until I retired last year in 2016……… I used to work from eight until five and David Archer, his father and I used to share the shift between us. Now there are several ferrymen, because most of them are quite happy to be part-time, so they all fit into the pattern of the week. “
There had been numerous other ferries over the river Yare in those days, principally at Whitlingham, Bramerton, Surlingham, Coldham Hall and Buckenham, but these disappeared.
David Archer took over the business in 1969 at a time when the pub was showing true sustainability and making waves in the hospitality world; it won the ‘Broads Pub of the Year’ in 1973. With the Reedham Ferry Inn flourishing and a small campsite for holiday makers planned, the ‘old ferry’ under the Archers, was now nearly 60 years old; it was getting tired with the amount of traffic on the roads and David knew that it was time for a new ferry. In 1983 boat builders from Lowestoft were given the task of creating a new vessel which started operating in May 1983. This was followed by touring park, and the transformation of the pub from a small 1940’s ale house into the large bar and restaurant it is today.
Normally, the Ferry operates from about 6.30 until 10 at night. It only closes every third or fourth year, when it gets towed down to Newson’s Yard, at Oulton Broad, where it was originally built, for a refit, or whatever needs doing. The Reedham Ferry Inn remains a destination for drivers and holiday makers alike with mooring also available, along with a carp lake for holiday makers to enjoy some fishing as well. As for David Archer, he also worked alongside the Broads Authority managing the surrounding marshes, waterways and farm land.
Operating the only working chain ferry in the East Anglia does, however, have some drawbacks. Being so unique means that everything surrounding the ferry maintenance is more challenging and costly. The ferry has to be lifted out of the water every 4-5 years to check the hull is sound and secure whilst also going through thorough testing. Whilst all this goes on, those who use the ferry have to drive the 30 miles or more detour. That apart, it would appear that David Archer has kept true to an old way of life, barely seen in any other parts of the country. When travellers board the Reedham Ferry they are transported back to a time when that was the only mode of transport for crossing the river Yare. It is a much quicker trip now than back in the days of winching by hand but there is always enough time to get out of the cars and look around and down the river to experience a feeling ‘of the past.
FOOTNOTE: When the rivers were the main arteries of communication within the country Reedham was once a much more important place. It was known to the Romans, when the estuary of the river Yare was much wider and Reedham was almost a sea port. Fragments of Roman brick still turn up in the village and appear in quantity in the church walls. Reedham is mentioned in a story by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) about St Edmund and although the legend may be pure invention the place was obviously well known to these medieval times. Even before the time of Edmund it is said that Reedham possessed a church that was founded by St Felix around the year 640. Felix was the first Bishop of East Anglia and gave his name to Felixstowe. This church at Redham survived until it was destroyed by the invading Danes on their way to murder Edmund in the year 869 – this information comes from the Liber Eliensis or the History of Ely Abbey, written in the 12th century.
In January 2017 a Land Rover ‘Defender’ was reported stolen and later found submerged under the chains of Reedham Ferry. The ferry was forced to close for safety reasons and the fact that it couldn’t moor on the Reedham side of the river. The car was removed from the river by a local resident’s JCB machine and the Reedham Ferry was back in business within one day – during which time travellers had to find an alternative or wait!
William 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 and marshmen whom you meet in the evenings at the marshland staithes and ferry inns. Approach them without displaying that ridiculous condescension which is characteristic of too many visitors and amateur yachtsmen and you will find them able and willing to impart much curious information concerning the river life and wild life of Broadland. For these men are not simply fair-weather voyagers; they are afloat on the rivers from January to December, and see the broads and marshes under all aspects and in all seasons. Many of them have known no other life than that which is spent in cruising between the East coast ports and the inland towns; but it has taught them many things of which the world that lies beyond the borders of the marshes has little knowledge.
Join a group of them some summer night when they are gathered in the low-ceiled bar-room of a riverside inn, or lounging about a lock or staithe in the midst of the marshes. Hear them talk of the voyages they have made when the ” roke ” (fog) was so dense as to hide even the windmills on the river banks; of the days when their wherries were icebound and the snowdrifts rose higher than the river-walls; of the marsh-fires (Will O’ the Wisp) which used to flicker over the festering swamps; and of the mist wraiths and phantom fishermen of the meres and marshes. Watch how their faces assume a fixed expression and their pipes are allowed to go out while some old man among them tells of a strange sight he saw one autumn night when his wherry was moored near the ruins of St. Benet’s Abbey”:
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 an 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.”
“Thinks 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.”
This waterway forms the boundary between the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk for most of its length. Before the county boundary changes of 1974, it formed the boundary along its whole length, but in that year Gorleston and a few other North Suffolk parishes on the Suffolk side of the river were transferred to Norfolk. The Waveney flows into Breydon Water at Burgh Castle and there the river ends; the villages of Belton, Fritton and Blundeston were once in Suffolk and now are in Norfolk. The river Waveney flows past these villages and this is where it ceases to be the county boundary. Like the conurbation of Yarmouth and Gorleston, Thetford is another town that straddles the river, but in that case, it is the Little Ouse so we will not be considering that here.
The river Waveney rises in the Redgrave Marshes, near South Lopham in Norfolk. This is also where the source of the Little Ouse is and the two rivers rise only a matter of metres away from each other. When the glaciers of the last ice age melted a lake formed in this part of East Anglia and the Redgrave Marshes are what remains of this lake.
The river passes the towns of Diss and Harleston, both in Norfolk, before reaching Bungay and Beccles in Suffolk. In the 17th century Geldeston Lock was built between these two towns and keels (later wherries) were then able to take their commercial loads upstream to Bungay. The town flourished with the lock providing access via the river Waveney to the sea. This was supplemented by coming of the railway in 1860 and this took much of the traffic from the river. Geldeston lock closed in 1934 and since then the head of navigation has been at Geldeston Locks Inn. This remote pub gets much of its trade from its proximity to the river Waveney and its motor cruisers. Beccles has a large marina and it is the major inland port on the river Waveney. The town of Lowestoft can be accessed from the river but this requires passage through Oulton Broad.
From Breydon Water you can pass up the river Yare, but another watercourse between the two rivers is the New Cut which was constructed in 1832. Being a canal through marshland it is very straight and so quite dull but there is swing bridge where the railway crosses the New Cut at Haddiscoe. It is near where it joins the river Waveney. This was intended to be a commercial venture, allowing shipping to avoid Yarmouth where the harbour authorities imposed heavy dues. Mutford Lock was built to allow passage from Oulton Broad to Lake Lothing. The New Cut cost over £150,000 to dig. As soon as it was opened Yarmouth reduced its charges and shipping from Norwich took the more direct route to the sea. The New Cut was never a financial success and after it was damaged by the 1953 Flood it was proposed to abandon it. Luckily this did not happen. (My daughter works for the Environment Agency in Flood Control for Norfolk and it is proposed that she is given responsibility for the river Waveney. She is quite enthusiastic about the prospect – as I would be too!) The New Cut is now used far more by holidaymakers than it ever was by commercial shipping.
There is an interesting structure across the river at South Elmham St Mary between Harleston and Bungay. Homersfield Bridge was built of wrought iron, cast iron and concrete in 1869. This makes it one of the oldest concrete bridges in the world. The road bridge was in use for 101 years. It is no longer used by road traffic being replaced by a new bridge in 1970. It was restored by the Norfolk Historic Building Trust in 1990.
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.
It is not uncommon for tales of apparitions to have grown up around the sites of former monestries. In the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, and either side, monks were thought to have had supernatural powers and were associated with mysticism and superstition in people’s minds. It is not surprising therefore that several tales about villainous monks at St Benets Abbey have circulated over these years – and indeed, still flourish.
Mostly these tales have been linked to political and religious intrigues and double-crossings; many of which were simply part and parcel of powerful establishments. One example relating to St Benets is when, in an attempt to transform the Abbey into a pilgrimage centre to rival Walsingham and Bromholm, the monks there invented the cult of St Margaret of Holm who, according to a medieval chronicler, was strangled nearby in Little Wood at Hoveton St John in 1170. This barbarous act recalls to mind the crucifixion of the boy saint William of Norwich in 1144 (see here for separate Blog), which was within living memory of those monks at St Benets!
St Benets, or to give it its full name of St Benedict’s-at-Holm (or Hulm) Abbey, has been a Norfolk Broad’s landmark for almost 1000 years. Situated on the banks of the river Bure, the Abbey has long been reduced to just the ruins of the former gatehouse, into which an 18th century farmer built a windmill. This strange ruin, as small as it is, holds many stories and hides more than a few mysteries.
The tales which have survived the test of time include attacks by the Normans then, 300 year’s later, the Peasants Uprising when the Abbey was stormed and its deeds and charters destroyed. There are also those mythical stories and legends relating to images and sometimes terrible things that had once been a part of this once sacred place and have since been periodically returned by what may well be magical means! They include the recurring story of a monk from St Benets who, on quiet evenings, can still be seen rowing between the Abbey and Ranworth in a little boat, accompanied by a dog. It is said that he is quite harmless and concentrates only on his regular task of maintaining the rood screen in Ranworth church. Then there is the Dragon which once terrorised the village of Ludham and ended its life at the Abbey. The Legend of the Seal is another tale dating back to the days of King Henry I when a legacy of ancient carvings depicting the story were built into either side of gatehouse entrance and can still to be seen today. However, let us not be carried away in directions that would take us away from the following Tale – an apparition which has its roots firmly at St Benets. Just Remember! in common with all orthodox ruined abbeys and priories, St Benets and its surviving gatehouse is still believed to be haunted!
This tale is known as ‘The Shrieking Monk‘ and it is believed to be that of Ethelwold (some say Essric?), the young bailiff monk who basely betrayed the Abbey in the hope of becoming its Abbot. This spectre has a fearful significance – and it screams! Like many, it has an anniversary date for appearances, but it is just as likely to be seen at other times of the year when ‘conditions are just right’. They say that it is possible to experience this particular spectre in the late autumn, on All Hallows Eve, or winter on dark nights between midnight and early dawn, particularly if the dawn is shrouded in a heavy mist and there is a distinct chill in the air. Even today, few would care to pass the old ruin when such conditions are abroad – particularly when they hear the tale of a certain Ludham marshman who perished one night near the ruined gatehouse of St Benets. Apparantly, according to William Dutt’s ‘Highways and Byways in East Anglia’ (1901) – this marshman was on his way home from his bullocks. As he draws near the gatehouse and sees something in the shadows that ‘started screeching like a stuck pig’. Some years later this story was further elaborated when retold by the Stalham folklorist, W H Cooke; he call it ‘The Shrieking Monk’. It tells how this monk terrified a local wherryman one foggy night – All Hallows Eve and he rushes away to seek the safety of his wherry which is moored nearby; he slips in the early morning mud and falls into the Bure and is drowned!
Following in the tradition of gilding each ghost story in its re-telling; here, we again go back to those Norman times and to the moment when William the Conqueror was, apparently, experiencing great difficulty with taking St Benet’s Abbey. This version of the story again surrounds William’s difficulty and the monk Ethelwold who falls to temptation , opens the Abbey gates to the Normans – but subsequently is executed. Imagine now the Abbey materialising out of thin air, along with the obligitory mist; the present ruinous Mill transforming itself into a stone tower from where the execution referred to took place.
We are told that the Monks of St Benedict’s successfully withstood attacks from King William’s men for months on end and could have held out for much longer had it not been for the act of treachery by Ethelwold, the young bailiff monk. The strong walls of the Abbey had proved impregnable and there was enough food to feed those inside for at least twelve months; some also believed that a trust in God by the Abbot and the rest of the Abbey’s monks also played an important part in staving off the enemy. Unfortunately for all concerned, the young monk held aspirations which did not match his low position in the church. His aspirations, if legend and myth are to be believed, also made him a prime candidate to be bribed.
The Norman army deployed around the Abbey had been on the verge of giving up on their task but the general in charge decided that maybe a different tactic might work, having identified the monk as a possible solution. What was needed was for a messenger to be sent to the Abbey with a letter urging the Abbot to surrender, but at the same time to, surreptitiously, slip a tempting offer to this particular monk. This plan was put into operation and a messenger was despatched on horse back, carrying a white flag to guarantee entry. Once inside and before meeting the Great Abbot to hand over the general’s letter, the messenger managed to hand a separate note to Ethelwold, asking him at the same time to, somehow, return with him to meet with the General; a safe audience would be guaranteed.
On receiving the general’s letter, the Abbot bluntly refused to contemplate his demand and quickly sought a volunteer to convey his decision back to the other side. Unsurprisingly, Ethelwold, the highly flatterable monk, stepped forward and offered his services; he by then being totally intrigued by the general’s attention in him. This monk’s ego and aspirations were further enhanced when on arrival he was told by the general that he, Ethelwold, was obviously destined for a better career than that of a humble bailiff monk. Now, if only he would help the general’s soldiers take over the Abbey he, the humble monk, would be elavated to Abbot of St Benedict’s Abbey – for LIFE – a gift that would be far beyond the menial’s wildest dreams! The general added that the young brother had absolutely nothing to lose, for if the Abbey held out, despite impressive defensive walls and generous stocks of provisions, the army would attack in even greater force and inflict a terrible result on the religeous order. But, if this “Abbot Elect” would just open the gatehouse doors that same night, everyone would be spared.
Although clearly naive, Ethelwold was not without a degree of intelligence. Surely, he questioned himself, the other brethren would punish him if he was ever found out; they would certainly not accept him as their Abbot? He was not even an ordained priest – for heaven’s sake! Even here, the general had anticipated such doubts but seemed to have no difficulty in convincing the monk that by using his new elevated rank of ‘conqueror of the Abbey’ the brethren would accept their new Abbot, in pain of losing the present incumbent and anyone else of a rebellious nature. With this assurance, the now traitor returned to St Benet’s in both excitement and with not a little fear. Ethelwold was naturally welcomed back and praised for his bravery in delivering the Abbot’s letter of refusal; whilst he held a burdensome secret.
The final days of May that year were full of sunshine, bridging the final days of spring to the start of summer; the evenings were however deceptive with one culminating in a sudden dissolved dusk displaced by a very chilly, dark and eerie night. The bell in the Abbey tower rang out eleven times, each ring echoing across the night ladened marches whilst Ethelwold’s heart pounded at an ever increasing pace as he waited for the final chord. This was followed by the sound of three knocks on the gatehouse door; the expected visitors had arrived! The nervous bailiff slowly withdrew the well lubricated bolts and was about to slowly release the door quietly when it was flung open and the monk was brushed aside as soldiers burst through and set about their task. Very quickly the monks realised a betrayal and offered no resistence because shedding blood was abhorrent to their beliefs; any arms were put aside and a truce quickly agreed, followed by an order that all must essemble in the Abbey Church the following morning.
There, on a morning that reflected the prevailing mood of the defeated, the young ‘Abbot Elect’ was paraded in with great ceremony and in front of the assembly was anointed and then dressed in cope and mitre. The Abbot’s crovier was placed in his hand, followed by a pronouncement that the once monk was now the Abbot of St Benedict’s-at-Holm – for LIFE! To complete the ceremony, the new Abbot was escorted the length of the Abbey by Normans in ceremonial armoured attire and banners flying – but with no applause except for that coming from the Normans. The defeated audience watched in total silence. The new Abbot was, however, full of himself and he ignored a part of the spectacle that was clearly of no importance to him. That changed all too quickly; the Abbot’s face, so flushed with utter pride one moment, turned deathly white as his hands were suddenly thrust behind his back and tied unceremoniously. Still dressed in his glittering robes, this ‘newly annointed abbot’ was dragged off – Norman’s abhor treachery!
Ethelwold, shrouded by a realisation that he had been completely fooled and foolish, cried for mercy but his cries were ignored. His march from the throne to an open window in the bell tower was further ignominious. There, he was hoisted up on to a makeshift gibbet made of a simple stout pole protruding out from the widow that faced a still misty river and marsh beyond. Then, no sooner had the noose been placed around the unfortunate’s head, when he was pushed to swing in full view of those who had gathered below. Those who were further away and out of sight of this summary execution would have their chance to witness the result. They would understand the stark message that was directed to everyone under to authority of Norman rule; all who dared to be treacherous for personal and selfish gain would meet the same fate! The church authority may also have considered the outcome appropriate and that the individual who had fallen from both window sill and grace, was now in the process of being judged by his Maker.
This story makes you wonder! – How many of us today, would choose to manouver their boats along the river Bure in early morning mist or walk the same path past the ruined Abbey, and concern themselves with apparitions? – particularly if the morning, from midnight onwards, happens to be misty? How many out on the 25th May would quicken their stride or increase water speed – just in case! Maybe all it takes is to be alone in the dark or in an early mist, a mist that was thought to be rising, but drops again suddenly at the same moment as the temperature takes on a deeper chill……! One thing is certain; all that is needed beyond these conditions is for a lone lapwing to swoop close by and send forth its pre-emptive cry of what might follow!
Sources: Dutt, W., Highways and Byways in East Anglia, 1901
Cooke, W.H., The Shrieking Monk, 1911
Tolhurst, P., This Hollow Land, Black Dog Books, 2018
Photos: Wikipedia, Google, Spinney Abbey.
As the flames licked the stone walls and the building began to crack and fall, parishioners feared nothing would remain of their beloved church at St Peter and St Paul’s church at Tunstall, a beacon for ships on the edge of a long-lost estuary which is now lonely marshland that stretches towards Great Yarmouth.
Once, the church faced the sea, now all that remains is a striking shell, the sky taking the place of the roof. Although a fierce fire ravaged the church, its bells were left unscathed – but although they had escaped the blaze, falling on the floor quite safely, they became the white hot centre of a blazing row between the parson and the churchwardens who battled over who should have them.
While the argument raged, the Devil saw his chance to settle the dispute and stepped into the smoking timbers of the ringing chamber and carried the bells away. He was spotted by the parson who began to furiously exorcise him as he stalked away from the church: “stop, in the name of God!” called the parson. In a bid to make a swift getaway, the Devil scrambled his way through the earth and towards his underworld lair, taking his stolen loot with him and creating a boggy pool of water, known locally as ‘Hell Hole’, which still ominously bubbles in the summertime which local folk used to attribute to the continual sinking of the bells on their endless journey through the bottomless pit.
Another version of the same tale has the parish priest deciding to steal the bells, sell them and pocket the spoils at the same time as the churchwardens cooked up the same plan. When the parties met again in church, both tried to take the bells for themselves and as the quarrel grew and harsh words were spoken, a gigantic black form materialised, seized the bells and disappeared with them.
The priest and the churchwardens temporarily forgot their row and joined together to chase the arch fiend but just as they appeared to gain ground, he vanished, diving straight through the earth while clutching the bells, leaving a dark pool in his wake, bubbles rising for years afterwards to mark the spot, less than a mile west of Tunstall.
Above Hell Hole is an adjoining clump of alder trees known as Hell Carr – and sometimes, on quiet nights, across the bogs and marshland can be heard the muffled peal of bells, ringing still for the Satanic Majesty who claimed them for his own.
The church of St Peter & St Paul – ruined tower and nave
In Roman times the River Bure flowed into a large estuary extending from Acle to present-day Great Yarmouth; Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk shows the then coastal villages of Tunstall, Halvergate and Wickhampton on a spur of higher ground that was surrounded by Moulton Bog (west), Acle Wet Common (north) and the Halvergate Marshes (east). According to old records the church had fallen into disrepair by 1704; the chancel arch was bricked up in 1705 and a plaque above the doorway into the chancel informs that it was rebuilt by Mrs Elizabeth Jenkinson > Link. More repairs were carried out in 1853. In 1980 the church was declared redundant and a Trust was formed to help repair and maintain what remains of the church: the chancel is still intact and visitors are welcome.
There is a railway station in Norfolk that is more than a little odd. Its history is odd; its size and shape is odd and where it is located is odd. So, what makes this particularly station odd, over and above the established ritual that passengers are expected to go through when they alight there – and when they leave! We are talking here about the Berney Arms Station on the often windswept Halvegate Marshes.
Why not start with the station’s platform, which is too short to accommodate the small two-coach train which stops on request on its way to and from Great Yarmouth (Vauxhall). Then there is the platform’s tiny wooden hut which, quite frankly should be labelled “Room for one person only”. Inside, there is a very informative map of the area which, with the aid of a pointer tells, you, “You are here”. Next to this very helpful statement someone once wrote: “In the middle of nowhere” – and that is just how you will feel if you ever get off at Berney Arms station. There is no road there, not even a track, but in a northerly direction you will see a path which is part of the Weaver’s Way which will take you, given time and stamina, to the north coast at Cromer. To the south there’s a grassy track which leads to the waterside.
Should you feel inclined to venture forth on the basis of the information so far imparted, be also prepared to attract a degree of attention from those on the train, a few of which would never dream of following when you alight. But, it’s a fair bet that they would think that you were off to go to the Berney Arms pub. This pub, by the way, is not beside the station but a good three quarters of a mile walk away! So, What’s the point?
This is a very pertinent question, bearing in mind that there are plenty of decent pubs close by in Yarmouth – in the opposite direction of course. But this sort of question has been asked ever since the Berney Arms station was created in the mid 18th century. Then, and ever since the assumption has been that the station was built because the pub was there – simply not true! The Berney Arms station is there because the original landowner, Thomas Trench Berney, would not sell to the railway company unless a station was put there “in perpetuity”.
So, a station was built, along with a row of cottages alongside, one of whose rooms served as the ticket office. But right from the very beginning of the station’s operation, very few people used it; so much so that within a decade from the station opening, the rail company announced that its trains would no longer stop there. Hey! – what about our agreement? protested Berney at the time; to which the railway company replied “Our promise was that the station would be there in perpetuity; we did not promise that our trains would stop there in perpetuity. There was, of course, much acrimony over this before it was finally ruled that one train in each direction should stop at that point on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. For this change, Berney was paid £250 as compensation.
From then and until the mid 1990s, the station seemed timeless, still retaining the old wooden name board from Great Eastern days, on top of which a lamp was mounted. Against the sign stood a short metal runged ladder allowing access to the lamp. The platform was lined with old sleepers which had seen better days and its surface was shingled and rough. From the beginning of the second millennium, the platform still looked the same but just about everything else went, replaced by the standard Anglia Railways metal name board.
The service of course runs daily, to and from Berney Arms station, with several trains a day and sometimes more on Sundays. The well established custom also continues, namely, that the train will stop at the Berney Arms Station but only if requested to do so. All the passenger has to do on the outward journey is warn the conductor in sufficient time. Returning home, however, requires a different procedure for the passenger, that of waving energetically to the driver of the oncoming train as soon as it comes into sight and approaches the station.
So, having stepped from the train on to the platform, what can you do to while away the three-hours at your disposal before you take the return train back to Norwich? There is, of course, little option other than to take a walk along the grass path that runs south of the railway – towards the waterside and the pub. It is the same path that takes you first to the Berney Arms windmill, which is sometimes open to the public. From there, you have two options; either walking eastwards, which follows the river towards Yarmouth or, walking in the opposite direction towards Halvegate. Either way, there will be boats chugging by and many water birds massed on the edge until you approach when, in domino fashion, they will dive into the river at the first sound of your feet. Butterflies seemingly will take no notice as they flit in and out the foliage and ground cover. Above there will ornithological specimens of various kinds coming and going. Beyond these meadows and the grazing cows you will not fail to notice the distant A47 highway traffic scudding along, symbolising the kind of world you probably had come here to get away from. As in almost a complete contrast, the walk west towards to Reedham is even better: little disturbance here, only passing boats and the occasional swoop of swans crash landing and then, ritually, adjusting their attire of wet feathers.
Then, there is the Berney Arms pub, all brown, homely and cosy inside, ready to quench the thirst of a long walk – but watch the clock and time your return to the station. With whatever time you have left, enjoy the company of fellow walkers, and if you choose to sit outside you can watch the multifarious activities on the water. The boats ritually dislodge their holidaymakers, they and the crews in search of a pie and a pint or two. Then there are those people, regularly seen on a Broads holiday, who find it impossible to look anything other than habitual landlubbers but intent on establishing their credentials by shouting commands which incorporate such seafarer words as “ahoy”!
It will remain a safe bet that whilst drinking in the Berney Arms there will be someone who will say “I always wanted to come here”. Equally, if that person is then asked if they knew of any other station in England as odd as the one three-quarter’s of a mile back up that grassy path, the answer would be somewhat vague at best. So, what’s the point of the Berney Arms station? Well, for those who come across it, either by accident or intent, it deserves to survive ‘in perpetuity’, as a kind of therapy for stressed out urbanites who just wish to get away! But goodness knows what they would do if it rains.
The Broads as we know them today were, originally, a man-made accident. They were formed by the flooding of medieval peat excavations which provided fuel to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. As sea levels began to rise, the pits began to flood and by the end of the 14th century, these pits were abandoned and large individual areas of enclosed water were formed. Collectively, they were not known then as Broads and certainly not the Norfolk Broads. That name seems to have gained popularity in the mid-Victorian era, about one hundred and sixty-five years ago; this was when they were ‘discovered’ and promoted by devotees of all things picturesque.
At the beginning of what became the ‘Broads’ brand, the railway had wielded its way across Norfolk and taken much of the carrying trade out of the wherry-man’s hands; eventually to rob him entirely of his livelihood. Victorian pleasure-seekers followed, at first in small numbers to explore the waterways and try the marshland inns during what was, at the outset at least, a short season. Then, as time past, visitor numbers increased so that the Broads, like many other places became overcrowded, a situation which in some people’s opinion was quite detestable!
It seems quite natural for so charming an area as the Broads to have had so much literature written about it. However, George Borrow (5 July 1803 – 26 July 1881) was one writer who, despite having lived for a while by Oulton Broad, did not write anything about the neighbourhood or the Broads – but, there were other less eminent early writers who did. They were the ones who busied themselves in making known the attractions of the flat landscape of the Broads, its slow moving waterways, the peaceful meres, the free shooting and fishing, together with the apparent strange life of the marsh-folk who drained the waterways.
By the late 19th century, luxurious boats could be hired to navigate the waters amongst the clean white sails of yachts, all of which mingled with the dirty brown sails of the wherries on the rivers Yare, Bure, and Waveney. William Dutt, (1870-1939) wrote admirable books about Norfolk and its Broads which were read with great pleasure by those of his time, He knew the country and the people thoroughly, and wrote in a very agreeable fashion:-
“……the visitors who content themselves with what they can see of Broadland from a yacht’s deck can never become really acquainted with the Broads and Broadland life. To gain a real knowledge of these, they must, to some extent, ‘rough it,’ as the early adventurers did; trudge the river walls; associate with the eel-catchers, marsh-men, reed-cutters and Breydon gunners, as well as exploring the dykes which were non-navigable by yachts. There are also the swampy rush marshes where the lapwings and red shanks nested……..spend days with the Broadsman in his punt, and nights with the eel-catcher in his house-boat; crouch among the reeds to watch the acrobatic antics of the bearded titmice, and mix with the wherrymen at the staithes and ferry inns……..If the stranger in Broadland is unwilling to do these things, he must rest content with the outward aspect of the district and second-hand knowledge of its inner life………But there must always be many whom lack of time, opportunity, or inclination will debar them from becoming intimately acquainted with the scenery, inhabitants, archaeology, history, sport, and wild life of this most delightful and interesting district.”
Then there were the illustrators and artists who produced drawings, oil paintings and water-colour sketches of the landscape, the sailing craft, the birds, and the vegetation of the Broads. These ‘interpretations of reality’ were, and indeed still are, exceedingly attractive and capture the full charm of the area. By the very successful process of colour printing they have, for many years, been reproduced in books that did not rely on just wearisome pen sketches or tonal single-colour photographs – although the best of these have found their place.
But it must be said that if one is to understand and appreciate the real, deep laying, beauty of the Broads, it is clearly advisable to also gain at least an outline on the history of this part of the County, from its earliest days, when a great chunk of East Norfolk was the bed of a vast estuary. Close behind came the Roman days when galleys could sail up to Norwich. Then there were the years of great inundation and, at the beginning of the 17th century, the work of reclamation with much of the swamps being drained and the resulting pasture put to profit.
Fortunately, despite all this activity, the Broad’s wild life was not seriously affected when Sir Thomas Browne made his list of Norfolk birds. Then the peewits were so plentiful that cartloads were brought into Norwich and the rustics used their eggs in puddings. Cranes bred, on what is now the Broads, till 1542 and spoonbills nested in 1671. The avocet ceased to breed by about 1825 and the black-tailed godwit’s egg was last taken at Reedham in 1857. At the same time, it used to be believed that the bittern and the black tern would, most likely, never rear their young again in the county of Norfolk – but they have.
We are told about the life of the marsh-folk of old; how the eel-catchers set about their business and made a precarious livelihood; how the professional wildfowlers became an extinct race; and how the marshmen controlled the drainage, looked after the cattle, and made a harvest of the reeds. Much has been pleasantly described, not least about the wild life on Breydon, an area of thirteen hundred acres which remains, strictly speaking, not a Broad, but an estuary to which numerous sea-birds and waders come and go. Many a rare straggler from foreign countries used to be shot there; spoonbills used to appear there every year and even more commoner birds used to, and indeed still do, visit the Breydon flats at the seasons of migration. It used to be said that an old Victorian gunner boasted that he once secured over a hundred dunlins at one discharge of his punt-gun. Although Breydon is not a Broad, there are about fifty pieces of water, some, of course, small pools, which are called Broads. Hickling, Rollesby, Ormesby and Barton are good examples, each having an area of over two hundred acres, with eight others of the best-known broths each more than a hundred acres in extent. Such a district has much to make it attractive to animals, plants and humans!
On the subject of ornithology, nests of the marsh harrier can still be found and, certainly, the Montagu’s harrier was known to have been present on the Broads in past years. However, one big complaint used to be expressed against the gamekeeper’s ‘pestilent activity’ which if not restrained, would doom many species, including the ‘ruff and the reeve’ sandpipers.
Entomology is another specialism which has always thrived on the Broads and written about; the precursor to the preservation of the species, such as that of the swallow-tail butterfly which in the past had been on the verge of becoming very rare, if not extinct. At one time, this would have been due to the insatiable greed of collectors and also to the draining of places where the hog’s-fennel, on which the caterpillars feed, once grew abundantly. On the other hand, the greatest treasure still to be found in Broadland is the moth, Fenn’s Nonagria typhae (Bullrush Wainscot) which was first discovered way back in 1834.
Then there is the ‘pond life’ which has been described as a rather vague branch of natural history for it deals in the ‘research of pond life which takes the seeker, who is after knowledge, into a world totally different to that in which he may otherwise have lived.” However, for such a person to study the rotifers and polyzoan, a microscope is needed which few visitors to the Broads are likely to possess.
Then there is Botany, another of those subjects which is more likely to be studied by the intelligent tourist. In the past, popular interest in plants was almost confined to orchids and ferns which suffered accordingly. Ammophila arenaria, is a grass which did spread from the sand-hills of coast and would not have competed with the flowering fern (Osmunda regalis) had it not itself been exterminated in many spots by past fern-gatherers. Neither should it be forgotten that the small orchis (Spiranthes autumnalis) used to be dug up by ‘wretches’ armed with trowels.
In total, the natural features of the Broads, and its geological history, differ so greatly from those of other parts of England. We are told that its earliest strata was cretaceous, but goes back only to the comparatively recent geological period when East Anglia, like the rest of Europe, was under the sea. Nature, assisted by man, is still at work. But one should not forget that in the past, owing to the deposition of mud, the drainage of swamps, and the effects of tidal currents, the Broads were in danger of slowly, but surely, vanishing. Fortunately, in these days of ‘enlightenment’ that is no longer the case.
But, the Broads have always been much more than that described above. Nothing has yet been said about prehistoric men who made the flint implements which have been discovered in the valley gravels of the Upper Waveney. Then there is yacht-racing which was once known as “water frolics” and dates back to the 18th century, whilst “regattas” and “yachting” as we understand them are inventions of the 19th century. Fishing, we are told, is not what it used to be on the Broads but good bream fishing may be had in some places – the worst of the bream is that it is useless when you have caught it. Perch is even less abundant. On the other hand, pike fishing is excellent in winter, and it has been known for the occasional 36 lb specimen to be caught. Roach, we are again told, remain abundant but Rudd, which will take a fly, give better sport in places like Barton Broad and in some parts of the Bure. Wild-fowling and free shooting used to be a popular pastime, but has long been restricted if not banned. Snipe, redshanks, and plovers were once at the mercy of a reputed twenty or thirty gunners who made a living on Breydon water; these have long disappeared and life has been allowed to flourish and move on.
FInally, for the statistically minded, the area covered by the Norfolk Broads is estimated to be 303 square kilometres (117 sq mi), most of which is in Norfolk, with over 200 kilometres (120 mi) of navigable waterways. There are seven rivers and 63 broads, most less than 4 metres (13 ft) deep.