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Black Dog of Bungay has his day - after 441 years

PUBLISHED: 15:34 19 September 2018 | UPDATED: 15:35 19 September 2018

The Bungay Black Dog is depicted in the town's weather vane in Market Square.
Picture: Adam Scorey

The Bungay Black Dog is depicted in the town's weather vane in Market Square. Picture: Adam Scorey

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The story of the Black Dog of Bungay is part of East Anglian folklore. But could the dog of legend have been unfairly maligned? Sheena Grant talks to author Terry Reeve about a new telling of the tale, inspired by his grandchildren.

Terry Reeve, with five of his six grandchildren: at the top Oscar, left, and Caspar; in the middle is Nora, next to Terry; and at the bottom Brittany, with Emily on her knee.  Also pictured is artist Karen Leah, who did the illustrations in Terry's newly-published book, Nora and the Black Dog of Bungay, inspired by his grandchildren.
Picture: Terry ReeveTerry Reeve, with five of his six grandchildren: at the top Oscar, left, and Caspar; in the middle is Nora, next to Terry; and at the bottom Brittany, with Emily on her knee. Also pictured is artist Karen Leah, who did the illustrations in Terry's newly-published book, Nora and the Black Dog of Bungay, inspired by his grandchildren. Picture: Terry Reeve

It’s one of East Anglia’s best known but most terrifying legends and has lost none of its chilling power despite the passage of time.

More than 400 years ago, in 1577, so the story goes, an apparition of the devil disguised as a black dog appeared at St Mary’s Church, Bungay, during a fierce summer storm.

As the people knelt in fear, praying for deliverance from the sudden darkness, deafening rain, thunder and lightning, a great ‘hell hound’ burst in, attacking the congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the steeple to collapse through the roof.

The dog then fled to Blythburgh church, killing more people and leaving scorch marks on the door, which can still be seen and are referred to locally as “the devil’s fingerprints”.

The storm of August 4, 1577, may have actually happened but the chain of events said to have unfolded at Bungay can probably be attributed to a lightning strike. In those more superstitious times, however, such natural disasters were often considered the devil’s work.

Local historians say there had long been a belief that a satanic black hound - or Black Shuck - roamed the area so, for people trapped in the church during that storm, it wasn’t much of a leap to believe a spectral hound was responsible for the catastrophe.

Bungay-born Terry Reeve grew up with stories of the town’s famous Black Dog, which is depicted in its coat of arms, several buildings and lends its name to many local organisations and events.

But when, earlier this year, he set about writing a story for - and about - his grandchildren, it soon evolved into something he hadn’t originally planned: a new take on the Black Dog legend - one that had never been tackled before. The dog’s own story.

What if, for the last 441 years, the Black Dog had been unfairly maligned? What if it was no spectral hound but instead just a badly-treated mutt looking for shelter in a storm?

Terry’s book, called Nora and the Black Dog of Bungay, explores that possibility. The title character, Nora, takes her name from one of his six grandchildren and the other five - Emily, Brittany, Oscar, Caspar and Wilfred - are all part of the story too.

The 66-page book, with five illustrations by local artist Karen Leah, was, fittingly, unveiled at St Mary’s Church with five of Terry’s grandchildren, who range in age from two to 19, present.

Terry, a retired journalist, has written several local history books and two novels set locally as well as collaborating on other Bungay publications. His brother, Chris, is also a prolific writer of local history books and their mother, Iris, had a book published too. But Nora and the Black Dog of Bungay is something of a departure.

“It’s basically a children’s book but because the subject is also of interest to adults who follow the legend - and there are many - it is a book for all the family to enjoy,” says Terry.

“It’s a simple fantasy and came about last Christmas, which is one of the one of the few times of year I manage to get all my six grandchildren together. I had the idea of writing a story for them, with them as the characters in it, and giving them each a copy. But when I sat down to write, it evolved into this new take on the Black Dog legend.

“The basic story is that the dog was ill-treated by his master and managed to escape but did not know where to go. This was the morning of the day he appeared in the church. He just wanted to shelter from this awful storm. The story tells what happens when the children are suddenly confronted by this apparently savage animal and discover his side of the story.”

Terry is not sure whether Bungay’s Black Dog and Black Shuck are one and the same but he rather doubts it.

“It’s a grey area and one we will never really know the answer to but my view is that Black Shuck is a different animal, more related to Norfolk than Suffolk,” he says.

Although the legend that has inspired Terry’s book may be frightening, there is nothing in Nora and the Black Dog that will really trouble children, he says.

“There may be parts that are a mildly scary, like when Emily slips down and lands in front of the snarling back dog, but there is emotion too. Hopefully, it is moving when the feelings and the ‘real’ story of the dog comes out, as it’s so different to what people had been willing to believe.”

Nora and the Black Dog of Bungay costs £7.50 and is available from the author (call 01986 896416 or email terry.reeve19@btinternet.com) as well as bookshops and online retailers. Terry is chairman of the north Suffolk fundraising branch of the NSPCC and hopes to make a donation to the charity from book sales.

More Weird Suffolk stories can be found here.

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