WEIRD NORFOLK: 13 Fantastic folklore tales from Norfolk from Black Shuck to Bloody Mary
PUBLISHED: 18:00 03 October 2020
As the nights draw in, Weird Norfolk choose their favourite folklore stories from the county, find out how to summon the Devil or Mary Tudor, an old cure for joint pain, the King under Norwich Castle and lots more
Black Shuck’s death stare, fairy cows that magically appear in droughts, Lantern Men that lure the unsuspecting to their death, the King that sleeps under Norwich Castle’s hill, Babes in the Wood and hell’s bells – just a flavour of the strange stories embroidered into Norfolk’s rich folklore tapestry. Here, Weird Norfolk’s Stacia Briggs and Siofra Connor choose their favourite tales for dark nights.
1) Whistle and he’ll come to you: at All Saints church in Swanton Morley, it’s said that Satan can be summoned if you run round the church at midnight and then whistle through the keyhole, at which point the Dark Lord will appear. A variation involves whistling through the grille that looks into a crypt under the chancel again, after circling the church at the witching hour.
2) At St George’s church in Great Yarmouth, there was a legend that claimed that if you ran round the 18th century churchyard three times without stopping and then shouted ‘Bloody Queen Mary!’ the face of Mary Tudor would appear at the nearest window. Daredevils were still attempting this up to the late 1800s.
3) South Lopham in Norfolk may not be able to boast a Fairy Godmother but it does lay claim to a Fairy Cow who apparently magically appeared during times of great hardship in the village and then disappeared when things improved. Said to appear when drought threatened the wellbeing of villagers to offer her milk freely to all that needed it, when the drought ended, the magical beast would stamp down on a slab of sandstone, burning the imprint of her hoof into it, and then vanish.
4) King Gurgunt was so fond of Norwich that legend has it he built the Castle and established the city around it and when he was ready to take his last breath, he seated himself at a grand table deep underneath the castle mound – one of the largest man-made structures in Britain – and, alongside his silver, gold, jewels and treasures, fell into an eternal sleep. It is said that, like King Arthur, King Gurgunt is ready to rise from his slumber in order to save Britain if she was in peril. Fingers crossed.
5) A thunderstorm over Southery on Halloween in 1642 led to the discovery of a hole in the village filled with fire and the unearthing of a mysterious stone. The boulder earned a reputation for having magical powers – locals said that if women with joint problems shed their clothes and sat on top of it naked at midnight, they would be cured, farmers said the stone would sweat if it was about to rain, villagers spat on the stone for good luck and a virile 80-year-old credited the Southery Stone for his ability to still be able to father children. Apparently he drank the dew from the stone every morning – let’s hope it wasn’t saliva…(footnote: said stone is now missing in action).
6) Beware the glowing ghost lights of Norfolk’s Lantern Men – or they may lure you to a watery grave. The ‘death fires’ that hover above marshland or fens have long-since been feared and are said to be evil spirits that try to draw victims to their death in reed beds and mud. They are drawn to people who whistle and the only way to try to escape them is to lie face-down with your mouth in the mud. They have been seen at Thurlton, Bawburgh, Alder Carr, Wicken Fen, Irstead, Horning, Gimingham and Southrepps.
7) Cruel fairytale Babes in the Wood is said to be based on a true story that happened near Watton in the 1500s: Griston Hall owner Edmund de Grey had a grandson Thomas whose father died when he was seven-years-old. The little boy’s uncle was Robert de Grey who stood to inherit Griston and the land it stood in if young Thomas died before he married and had a family of his own. When young Thomas went missing at the age of 11 and Robert claimed the de Grey wealth as his own, rumours flew. With the shadowy wood so close to Griston and the murky dealings of Robert de Grey creating a storm of suspicion, a story was spun in which Thomas had been murdered by Robert and his body hidden in the darkest recesses of the forest, a tale which was later adapted and became Babes in the Wood.
8) Close to the ruin of St Peter and St Paul’s church at Tunstall is a boggy pool of water known as ‘hell hole’ which bubbles in the summertime. The bubbles are said to be the sinking church bells as they are taken to hell by the devil, who snatched them in front of the parson and churchwardens who were arguing about who should take them. On quiet nights, across the bogs and marshland, it is said the muffled peal of bells can be heard as Satan rings them in his underworld.
9) Stockton Stone, an oblong sandstone glacial megalith, stands on a grassy slope on the west side of the Beccles to Norwich A146 road, a silent watchtower over a busy thoroughfare that is said to guard a curse which sees misfortune or death befall anyone who sees fit to move it. The stone was moved in the 1930s during work to straighten the main road: it was moved diagonally eastwards by around 14 feet and the disturbance “was regarded locally with some misgiving”. Followng the work, one of the workmen involved collapsed and died.
10) He’s Norfolk’s very own Folklore hero: Black Shuck is the Devil Dog that haunts the East of England, and in particular the county’s coastal roads, graveyards, crossroads, woodland and marshes. A large black dog, he has been seen with or without a head, with one glowing eye or two, floating on a carpet of mist or keeping pace with those he stalks. It is said that if you look into his eyes, or eye, your death – or the death of someone in your household - will occur by the end of the year.
11) Brograve Mill lies in ghostly ruins close to Waxham and Horsey. With its gentle westward tilt, it is a mere skeleton of what was once a majestic eight-bladed windmill. Legend has it that the man who owned the mill in 1771, Sir Berney Brograve, wagered his soul that he could out-mow the Devil, a foolish bet which Lucifer won with ease. He turned to collect Sir Berney’s soul, but the landowner had disappeared towards his mill, slamming the door in the Devil’s face. Whipped into a temper, the Devil pounded on the door with his terrible cloven hooves and, the next morning, when Sir Berney gingerly opened the door, he found it pitted with hoof-prints and leaning decidedly to the west where Satan had attempted to blow the mill down.
12) Hidden amongst a thicket of trees at East Somerton are the ruins of St Mary’s church. Built in the 15th century only the tower and walls of the nave remain. Local folklore tells of a witch who was buried alive in the nave of the church by villagers. Her wooden leg grew into a massive oak tree which destroyed the church and still stands in the nave. Legend has it that if you walk round the tree three times and call her name, the witch’s spirit will be released.
13) A gloomy pond in Southwood is said to hide many secrets. Said to have been a hiding place for smugglers and other n’er do wells, Callow Pit on the boundary of Moulton St Mary and Cantley has had an uneasy relationship with those who live nearby for centuries. Said to be patrolled by the ghost of a headless horseman, legend had it that a large quantity of gold had been sunken in its deep waters, the spectre ensuring that no one dared to try to claim it as their own. A story says that when foolish men tried to remove the treasure, as they hauled the treasure chest to the surface, they were enveloped in a thick cloud of sulphurous smoke as a black hand and arm rose thorugh the water to take back the chest.
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