Weird Norfolk: The ‘fairy loaves’ that are bad luck in Norfolk and good in Suffolk
- Credit: Ian Burt
Plump domed fossils that tell a story hundreds of millions of years old, it is unsurprising that people believe these star-shaped stones were filled with magic.
In Sussex, they were displayed on windowsills as good luck charms to prevent lightning based on a belief they had fallen to earth during a storm and therefore would not be hit by lightning a second time: some thought the sound of a thunderclap was made by the stone falling to the ground.
The strange star-spangled stones are supposed to be able to prevent milk from souring and to predict rain – when a downpour is near, they apparently ‘sweat’.
Some believe they are the hearts of children that have turned to stone, others that the star represents the one seen in the sky in the Nativity story while a persistent belief is that these echinoids, a sea urchin, are actually petrified snake eggs.
It was said the eggs formed on Midsummer’s night from the froth of snakes which, if shaped into a ball, could protect you from deadly poisons.
In Scandinavia, the fossils were use to keep away witchcraft and wicked elves, in Italy they were hung around children’s necks in order to protect them from illness and ward off the Evil Eye and in France they were used to help ease the pain of childbirth.
In Japan they were used to ‘cure’ boils and ulcers, in Malay they sharpened daggers with them and in eastern Europe it was believed that echinoids could reveal hidden treasure if used during Passion Week (the period between Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday).
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But in our part of the world, they are another example of the lively rivalry between the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.
In Suffolk, the ‘fairy loaves’ – so named due to their similar appearance to a traditional loaf of bread - were kept in household hearths, polished with black lead and believed to be lucky charms.
“Calling at a cottage in a retired lane in the parish of Carlton Colville, near this town, a few weeks since, I saw on the chimney-piece what appeared to be a fine specimen of fossil echinus, though disfigured by the successive coats of black lead used to give it a polish,” a passage in The East Anglian or Notes and Queries on Subjects Connected with the Counties of Suffolk, Cambridge, Essex and Norfolk by Samuel Tymms reads (they knew how to name a book in 1864).
“I was informed that it had been found on the land some twenty years before; that it was ‘a fairy loaf’; and that whoever had one of these loaves in the house would never want for bread.”
If the household went without bread for more than a week, it was a sure sign that witchcraft had blocked the fairy loaves’ protective powers.
Meanwhile, over the county border in Norfolk, bringing a fairy loaf indoors was considered to be the height of reckless stupidity.
In the New London Gazette in 1827, the following article ran from a correspondent:
“Being lately in Norfolk, I discovered that the rustics belonging to the part of it in which I was staying, particularly regarded a kind of fossil stone, which much resembled as sea-egg petrified and was found frequently in the flinty gravel of that county.
“They esteemed such stones sacred to the elfin train and termed them ‘fairy loaves’ forbearing to touch them, lest misfortunes should come upon them for the sacrilege.
“An old woman told me, that as she was trudging home one night from her field-work, she took up one of these fossils and was going to carry it home with her, but was soon obliged to drop it and take to her heels as quick as might be from hearing a wrathful voice exclaim, though she saw nobody: ‘Give me my loaf! Give me back my loaf, I say!’”
Echinoids can be found all over southern and eastern England and are often found in areas where there is chalk.