Weird Norfolk: Beneath the surface of the mysterious Lily Pit, Gorleston

Weird Norfolk feature on the Lily Pit, Beccles Road, Gorleston.Picture: Nick Butcher

Weird Norfolk feature on the Lily Pit, Beccles Road, Gorleston.Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

They say still waters run deep, and the Lily Pit at Gorleston is no exception. Rumours abound that the pit was once haunted - but which of the three stories attached to it rings the truest?

Common sense dictates that we steer clear of water-filled pits whose murky depths we are unable to fathom – but once upon a time there were even more reasons to avoid the Lily Pit at Gorleston, three, to be precise.

The pit lies west of what used to be Ottey's Farm, but which is now a modern housing estate: a cottage still bears the same name as the pit and there's a bustling school nearby, too – today the pit is on private land and isn't visible from the road, as hidden as its secrets.

A map from 1883 shows an eerie, coffin-shaped pit which was once a short walk from the farm on Beccles Road.

Although the name is reminiscent of the island in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, there are no shortage of haunting tales about the Lily Pit: and like all the best mysterious yarns, each has the gossamer thread of truth running through it.

Some say the pit was the final resting place of a mail coach drawn by four horses which clattered off the main track on a foggy night and plunged into the pit, consigning both horses and driver to a watery grave - witnesses have claimed to see a phantom coach being driven hell for leather towards the pit at the witching hour, only for it to disappear as it arrives at the water.

Another tale is that of star-crossed lovers who ran away to start a new life but were thwarted by tragedy before their story really began.

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A farmhand fell in love with the farmer's daughter and realising he could never win her fairly in her father and his master's eyes, the pair decided to elope, but as they fled, the young woman lost her footing and tumbled into the pit, where she drowned.

Broken-hearted, her stricken lover vowed to meet her in heaven and hanged himself on a nearby oak tree. For years, people making their way to Great Yarmouth would divert down Crab Lane for fear of seeing the ghost of the young man crossing from the oak and into the pit to reunite with his love.

The third story suggested the pit was the well of an ancient chief whose castle was nearby and whose body had been laid to rest nearby.

And the truth? There was a man called James Keable who fell into the pit as he rode his horse home in thick fog in 1888 - his horse returned home to Thurlton but its rider was never seen again and a story passed down through the generations of a family who have lived nearby for more than 100 years tells of carts travelling so fast that their wheels would overheat.

It became a common practice for drivers to back their carts to the edge of the pit in order to cool them down and, inevitably, on one occasion the driver misjudged the depth of the water and the cart tipped into the pit, sending it to the bottom with the tethered pony unable to escape.

The tale of thwarted love is said to have been woven from the true story of a Gorleston man who could not bear the loss of his beloved daughter and so hanged himself on the hollow oak tree by the pit. The tree, which stood by the pit until the 1930s, became a macabre memorial avoided by those who were old enough to remember the tragedy.

As for the ancient chief, in 1892 a skeleton was unearthed which had been laid to rest on flints and was said to have the appearance of an early British burial - discovered a stone's throw from the pit, the skeleton may well have guarded the ancient water supply for centuries.

Its edges rounded over time, the Lily Pit's is now half the size it was 200 years ago and is no longer as deep and as dark as it once was: during the air raids in the east in the Second World War, thousands of bombs were dropped in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston causing huge amounts of damage. Rubble from the destroyed buildings was tipped into the water, yet another secret swallowed by the mysterious Lily Pit.

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