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Weird Norfolk: The Devil at Burgh St Peter

PUBLISHED: 09:00 18 August 2018 | UPDATED: 15:04 13 November 2018

Shakespeare counselled that one should neither a borrower nor a lender be and in Burgh St Peter, a deal was struck that led to this phrase quite literally haunting the pair who made it.

With its peculiar ziggurat tower – like steps to heaven – the church of St Mary is a well-known local landmark that stands out like a beacon across the eerie Burgh marshes and can be seen for some distance from the nearby River Waveney.

In the early 20th century, wily locals in the south Norfolk village would claim to visitors their church tower was telescopic and was wound up at the start of each sailing season and then wound down again to mark the onset of winter – in fact, the stepped tower is an 18th century mausoleum for the Reverend Samuel Boycott.

Travelling back to medieval times, St Mary’s has another strange story attached to it, one that leaves the stacking-block tower in the shadows.

It is said a poor man was sitting by the river bank centuries ago, his mind addled with money worries, when a stranger appeared and spoke gently to him, uncannily aware of the issues he was struggling with and kindly suggesting a solution to his financial woes.

The pair struck a deal which saw one receive a loan and the other a pact that said the loan would be repaid in years to come – the bargain was struck and recorded on parchment and the poor man went home, no longer poor but rather rich. Some of his new-found wealth was spent on building St Mary’s church for the village.

The years passed and the day for repayment finally arrived: the lender made his way to the church to wait for the man.

It was, of course, Old Nick himself who had come to claim his side of the bargain – the man’s soul. But he was to be outwitted – as the devil so often is in these tales – because the man had died just hours before payment was due and had been buried in the consecrated ground of the new churchyard, out of the devil’s reach.

On the anniversary of the man’s death – said by many to be May 2 – a spectral skeleton is said to visit the church, returning year after year in the hope that he can reclaim his loan and claim a soul. Some say Satan sits for a whole night on the Devil’s Stile on a field path into the main road near the former rectory, and Devil Stile Hill does exist, albeit a fair walk from St Mary.

Another legend has it that building on the church had already begun when the Devil arrived to offer its builder the funds to finish the job and that the Devil lies in wait for the soul due to him and that he, a clothed skeleton, can be seen, as can the shadow of the builder who duped him.

In Ben Sharmon’s autobiography, a tale is told from The Gentleman’s Chronicle of 1683 in which an Adam Morland borrowed a sum of cash from an old man unknown to him who turned out to be Satan in disguise. “Thus Adam unwittingly sold his soul to him in return for the loan,” the book continues, “he managed to redeem it by building the church with the money on the site of the present one. The church was consecrated by the Lord Abbot of St Benet’s at Holm, and the site therefore protected from devilish influence. However it is said that Satan still haunts the churchyard waiting for the Resurrection, so that he may claim the soul of Adam Morland. He is still disguised as an old man, but his clothes cover nothing but a skeleton, and in his skull are eyes like balls of fire.”

According to Sharman, there would be “a definite day set aside for the purpose of prayer and fasting and the scattering of ashes round the church porch to drive away this evil influence”.

It was, however, all in vain. The Gentleman’s Chronicle notes: “Many years ago one Mary Dowdell, an old lady, is said to have seen the ghost and her mind became affected. She lingered manie years and dyed insane, which is greatlie pittyed. She left a good husband and eleven offspringe.”

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