Weird Norfolk: Overstrand’s “headless goblin dog” Black Shuck
- Credit: Archant Library/Sam Robbins
You may have seen Amelia Opie, Norwich’s pioneering anti-slavery heroine – she looks down on us all from the rooftops on the street named after her in the city. But Weird Norfolk wonders if was she also seen by another of Norfolk’s famous names – Black Shuck - when she took a seaside break just outside Cromer in 1829…
Black Shuck haunts Norfolk folklore, a dark figure “as big as a calf and as noiseless as death” stalking through the county since the 16th century. Seen across the county, and in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex, Black Shuck takes many forms and has many purposes, a true manifestation of everyone’s fear, a creature you definitely do not want to see on a dark and stormy night.
Whether he has eyes like saucers or hot breath like a lick of fire, whether he foretells your impending death or is some kind of guardian spirit, whether he roams the coast or woodland, heath or roadside, one thing is for certain: he is not of this realm.
Amelia Opie, nee Anderson, was an English author who published novels in the Romantic period up to 1828 and is much-loved for her stance on the abolition of slavery. Brought up to care for those who came from less privileged backgrounds, she worked with Anna Gurney of the famous Gurney family of Norwich to create a Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in the city. Her signature was the first of 187,000 names presented to the British Parliament on the society’s petition from women to stop slavery.
But today’s tale concerns her stay at Anna Gurney’s home in the village of Northrepps, just outside Cromer. Northrepps Cottage is now a hotel and boasts a room named after its famous visitor. In an article published in the Eastern Daily Press of 1894, a shaggy dog story is told by James Hopper in an article entitled: ‘Demon Dogs of Norfolk and Suffolk’.
It reads: "Mrs. Opie [writer Amelia Opie, 1769-1853] was staying at Northrepps Cottage in January 1829, and recalls the belief that at twilight every evening, the ghost of a dog is seen to pass under the wall of Overstrand churchyard, having started from Beeston.
“This four-footed ghost, unlike all human ones, is not only visible but tangible...Other historians relate that Shock rises out of the sea by Beeston, and runs along 'Shock's Lane' on to the hills by Overstrand, after which his course is uncertain.”
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Sightings of Shuck were so common in Overstrand that he appeared in the old village sign and an old section of the coastal path was named ‘Shuck’s Lane’ in his honour. He is thought to rise from the depths of nearby Beeston Bump which towers over this picturesque corner of Norfolk before he makes his way along the path through Cromer and to Overstrand where he paces the village before leaping into the churchyard and disappearing.
In the EDP article, the writer continues: “A worthy sensible gamekeeper, now no more, declared and believed, to the day of his death, that one evening it (Shuck) was under his hand and ‘though ready to face any earth-born poacher, four-legged or two-legged at dawn or dusk’, he owned he was so frightened – for he knew what it was he saw glide on before him in the moonlight!
“Its back, he said, was rough, hard and shaggy.
“Old Shock walks sometimes with a head, sometimes without, but be that as it may, continues Mrs Opie, the villagers, when questioned, assert that his eyes are ‘always as big as saucers’.”
According to the brilliant Shuckland section of the hiddenea.com website, a series of snippets from books and guides puts more meat on Shuck’s bones. The ground close to where Shuck is seen is “…found to be scorched, and strongly impregnated with the smell of brimstone” according to Robert Chambers’ 1894 Book of Days.
On Overstrand’s former webpage, the following was written about the legend: "A Dane, a Saxon and Shuck the dog were inseparable friends who were drowned while fishing together.
“The Dane washed up at Beeston while his friend the Saxon washed up at Overstrand. Shuck roams the coast between the two looking for his friends and masters.There have been many, many, local accounts of his sighting over the centuries and further accounts stating that for 40 or so years, Black Shuck made his home in the abandoned ruin of St. Martin's church, until restoration work began in 1911."
Other accounts talk of “a goblin headless dog”, of storms that followed Shuck’s appearance as day follows night and of a white handkerchief “tied over the place where his head should be”.
Just why did Amelia Opie mention Black Shuck while staying just minutes away from where he frequents – did she have an encounter…?
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