Before we begin our magical and mysterious exploration of the dark side of the Broads, we would like to say thank you to Weird Norfolk for sharing with us the weird and wonderful tales of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads in their collection. We would also like to thank Jazz Owen for allowing us to set the spooky scene and beautifully illustrate this week’s post with her Broads folklore collection. Now to begin..
Beware all who enter the Broads National Park – here be dragons, imps, hideous hounds, Woodwoses, will-o’-the-wisps and a mighty assortment of ghosts all intent on scaring us witless. This week we delve into the realm of the supernatural. I hope you’re reading this holding a stone with a hole in it to ward off any witches… Once you look beneath the tangible world of wildlife, historical buildings and a bustling tourist industry, a different side of the National Park begins to emerge, usually after dark!
As it turns out this “other world” is a very busy place especially during the summer months. Maybe ghosts get more pleasure sending shivers down the spines of tourists than performing to empty winter landscapes when we’re all tucked up in our warm houses? Whatever the reason, have a look at our calendar of “the regulars” in case you fancy facing the ghosts on their own waters this summer…
Why are there so many ghostly stories?
It’s not much of a surprise that so many ghosts and fantastical beings stalk the fens, marshes, broads and rivers here. The landscape lends itself perfectly to the conjuring of such tales. Imagine a late evening, the river slowly gliding past your feet, darkness creeping across the sky and the mist advancing thick across the featureless marsh, drawing the old, half ruined mills into it’s wet embrace, smothering them from sight, while will-o’-the-wisps flare and glow from within its depths. Or imagine being deep in the tangled Alder Carr, surrounded by strange vegetation, with those black glassy pools dropping bottomless into the underworld. The hairs rising on your neck as you remember the old Celtish beliefs that powerful spirits or gods live below the water’s surface and you haven’t brought an offering with you.
Add to the atmospheric landscape the area’s violent history and it’s no wonder nearly every place you go has a strange tale attached to it. The whole region has been invaded and settled by different people throughout history. From the Britons, Romans, Vikings, Danes, Saxons to the Normans each subduing the other with various degrees of violence and bringing their own beliefs, cultures and religions to add to the existing stew pot of legends, myths, folklore and ghosts.
The tales can be divided into those that deal with ghosts and those that tell of the fantastical beings, animal or half human, that stalk this part of Britain. A dragon lives in the long-lost vaults beneath the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey.
Woodwoses, mythical hairy club carrying wildmen, may scare away evil spirits and fight dragons but are also partial to eating the odd child. Statues and carvings of them guard many of our churches. Probably the most famous of the other world beasts prowling the marshes is Black Shuck – a hell hound as big as a calf and silent as death, tales of which have abounded across the region since the 1500’s. Not however to be confused with Old Scarfe – the one eyed hound of Burgh Castle.
Look out for the Devil
There are many ghost stories. Some involve the devil – usually a person makes a deal or buys a charm from a witch and the price turns out to be that person’s soul. In 1741, Lady Evelyn married Sir Godfrey Hasliss, a match made possible by a love potion her mother, Lady Carew, got from a witch. On her wedding night a coach driven by a skeleton thundered up to the hall door at Bastwick and the devil leapt out, grabbed the bride and whisked her away. The coach, chased by Sir Godfrey and guests, burst into flames as it crossed Potter Heigham bridge and fell without trace into the water below.
The devil also comes to claim those that live terrible debauched lives as was the case for Colonel Thomas Sidney of Ranworth Hall. He was a violent and cruel man and during a New Year’s Eve horse race he shot the horse in front of him whose rider then fell off and broke his neck thereby, enabling the colonel to win the race. That night at the celebration dinner the devil came for Colonel Sidney, slung him over his stallion and plunged beneath the waters of Ranworth Broad. The ghost of Colonel Thomas Sidney can be seen every New Year’s Eve slung over a galloping black stallion ridden by the devil plunging into the Broad.
Some ghosts are forced to roam the world to atone for the sins they committed while alive. The Monk Essric opened the doors of St Benet’s Abbey to the Norman invaders on the promise they would make him the Abbot. They did, for all of a few hours. Once he’d been proclaimed Abbot he was nailed to the gatehouse door and skinned alive. His screams echo across the marshes at midnight on the 25th of May every year.
Other ghosts are searching for those they love – like the Drummer boy from Potter Heigham. He was home on leave in the winter before the Battle of Waterloo and had fallen in love with a local girl. The two would meet every evening in a small hut on the edge of Hickling Broad. As it was a particularly cold year and the river was frozen, he would skate up the river playing his drum to see her. One night he fell through the ice and drowned, never reaching their rendez-vous. His sweetheart swore on that night she saw him coming up the river, even catching hold of his hand to draw him to the shore, but as she did so he vanished. His body was pulled from the river the next day. On frosty winter nights you can hear the beat of his drum and swish of his skates heading up river to see his love.
Other examples of ghosts searching for their loved ones or friends include the ghosts of Rollesby and the monk Pacifus. Rollesby has two ghosts – one is a Dane, his face covered in blood from the Saxon lord he killed, and he’s followed by the ghost of the Saxon Lord’s wife wringing her hands begging for her husband’s life. They certainly don’t get much rest being out and about at midnight (of course) on the 2nd Monday of every month. The ghost of the monk Pacifus rows his little boat with his dog by his side between Ranworth and St Benets Abbey searching for his brother monks rumoured to have been murdered by King Henry VIII’s men. Pacifus was the only monk to escape because he was mending the rood screen at St Helen’s church when they arrived. A number of other ghosts are out haunting having come a cropper in the rivers or marshes.
It wouldn’t be right being in the Broads National Park if we didn’t mention the ghostly ships. There’s the Bishops barge with 28 rowers that passes Brundall on the 24th June and 18th September every year. Also on the 24th of June, the Mayfly, a white sailed wherry, sails into Oulton Broad etched in phosphorescence a skeleton at her tiller trying to make port. The story goes that her skipper the wherryman”Blood” Stephenson, named for his evil ways, tried to sail off with the £400 000 being carried in Miss Millicent’s trunk from Lowestoft to Great Yarmouth. The money was being carried in the lady’s trunk in the hope no-one would suspect that is where it would be. Once out at sea from Yarmouth a fight broke out between Blood, Miss Millicent and Bert the mate. Miss Millicent and Blood ended up dead and Bert used the dinghy to abandon the wherry. Only its ghost was seen again.
And don’t think they’re all just stories of ghosts from hundreds of years ago one of our favourite ghostly tales is a modern one!
Ghostly Prezi Presentation
For this week’s Prezi presentation we explore 5 of our favourite tales from the myriad out there (see Weird Norfolk for a comprehensive collection). Our picks include guarded treasure, ghostly battles, a “Just so story” of how two villages got their names, death on the marshes and lastly the modern ghosts that are adding their tales to those of their historic brethren.
Want more ghostly tales?
- Visit this site to find all of the tales unearthed by Weird Norfolk here.
- These three sites provide more ghost stories from Norfolk and the U.K. to keep you shivering with fear for many a night!
- Explore the very haunted ruins of Burgh Castle with this aerial footage here
CALENDAR of the “Regulars”
2nd Monday each month at midnight – Rollesby Ghosts
7th April – Ghost on Acle Bridge
27th April – Fight at Burgh Castle
2nd May – Devil at St Mary’s Church, Burch St Peter
25th May – St Benet’s Abbey, Ghost of Monk Essric
31st May – flaming coach on Potter Heigham Bridge and falls into water
24th June – Brundall Bishops Barge sails by
24th June – Mayfly sails into Oulton Broad
3rd July – Figure in white thrown off cliff at Burgh Castle
21st July – Horning crowning of King Ella
18 September – Brundall Bishop’s Barge sails by
31st December – Ranworth Broad ghost of Colonel Sidney on his horse galloping around the broad