WEIRD NORFOLK: Have you ever caught a fleeting shadow out of the corner of your eye? You might have seen one of Norfolk’s elusive Hikey Sprites
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019
Linger too long in an isolated place while twilight falls and you risk a visit from the elusive Hikey Sprites, the curious creatures that creep from the shadows at night and which serve as a timely warning to keep walking towards the light, the Boggarts of the Norfolk folklore world.
Don't tarry too long on the dark walk home or the Hikey Sprites might get you…
Exclusive to Norfolk, the elusive Hikey Sprites have terrified and delighted believers in the county for generations, the shadowy fairy folk who punish bad behaviour and are a cautionary reason to steer clear of dark paths through forests, a cross between a guardian angel and a headmaster brandishing a slipper.
While we are used to the Disneyfied version of sweet fairies from Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan, not all fairies are wish-granting do-gooders: some exist to offer a warning to humans - don't do THAT, don't walk THERE, don't take for granted that you will be forever safe.
The undisputed Hikey Sprite expert is Ray Loveday, whose definitive work on the creatures (Hikey Sprites: The Twilight of a Norfolk Tradition) is a wonderful examination of a slice of county folklore which still lives on in the shadowy corners of Norfolk.
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Ray's personal mission was to preserve the elusive Hikey Sprites - who are known by more than 20 other name variations, including Hyter Sprite, Hyte Sprite, High Sprite and Hyker Sprite - for future generations, telling the story that weaves through generations, passed down by grandparent to grandchild, parent to child.
"I have always been interested in folklore since I was a child," explained Ray, who grew up in Swaffham and whose grandmother used to tell him that stones would grow if taken from the fields, slowly, but surely, and who has dedicated vast swathes of his life to recording precious stories from Norfolk elders. I wish I had asked her about Hikey Sprites when she was alive, but instead they came to me late, when I saw a letter in the EDP in 1980 from a researcher called Daniel Rabuzzi, who was asking for information about them."
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"I remember asking my parents that night if they'd ever head of them and them saying 'oh yes…' but they'd never told my brother or I about them. It was that unfortunate period when folklore became unfashionable along with the Norfolk voice and its special words, almost as if people felt there was something sub-standard about the things that make us different. It fascinated me, these creatures who appeared in the dark, or to naughty children, and I started to ask questions. I was amazed when people started to tell me their tales of the Hikey Sprites, and I learned that they were different things to different people - some said they were seen and not heard, others the exact opposite and many said that you were aware of their presence out of the corner of your eye, a fleeting glimpse.
"One person told me they were like the shuffling of autumn leaves."
Ray began his Hikey Sprite quest in 2008, determined to "…offer a helping hand to the hyter sprites and give them a foothold into the future" and set out to speak to witnesses, a task that involved interviewing hundreds of people and holding conversations outside post offices and at country fairs, at church coffee mornings and at car boot sales. "If I heard a Norfolk voice, I would try and strike up a conversation and ask them if they'd heard of specific words such as dodman (snail), mawkin (scarecrow), bishy-barney-bee (ladybird) and, if they knew, I'd ask if they'd ever heard of Hikey Sprites. And some would immediately light up - 'yes!' - others would search their minds for a half-forgotten memory and be pleased to have remembered something forgotten, others would shake their heads, no, they didn't know of them." Ray explains the meaning of the Hikey Sprites - sprite meaning an elf-like creature or fairy, and hikey or hyter possibly from the Anglo-Saxon word 'hedan' which means to take heed, care for, guard or protect or the Danish 'hytte', which means to take care of. Neither explanation seems to fully embrace the Norfolk creature.
The beings were first mentioned in 1872 when Walter Rye wrote of them in The Eastern Counties Collectnea and described them as a kind of fairy: "Other spiritual visitants are the hyter sprites, a kind of fairy rather beneficent than otherwise - a special habitat for which is a lane called Blow Hill, in Great Melton, prettily overshadowed with beech trees."
Some of those questioned by Ray said they risked coming into contact with a Hikey "…if they lingered too long by certain woods, streams, commons, heaths or abandoned buildings. To be in a dangerous location with the light failing made for a risky mix, hence the intervention of the Hikeys, via the wisdom of grandparents and parents.
"Thirty other contacts associated the Hikeys with the problems of wayward behaviour, in the main, pretty mild naughtiness."
He added: "Pat from Felbrigg remembers, once she had settled into bed, her grandmother calling up the stairs, 'put that candle out if not the Hikey Sprites will get you.'
"Elsie (85) now living in Foulsham, but whose early years were spent in Hindolveston, remembers the Hikeys all too well: 'they used to come out of the dark and get you when you went up the garden to the closet,' she said, adding, 'I never saw them, I kept my eyes closed, I knew the way because I had been up there so many times.'
"Darkness was certainly the main domain of the Hikey Sprite, but the area around wayward children was of almost equal significance…David (81) from Briston remembers his mother saying 'If you don't do as you are told, the Hikey Sprites will get you and take you away.'
"Pat talked about the Hyper Sprites known to the fishing community in Bacton. 'I heard about the Hyper Sprites lots of times,' he told me, 'it was an old saying. They made things disappear; we always blamed them when we couldn't find something. You would ask them to return the items too- sometimes they did!'
When it comes to physical descriptions of the creatures, there are several: two brothers from Sparham gave differing accounts, one saying they were slender, with long arms and legs and bony fingers, the other that they were tall men wearing black cloaks.
Daniel Rabuzzi says, on the matter: "The hyter sprites had no well-defined shape or appearance. They were merely a suggestion planted in the imaginations of the children" and adds an account from one informant: "…we conjured up in our childish minds a black bat-like figure, man-size and hovering silently in hr twilight, waiting to snatch away disobedient children."
Could Hikey Sprites be like Harry Potter's shapeshifting boggarts, the creatures that take the form of that which is most feared by the person who encounters them?
Ray's theory is far more poetic: "Do we have an echo, a folk memory of that deep, profound, primeval fear of dark places, forests in particular, where might have lurked sinister forces and entities, human, animal and nameless horrors? …These fears, eventually coalesced into the ubiquitous 'bogey man', in a way of controlling recalcitrant youngsters, originally perhaps to control adults, to keep them away from areas of risk where enterprises of dubious nature were taking place.
The next time you catch something moving quickly in the corner of your eye or when you can't shake the feeling that you're being watched in the dark, look for the Hikey Sprites - and make your way towards the light.
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