An ancient forest with a dark tale – and a nature reserve loved by ramblers and conservationists. That is the mixed legacy of Wayland Wood.

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Where is it?

Wayland Wood, a mile or so to the south-east of the Norfolk market town of Watton, is a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England. It is said to date back to the last Ice Age up to 20,000 years ago. Today it is a traditionally-managed woodland with many ancient species of flora and fauna thriving there. But it is a gruesome legend, perhaps based on fact, that gives it its distinction today.

Lost in the woods?

The story known as the Babes in the Wood is today known worldwide, but its roots are in this part of Norfolk. It was first published in Norwich in 1595 by Thomas Millington and later in ballad form, as Children of the Wood, published in 1640. The story tells of a wicked uncle who wanted to do away with his orphaned nephew and niece. So he hired some local villains with instructions to abduct the two infants aged about five and three and take them into nearby woodland and murder them. But, so the story goes, one of the assassins had an attack of conscience, and he killed his companion rather than the children. The story has no happy ending, as befits some of the darker tales in our folklore. The two children wandered in the deep wood, and died of starvation before reaching safety. Their bodies were found under an oak tree where robins had covered their bodies with leaves and their ghosts were left to haunt the woods ever after.

Just a story then?

It may be based on actual events in Norfolk about 30 years before the first publication, involving family rows and religion. From 1541 to 1572 the de Grey family owned Griston Hall, near Watton, on the edge of the woods. Edmund de Grey had a grandson, Thomas, whose father died in 1562 when he was just seven years old. His uncle, Robert, had been on bad terms with his brother. In the brothers will, dated March 10, 1562, he wrote: I will to my brother Robert, so that he confesseth that he hath offended me, to have his annuity of forty shillings continue during his life. Apparently the cause of the family rift was religion. Robert was a Catholic diehard who refused to go to the new Protestant church services brought in across England by the government of Elizabeth I. Young Thomas became a ward of the crown and, according to the custom of the day, was sold in marriage to a Carbrooke heiress. As Robert stood to inherit the house and land if the boy died before he grew up and had a family he had a motive for murder. Sure enough, four years after his fathers death, young Thomas and his sister died mysteriously after a visit to his stepmother, Temperance Carewe, of Baconsthorpe and local gossip had it his uncle had somehow done away with them.

Open-and-shut case?

Robert de Grey did not help his reputation after inheriting the estate and then allegedly trying to rob the boys widow of her property but there is no record of any murder charge, so we must reserve judgment. Millingtons story was written in 1595, a time when extreme Protestant and Catholics were flinging all sorts of accusations at each other, so it may have been malicious. The story, as outlined above, is just one version of events. But folklore often turns out to have more than a grain of truth... What happened afterwards, as the story grew in the telling, is interesting. Many think this is how the wood got its name; Wayland derives from wailing after the cries of the children calling for help, and which todays walker in the woods is said to hear sometimes at dusk. There may be another dark twist to this. Other sources say the Vikings named the woods Waneland, a place of worship which may point to another origin for the legend. In pagan times it is said that people sacrificed unwanted children to appease the gods, often by leaving them exposed in out-of-the-way places such as woods. Could a fusion of the two strands the pagan woodland sacrifices and the 16th century deaths be the true source of the legend? The story lived on for centuries in Norfolk, and the oak under which the children supposedly died became famous. When it was struck by lightning in 1879 people from all over Norfolk turned up in search of souvenirs. Todays town sign in Watton in front of the Clock Tower in High Street is a depiction of the babes. Griston Hall was rebuilt long ago, and is today a farm covering 400 acres of arable land.

And in modern times?

Wayland Wood is cared for by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. This oak, ash, hazel and bird cherry woodland is renowned for its bluebells, yellow archangel, early purple orchid and wood aneneome. It is also said to be one of the best places in the country to see golden pheasants, a bird with a distinctive golden crest and bright red body. Nature-lovers will also be interested in nearby Thompson Common. It is famous for its pingos, a series of 300 shallow pools which are today home to water beetles and dragonflies. These circular ponds were created during the Ice Age when water beneath the surface froze to form lenses of ice, pushing the soil up. The Great Eastern Pingo Trail is an eight-mile walk, starting in Stow Beddon.

Anything else?

Bizarrely, Richard OBrien is said to have based stageshow The Rocky Horror Show on Babes in the Wood, taking it as a retelling of Adam and Eve and the loss of innocence. Or maybe thats just another legend!

WEBSITES

www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk

www.visitbreckland.com

www.norfolkcoast.co.uk/myths/ml_babesinwood.htm

www.edp24.co.uk/Content/Postcard_From/thompson.asp

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