9. Christmas: Chilling Tales!

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).

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Percy Shelly, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron

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.

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Mary Shelly

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.
Fankenstein (Rex)

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.
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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.

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‘A Christmas Carol’ – Frightfully good!

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.

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The Turn Of The Screw
“He presently produced something that made me drop straight down on the stone slab”

The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.

Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.

We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.

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‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe. Image: Wikipedia.

One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.

Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.

How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936:

“The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”

Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
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In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.

That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.

But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real:

Think of that on a winter’s night!

THE END

Text by Keith Lee Morris, 21 December 2015. Courtesy of the Independent Newspaper. Keith’s 1916 novel was ‘Travelers Rest’.

This is the last in the Christmas Series, so may we wish each and every reader a very Happy and Contented festive season; along with our best wishes for 2020.

Source:
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/christmas-ghost-stories-a-history-of-seasonal-spine-chillers-a6782186.html
Feature Image: Dark deeds: in Dickens’s work, as this illustration from ‘Little Dorritt’ shows, winter nights are a time for skulduggery ( Getty )

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

An Indefatigable Ghost Hunter!

Peter Underwood was considered by some to have been that ‘indefatigable ghost-hunter’…… Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the great author and a keen student of the supernatural, once described him as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research’. Underwood also carried the labels of being an immaculate, urbane, gentlemanly and quite sophisticated sort of person. He was, for many years, a link with the distant past, outliving those investigators and writers who conducted the drama of the Borley Rectory, considered for a time as “Britain’s most haunted house”; he lived to tell the tales right up to 2014.

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Peter Underwood

Underwood wrote over 50 books about his pursuit of spooks; many of them gazetteers, collections from around the country of oral history on supposed hauntings. In his book ‘No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter’ (1983), he suggested that ninety-eight per cent of these reports had a rational explanation, and were generally put to one side; it was the other two per cent that intrigued him and being worthy of pursuit. Nevertheless, he discarded nothing, allowing readers the option of deciding what was, or was not, a likely story.

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Peter Underwood was born on 16 May 1923 into a family of Plymouth Brethren; his home on arrival was at Westholm, Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire. He claimed much later in life that he had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine, apparently seeing an apparition of his father who had died earlier the same day standing at the bottom of his bed. Thereafter, his interest in hauntings was further stimulated by his maternal grandparents, who lived for a time at Rosehall, a 17th century Hertfordshire house in Sarratt, a village considered “a good locality for ghosts – they have more ghosts there than ratepayers!” Rosehall had a haunted reputation, having a particular bedroom in which guests reported seeing the figure of a headless man. Underwood’s interest in hauntings and ghostly phenomena began to take root at this time, and it was said that whenever curious tourists knocked, young Peter would assume the role of tour guide and would regale visitors with tales; he became so fascinated when many shared their own experiences of the paranormal in return that he began to scribble them down.

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Rushbrooke Hall, Suffolk, where Peter Underwood stayed during his convalescence. The Hall was demolished in 1961. Photo: Public Domain.

At the beginning of World War Two and after a private education, part of which was with a personal tutor, Underwood joined the publishing firm of J M Dent & Sons in Letchworth, working at their printing and binding works at Dunham’s Lane in Letchworth. Later he would move to Dent’s publishing office before being called up for active service with the Suffolk Regiment in 1942. However, his military service was short-lived – after collapsing on a rifle range at Bury St Edmunds with a serious chest ailment which rendered him unfit for active service. Following several months of convalescence at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, Underwood was discharged from the army and returned to Dent’s. During this time Underwood became friendly with Harry Price and wrote to him in connection with his own investigations into the hauntings of Borley Rectory with permission of the owner, James Turner the poet. Price gave Underwood considerable advice on the topic and in 1947 invited him to join Price’s ‘Ghost Club’. Barely a few months later, Harry Price died suddenly from a massive heart attack; that was on Sunday 29 March 1948.

Harry Price
Harry Price

Two particular hauntings spoke the loudest to Underwood during his career. The first was of Borley Rectory; a pitiful building on the barren edge on the Essex/Suffolk. Borley became a media circus in the 1930s, when celebrity ghost hunter Harry Price set out to prove its reputation as a site for scary apparitions. The large Gothic-style house was said to have been haunted since it was built in the 1860s, but things took a more sinister turn in 1928 when the wife of a new rector who was cleaning out a cupboard came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman. Subsequently the family reported strange happenings, including the ringing of servant bells which had been disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. As a result, the family fled Borley, but things only seemed to get worse after the arrival of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide in 1930. In addition to bell-ringing, there were windows shattering, the throwing of stones and bottles, and mysterious messages on the walls. On one occasion Marianne claimed to have been physically thrown from her bed; on another, Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible” and locked in a room with no key.

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Borley Rectory in 1892. Photo: Wikipedia

The building became known as “the most haunted house in England” after the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price (who had lived at the rectory for a year in 1937-38) published a book about it in 1940. After Price’s death in 1948, however, members of the Society for Psychical Research investigated his claims and concluded that many of the phenomena he described had been faked, either by Price himself, or by Marianne Foyster (who later admitted, apparently, that she had been having an affair with the lodger and had used paranormal excuses to cover up their trysts).

In the years since Price’s death most of the Borley legend has been debunked, but Underwood, Price’s executor as well as his protégé, remained fiercely loyal to him. He claimed to have traced and personally interviewed almost every living person connected with the rectory, and had concluded that at least some of the phenomena were genuine and fiercely defended Price against accusations of fraud. He even went as far as to dedicate his book on the subject, the 1973 ‘Ghosts of Borley’, which he produced in collaboration with Paul Tabori, to his old friend; it was a gesture that straight away rendered the book as useless according to sceptics.

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The Queen’s House Museum, Greenwich.
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The Circular Stairs within the Queen’s House Museum, Greenwich.

The second story was known as ‘The Greenwich Ghost’; apparently photographed, by a visiting clergyman in 1967, running up a circular staircase at The Queen’s House Museum. Such a tempting and wonderful image is far too good to be true, particularly when it has never been satisfactorily explained. This was Underwood’s favourite tale, but one where even he would go no further than to call it “puzzling”.

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Séance held at night by members of The Ghost Club at the Queen’s House on 24th June 1967. Clockwise from the left: Hector McQueen, Margery McQueen, Peter Underwood, Dr Peter Hilton-Rowe, Richard Howard. Back to camera: the sound engineer.

By 1955, Dent’s publishing arm had moved to London and Peter Underwood was living in Twickenham. Through his employers, Underwood was to meet many authors of the day, including Dylan Thomas, and also managed to carry out his own investigations of allegedly haunted places, including the ruins of Minsden Chapel near Stevenage and a house where the owner had requested a reduction in the rates due to it being haunted.

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The ruins of Minsden Chapel

Underwood was to identify nine different varieties of ghost during a life dedicated to investigating ghouls and spooks of all shapes and sizes; these came as elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. He had a talent for categorisation; for example, ‘Where the Ghosts Walk’, published in 2013, was described as a “definitive guide to the haunted places of Britain”, providing a digest of ghosts grouped by location – including Napoleon searching for somewhere to land his invasion along Lulworth Cove.

Simon Farquhar of the Independent wrote in February 2015:

“Underwood never pedalled mumbo-jumbo, but he was drawn to the idea of a ghost being an “atmospheric photograph”, pondering that all of our actions are perhaps recorded on some sort of eternal tape, and under certain conditions, maybe climactic, occasionally they reappear. I don’t honestly think the figures that are seen represent an afterlife. I think it’s much more likely that it’s some kind of echo of a previous life.”

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Peter Underwood once claimed that he also had a nose for charlatanry and according to The Telegraph of 2014:

“…… the writer Dennis Wheatley gave a graphic description of a “psychometry” session hosted by Joan Grant, a writer famed for her “far memory” books. During these sessions she would go into a trance and dictate scenes from her past lives. Wheatley described how a stark-naked Joan began to talk in the person of an ancient Egyptian, “glistening and quivering in ecstasy……… writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands”. It was said that Wheatley was convinced by her performances – Underwood was not”

Unfortunately, perhaps, Underwood became caught up in some genuinely mysterious goings-on in 1994. Police arrived to question William (Bill) Bellars, a 75-year-old retired naval officer, Loch Ness monster expert and honorary treasurer of the Ghost Club of Britain, founded in 1862, of which Underwood had been president. They were following an anonymous tip-off that club members were really part of an IRA cell. In fact, Bellars had been planning to lead an all-night investigation at a haunted abbey in Hampshire; it took him an afternoon to convince the police that he was up to nothing more sinister than looking for 16th-century Cistercian monks. Eventually, the ghost hunt did go ahead as planned, but the mystery of the tipster’s identity was never solved. Nor did Bellars ever discover the source of abusive calls he claimed he had been receiving. However, it was noted that the previous year Underwood had been ousted from the presidency after 33 years in the post by members who had allegedly become fed up with his “autocratic” ways and who accused him of using the club’s name to help sell his books. “He really ran it to suit his own commercial interests,” Bellars was quoted as saying. Underwood denied any connection to the phone calls or the IRA incident, but Bellars’s description of the final showdown struck an appropriately supernatural note: “I said my piece, then he went purple in the face, just blew a top. Then he vanished.”

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Peter Underwood’s ghost hunting kit.

Sadly, towards the end of his own life, internal squabbles shattered the gentlemanly mood of the Ghost Club. The departure of Underwood from the Club caused it to split in two. According to Underwood, Bellars led a rump “Ghost Club” with about 80 per cent of the membership leaving to form a Ghost Club Society with Underwood as life president.

Peter Underwood, author, broadcaster and ghost-hunter died in Bentley, Hampshire on 26 November 2014. Again, according to Simon Farquhar writing in the Independent in February 2015:

“He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a leisurely author, thoughtful rather than gullible; Underwood’s work was “no common task”, as he called his 1983 autobiography; but after a lifetime spent chasing shadows, what he leaves behind is a solid treasury of legends and superstitions which make fine fireside reading, and here and there tell us something about the situations and ideas that perpetually disquiet us: stories that certainly would appear to be immortal.”

THE END

Inspirational Sources:
www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk/Bibliography/bibliography_into.htm
www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk/Profiles/peterunderwood.htm
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11310318/Peter-Underwood-obituary.html
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/peter-underwood-urbane-and-gentlemanly-author-and-ghost-hunter-who-wrote-more-than-50-books-about-10030051.html
https://realparanormalexperiences.com/harry-price-the-ghost-hunter
Banner Heading Image: Copyright Jonathan Stroud 2014

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

Great Yarmouth’s Very Own ‘Old Shuck’

Both the source of this story and its author are unknown to me; it came into my hands via an old ‘Gestetner’ printed copy which was also undated and unsigned – I suspect though that the contents were written in the 1970/80’s.

Having read it several times and arrived at my own conclusions, I thought I should broadcast it to a wider audience in the hope that such a tale will interest others. In doing so, I should say that the detail is unabridged and with persons’ names retained – as they appeared in the original. What litle editing has been done was aimed at ‘tweaking’ the grammer and syntax. Other than that I can only point out that I am merely the messenger here – so don’t shoot me!

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

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

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

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HM Coastguard lookout at South Pier, Gorleston near Yarmouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Shuck with yellow eyes!

“There is one further point worthy of note which ties in with this story. Southdown Road, which runs parallel to the river and almost opposite to where Mr Grant had his experience, has long been associated with the ‘Shuck’ legend; the Road was originally an ancient trackway linking Gorleston and Great Yarmouth. According to the legend, ‘Old Scarfe’ – for that is what the animal is refered to in the town – haunts this road, but is described as being a rather more spectacular creature than that seen by Mr Grant on the beach. One account describes it as a hugh black, shaggy animal with large yellow eyes that glow like hot coals; around its neck hings a chain. The account goes on to describe how, if straw is laid across its path, the animal rattles its chains and howls in a loud and terrifying manner! It is also said that ‘Old Scarfe’ resides in the cellars of the Dukes Head Hotel in Yarmouth.

Shuck (Dukes Head Hotel_Yarmouth)
The Dukes Head Hotel in Great Yarmouth – where ‘Old Scarfe’ is said to reside!

Although the above account is far removed from Mr Grant’s, it is still interesting to speculate on whether, or not, there might possibly be some connection between these two creatures. It is up to readers to draw their own conclusions. Is there something in these legends after all? – or something we can all put down to imagination, coincidence or believing only that which we want to believe? Finally, perhaps the last word on Old Shuck should come from Mr Grant himself and whose experience left a deep impression on him:”

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

Shuck (Himself)3

THE END

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

 

Norfolk is Awash with Ghosts!

So Tom Cox of The Guardian thought when he wrote the following article way back in 2011 – apparently, he enjoyed scaring himself so much at the time. Nine years have now passed and nothing in the County, we don’t suppose, has changed since then. Maybe it’s a good time to remind readers of the fruits of his efforts – unabridged, but without the advertisements and extraneous matter which can detract from the qualities of a good story. Take it away [again] Tom:

The remains of New Buckenham Castle are situated on a mound of unnervingly perfect circularity 16 miles south of Norwich, behind a moat and large, padlocked iron gate. I’ve done the six-and-half-mile walk that goes past it several times in the last few years, as it features a pretty cool donkey and, if you’re there at the right time of year, a couple of impressively macabre scarecrows, but until last week I’d never quite had time to visit the castle itself.

Ghostly Norfolk (New Buckenham Castle)1
All that remains of New Buckenham Castle. Photo: (c) George Plunkett.

On my previous attempt, I’d been determined to collect the key to the 12th-century ruin – for which one must pay £2 at the petrol station down the road – but been waylaid by a nice bearded man called Roger in a local pub who wanted to tell me about his Indian wife’s cooking. Hence, last weekend, on bonfire night, as my girlfriend Gemma and I approached Castle Hill Garage, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in our way: not the gathering November gloom, not the damp, flared bottoms of my ill-chosen trousers, not the fact that my car, and any form of warmth, was three miles away.

The garage is one of those charmingly shabby ones at which Norfolk excels, harking back to the days when you still needed to say petrol pumps were “self-serve” to acknowledge they were different to the norm. The establishment’s specialty is ‘Robin Reliants’, of which a dozen or so are parked around the front of the garage. A key to a venerable ancient structure is something folklore tells us will be presented to us by a bearded mystic or, at the very least, a civic luminary, but in this case, you get it from a man in late middle age called John, with two-day stubble and oil-stained overalls, from whom you can buy some surprisingly cheap Fruit Pastilles.

I’d expected a bit of a grumble, what with it being late, but John clearly relishes his role as gatekeeper (the family who actually own the castle live over 100 miles away, so the arrangement is convenient for them, and the small fee helps for the grass to stay cut). He told Gemma and me of a conspiracy theory suggesting that New Buckenham Castle, then owned by the Knyvet family, was where the gunpowder plot was born. “Is this confirmed?” I asked. “Yep,” he replied. “By me.”

I’m not sure how thoroughly John believed in what he was telling us, or if he had a different castle-related story for every big date on the British calendar. Whatever the case, after five minutes he’d lost us, partly because the story we might be about to be part of was potentially more involving than the one we were being told.

Ghostly Norfolk (Rooks-and-jackdaws-gather)2
Rook and jackdaws gather. Photo: East of Elveden.

It had all the hallmarks of the beginning of a tale you might find in An Anthology of Supernatural Rural Brutality: a dark night, a pair of young(ish) lovers, a haunted ruin, a couple of country types in overalls. It didn’t help that Gemma was wearing a bright red coat with the hood up and I’d not long since rewatched the film Don’t Look Now. We stood on top of the mound as night hurtled down, looking at the cobwebby remnants of the earthworks, taking in the silence, and imagining all the people who’d died here. “This would be a great place for a Grand Design house,” I said. “Good transport links, too,” said Gemma.

As we walked back along the road to the sister village of Old Buckenham in the pitch black, cars hurtling towards us around each bend, I tripped into a ditch, lucky not to break my ankle, and reflected on just how often I did this sort of thing: put myself needlessly in a remote, spooky part of Norfolk, at nightfall, often while alone. I thought back to the previous week, when I’d walked uneasily past some doggers near Whitlingham Broad, just outside Norwich, after misjudging the hour change. Or last year, when I’d been on a walk near Blythburgh in Suffolk, in tribute to the Black Dog legend of the local church, accompanied by my friend’s black spaniel, and the breaking down of the river walls had necessitated that I took a three-mile detour through spooky marsh country. In truth, I probably brought it on myself every time.

Ghostly Norfolk (Whitlingham Broad)
Whitlingham Broad. Photo: (c) Joe Lenton of Original Art Photograhy.

During Norfolk holidays in the 80s, as a pre-teen obsessed with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books and a rudimentary form of Dungeons And Dragons, I would wander off on my own into woodland, fighting warlocks and orcs. By the time I was an adolescent this seemed pretty stupid, but really what I spend a large amount of my leisure time doing now is a scarcely more grown-up version of the same. The difference is that instead of going sword-to-mace with goblins to win the hand of elf princesses, I’m in my own unwritten MR James story, equally as bleak and unsettling as Jonathan Miller’s phenomenal 1968 adaptation of ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’. I like the countryside, and I like scaring myself, so combining the two seems an obvious thing to do. If it were at all useful, you might call it a hobby.

The ghost stories of James, written in the early 20th century, are all about the power of suggestion, and for this reason it’s not surprising he set so many of them in Norfolk and Suffolk. Despite the fact that the area’s most famous ghost is a demon hound, its spookiness is not a gnashing, toothy one of aggressively frightening terrain. It’s a more subtle, eerie spookiness: that of a hillock filled with dead Saxons rising out of an otherwise flat landscape from behind a copse, or a mist rising off a broad with a decaying windmill in the background. Yet it feels awash with ghosts and legends in a way that, in all Britain, perhaps only the West Country can match.

Ghostly Norfolk (Cathedral by Night)
Norwich Cathedral by night: a ghostly setting? Photo:Nick Butcher

Oddy, the ghost walks in Norfolk’s county seat didn’t start running until 1997. Their host, Ghostly Dave, retired several years ago, and was replaced by the Man in Black: a narrator with a skull-headed staff and an impressively hawkish, Victorian face. His mystique is in sharp contrast to, say, the ghost walks in Dudley, which a West Midlands-dwelling friend reliably informs me are hosted by a man simply called “Craig”. That said, The Man In Black’s blood-red business card does lose something of its aura by having an ad for ‘Richard’s Driving School’ on its flipside!

I’ve been on a ghost walk in Norwich twice now, and I can’t think of a more appropriate, more inherently Norfolk, way to spend an early winter evening. As well as the ghouls and witches paid to jump out at punters on the walk – including The Faggot Witch who will curse you with her sticks, a skull-faced man who my friend Michelle offered a tenner to stop growling at her, and the Grey Lady and Lonely Monk who lurk amidst the plague pits in the city’s Tombland district – you get the odd unexpected extra. During my first ghost walk, a local wino tagged along for a while to see what all the fuss was about, and the owner of a new Chinese restaurant stole away into a dark corner in a churchyard to make a deal with the Man in Black, allowing him to hand flyers out to that evening’s ghost walkers advertising cut-price chow mein.

Later, the Cathedral Close area – the beautiful inspiration for the unforgettable final scenes in John Gordon’s 1968 young adult horror novel The Giant Under The Snow – became a lot more chilling when a notorious local bag lady emerged out of the fog from her favourite bench behind us, especially to my friend Jenny, who had an apple thrown at her head after trying to give her spare change.

We chuckled at the atmosphere-puncturing banality of it, but there was also the possibility that this was a preview to a future age of Norfolk ghosts: an era when, just as the rotting specter of the rebel Robert Kett still sometimes hangs beside the castle in his gibbet, The Phantom Bag Lady And Her Demon Braeburn would intimidate ecclesiastical enthusiasts in the cloisters and The Ghoulish Man Of The Pumps would be condemned to drive for eternity in circles around Old Buckenham in his Robin Reliant, searching for his key and the pesky couple who bent it slightly in the lock while trying to get his gate shut.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/nov/10/ghost-stories-spookiest-place-in-britain
ghostwalksnorwich.co.uk/
Photos: George Plunkett photographs appear here by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.
https://eastofelveden.wordpress.com/2018/08/30/on-stiffkey-marshes/

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

 

 

A Ghostly Tale: The Old Man of Hopton!

It is not clear when it finally faded away, but from 1971 to the early 1980’s, the Borderline Science Investigation Group (BSIG) claimed to be the premier organisation investigating unexplained phenomena in East Anglia. Its quarterly journal was called ‘Lantern’, in which about 40 issues were published between the Winters of 1971 and 1982.

Hopton 3 (Sign)
Hopton on Sea village sign. Photo: James Bass

Hopton Ghost (Scan 1)002

One of the more interesting stories published by this group, and written by their Ivan Bunn, told of the experience of a Lowestoft man on the new (A12 now A47) Hopton Bypass, a mile or so north of Lowestoft, during late 1980. Apparently, so the story goes, at 5.15pm on the 23rd November of that year, PC Frank Colby, who had been 29 years in the British Transport police, was driving back to Lowestoft with his wife. As his car reached the southern section of the Bypass, he saw what he thought to be a man crossing the dual carriageway in front of him. Mr Colby described it at the time as being:

“……. About 5 foot 6” – or a little more, stocky in build and wearing a calf-length shapeless garment. Its head was hunched into its shoulders and it appeared to have What I thought was very spiky hair. There appears to be trousers or some sort of thing on its legs, but what caught my eye – I know it sounds daft – was its fantastically huge footwear. These boots were very big and he was lifting them up well as he plodded along.”

Hopton 9 (Bypass)1
Hopton Bypass. Photo: (c) Sean Tudor

Mr Colby braked and remarked upon the figure to his wife, but she could not see it. The figure was just outside the range of his headlights, but as it crossed the central reservation barrier, Colby claimed that he saw it pass through it and disappear. He immediately stopped his car and examined the spot where the figure had vanished, but there was nothing there – as you might expect! He then returned to his car and made notes of what he claimed he had seen and drew a sketch of it. Mr Colby’s encounter was investigated by Ivan Bunn of the BSIG’s team and his report received press coverage both locally, in the Lowestoft Journal, and nationally on the eve of Christmas 1980. (See figure 2 on Map).

Approximately twelve months after Mr Colby saw the spectral figure in Hopton, on Monday, 2nd November 1981 to be exact, a Mr Andrew Cutajar was driving towards Great Yarmouth; it was very wet and very miserable. Somewhere near to Hopton he noticed what first appeared to be a grey mist in the middle of the carriageway ahead of him. As he drove closer, he could see the figure of a man:

Hopton Ghost (Scan 1)002
(c) Mike Burgess

“Tall and dressed in a long coat, or cap, coming well past his knees. He had on old-fashioned heavy laced up boots and his grey hair was long and straggly”.

The figure was unmoving as Mr Cutajar braked to avoid a collision but, in the wet conditions, the car began to skid, passing straight through the figure, ending up facing the other way on the grass verge. At that moment there was no trace of the ghostly figure! Apparently, a number of other single vehicle accidents had occurred at the same spot – and it was speculated at the time if any of these incidents had taken place in similar weather conditions!

Hopton Ghost (Map)001
Note the numbers and cross-reference with the text. Photo: (c) Mike Burgess of Hidden East Anglia.

These two instances of the 1980’s were not the first, or only, accounts of a spectral figure appearing along, or near, the village of Hopton. One of the earliest came from a Mr Roger Hammersley of Lowestoft who, at the beginning of 1957, was driving in convoy with a friend, Mr R Gardner from Yarmouth, to their home town. Just before midnight, on the old A12 (now the A47) just south of Hopton, both men separately saw what Mr Hammersley described as the figure of a man wearing very large boots, a large fawn overcoat and a hat, crossing the road in front of them. Mr Hammersley drove close to the tall figure before realising it was no longer there, although he did admit that he could not remember seeing the spectral actually disappear. During an interview with Ivan Bunn of the BSIG, Mr Hammersley admitted that many times prior to this encounter he had often felt distinctly “uneasy” driving along this particular stretch of road, and that after seeing the ‘ghost’ back in 1957 he avoided the Hopton stretch of the old A12 whenever he could. (See figure 3 on Map).

Hopton 8 (A12)
Night closes in on the old A12 where police constable Frank Colby had an encounter with a spectral figure. Photo: EDP

In the 1970’s there was yet another claimed sighting of what may have been ‘The Old Man of Hopton’; this story came to light following the Press coverage of PC Colby in 1980.  It was said to have happened on 24 December, Christmas Eve, in 1977 when 24-year-old Mrs Rita Rose of Bradwell was driving along the old A12 through Hopton with her mother. It was about 5.30pm when they approached a road junction quite near to the Hopton Post Office – (marked ‘1’ on the map). Mrs Rose’s car was travelling north towards Great Yarmouth and just before they reached the junction, she saw the figure of a man in here headlights, standing on the edge of the nearside kerb. As she drew level with the figure, it stepped off the kerb and under the front wheels of the car. Mrs Rose instinctively did an emergency stop which resulted in her mother being flung against the windscreen; at the same time, Mrs Rose said she felt the impact as the car appeared to hit this man. Despite getting out and searching neither she, nor her mother, could find anyone one either in front or underneath the car.

Hopton Ghost (Scan 1)002Mrs Rose, who was a qualified nurse at the time, described both the incident and the ‘man’ to Ivan Bunn, the BSIG investigator. “………he was a bent-over old man wearing a trilby hat and a heavy overcoat……”. She was particularly struck by his “ashen face and cold look….. He was looking directly at the car as it approached him, but gave no indication that he was about to step off the kerb…..he had an odd expression, as if he knew what was about to happen”. Mrs Rose’s mother later confirmed to Ivan Bunn more or less what her daughter had said; saying that she herself never saw the ‘old man’ or felt the impact. In fact, she said that she was absolutely unaware that anything was amiss until she was, unceremoniously, thrown out of her seat when her daughter “stood on the brakes”. (See figure 1 on Map).

There have been other reported encounters with a ‘ghostly pedestrian’ and a few unsubstantiated ones. Another one which seems to have a ring of authenticity about it was one that occurred on a stretch of the old A12 road in March, 1974. At about 9.15pm one evening the driver of a car claimed to have seen a ‘sneering face’ illuminated by the headlights of his car. He braked hard to avoid what he thought was a person but, to his horror, “the car went though it!”. This witness also recalled that on other occasions before this incident, he felt “decidedly uneasy” on that stretch of the road “for no apparent reason”. (See figure 4 on Map).

Hopton 1
Lowestoft Road, Hopton-on-Sea, at the junction with Hall Road © Copyright Adrian Cable and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

It was also on the old A12, back in in December 1960 that a Mr Ernest Tuttle of Lowestoft was killed when the fish lorry which her was driving left the road for no apparent reason and hit a tree. Mr Tuttle, who had frequently driven along this road, had often told his daughter that it was “The worst road he had ever driven on….and there was something odd about it”. A month or so before his fatal crash, Mr Tuttle had told his daughter that he had seen “a grey shadow, a mist, going across the road.” At his inquest, an open verdict was returned; in his address, the Coroner said to the Jury:

“ The evidence, regarding the cause of the accident, did not amount to much, and most of it was negative……one naturally tries to find some explanation of something that would otherwise be a complete mystery”. (See figure 5 on Map)

As to the identity of this ghostly figure – well, no one knows. One theory suggested that it was a William Balls, Hopton’s postman who had worked himself to death in January of 1899, having spent 22 years serving the village. He was found in a field, close to where the hauntings occurred, at 10.30am on 2 January 1899, lying face down in a pool of blood after having succumbed to pneumonia which had developed from winter flu. It was said that he was buried at Hopton church, which must have been the present St Margaret’s since the St Margaret’s Church of old was burned down in 1865 – the remains of which still exist as a ruin.

Hopton 5 (St Margaret's Church Ruins)
The old St Margaret’s Church ruins
Hopton 6 (St Margaret's Church)
The present-day St.Margaret’s Church, Hopton-on-Sea, where one assumes William Balls is buried. © Copyright Adrian Cable and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Ivan Bunn was told about William Balls by Gwen Balls – the postman was her husband’s grandfather who died aged just 40 and who had been warned by his doctor just days beforehand that he would die without rest. “What am I to do? I must do my duty,” he replied. On the day of his death, as usual, he set out on his 16-mile round at 6am and worked until 9.30am at which point he started for home and a rest before restarting work at 4.20pm. He was found in his father’s field by a farm worker and left behind a pregnant wife, Angelina.

Is William Balls the ‘Old Man of Hopton’?

THE END

https://www.hiddenea.com/
https://www.hiddenea.com/lanternarchive.htm
www.roadghosts.com/A12%20accounts.htm
https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-ghostly-old-man-hopton-1-5672308
The original report details, upon which the above text was written, by courtesy of Hidden East Anglia and Mike Burgess.

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

A Ghostly Tale: Salthouse Shuck!

For centuries, folk have told tales of a large black dog with malevolent flaming eyes (or in some variants of the legend a single eye) that are red or alternatively green – take your pick – and they are described as being ‘like saucers’. Not only that but according to some, the beast varies in size and stature from that of simply a large dog to being the size of a calf or even a horse. Sometimes Black Shuck, or Old Shuck is recorded as having appeared headless, and at other times as floating on a carpet of mist!

Shuck (Himself)

According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, but particularly in and around Norfolk. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia described the creature thus:

He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So, you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Shuck you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.

That enigmatic, legendary creature, in the form of a large black dog, crops up over and over again in the annals of East Anglian Folklore. From Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast, down through Broadland and the heart of Norfolk, through the Waveney Valley and down further along the Suffolk coast and into Essex – this creature has, from time immemorial, struck fear and terror into the hearts of our forebears. His name may vary between “Old Shuck”, “Black Shuck”, “Owd Snarley-how”, “Hateful-Thing”, “Galley-Trot” or “Shug-monkey”, but this infamous creature is indeed well known. Norfolk in particular, can justifiably claim to have the strongest connections with such an animal. Whilst the towns of Bungay and Blythburgh are very closely linked with stories of Black Shuck, or Old Shuck – or even Shuck, there are other places such as Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and Salthouse, on the north Norfolk coast, that have also staked their claim. Today, it is this latter place which will have pride of place with the following Tale:

Shuck (Dun Cow)
The Dun Cow, 1909 – as close as we can get to Walter Barrett’s visit. The landlord at this time may have been a  Walter Graveling. He was also the blacksmith and had his smithy in the building you can see on the right of this picture.

Back in the 1970’s a certain Walter H Barrett wrote that some sixty years previously (shall we say around 1910) he was passing through the village of Salthouse, which lies on the North Norfolk coast road, between Cromer to the east and Cley-Next-The -Sea to the west. There he came across the Dun Cow public house which happened to be conveniently placed to afford him some liquid refreshment at a moment when he really needed it. As he entered, he noticed an aged man sunning himself near the door and feeling rather hospitable bought him a drink and joined him on his seat “Nice and warm in the sun” he enquired. “Tis today, but you want to be here in the winter when a Nor’ Easter is blowing in from the sea – that’s the time when this place is known as the Icehouse, he replied. Walter Barrett gathered that this chap’s name was Sam Rudd and that he had lived in the village all his life; also, he still got a fair living digging lug worms for bait.

Shuck (Beach - Stacey. Peak-Media)1
Salthouse beach and shingle bank on a blustery but otherwise fine day. Photo: Stacey Peak Media.

Sam Rudd sat quiet for a short spell, and then asked Walter “Ever heard of Old Shuck, the ghost dog? “Yes I have,” said Walter “but several places around this county claim they have an Old Shuck. “Huh! They may do” was Sam’s reply “ but there is only one ghost dog – and he is only seen between here and Cley……. Now, sit you down quiet and I will tell you: I have not only seen him, but I have had to run like hell when he chased me home one night when I was very much younger” ….. Sam eventually continued, having composed himself for the task in front of him: –

Shuck (Salthouse Nightfall)
Nightfall at Salthouse. Photo: Deskgram

“That night, I had been bait-digging as usual, but just as dark was falling I had to give up because the tide was rising fast. I started on my four miles’ walk back home along the beach, keeping a sharp eye on the high-water mark to see what had been washed up. That was in the days of sailing ships, and often drowned sailors from wrecks would be left high and dry when the tide turned. Sometimes I would find one. Sailors in those days wore gold rings on one finger. This I would remove; turn out his pockets. Anything there was mine. If he had come ashore in the parish of Salthouse, I would, after relieving him of anything worthwhile, drag him back into the water where the ebbing tide would carry him out to sea; there, the current would carry him along the coast, until he came ashore near Cromer. Now – the reason for me doing this was because all washed-up dead sailors were buried by the parish in whose boundary they were found. That was all right for the parson, undertaker and grave-digger, who each took their cut, but it was hard luck on us folks who had to find the poor rate levied by the churchwardens to pay for the burial, – and beside this, Salthouse had only one churchyard. Cromer, on the other hand, had a large cemetery with plenty of room to plant those men. As it was, I did not find anything that evening and having reached the beach road which led to the village, I clambered over the shingle bank and was no sooner on the road when a heavy sea mist came swirling down – then a pitch-black darkness set in.”

Ranworth (Ghost)

“I then heard a dog howling some distance behind me. It was so loud it drowned the roar of the sea pounding the shingle bank. I was wearing a pair of heavy thigh boots and after kicking them off I ran like a greyhound in my stockings. The faster I went, the nearer came the howling. When, at last, I reached my home, I opened the door; entered and bolted it as quickly as I could. When my father asked me where my thigh boots were, I told him not to worry about those but to listen to that big dog howling outside.”

Portrait of a black dog in low key“Father heard and got up out of his chair right quick like; took his fowling gun off its hooks on the wall; put in the barrel a double charge of gunpowder; rammed it down with a wad of paper. He then put about half a pound of heavy lead shot on top, and having put a firing cap on the gun nipple, went upstairs; opened the window; saw the dog squatting on its haunches; took aim and fired – but that did not stop the dog howling. When father came downstairs, he said that he had pumped swan shot into that dog but it did not fall over nor stop its howling. That was Old Shuck right enough! In the morning we went outside. There was no sign of the dog but the ‘privy’ door, some distance away, was riddled with shot holes, which proved to my father that the heavy shot had gone right through this ghost dog of ours – just as water would run through a sieve.” With these words, Sam Rudd suddenly stood up, thanked Walter Barrett for the drink and left.

Shortly afterwards, this Walter Barrett also took leave of the Dun Cow and retraced his steps back to Cley-Next-The-Sea to call on the Rector there, the Reverend Everett James Bishop, who informed him that the story he had heard at Salhouse was nonsense; the telling of such tales is the usual ruse that Cley and Salthouse fishermen use to ensure that the locals kept indoors whilst they, the fishermen, were making a smuggling run. This comment further increased Barrett’s interest and he thought he would get a second opinion from a local old fisherman, who was also a wild-fowler; his name was Pinchen. Pinchen scoffed and told Barrett, in no uncertain terms, to pay no regard to what the Rector had said – because he had not been in the parish very long; one had to have his roots in Cley for many years to really understand folk, their traditions and folk tales. Pinchen then remarked, “I can tell you the ‘true’ story of our Old Shuck – from its very beginning. Listen carefully because I have to take you back some 200 years!”:

Shuck (Brigantine)2
Ship in trouble. Photo: (Image: Loyola University Chicago)

 

“The night of 28th January 1709 was one of those which seafarers dreaded when they tried to sail their boats through the unpredictable waters which still keep these shores in check – particularly between nearby Blakeney and as far as Mundesley just south east of Cromer. The waves that night were twenty-feet high, rising foaming white and threatening as the result of a howling gale that tore at the sea surface and land like a screaming spoilt child. Almost in unison, these foaming waves flayed everything in their path before crashing on to these raised shingled beaches; beaches that are here to protect the marshes and villages hereabout. The inevitable rush of water breached the shingle on that occasion and rush headlong over the marshes to cause havoc among the trees and undergrowth and close to houses and churches which nestled on a slight rise in the land at the edge of the marshes. I can tell you – local folk prayed for God’s deliverance whilst some more hard-headed individuals anticipated the pickings from an unfortunate wreck……”

Shuck (Brigantine)
The Brigantine in trouble! Photo: Mutual Art

“And there was such a shipwreck at Salthouse that night and it was a Brigantine – some did say afterwards that it was the ‘Ever Hopeful’ but I tend to think that its name, if indeed it did survive, did not register with those who were there for the salvage only; the ship’s name that crept into the original tale may well have reflected someone’s sense of humour. Be that as it may, that Brig., registered in Whitby, had been caught by that storm whilst returning to Yorkshire from London and carrying a cargo of fruit, spices and other foodstuffs. Apparently, the Captain and crew tried hopelessly to control their small craft but were carried towards the shallow shoals just off the coast; a coast which was in almost total darkness, save for a couple of flickering beacons at Cromer and Blakeney. Inevitably, the ship was driven on to the shingle bank at Salthouse, followed by wave after wave which shattered her timbers and breaking up, spars, doors and rails, throwing everything aloft and into the waters.”

Shuck (Himself)6
Photo; Monsters Vault

“The screams of the doomed crew added to what must have been a nightmare and they, together with the Captain had abandoned ship, collectively making a desperate bid for life. Seizing his large wolf-hound pet by the collar, the Captain followed the crew and, like them, was swallowed up by the sea and drowned – every last one of them. Their bodies were washed ashore and in the calm of the morning the villagers came amongst them and the scattered remains of the once proud ship, its cargo and crew. Whilst salvaging the valuable wood and flotsam they saw the dead, but particularly the Captain who still had a firm hold on the dog’s collar – and the dog’s jaws still clamped tightly to the Captain’s reefer jacket in their desperate attempt for survival. Those of Salthouse’s folk who were present debated the fate of the wreckage and the crew in a hushed tone as if they did not want the dead to hear. One thing that was certain, they decided to bury master and pet separately. A hole was dug in a rare patch of sand that lay amongst the shingle and the wolf hound was thrown in – such was the treatment of animals, as for the Captain, he was taken to Salthouse Church, on the hill overlooking the village, and buried in an unmarked grave. One wonders what say the rector had in the matter! However, and more importantly in this tale, no one thought of any possible consequences of disregarding the latent thoughts and feelings of an animal who must have loved his master to the point of never wanting to leave him.”

dog and moon
Howling – it’s enough to wake the dead! Photo: Life Death Prizes

“Within a very short time, people hereabouts had claimed to have seen a very large black dog sniffing about and howling as if calling for his master. As the years passed, they say its appearance became more grotesque as if in increased frustration, grief and anger! He now has large red eyes; his coat as black as ebony; shaggy and the size of a calf. Many have sensed a hound padding silently behind them as if in two minds as to whether or not to vent its perceived anger. But I can tell you that over the years there has never been a story of anyone who has escaped the jaws of Old Black Shuck when that apparition had chosen its victim. Apparently, our Shuck is most active on those nights around the 28th January and whenever the sea is stormy. Then, his terrible howl rises above the wind and crashing waves. It is at that particular time when those who disbelieve should look over their shoulder!

If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there there is no witness around, does Shuck still walk regardless?

THE END

Reference Sources:
East Anglian Folklore and other tales, by W H Barrett and R P Garrod, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Folktales & Legends of Norfolk, by G M Dixon,Minimax Books Ltd, 1980.
Photo: (Feature Heading): Royal Museum Greenwich

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

A Ghostly Tale: Phantom Horses!

There are numerous ‘phantom’ horses and coach’ tales in Norfolk and indeed throughout East Anglia; however, actual first-hand accounts of them are few and far between. The following account was sent to the Editor of the BSIG’s ‘Lantern’ magazine in 1975 by a lady who, at the time was living in Diss, Norfolk. It is interesting…….!

Phantom Horses (Mockbeggars Hall)2
Mockbeggars Hall, East Tuddingham, Norfolk

“Last September (1975) I had just moved to East Tuddenham, Norfolk. One evening late in September on a cold, slightly windy evening with a full moon, I was taking my dog for a walk. I had walked up Common Road, past the Post Office and up to Mockbeggars Hall. I had walked up the road and had just reached some old cottages, when I heard the sound of ‘loose’ horses galloping towards me. My dog was upset and so I started to turn back for home. I thought that they were live horses and I was terrified as I was not able to get off the road as there were thick hedges on each side and I was afraid of being trampled underfoot.

Phantom Horses2
(Photo: copyright owner unknown)

I turned back for home running as fast as I could and hoping to get near some cottages to get off the road by getting into one of the gardens. I could still hear the sound of the horses following, and then I had to stop to get my breath – and the noise stopped! As I ran off again, the noise started again and stopped when I was able to get off the road. As it was a straight road and moonlight, I looked up the road and saw nothing but as I looked a car came down the road with lights on – but there was nothing to be seen.

In my youth I rode a lot and can distinguish between horses on fields and those on a hard road or cobbles. This was definitely a hard road sound of horses. Once I realised that it was a sound and not the real thing I was no longer afraid, but my dog was very upset and eager to get home.

I asked in the local shops if anyone had heard of this happening to anyone else and was told that there was a local man who had had the same experience………!

THE END

Source:
https://www.hiddenea.com/lanternarchive.htm

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

St Benet’s Abbey: Treachery!

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.

Shrieking Monk (Normans)2The 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!

Shrieking Monk (St Benets)4This 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.

Shrieking Monk (Normans)3We 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.

Shrieking Monk (Ghost)4
Photo: Spinney Abbey

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.

Shrieking Monk (St Benets)6The 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.

Shrieking Monk (crowning)2There, 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!

Shrieking Monk (Hanging)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!

img_2524

THE END

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.

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

A Ghostly Tale: Hellesdon’s Luminous Owl!

The following article appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on 2 February 1908:-

“A luminous owl (for there may be more than one!) was captured on Wednesday morning by Mr Edward Cannell at Lower Hellesdon and died from purely natural causes a few minutes afterwards.

A “John Knowlittle”, wrote “A Daily Press reporter, who has enquired into the circumstances, may be relied upon to weep for the luminous fowl. I have only to do with the facts, which are these”:-

“Mr Edward S Cannell is the engineer at the Norwich City Asylum (John Knowlittle will chuckle at that, I have no doubt) but Mr Cannell does not live at the Asylum – he is a trained and highly responsible man and is known to nearly everybody). I asked Mr Cannell to tell me how he came to find the owl.

“Yesterday morning” said Mr Cannell, between 6.00 and 6.30 when it was still dark, I went out into my garden. I had my dog with me. There is a grass bank about 2.5 feet high on one side and a grape vine on a wall on the other. I saw something shining on the grass bank, which for a moment startled me. It fluttered down, crossed the path and got up against the grape vine. I had no trouble in catching it and I did not hurt it in any way. It was an owl and it was bright and luminous. I should say that it was an ordinary owl, but the taxidermist will tell you all about that.

I carried it indoors and put it on a stool, then went out into the garden again. I do not think the dog saw the bird at all. When I came back into the house the bird was dying. It was still luminous, but perhaps the glow was not so strong as when I first saw it.

When I came into breakfast the bird was quite dead. Of course it was daylight then and I could see no luminosity in the bird; it’s light had gone out. I have no doubt at all that the bird was luminous when I saw it first. It was the diffused light which first attracted my attention. The luminosity appeared to me to be phosphorescent in its nature”. – “There are a number of owls that fly about among the trees at the Asylum every night but I have never seen a luminous one before”!

Luminous Owl (by Jumia Kenya- Generic)

THE END

 

A Ghostly Tale: Lost Hearts

“Lost Hearts” is a classic ghost story by the British author M.R. James. James read an early version of the story at a Cambridge literary society gathering in 1893, and the short story was published in the December 1895 issue of the Pall Mall Magazine. The story was later collected in the anthology Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904).

Lost Hearts (M R James)
M R James

The story opens with a young orphan named Stephen arriving at Aswarby Hall, the country estate of his elderly uncle, Mr. Abney. Although Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, Stephen learns that he is a kind man who has taken in other disadvantaged children in the past. Those children did not stay long, but Stephen is quite happy in his new life at the Hall. A few months after his arrival, however, Stephen begins to experience some mysterious and disturbing events.

“Lost Hearts” was one of the earliest stories written by M.R. James. Although the author himself did not care much for the story, some consider it one of James’ best. The story has been adapted for television and radio.

Plot:

In September of 1811, a young boy named Stephen Elliot arrives at Aswarby Hall in Lincolnshire. Stephen was recently orphaned, and his elderly cousin, Mr. Abney, has generously invited him to come live at the Hall. The invitation was unexpected, for Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, an expert on ancient pagan religions who is wrapped up in his books.

Lost Hearts (lincs.aswarbyhall)
Aswarby Hall, Linconshire.

Mr. Abney eagerly welcomes his young cousin, and he appears delighted to learn that Stephen’s twelfth birthday is nearly a year away. He tells Parkes the butler to take Stephen to the housekeeper, Mrs. Bunch. Mrs. Bunch makes Stephen feel completely at home, and they quickly become great friends. Stephen, an adventurous and curious boy, learns much about Aswarby Hall and its gardens from Mrs. Bunch who has been at the Hall for twenty years.

One November evening, Stephen asks Mrs. Bunch “Is Mr. Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?” Mrs. Bunch tells him that his uncle is the kindest man. She then talks about other children Mr. Abney has taken in. The first was a little girl who had no family. Mr. Abney brought her back with him from his walk one day about two years after Mrs. Bunch first came to the Hall. After three weeks, the girl suddenly left before anyone else was up in the morning. Mr. Abney was distraught and even had the ponds dragged, but the girl was never seen again. Mrs. Bunch believes she was taken away by the gypsies who were seen in the area. The second was a young foreign boy who came around with his hurdy-gurdy seven winters ago. Just like the girl, the boy left suddenly one early morning. Mrs. Bunch has no idea why he left or what he did, for he left his hurdy-gurdy behind.

Lost Hearts (maxresdefault)

That night, Stephen has a strange dream. He is looking through the glazed door of an old disused bathroom down the corridor from his bedroom. Lying in the bath tub is a thin figure wrapped in a shroud. There is a faint and dreadful smile on its lips, and its hands are pressed tightly over the heart. Then it begins to moan and move its arms. Stephen wakes terrified and finds himself standing in the passageway. He walks up to the bathroom door and takes a peek to see if the figure is there. Finding the bath empty, Stephen goes back to bed. Upon hearing about the dream in the morning, Mrs. Bunch puts a new curtain over the bathroom door. Mr. Abney also shows interest in Stephen’s story and makes notes in his book.

Lost Hearts (Ghosts)
Screenshot from the BBC television adaptation of “Lost Hearts” (1973)

As the spring equinox approaches, Mr. Abney repeatedly advises Stephen to take care and shut his bedroom window at night. He explains that the time of year was considered by the ancients to be critical for the young. One day, after Stephen has a particularly uneasy night, Mrs. Bunch finds his nightdress torn. There are long parallel slits on the left side of the chest. Stephen cannot explain the slits but tells Mrs. Bunch that there are similar scratches on the outside of his bedroom door. Mrs. Bunch goes to look at the door. The marks, which are too high up to have been made by an animal, look like fingernail scratches. She advises Stephen not to say anything to Mr. Abney and to lock his door at bedtime.

The following evening, Stephen is in Mrs. Bunch’s room when Parkes comes in looking uncharacteristically flustered. Not realizing Stephen is there, the butler begins to complain about the wine cellar. He is disturbed by noises coming from the far storage room. Mrs. Bunch points out that there are rats. Parkes replies that, if those are rats, they must be the kind that can talk. Mrs. Bunch protests that he is frightening Stephen, and Parkes finally becomes aware of the child. Stephen asks questions but Parkes will not say any more on the subject.

On March 24, Mr. Abney speaks to Stephen after lunch and asks him to come to his study at 11:00pm. He wishes to show Stephen something important connected with his future life, and tells Stephen not to mention it to anyone else. That evening, Stephen sees his uncle in the library. There is a silver cup filled with red wine and some sheets of paper on the table. Mr. Abney is sprinkling some incense on a brazier from a silver box. Stephen goes up to his bedroom unseen.

Lost Hearts (children_by_loneanimator).jpg
Lost Hearts (by_loneanimator)

Around ten o’clock, Stephen looks out from his bedroom window over the country. The night is still and there is a full moon. He hears strange cries from time to time, not quite like owls or water birds, from across the pond. They seem to come closer and closer, but then the cries stop. Then Stephen sees a boy and a girl standing on the terrace along the side of the Hall. The girl reminds Stephen of the figure in the bath he saw in his dream. She stands half smiling, with her hands over her heart. The boy, thin and in ragged clothing, raises his arms in a gesture of hunger and longing. His nails are fearfully long, and on the left side of his chest is a gaping rent. Stephen hears, not with his ears but in his brain, those desolate cries he heard earlier. Then the boy and the girl noiselessly move away and disappear.

It is now nearly eleven. Stephen, although quite frightened, decides to go down to Mr. Abney’s study. He knocks on the door but receives no reply. He hears his uncle speaking. Then he hears him trying to cry out and choking. In the silence that follows, Stephen frantically pushes open the door.

Lost Hearts (Mr Abney)
Mr Abney gets his comeuppance in an illustration by Douglas Walters; note the spirit in the brazier.

Later at the inquest, the coroner concludes Mr. Abney was killed by a wild animal that entered the study through the open window. Mr. Abney was found in his chair with a terrible laceration on his chest exposing the heart, and his expression was frozen in a mixture of rage, fear, and horrible pain. There was no blood on his hands or on the knife that lay on the table.

Lost Hearts (lost6)
The ghosts as they appear in the 1973 BBC adaptation; note the long fingernails, which they later put to good use!

Some years later, Stephen Elliot studies Mr. Abney’s papers and finds a different explanation for his uncle’s death. Through his studies of ancient texts, Mr. Abney had become convinced that one could gain supernatural powers – such as the ability to fly or become invisible – by consuming the hearts of three human beings below the age of twenty-one. The hearts were to be removed from living victims, reduced to ashes, and mixed with red wine. Mr. Abney chose children who would not be missed. The first heart was removed from a gipsy girl on March 24, 1792, and the second from a wandering Italian boy on March 23, 1805. The children’s bodies were concealed in the disused bathroom and the wine cellar. Mr. Abney chose Stephen as the third subject in his experiment. He hoped to gain powers to enable him not only to escape from justice but also to defeat death itself. Although he was aware of the ghosts of the children, called “the psychic portion of the subjects” in his papers, Mr. Abney believed them incapable of harming him.

Adaptations:

“Lost Hearts” was adapted for television as an episode of the Mystery and Imagination series with Freddie Jones as Mr. Abney. The episode was first broadcast on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on March 5, 1966.

The story was adapted as a short television film for the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas series[1] with Joseph O’Conor in the role of Mr. Abney. It first aired on British television on December 25, 1973. The movie features hurdy-gurdy music, and the ghost of the boy is seen playing the instrument.

On December 26, 2007, BBC Radio 4 aired a 15-minute dramatization of “Lost Hearts” as part of the M.R. James: Ghost Stories series.[2] Derek Jacobi, as M.R. James, introduces the story which is told as a recollection by the grown-up Stephen Elliot (James D’Arcy).

Footnotes:

  1. The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas consists of twelve TV movies which were first shown on British television between 1971 and 2013. Of the other eleven films in the series, two are original stories. The rest are adaptations of the short stories “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral“, “A Warning to the Curious“, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas“, “The Ash-tree“. “A View from a Hill“, “Number 13“, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “The Tractate Middoth” by M.R. James and the short story “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens.
  2. Other episodes in the five-part BBC radio mini-series R. James Ghost Stories from December 2007 are based on “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad“, “The Tractate Middoth“, “The Rose Garden” and “Number 13

External links:

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

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