WEIRD NORFOLK: The wicked man of Ranworth who is still cursed to be carried across the Broads by the Devil on horseback.
PUBLISHED: 18:00 28 December 2019
Archant Norfolk 2017
A New Year’s Eve ghost story from Ranworth with a moral: lead a terrible life and the Devil will come knocking for you and steal you away.
Like all the best ghost stories, there are several ways to tell a tale that is best heard as the wind roars outside and the fire crackles in the hearth. And so it is with our New Year story, a cautionary warning to those who live wicked lives and expect to remain unpunished told at a time when resolutions could be made to change the path one currently treads.
Colonel Thomas Sidney (or Sidley, or Sisney - these were times when spelling was not paramount) lived at Ranworth Hall in the 1770s and was infamously debauched to the point where he was known locally as "the wicked Colonel". Writing in the EDP in December 1968, H.O Mansfield wrote: "He was a wild, cruel, bitter man...Wine, women and the mad pleasures of the hunt owned his soul, if he could be said to have one. And we must assume that he did, or the dark stranger would never have joined him in that last fatal ride to the hounds.
"The folk of his day reckoned he was the devil himself, with his flashing eyes, his coal black hair, his sombre clothes and above all, his mighty mare, Black Jezebel, which he always rode as though the devil were in the saddle.
"No one ever saw the colonel other than booted and spurred. He called out the hounds at the prompting of a passing whim. He rode rough shod over all and sundry, and heaven help the poor soul who spoiled his sport."
He would hold depraved all-night parties at Ranworth Hall and the shrieks of laughter and drunkenness echoed across the broad - he was much-hated in the area, a cruel and thoughtless man who put pleasure before any care for his fellow villagers. At Christmastide in 1770, some say Christmas Eve, most say New Year's Eve, the Colonel invited the local gentry from the Broads and Norwich to join him to ride with the hounds on the stroke of midnight. After providing vats of potent punch, by the time they set out to ride, few men remained sober - just as they walked towards the mighty hall door, there was a rapping and the door flew open to reveal an unknown rider. There was a man in a black cloak, a large black hat concealing his face.
"Come, Colonel and follow me. The night is fair and there is brave sport abroad. Follow, you and yours. I've come to fetch you - and you- and you," the man said, pointing from one to another of the guests.
"Drink up, drink up and follow me."
Each man ran for his horse, but before they could mount the colonel was up and away with the stranger and the hounds, having seen the stranger, turned on their heel and fled back to their kennel, too scared to follow. When a servant tried to hand his master had no cloak, the stranger pushed him aside with his hand and - it is said - the servant bore the marks of the handprint until the day he died. As the guests tried desperately to keep up with the Colonel and his mysterious riding partner, they watched the pair gallop towards the black Broad before hearing a terrified shriek, then a splash and then…nothing.
Scared sober by what they had seen, the guests took their excuse to leave and quickly returned back to their homes, Ranworth Hall still lit like a silent beacon in the dark night. The next day, the Colonel's solicitor arrived from Norwich after being urgently summoned - he then heard what had happened, turned as white as parchment and quickly burned his client's papers and the secrets contained within them. In the stories told in this waterlogged corner of Norfolk, some say the Devil came calling for the Colonel and he went willingly, others that he paid the price for hunting on the Sabbath and yet more that he was punished for cheating by being claimed by Old Nick. But all end in the same way: with the Devil claiming the Colonel and his soul, throwing him over his saddle and galloping off with him across Ranworth Broad, steam hissing wherever the Foul Fiend's beast touches the ground. He is said to appear on dark and stormy nights - particularly around the anniversary of his initiation to hell - riding furiously round and round the broad before plunging into its dark depths.
A timely warning for good behaviour, Weird Norfolk might - but won't - advise.
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