Weird Norfolk: Is the entrance to Fairyland near Bawdeswell?

Warm autumn sunshine cascades over gorse on Bawdeswell Heath

Does Bawdeswell hide a potential portal to The Otherworld. - Credit: Archant Library/Graham Corney

It’s a legend that will delight those who believe in the little people and who dream of being able to visit Fairyland.

On the road between Bawdeswell and Swanton Morley, in a field next to the thoroughfare, a hole was found – a potential portal to The Otherworld.

In an article written by Michael Sidney Tyler-Whittle entitled ‘Witchcraft’ in the East Anglian Magazine of October 1952, it read: "I have heard it said that until quite recently there was a hole in a field beside the Swanton Morley-Bawdeswell road.

“It was neither an old well nor a drain. It did not appear to have been used by fox, badger or rabbit. Surrounded by coarse clumps of grass and bracken and of unguessed depth, the hole remained a mystery.

“A whisper spread that it was an entrance to St Martin's Land where it is always dusk and where the Green Children live. These pixies have always been a constant trouble to the people of East Anglia. The hole was filled!"

St Martin’s Land is famously linked to one of folklore’s strangest tales which happened over the border in Suffolk.

The arrival in the Suffolk village of Woolpit of two green-skinned children who were dressed in strange clothes and speaking an unknown language in the 12th century is an enduring tale remembered on the village sign.

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Two authors writing at the time, William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall, recorded the strange incident, with William reporting where the children said they had travelled from.

Although the boy was sickly and died, the girl grew stronger and began to learn the native tongue – when asked where her homeland was, she replied that it was a twilight land where the sun never shone called St Martin’s Land.

St Martin, presumably St Martin of Tour, was worshipped there and the girl was able to offer only a few details: that it was a land caught at the point where day ends and night begins and that there were churches and families there.

The portal between our land and St Martin’s Land had been reached, the girl – later known as Agnes – said completely unwittingly.

The green children of Woolpit.

The green children of Woolpit. - Credit: Archant/Sonya Duncan

William’s account said: “We are ignorant [of how we arrived here]; we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”

She added: “The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset.”

Ralph, however, offered different detail: that everything in St Martin’s Land was green and that the children had followed their cattle into a cavern, had become lost and – led by the sound of bells – had walked towards Woolpit.

Historian and Bishop of Hereford Frances Godwin suggested the children had been discarded by a race living on the Moon and children from Earth had been taken to replace them.

The Moon children were normally left on a hill in North America, but, according to Godwin in 1629, Moon people “sometimes mistake their aime”.

Others have claimed they were aliens left behind by a spaceship, Brinsley le Poer Trench suggested the children had wandered through tunnels from an inhabited land within our own.

English folklore is filled with green people, from Jack-in-the-Green to green fairies, the Green Knight to the Green Man but it seems the green children were more unusual.

Theories abound as to where the children came from and why their skin had a green hue (which, in the case of Agnes, disappeared).

Might they have been poisoned with arsenic, which can discolour the skin with a green rash? Were they suffering from chlorosis, a form of anaemia that makes the skin a greenish hue?

Were the children Flemish immigrants? Had they been hiding in nearby underground flint mines such as those at Grime’s Graves?

There is also a belief that if humans eat food from Fairyland they are condemned to dwell there forever and never come home: is the same true for fairies eating human food?

Perhaps the name of the childrens’ homeland was misheard or misunderstood, perhaps the children played up to the belief in an ‘Otherworld’ when they realised the reaction it prompted, perhaps it just felt to the children that they were in a foreign land in comparison to home.

Or maybe, just maybe, St Martin’s Land lies beneath our feet, a land bathed in a twilight glow, its people a uniform shade of green.

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