Weird Norfolk: The secret tunnel in North Norfolk marked with a cross

A stone cross stands on a triangle patch of land at a crossroads.

Does the stone cross south of the village of Aylmerton hide a secret tunnel? - Credit: Wikipedia/stavros1

This medieval wayside cross has marked the pilgrimage route to Little Walsingham for centuries – but could it also hide a network of tunnels and treasure? The Gresham or Aylmerton Cross is on the parish boundary between the two villages that it takes its name from and also meets an old track called Mill Lane, the pilgrim path to the Walsingham shrines.

At the base of the tall cross is a niche where it is believed that votive offerings were left and the structure we see today is not that which used to greet worshippers. The original cross shattered and only a stump was left, but it was restored in the 19th century and a cross placed on top.

(As an aside, the Shrieking Pits of Aylmerton are close by, offering ghosts above ground)

Today’s tale concerns not what lies above the remaining stump of the medieval cross but rather what lies beneath it: as legend has it, a tunnel which leads from the cross to the ruins of the 13th century priory at Beeston Regis next to the sea. Another story claims the tunnel runs from the ruined castle at Gresham, directly underneath the cross and to Beeston Abbey but in both cases, the tunnels are said to hide a rare treasure, a golden figure of a calf.

The Reverend John Charles Cox, writing in 1885, said the cross marked a place where religious meetings were held and mentioned “…a golden image, shaped like a calf” which had been lost underground. He added that 60 years previously, so in the 1820s, “…a ‘cunning man’ was engaged by an old lady to search underneath her property in the parish of Gresham, for this calf.

“A pit was sunk in the old lady's parlour, about a quarter of a mile from the cross, and hundreds of loads of soil excavated, without any result.

“As the excavators began to undermine the adjoining property, belonging at that time to Admiral Luken, of Felbrigg Hall, a stop was put to further proceedings, and the golden calf still remains to be found".

The castle at Gresham was actually a manor house which was fortified by its owners, the Bacon family, in 1319 before being sold to Thomas Chaucer, son of the famous writer Geoffrey. ‘Chaucer Castle’ was handed to the Paston family from joint owners Thomas and Sir William Moleyns who, after Thomas’ death and abetted by the infamous John Heydon of nearby Baconsthorpe lodged a claim on the house and launched a campaign of intimidation and threats to the Paston’s tenants. Margaret Paston’s letters to her husband, who fought the case in London, describe how, in 1449, Moleyn’s army of hundreds finally managed to remove her from the family home.

The broken remains of Gresham Castle are in an overgrown coppice which grows where there was once a moat. According to The East Anglian, or Notes and Queries of 1885, in 1844, the moat was cleared and the remains of a timbered drawbridge and the entrance to a tunnel were said to be found, the latter apparently leading to two nearby churches.

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But what of the golden calf? In the Bible, the golden calf was an idol worshipped by the Hebrews which, after returning from Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, Moses had the idol melted down, pulverized and mixed with water. The Hebrews were forced to drink the liquid, an ordeal to separate the unfaithful – who later died in a plague – from the faithful (who lived).

There are, bizarrely, other examples of golden calf statue hidden in tunnels across the country, including one at an Iron Age hillfort three miles from Chichester. According to the story attached to the treasure, anyone attempting to find the golden calf would be thwarted. As soon as they caught sight of it there would be a clap of thunder and the calf would disappear - archaeologists excavating the site in 1928 report hearing the legend still on the lips of the people living nearby in Singleton.

Is there a golden calf still waiting to be found deep beneath the countryside of North Norfolk?

For more Weird Norfolk stories click here.

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