Which Norfolk cliff is haunted by a ghostly coastguard?

The Smugglers' Cove by Albert Pinkham Ryder 

The Smugglers' Cove by Albert Pinkham Ryder - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A ghostly coastguardsman patrols the lonely cliff-edge between Bacton and Mundesley in the darkness, waiting for his order to stand down.

Witnesses speak of a tall man striding purposefully along the cliff, particularly on dark and stormy nights when he’s said to scream with fury into the wind.

Under inky skies and a canopy of stars, the man has been seen for centuries, staking out his old patrol, waiting for the smugglers who sent him to purgatory.

Aerial view of Bacton. Photo: Mike Page

Aerial view of Bacton. Photo: Mike Page - Credit: Mike Page

This stretch of ‘lawless’ coast was popular with smugglers – and in turn with those that hunted them - thanks to its isolated beaches just across the water from Holland.

With the tide behind them and a local’s knowledge of the waters, highly-skilled sailors would be able to navigate silently into places such as Bacton, just out of sight of the ever-watchful custom officials.

The harsh taxation of the 18th century led to a sharp rise in illegal trading, particularly on luxury items that were coveted by those with Champagne tastes on cider wages: lace, silk, velvet, brandy, tea and gin.

Cash needed to be raised to continue Britain’s wars across seas, but smugglers were on hand to offer cut-price goods, often at the expense of those that tried to cross their path, as the poor soul in this tale discovered.

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In the late 1700s, a coastguardsman tasked with watching the treacherous coastline at Bacton thought he had made a breakthrough when he tamed a local informer.

The man promised to let him know when the next smuggling vessel would be paying a visit to Bacton in return for favours and the coastguardsman eagerly waited for the next opportunity to catch malevolent mariners red-handed.

One day, the message came: a ship was due to visit late at night to drop off a cargo of illicit goods and the coastguardsman readied himself.

He sent a boy to summon the local troop of yeomanry for back-up and hastened to the cliff edge to wait for the ship to arrive. Swinging his lamp in the darkness to fool the sailors that he was leading them to safety, he watched the waves intently.

In time, he saw the unmistakeable figures of men coming towards him in the darkness, wading through the water and he waited for the troops to race forward on the beach.

But no troops had come. The boy had double-crossed him and had led the smugglers straight to him and led the coastguardsman to his imminent doom.

Still believing back-up was by his side, the brave man shouted for the troops to follow him and led an attack in the direction of the beach.

Met by a gang of smugglers he was, according to local tales, hacked to pieces by the smugglers and his remains were flung over the cliff where they joined the waves that had claimed so many mariners over the years.

Mundesley beach in the early summer sun with Bacton, Walcott and Happisburgh lighthouse in the backg

Mundesley beach in the early summer sun with Bacton, Walcott and Happisburgh lighthouse in the background. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE - Credit: Mark Bullimore

Tied to the spot where his life was brought to a sudden, violent end, the coastguardsman was unable to cross over to the next life and instead is forced to retake his last steps for eternity.

In the History and Legends of the Broad District, written by Ernest Suffling in 1891, the author wrote of the ghost who he called The Long Coastguardsman.

"It must indeed be a poor village that has not a ghost in it, or a death-light, or shuck-dog, or something else supernatural, especially in Norfolk,” he wrote.

“All over the British Isles we meet with ghosts and goblins, many of them firmly believed in, and the legend of them looked upon as gospel. I nearly met him once between midnight and one o'clock, at a place called Ostend, near Walcott.

“I distinctly saw him coming along the beach, keeping in the shadow of the cliff; we appear to have seen each other at the same moment, for we both stopped. When I stopped he went noisely to the foot of the cliff in the deep shadow and seemed to disappear…”

Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood in The Fabled Coast, liken the Long Coastguardsman to other “elemental supernatural beings associated with the weather” across Britain.

They write: “His behaviour resembles that of some elementals…such as Shuck, the Dooniney Hoie (North-West England and Isle of Man) and Jan Tregeagle of Gwnnvor Sands (South-West England and Channel Islands) – but he also used to tempt people into danger by crying for help, a nasty practice associated with demonic beings such as the Kelpie.”

It seems unlikely that Norfolk’s coastguardsman, whose life was dedicated to preventing crime, would wish anything but safety to those who visit this beautiful area of the county’s coastline. Unless they are smuggling, of course, in which case…