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Weird Norfolk: The farmer and the ghost, Beeston Regis

PUBLISHED: 12:11 09 February 2018 | UPDATED: 13:51 09 February 2018

The grave of James Reynolds at All Saints Church, Beeston Regis. Picture: Ian Burt

The grave of James Reynolds at All Saints Church, Beeston Regis. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2018

Menaced at sunset by a hooded spectre that leapt from behind a stone left behind by a river of ice, a Norfolk farmer decided to lay the ghost to rest by guarding it from his grave for eternity.

It’s the everyday tale of a furious farmer, a hooded spectre and the relocation of an alien stone to prevent mischief from the afterlife.

In a county famed for being flat, Beeston Regis stands out, quite literally. Beeston Bump overlooks the sea and the village below it, a commanding reminder of Norfolk’s icy past when the hill formed part of the glacial Cromer Ridge.

Left behind when glaciers retreated northwards at the end of the last ice age, the hill – actually two symmetrical round flat-topped hills or kames – stands guard over another unusual Beeston landmark, the ruined priory of Sheringham.

The Priory is almost 800 years old and was founded by Margery de Cressy. The canons there followed rules set down by St Augustine and belonged to the Order of Peterstone, a small and somewhat mysterious Norfolk-based religious order of which very little is known.

The grave of James Reynolds at All Saints Church, Beeston Regis. Picture: Ian BurtThe grave of James Reynolds at All Saints Church, Beeston Regis. Picture: Ian Burt

What we do know is that the canons at Beeston were unusual in that they played a part in local life outside the priory which was in stark contrast to the majority of other monastic orders from the time who demanded complete seclusion for priests.

They served as priests for nearby churches, ran a boys’ school for boarding and day students and had the rights to wrecks, flotsam and jetsam from 40 acres in Beeston close to where they lived.

Scandal struck the hallowed building in 1317 when, for reasons unknown, Canon John de Walsam attacked the Bishop of Norwich with a sword in a matter later referred to Pope John XXII - de Walsam was sent to Rome where, after the recovery of the Bishop, he was absolved.

In the floods of 1400, the building was struck by disaster when the south transept collapses, the Bishop of Norwich criticised the priory in 1494 after discovering a canon had gone “absent without leave” and by 1540 King Henry VIII had closed the house of worship and stripped it of its valuables.It was the closure of the priory and its school which is believed to have led Sir John Gresham to found Gresham’s School in nearby Holt in 1555.

Converted into farm buildings, the ruined priory became a romantic beauty spot for Victorians and it was during this time that a set of heavy metal gates were installed to limit the number of sight-seers inspired by the Gothic novels of the day.

The farmer who worked the land at Beeston, however, didn’t harbour such romantic illusions, he just wanted to lead his team of horses past the gateway, which itself was guarded by imposing glacial erratics carried to the spot by a river of ice, without incident.

But a hooded apparition had other ideas: as farmer James Reynolds drove his team past the standing stones, he was infuriated when the horses were spooked by the figure, which would leap out from behind a large stone close to the road and the gates.

The ghost, dressed in grey robes, appeared at sunset and made an attempt to grab hold of the horses’ reins before it disappeared, having terrified the animals. While others would have been chilled to the bone to see a ghost appear from behind a glacial erratic, farmer Reynolds was made of sterner stuff – after several encounters with the hooded apparition, he vowed he would lay the spirit to rest for good.

In Beeston’s All Saints’ Church, a large stone four foot long and two foot high covers a grave, inscribed on both sides with the name of its occupant: James Reynolds. It was removed after the farmer’s death in 1941 and, according to his wishes, placed on top of his gravestone in a nod to the superstitious belief that a gravestone’s weight would prevent the dead from rising.

He hoped, it is said, that by removing the ghost’s hiding place, he would effectively lay the spirit to rest and stop it roaming between two worlds, causing havoc to passing farmers. Sixteen years later, the stone was removed in order for James’ wife Ann Elizabeth to join him for eternity and then replaced.Whether Farmer Reynolds’ DIY exorcism was effective is unknown – he has remained silent on the subject. But the stone still marks his final resting place and the other half of the pair is said to lie against the north wall of the churchyard – perhaps best not to visit either at sunset, just in case.

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