WEIRD NORFOLK: The case of the trees that were swallowed by the ground after human bones were found in Corpusty
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019
Cor blimey – did the Devil jump at the chance of taking ownership of a slice of Corpusty real estate when human bones were denied a Christian burial?
In this gently rolling Norfolk landscape which peacefully slopes towards the river Bure, it's hard to believe that the Devil has a foothold. But here, in Mossymere Wood, near Corpusty, it is said that the dark one took his chance to seize a patch of ground after a crime against God was committed in this quiet corner of the county.
The Devil's Dish is a depression within in the wood which came into being when, in 1717, several oak trees sunk into the ground and water rose up to create a small sinkhole, or solution hole. A solution hole appears when chalk underground dissolves, creating holes which then collapse and create depressions in the ground: or that's the scientific answer, folklore, of course, has created something far more poetic.
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It is said that shortly before the Devil's Dish was created, human remains and 'relics' had been discovered in the area and, instead of taking the bones to a consecrated site for a Christian burial, those that found them swiftly covered them at the site and walked away. Local folklore dictates that God did not look kindly upon such a blasphemous act. On July 23 1717, there was a thunderous crack as the earth appeared to open and the trees that stood on the spot where the illegal burial had taken place were swallowed by the ground and what appeared to be boiling water replaced them. The bubbling water that sprung up where the mighty oaks had once stood proudly was seen as a sign of God's displeasure and the Devil's tenure at this quiet spot.
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This tale of the Devil's Dish was being told in the area as late as 1993, the story having been revisited when part of an early medieval cooking pot was discovered at the bottom of the 60ft depression in August 1987. Norfolk Heritage Explorer (www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk) notes that the story of the trees that disappeared into the ground and the water that replaced them was still being told until relatively recently. "In September 1993, a groom at Elmerdale Farm told E Rose that this story was still being told locally, but with the addition that human burials has been found in the wood not long before, which were covered up again rather than being removed to the churchyard, so this was taken as a sign of Divine displeasure." Edwin Rose added that 'relics' were also said to have been found and were investigated by The Philosophical Society.
Shortly after the Devil's Dish appeared, Mossymere Woods was bought in 1736 from the impoverished Potts family by Horatio, the first Lord Walpole (the brother of Sir Robert Walpole, who became Britain's first prime minister). Horatio had also bought nearby Wolterton Hall in 1722 and was keen to increase his estate by buying piecemeal packages of land. Another story is associated with the woods here, the sad story of two woodmen who were trapped in the forest in deep snow and forced to shelter at the keeper's cottage in Mossymere Wood. The gamekeeper, keen to be a good hostess, washed the sheets before making up the beds and as a result the poor men caught pneumonia and died. One hopes their funeral did take place on consecrated ground, or history could well repeat itself…