WEIRD NORFOLK: A spooky stroll from Great Yarmouth to Burgh Castle
- Credit: Archant
For spooky season, Water, Mills and Marshes have teamed up with Weird Norfolk to bring you a series of walks for Halloween. The second instalment in the series is the Great Yarmouth to Burgh Castle Weird Walk.
With people living here for centuries, the extraordinary Broads National Park is abundant in history and oozing with ghost stories and we are dying to share them with you. In this walk, discover tales of witches, ghost ships and black cats and dogs…
Great Yarmouth, now a seaside resort was once a busy fishing port. The town is ancient, even older than Norwich, and was once confined to city walls. Buildings were only allowed to be built within the walls, which made the town very overcrowded. This allowed the bubonic plague to ravage through the town. Great Yarmouth officials were unable to cope with the large numbers of deaths and many were buried in large mass burials known as ‘plague pits’. Great Yarmouth Fire Station was built above a Friar’s burial ground and supposedly one such ‘plague pit’. Dating back to 1348, the graves of 15 skeletons were uncovered during excavations on the site in the 1970’s.
The Eastern Daily Press reported in June 1972 that firefighters would respond to late night calls in record time… “in fact,” said leading fireman Ron Harris, “we just can’t get out of the place quick enough.” First to get a midnight shiver down his back was Fireman Jimmy Jones: “Just after midnight I was sitting alone in the dormitory which is directly over the top of the friars’ burial ground when I heard what sounded like whistling. It got louder as if someone was walking along the corridor and the sound stopped outside the dormitory. It was a very slow, tuneless whistle, almost like a dirge. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been out of the Top Ten.” Fireman Jones went to investigate but found a deserted corridor. Ron Harris later heard urgent steps along the corridor at 1.30am, the sound of doors opening and a crash: “I don’t mind saying, it’s all getting a bit prickly,” he said.
There isn’t just ghost stories to be told but tales of witches in Great Yarmouth. The strangely named ‘Kitty Witches’ row is an example of an extremely tight ‘row’ built between houses. The row was supposedly named after a local group of witches known to be of ‘ill repute’ and terrorised locals. Or was the row named after crabs found in Breydon Water, locally known as ‘kitty witches’? In some places, the row was so narrow you had to enter sideways and do an unusual crab like walk. Another witch linked to Great Yarmouth was Rebecca Nurse, who born in the town, was one of three sisters accused of witchcraft in the infamous Salem witch trials and the second person to be hanged.
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1. We begin the 4.5 mile terrifying trail at Great Yarmouth Train Station, NR30 1SD (Grid Ref: TG 5199 0807). From the station follow the Angles Way over the old railway bridge to your right and head south along New Quay until you reach the Dukes Head pub, just before you get to Haven Bridge.
2. It is said the legend of the Demon dog Old Scarfe, frequenter of Burgh Castle, has ties to the Dukes Head pub. Old Scarfe or Baron Rudolph Scarfe was known to be a wicked and depraved German man, notorious in 13th century for evil deeds and sought asylum in England. He settled at Burgh Castle and terrorised the good people of Yarmouth. The story goes that when Scarfe was finally killed, the Devil turned him into a black hellhound with chains and eyes gleaming red like fire and sent him back to earth to create further havoc. It is said a Catholic priest imprisoned him at the Dukes Head pub. Palmer’s Perlustrations, published in 1872 goes into detail of Scarfe:
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“It was currently believed that the Evil One, under the familiar name of Old Scarfe, assumed the shape of a black dog and in dark wintry nights was heard rushing up and down the Southtown Road, making sorrowful moaning’s and dragging after him a clanking chain. An endeavour was made to exorcise this spectre and at one time this was supposed to have been effected, the evil spirit being doomed to remain in a vault under the Duke’s Head Inn ‘until the river should cease to run under Yarmouth bridge.’ Notwithstanding this, however, Old Scarfe continued to be a terror to benighted travellers.” The old wooden bridge is no longer there, so is old Scarfe still lurking in the Duke’s cellar?
Cross Haven bridge, turn right following Angles Way waymarking.
3. Enjoy the change of scenery from the bustling town to wide, open landscapes. Listen to the sounds of wintering waders and wildfowl over the great expanse of Breydon Water. Continue to follow waymarking for the Angles Way, until you reach point 4.
4. Breydon Water is an estuary of three Broadland rivers, the Yare, Bure, and Waveney and was once part of a much larger estuary that would have occupied the valley and surrounding marshland. It has been witness to many events in human history that have unfolded over its waters and maybe why it has many ghost stories to tell…
Two men were out fishing on a small row boat on Breydon Water on a cold night on 11 July 1929, when a whole fleet of ghost ships passed by, phosphorescent and leaving a large wake that didn’t even rock their small rowing boat. It soon became obvious they were from a different time. The men were cheering and one looked overboard but could not see the fishermen even at a stone throw’s distance. The fishermen observed the fleet of boats were of Anglo Saxon style. Could it be the ghostly annual visit of a fleet of Saxon ships on its way to raid Burgh Castle?
Referring to historical records, there were two famous Saxon chiefs who arrived with their armies from overseas in AD 447 and that Elle or Ella landed on the East coast the same time as Cissa landed on the south coast. Is this ghostly sighting the replaying of Elle’s landing in Britain over and over? Other witnesses report a battle raging between a pirate ship and two smaller vessels, which appears every September.
5. Not a ghost story, but just as spine chilling, is the big cat sighting reported in an article in the Great Yarmouth Mercury 26 March 2004:
“Tales of big cats stalking the countryside will be fuelled this week after a Burgh Castle parish councillor spotted one of the elusive creatures. In the latest sighting, John Rudrum said he saw a black and powerful animal run off into the bushes in Mill Lane, Burgh Castle as his headlights lit it up. The 50-year-old said he caught sight of the last two-thirds of the cat-like beast before it vanished into the undergrowth towards Breydon Marshes at 10pm on Saturday. He added: “There is nothing wrong with my eyesight, but I just could not believe them as I saw this thing spring into the hedge. I could not work out what it was, but the way it sprang off, it was not a dog or a deer. It was puma sized, had powerful hind legs, a smooth coat and looked the colour of graphite. I would say it was roughly 9ins bigger than a boxer dog and about 4ft long.”
Norfolk is just one of dozens of areas of Britain where sightings of big cats have been reported in recent years. It is believed animals such as pumas and panthers came from zoos in the 1960s when onerous rules made them expensive to keep. No animal has yet been captured to back up the theory. Mr Rudrum, who has lived in the village all his life, said rumours were rife in the area’s pubs of big cats living in Fritton Woods and Breydon Marshes. He added: “This put the wind up me, it was shocking. Perhaps the bad weather had drawn it down out of the woods. I have always joked about seeing one, but as a hunting man I would not like to come face to face with one of these things without being armed. The weird thing is none of the farmers round here have reported having any animals being slaughtered. I think that if these big cats are doing no one any harm, then there is no reason to hunt them down. They are more scared of us than we are of them.”
Big cat expert, Ken Sims, director of the Thrigby Hall Wildlife Park said the animals were masters of camouflage. He added: “I would not deny their existence, but because they are so elusive it makes things extremely difficult to prove. Conditions here are perfect for them; there are deer, rabbits and hares to feed on. But so far all we have are unconfirmed sightings of them. There have been sightings of big cats in this country for the last 35 years and the chances of being attacked by one are slim.”
Keep a sharp eye out as you continue to point 6.
6. Find yourself at the foot of Burgh Castle a third century Roman fort built to defend the coast from saxon raiders. Overlooking the marshes you can spot Berney Mill, the tallest mill in Norfolk, in the distance.
Baron Rudolph Scarfe makes another unwanted appearance at the fort and is said to be where he now lurks when darkness falls in the form of a black dog. Not to be mistaken for the black shuck which haunts coastal paths and lonely parts of East Anglia. To meet him would mean death within the year. Does Scarfe continue to spread terror, travelling back and forth between Yarmouth and the fort, just as you have walked? Some claim that it is a werewolf, one investigator witnessed a man morph into a fearsome dog-like creature at the site before padding off into the night.
Other ghosts haunt this atmospheric ruin, including a figure that appears to be wearing a white flag which can be seen being thrown from the castle to the foreshore. To explore the fort, take the steps up to the top of the fort or go to the end of the boardwalk where there is a gentler slope up. Be careful who is hiding behind each turn. Do you dare brave the walk back now you have heard the stories?
Why not get the bus back to Yarmouth from Burgh Castle Village a short walk from the fort. This season also brings colder weather and muddier walking conditions. Be prepared before you venture out, dress appropriately, take suitable provisions and a route map with you. If you do not have a mobile phone to hand, let someone know where you are going. Be respectful of wildlife and take your litter home with you. If in doubt follow the Countryside Code.
You can download the walk here.
Many thanks to Ella Meecham at Water, Mills and Marshes for all her help putting this walk together.