Broads Uncovered: Ghosts, Myths and Magic

Published: 24th October, 2020
A depiction of a mischievous Will-O’-the-Wisp.

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. 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!

Before we begin our mysterious exploration of the dark side of the Broads, we would like to say thank you to Weird Norfolk for sharing the strange and bizarre tales of the Broads National Park in their collection. Also a big thank you to Jazz Owen for allowing us to set the spooky scene with beautiful illustrations from her Broads Folklore Collection.

Black Dog – could it be Old Scarfe?

The “Dark Side” of the Broads is, as it turns out, a very busy place, especially in 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 Ghosts in case you fancy facing the spirits on their own waters during the summer…

Why are there so many ghostly stories?

Dancing Will-O’-the-Wisp?

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. Watching as the old, half ruined mills are drawn into the mist’s wet embrace, while will-o’-the-wisps flare and glow in its depths. Or imagine being deep in the tangled Alder Carr, surrounded by strange vegetation, 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 beneath the water’s surface and you haven’t brought an offering with you.

Menacing Woodwose carving.

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. The Britons, Romans, Vikings, Danes, Saxons and Normans each subdued the others with varying degrees of violence, bringing their own beliefs, cultures and religions to add to the existing stew pot of legends, myths, folklore and ghosts.

A Woodwose with prized club

Fantastical Beings

To start with what could be better than a dragon? The Broads National Park’s dragon lives deep in the long-lost vaults beneath the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey.

Then there are the Woodwoses, mythical hairy club carrying wildmen, who 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.

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 to be confused with Old Scarfe – the one eyed hound of Burgh Castle.

Black Shuck, by Jazz Owen

Look out for the Devil

Skeleton driven coach on Potter Heigham Bridge, by Jazz Owen

There are many ghost stories involving 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 Haslitt, 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?

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 causing the rider to fall off and break his neck. Thus the Colonel was able to win the race. That night at the celebration dinner the devil came for Colonel Sidney. He 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 hanging 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.

Forever Lovelorn

A frosty winter’s evening in the Broads.

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.

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 Benet’s 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 a’haunting having come a cropper in the rivers or marshes.

Ship Ahoy!

A thick eerie fog overlaying the Broad.

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!

Ludham Dragon by Jazz Owen

Explore further, if you dare!


Ghostly Prezi Presentation

Explore 5 of our favourite tales in the Prezi Presentation below. 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.