Weird Norfolk: The mermaids of North Norfolk and The Wash

15th century mermaid.

Mermaid Sand, near the village of Snettisham, is named after a dark-haired siren seen there long ago. - Credit: Flikr / CEA+

Mermaids are legendary sea creatures chronicled in maritime history for centuries – and Norfolk is no exception, with the half-human, half-fish sirens spotted in our seas.

Legend has it that a strip of coast in the west of the county takes its name from an unusual visitor who once landed there.

In The Illustrated Tales of Norfolk by John Ling, the tale is recounted.

“Communities close to Norfolk’s north and north-west coast have the greatest tradition of mermaid activity with the area around The Wash said to be the most likely place to see one,” Mr Ling writes.

“Mermaid Sand, near the village of Snettisham, is named after a dark-haired siren seen there long ago.

The old getty stands on the shoreline of Snettisham beach.

The old getty stands on the shoreline of Snettisham beach. - Credit: Ian Burt

“According to legend, the mermaid or sea-woman could magically discard her tail and transform herself into a normal female with the usual number of lower limbs.

“This enabled her to leave the sea and interact with the local community and even marry unsuspecting mortals. Though always naked in her natural habitat, she would modestly wear clothes while on land.”

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And In 1832, a group of fisherman claimed to have caught a mermaid off the Norfolk coast while another incident was reported by a father and son who had been fishing close to Winterton.

In the Garden of Health, published in English in 1521, there was a description of a mermaid which somewhat differs from the Disneyfied version we think of today.

“Syren the mermaid is a devilish beast that bringeth a man gladly to death,” it reads.

“From the navel up she is a woman with a dreadful face, a long arm and a great body. Is like the eagle in the nether part having feet and talons to tear apart those she getteth.

“Her tail is scaled like a fish and she singeth a manner of sweet song and therewith deceiveth many a good mariner for when they hear it they fall asleep and then she cometh and draws them out of the ship and teareth them asunder.”

Mermaids in medieval times symbolised a seductive force that tempted men to sin and they appear in folklore as unlucky omens, both foretelling disaster and provoking it.

Weird Norfolk has already written about the mysterious mermaid of Sheringham who is immortalised in a wooden carving to be found inside All Saints church in Upper Sheringham.

And in October 2016, a man claimed to have found the remains of a mermaid washed up on the beach at Great Yarmouth.

The creature had obvious fins, a tail and a decayed head which looked human-like. It was later discovered to be a Halloween prop after locals began to suspect something fishy.

There have been many sightings of mermaids around the world over the centuries but experts (somewhat tediously) believe these were marine creatures such as manatees, dugongs or the now-extinct sea cows.

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