Weird Norfolk: Joseph Bexfield and the Lantern Man of Thurlton

Joseph Bexfield's grave in its churchyard setting in All Saints' Churchyard, at Thurlton. Photo: Nic

Joseph Bexfield's grave in its churchyard setting in All Saints' Churchyard, at Thurlton. Photo: Nick ButcherCopy: Stacia BriggsFor: EDP SundayArchant © 2009(01603) 772434 - Credit: Archant © 2009

Will o' the Wisp, or Lantern Man, has led Norfolk travellers a merry dance for hundreds of years. Stacia Briggs and Siofra Connor go in search of this elusive, mysterious 'cold fire'.

His gravestone is covered in a lattice of lichen, the simple Norfolk wherry etched into the stone the only clue to the mysterious demise of unfortunate Joseph Bexfield. But although Bexfield was a wherryman and his work was often treacherous, it was not to blame for his death on August 11 1809, on a dark night when the mists swept in across Thurlton Staithe and the shadowy Lantern Man took up sentry duty on the marshes.

Bexfield and his fellow sailors were enjoying a drink at the White Horse Inn, when Joseph remembered he had left an important parcel for his wife on the wherry. Fearing a frosty reception if he returned home empty-handed, he told his friends he would head back to the boat to retrieve the parcel before walking to his house where his wife and two children were waiting. His friends pleaded with him to reconsider. Outside it was pitch black, the swirling mist punctuated only by pale, flickering lights which appeared to be dancing across the marsh: the Lantern Man was abroad.

Marsh Farm, Thurlton. Picture: Nick Butcher

Marsh Farm, Thurlton. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

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Only ten years earlier, Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written about the Lantern Man, or Will o' the Wisp as many called the ghostly lights that hover and wheel above boggy marshland on dark, moonless nights, in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. 'About, about in reel and rout, the death-fires danced at night; the water, like a witch's oil, burnt green and blue and white.' Coleridge's 'death-fires' were first mentioned in print in 1563, described as ignis fatuus: 'foolish fire that hurteth not but only feareth fooles.'

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Forty years later, Shakespeare wrote of 'wild fire' in Henry VI Part I, while Will o' the Wisp was first mentioned by the dramatist John Day in the early 1600s. Sir Isaac Newton wrote of the eerie marsh light in his opus Optick, published in 1704. Popular tradition said Will, the Lantern Man or Jack o' Lantern, carried candle-lit lanterns in the darkness to attract weary travellers, who they would lead across the marshes to their certain death.

Marsh Farm, Thurlton. Picture: Nick Butcher

Marsh Farm, Thurlton. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

Back in Thurlton, Bexfield - more frightened of an angry wife than any Lantern Man - laughed at the stories, pointing out how well he knew the marshes near his home. Just before the Inn door closed behind him, a friend made one last attempt to persuade him to stay in the snug safety of the bar but Bexfield ignored his warning, heading off purposefully into the enveloping darkness. It was the last time he was seen alive.

When Bexfield failed to return home, or to work the next morning, a thorough search of the marshes was carried out, but no traces of the 38-year-old were found. His body finally washed up on the banks of the River Yare three days later, and his grieving family had him buried in All Saints' Church in Thurlton. As recently as the 1950s, locals still believed that the ghost of Joseph Bexfield could still be seen drifting across the marshes on dark, misty nights, stopping occasionally to light his torch or give a whistle before disappearing back into the gloom.

Almost 50 years later, in a letter to a national newspaper, the anonymous 'EGR' spoke of seeing the mysterious 'ghost lights' in Norfolk regularly.'It is popularly believed that if a man with a lighted lantern goes near one, the enraged Lantern Man will knock him down and burst his lantern to pieces,' he wrote.'More than one labourer has assured me that such a thing has happened to himself. Quest: can the lighted lantern have ignited (marsh) gas and caused an explosion which has startled the rustic and burst his lantern?'

Regardless of startled rustics and broken lanterns, the scientific explanation for Will o' the Wisps is a far cry from the romance and mysticism of folklore.It is believed the ghostly lights are produced when organic material decays, causing the oxidisation of hydrogen phosphide and methane gas which produce a so-called 'cold flame'.

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