WEIRD NORFOLK: The ghost of a wicked nun that patrols a hill in Marham
PUBLISHED: 10:11 02 March 2020 | UPDATED: 10:36 02 March 2020
Copyright: Archant 2020
They seemed like sisters of mercy, but the nuns at Marham were anything but – the ghostly tale of Sister Barbara, whose ghost is seen on gliding on a West Norfolk hill.
The old saying goes that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar - but at Vinegar Hill in Marham, it was a wicked nun and a web of lies which caught unsuspecting travellers unawares. Nuns are renowned for offering those in need sanctuary, but at Marham, it was often the nuns themselves whose greed led to people needing to seek their help. Such were the wicked commands of the Abbess at Marham, Sister Barbara, that she paid for them with her life, leaving her restless spirit staking out the hill she once ruled.
But we must start at the beginning, when good intentions and Godliness saw Marham Abbey built by Isabel, Countess of Arundel, in 1249 for Cistercian nuns. Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, St Barbara and St Edmund, the abbey stood for almost 300 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 and today, only ruins remain in a private garden. One of only two Cistercian abbeys for nuns in England, in its heyday, the building would have housed up to 15 nuns who were, in the dying days of the abbey, under the leadership of Sister Barbara who can be seen on Marham's village sign.
It seems that Sister Barbara had somewhat lost sight of her calling. Nun are required to give their worldly possessions to God in the sure knowledge that He will provide for all her needs and love all people equally with His love. Sister Barbara, however, had other plans. Ambitious and increasingly fond of the finer things in life, she devised a plan to create a sustainable income revenue to fund a lifestyle not entirely befitting of a nun. Her plan involved paying men of ill repute to stop, rob and leave wounded any rich merchant who passed close to the abbey on the narrow, muddy track which passed a hill in Marham known then as Vinegar Hill. There were tall, dark hedges lining the road which linked Swaffham to King's Lynn, a perfect place for robbers to hide as they waited to pounce on unsuspecting travellers.
But the plot became far more twisted. Once the attack had taken place - and after being tipped off by the scoundrels - Sister Barbara and her sisters of mercy would arrive at the scene and as the poor victim awoke from a daze, would see the benevolent faces of nuns staring back at them. Taken to the abbey to recover and nursed back to health by the nuns, the merchants and their families would be so grateful that they would shower gifts on the abbey and hail Sister Barbara as their saviour. The plan worked and the abbey grew rich and Sister Barbara's tastes even richer. After time, the monks at nearby Pentney Abbey caught wind of a series of suspicious events linked to Marham and, tiring of the tales of the nuns' miraculous abilities to predict when they would be needed most on Vinegar Hill, began watching them. It wasn't long before the plot was uncovered when a monk caught Sister Barbara paying a scoundrel for his services. Swift action was required.
Just how do you solve a problem like Sister Barbara? After a summary hearing, the wicked nun was told her fate: she would be bricked up alive behind a wall at Marham Abbey and left for God to punish: and so it was. Shortly after the sister's terrible end, something strange was seen gliding silently near Vinegar Hill - the spectral figure of a nun, patrolling the road, waiting for rich travellers. A story from Marsham Parish Council claims that Sister Barbara is most likely to be seen on moonlit November nights.
"On a bright November night, don't go anywhere near the path that leads up to Vinegar Hill, because a ghostly figure is seen walking along it," reads a story on the council's website. " …if you think I'm telling lies, ask a person in our village who, not many years ago, was saying goodnight to her boyfriend near a house built on this path when a bright figure of a nun came gliding across the lawn towards them.
"Standing very still, too scared to move, they watched this glowing figure disappear through the wall of the garage. They didn't stop to see if it came out the other side. Would you?"
As with all the best ghost stories, there are elements of truth to this fantastical tale of God and greed: in official documents written in 1536, it is alleged that Abbess Barbara and four of her nuns admitted to "grave incontinency". The abbey itself was reported to be "in sore decaye", there were goods in the house which could not be accounted for and 12 other people living in a house meant for just 15 nuns: three of them servants, one of them…a man. Whatever went on at Marham Abbey in the years immediately before it ceased being used as a convent, something untoward was definitely afoot.
Perhaps if you meet Sister Barbara on a cold, frosty winter's night in Marham, you can ask her to tell you the whole story - just don't ask for her help…it comes at a high price.
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