Weird Norfolk: The Coltishall bridge where devil dog Black Shuck prowls at night
PUBLISHED: 09:00 13 April 2019 | UPDATED: 11:21 13 April 2019
A Shaggy dog story - the tale of Black Shuck in Coltishall: “As big as a calf and noiseless as death”
At the upper reaches of the River Bure and under the cloak of darkness, the huge black dog silently approaches the bridge, saucer-eyed and sharp-toothed. Black Shuck is the ghostly black dog said to roam in East Anglia inland and at the coast, often believed to be an omen of death, his name from the Old English word “scucca”, meaning devil or fiend.
Reverend ES Taylor wrote about Black Shuck in 1850: “This phantom I have heard many persons in East Norfolk and even Cambridgeshire, describe as having seen as a black shaggy dog, with fiery eyes and of immense size, and who visits churchyards at midnight.
And of course, across the border in Bungay, Abraham Fleming’s famous account of “a strange and terrible wunder” in 1577 recounted the terrible tale of a beast that killed people at worship, leaving tragedy in its wake.
William Dutt in Highways and Byways in East Anglia, published in 1901, described Black Shuck and his place in local folklore. “He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound,” he wrote.“You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops’, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. “So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Snarleyow you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.”
Regardless of his heritage, there is a persistent belief that one of Black Shuck’s favourite haunts is Coltishall Bridge at night. A middle-aged couple from the village stopped on the bridge to light a cigarette in the 1930s and saw a black dog “as big as a calf and as noiseless as death” pass within a foot of them while a Horstead couple heard the creature approach with pattering feet and heavy breathing while on the bridge. In the early 1950, a young woman and her future husband were dawdling on the bridge at dusk when, walking from Coltishall Island (the triangle of land that is the middle of the nearby meeting of roads) they saw a black dog the size of a small pony. It passed them, looked at them but kept walking, eventually vanishing as it padded along, much to the horror of the terrified couple.
Another account from the early 1960s is from two RAF officers travelling by car back from Norwich to RAF Coltishall – as they drove across the bridge, they were forced to break sharply when an enormous black dog crossed the road to the cobbles of Coltishall High Street. The beast turned and glared at them before vanishing – it was, the pair said, like a gigantic Labrador, but as high as their car at around 53 inches tall.
As a young reporter, I was sent to stand on Coltishall Bridge at midnight on October 31 (not the most glamorous of jobs) and can report that Black Shuck did not appear to me, although every pair of red glowing brake lights I witnessed almost caused me to have palpitations. Weird Norfolk does not condone standing on bridges at midnight looking for devil dogs in Coltishall or any other village.
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