Since I joined the project in late 2016, a regular extracurricular activity has been a weekend jaunt from my base in Norwich into the countryside of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Essex in search of (predominantly supernatural) landscape legends. There’s no shortage of material: although East Anglia may not be as famous for its folklore as other parts of England, its sprawling rural counties – flat, marshy, and stippled with windmills and medieval churches – are teeming with stories that link supernatural events to surviving environmental features, many of them connected to its notorious witch-hunting past. For excellent overviews, see this blog post, the Hidden East Anglia website, and – if you’re able to make it to Cambridge University Library (where their call number is MS Add. 7515) – the remarkable papers of the now-defunct Eastern Counties Folklore Society. This part of the world swarms with the strange.
There’s method to this madness. Firstly, my excursions are related to the project’s core interests in the material and geographical attributes of the supernatural, especially the processes by which collective reminiscence of witches and witchcraft is tied to the landscape by means of memorials, graves, and other lieux de mémoire (you can find out more about this aspect of the project here). Information about all of these sites is of course available in various forms online; indeed, we’re in the process of converting the scattered information that exists on the web into a properly organised database of witch-related commemorative practice. However, there’s sometimes no substitute for an embodied and experiential engagement with places yourself – see this recent post by archaeologist Kenny Brophy on landscape phenomenology, ‘selfish walks’, and the advantages (and pitfalls) of being there – so with such profusion of relevant locales on UEA’s doorstep there seemed no excuse for not rolling my sleeves up and doing a bit of fieldwork.
Secondly, my outings have helped generate fresh material for the project’s Twitter feed, which I run. With the exception of a small batch of witchcraft depositions I transcribed and blogged about last year, the kinds of primary sources I’ve been working with so far (mainly dry legal and medical treatises and genealogical records) haven’t really lent themselves to compelling Tweets, so a more proactive approach to content generation was required. The success of the #FolkloreThursday hashtag and initiative – a public folklore phenomenon with a devoted 13K+ following – means there’s now a ready-made online audience for all things folkloric, so photographing and sharing some regional topographical curiosities seemed like a good way to go.
So, with all this in mind, many Saturdays since last October have found me on buses, trains, taxis, and picking my way along country roads in search of mermaids, devil dogs, haunted windmills, giants’ graves, and, of course, witches. In no particular order, here are my favourite six sites so far…
1. The Church Mermaid, Upper Sheringham, Norfolk
While not strictly supernatural, and far from chilling, this wooden water spirit started it all: when I ran a search for Norfolk folklore she was the very first hit. She lives in the parish church of All Saints in Upper Sheringham, a hamlet nestling in a dip about a mile from the seaside resort of Sheringham. One of fourteen decorative bench ends carved in the medieval period (which all tend toward the mythological and bizarre), she’s resting on an arm of the pew just inside the north door, and a sign explains that she came from the North Sea to hear a sermon but was stopped in her tracks by an officious churchwarden. Outwitting him, she slithered in anyway and has been there since. Did she serve to remind medieval parishioners to leave their ‘superstitious’ folk beliefs at the door? Or was she just a characteristic bit of bench end whimsy designed to charm and amuse a seafaring community of mariners, merchants, and (by means of her comb) wool-combers? Whatever her meaning, there’s a veritable shoal of church mermaids in Norfolk and Suffolk, some of which I’ve been sharing using the hashtag #MondayMermaid. A dedicated post may follow.
2. Black Shuck, Blythburgh, Suffolk
The legend of black shuck – a terrifying demon dog – is one of the best-known in East Anglia, not least as its terrifying activities in Suffolk in the late sixteenth century were reported in a sensationalised contemporary pamphlet (indeed, there’s an entire website dedicated to local Shuckland lore). According to the pamphlet, this Devil in canine form arrived in Bungay during a thunderstorm on 4th August 1577 and attacked the congregation of St Mary’s church; after killing two parishioners, he made the fifteen-mile journey to the coastal village of Blythburgh and raised hell there too. No trace of his visit remains in Bungay, although he’s memorialised on top of the iron market cross. However, at Holy Trinity church in Blythburgh – a magnificent structure sometimes dubbed the ‘cathedral of the marshes’– three distinctive scorch marks on the inside of the church door, sometimes called ‘the devil’s fingerprints’, are said to have been left by the burning claws of the shuck.
3. The Witch’s Leg, East Somerton, Norfolk
The woodland remains of St Mary in East Somerton are among the most dramatic of all Norfolk’s church ruins, and are made even more visually striking by an enormous oak tree growing through what used to be the nave. This uncanny collision of nature and nurture has proved a magnet for folklore. While sometimes referred to as the ‘witch’s finger’ (raking the forest canopy with an accusatory point), the more common explanation is that the tree sprouted from the wooden leg of a witch who was buried alive in the foundations of the church before it fell into disuse in the seventeenth century. Furthermore, walking round the tree three times is said to release the restless spirit of the witch. Whether the tall tale has any basis in a real-life prosecution and punishment or not, this stunning landscape legend was for a long time our most popular update on Twitter (although it has recently been overtaken by another tale of wooden witches in Thrandeston).
4. Brograve Mill, Sea Palling, Norfolk
Notorious baronet Sir Berney Brograve constructed this windpump in Sea Palling on the Norfolk Broads in 1771. Now disused and dilapidated, it has a pronounced westward lean, said to result from the Devil’s efforts to thwart Brograve’s drainage scheme by blowing it down. Another version of the myth says that Brograve hid there when he lost a bet to the Devil about the mowing of beans and refused to pay up. One of the more remote and inaccessible of the sites I’ve visited – it can’t be reached on foot, and can only be seen at close quarters by following a long, rush-hemmed path along the Waxham New Cut from Horsey Mere – it’s also one of the few that got me genuinely spooked: the combined effect of the isolated location, the Satanic eighteenth-century legend, and the gently creaking ruin with its sail-less, skeletal stocks is very eerie.
5. The Felsted Hag, Felsted, Essex
On the main road through Felsted in Essex stands Boote House, a timber-framed Tudor building constructed (we learn from an inscription on the bressumer) in 1596 by a builder called George Boote. Now a Chinese restaurant, one of the most unusual architectural features of the structure is a grotesque carving bracketing the western overhang: it depicts a nude female figure in a crouching position, in some sort of shackle and – most suggestively of all – with cloven hooves instead of feet. As the latter detail (a common motif in early modern witch narratives) makes clear, the association is with witchcraft. Does the effigy represent a local witch (according to this site, an Alice Albert from Felsted was indeed tried at the Chelmsford assizes for enchanting farm animals in 1593)? Or was she placed there by Boote, figurehead-style, as an apotropaic gesture to ward off further evil? Both? Whatever her origins, an urban (or rural?) legend states that she comes to life and walks the village roads on Halloween. Moreover, this creepy video of the site claims to have captured a demonic voice.
6. The Witch’s Stone, Westleton, Suffolk
We’re staying with witchcraft for the final site of the round up, which is in the graveyard of St Peter, a proud little hilltop church in Westleton, constructed around 1300. Just to the right of the priest’s door on the south side of the chancel there’s a fourteenth-century gravestone, now fallen and flush with the ground. This unremarkable feature is known locally as the ‘witch’s stone’: it’s said that grass refuses to grow on it, and that it can be used to summon the ghost of a witch. A local custom involves children placing objects on the stone and running around the church seven times, after which the object will supposedly mysteriously vanish. Where there are witches Satan is never far away, and in a further demonological twist the Devil is said to live beneath a small grate in the church wall a few feet away from the stone.
This is only a selection of the supernatural sites I’ve visited; others include the effigy of Eagle Street in Ipswich, the witch’s brick in King’s Lynn, and a couple of church locations in West Norfolk associated with the celebrated giant and ogre-slayer Tom Hickathrift. There’s more lined up, so stay tuned to @Inner_Lives for more unmissable landscape lore…