Sunken villages and sea serpents - The folklore of East Anglia's waterways
- Credit: Archant
The strange tales that are woven into East Anglian history reflect its geography – many stories involve the coastline, rivers, the Broads and ponds.
River hags, sunken villages, shrieking pits, sea serpents, stones that run to the sea, hearts that burst from women burnt at the stake and bounce to the river... Norfolk and Suffolk's coastline and waterways hide many secrets.
1. The Shrieking Pits of North Norfolk
Past the picture-perfect corn and poppy fields close to Aylmerton, Runton, Beeston Regis and Weybourne are shallow pits in the ground, created by medieval digging for iron ore.
Three miles from Cromer, five such pits are visible in Aylmerton - these are known locally as the Shrieking Pits.
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Folklore tells of a ghostly figure wearing white that haunts the pits, weeping and wailing as she walks between each pit, endlessly searching for her baby.
Her husband killed the child, convinced it wasn’t his blood, buried the infant in the pit west of Alymerton church and then went back and killed his wife.
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Her ghost has been seen during the day, at dusk and at night time.
The same apparition, the ghost of a woman in a ‘winding sheet’, is said to rise out of the ground and roam the ‘hills and holes’ of the Weybourne area while at nearby North Repps are several water-filled hollows which also bear the name of the Shrieking Pits, this time named for another wailing woman, whose change of heart after a suicide attempt fell on deaf ears.
Further tales suggest that an entire horse and cart have been swallowed by the North Repps pool and another source claimed the pits were to the west of the village in a wooded area called Grave Holes and that the wailing heard from the pits was connected to “old sea kings” (or Vikings) and where they buried their heroes.
2. The witches’ stones of Lowestoft that run to the sea at midnight
A pile of stones in Belle Vue Park in Lowestoft is said to run to the sea on the first chime of midnight at midsummer to bathe.
These are the so-called Witches’ Stones, a rough cairn of stones which lies just inside the south gate of the park and which was once a vital lifeline to those at sea.
Believed to be the remains of a Tudor warning beacon built in 1550, fires would blaze from a platform on top of the cairn to warn ships of forthcoming emergencies.
It is said that unless the stones are bathed in fire, they will race down to the seashore at the first strike of midnight chimed from the town hall clock to bathe in the water before rushing to be back in place by the last stroke of 12.
Some say this happens only at midsummer, others that it happens far more frequently as the stones shed the mortar that binds them for a joyful dash for the water.
Others claim that the stones are ‘weather makers’ and can cause rain to fall if water is poured over them.
3. The Eccles Sea Serpent
In the summer of 1927, three men went for a stroll on Eccles beach in Norfolk - it was a peaceful evening...until, that is, a sea serpent appeared travelling at incredible speed.
In a letter to the Eastern Daily Press on August 6 1936, Herbert Witard – who had been Mayor in 1927 – noted that he, Labour MP Charles Ammon and Archibald Gossling, a British trade unionist and Labour politician, had been standing on Eccles-on-Sea Beach at 7.25pm when they noticed an “unusual form travelling swiftly about one mile from the shore”.
He added: “Looking at it from a distance, it appeared to be a form of a huge serpent about 30 or 40 feet in length and skimming the surface of the water in a wormlike movement but travelling at a terrific speed, certainly not less than one mile a minute.”
Other witnesses came forward, including another sighting of a five-humped creature at Mundesley.
4. Just what WAS buried on Eccles Beach…?
Following the sea serpent sighting at Eccles, an anonymous letter was received by the EDP which referenced the beast and added another to the village’s cryptid count: “…It is also very interesting that this should have been seen off Eccles, as it was only last year that I had occasion to be at Eccles on business when my attention was called to a body that had been washed up by the sea. I made a close inspection of this, and although part of the tail was missing, it was of considerable length and had a fish-like body, yet with the bones of an animal and small feathers on the neck, and also a long, thick tail similar to that of a crocodile. I think I am right in saying that this body was buried somewhere on the beach at Eccles.”
5. Meanwhile at Southwold…another serpent
In 1938, according to Paul Harrison’s watery cryptozoology Bible, Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles, Ernest Watson and William Herrington saw something strange while trawling for sole four miles east of Southwold.
As they returned to harbour, both were startled by a huge animal with a long neck that appeared around 40 yards away from them – it was dark grey, travelling at around 30 knots and they estimated it was around 50 to 60ft long.
In The Daily Mirror in October 1938, Mr Watson said: “I have never seen anything like it in my life…It kept its neck bent and showed its camel-like back which stuck out of the water so far that we could see right under it. It was dark grey in colour. “You ought to have seen it and then you would have realised what a fright it could give anybody. I am only glad it did not come nearer our boat. It seemed to be towering right over the top of us as it was.
“I shouldn’t like to think that we were any nearer to it than we were, in such a small boat.”
6. Tunstall’s drowned bells
Close to the ruin of St Peter and St Paul’s church at Tunstall in Norfolk is a boggy pool of water known as ‘hell hole’ which bubbles in the summertime. The bubbles are said to be the sinking church bells as they are taken to hell by the devil, who snatched them in front of the parson and churchwardens who were arguing about who should take them. On quiet nights, across the bogs and marshland, it is said the muffled peal of bells can be heard as Satan rings them in his underworld.
7. Have you heard the terrifying tale of Mother Lumpkin’s Hole?
It’s a sobering tale to keep children out of the drink: but is something sinister lurking under the water at Middleton in Suffolk?
A persistent story spans the centuries that at Mother Lumpkin’s Hole, a deep hollow in the bed of the Minsmere River close to Rackford Bridge, something lies on the river bed waiting to claim those unwise enough to venture too close.
According to legend, a “baleful monster” lurks here waiting to pull prey into the deep.
Minsmere old river and Minsmere New Cut diverge just after Rackford Bridge and the hole in question appears to be along the New Cut, which dates the story to after 1812, after the artificial drainage channel was built.
Might Mother Lumpkin be Suffolk’s answer to Jenny Greenteeth, Nelly Longarms or Peg Powler, terrifying river hags that drag children to a watery grave if they dare to come to close to the edge of a rivers, meres, bogs or lakes?
There is a footpath which runs alongside the New Cut: if you take it, be sure to look out for Mother Lumpkin – hopefully you will see her, before she sees you.
8. The Witch’s Heart that bounced to the river
On the north side of Tuesday Market in King’s Lynn, in a large square fringed by the Corn Exchange, pubs and hotels, numbers 15 and 16 hide a wicked secret: above one of the windows, carved into the red brick is a diamond shape and within it, a somewhat crudely carved heart.
It marks the death of Margaret Read, a woman burned at the stake in the square in 1590. Read was accused and then found guilty of witchcraft, her punishment was to be burnt in the marketplace.
Legend has it that as she was being consumed by flames, Margaret’s heart burst from her chest, smashed into the spot above the window which is now marked with a diamond and then fell to the ground before it beat a determined path to the nearby River Ouse where it sank beneath the surface, the water bubbling and roiling as it was enveloped.
9. The lost port of Dunwich
In medieval times, Dunwich was a thriving rival to London, the capital of East Anglia, a town filled with riches: and then, a series of great storms and coastal erosion turned it into Britain’s Atlantis.
The lost town of Dunwich lies far beneath the waves of the North Sea, 50ft below the surface and up to a mile out from the beach along which visitors walk today.
In its watery tomb lie eight churches, five houses of religious orders, two hospitals and three chapels, illustrating what an important centre Dunwich once was, with its bustling port and Royal charter.
In 1286, the first of many devastating storms swept away swathes of the town.
Forty-two years later, fierce winds and waves destroyed priories and blocked Dunwich harbour, forcing trade further up the coast – 19 years after that, 400 houses, two churches, shops and windmills were swallowed by the sea: Dunwich’s reign as one of Britain’s principal towns had come to an end.
Legend has it that sailors and fishermen refuse to go to sea if they hear the chiming of bells from the lost churches of Dunwich which they believe foretell the arrival of another devastating storm while divers who have explored the ruins underwater say they have felt an eerie feeling that they are not alone beneath the waves.
10. Norfolk’s watery Lantern Men
Beware the glowing ghost lights of Norfolk’s Lantern Men – or they may lure you to a watery grave. The ‘death fires’ that hover above marshland or fens have long-since been feared and are said to be evil spirits that try to draw victims to their death in reed beds and mud. They are drawn to people who whistle and the only way to try to escape them is to lie face-down with your mouth in the mud. They have been seen at Thurlton, Bawburgh, Alder Carr, Wicken Fen, Irstead, Horning, Gimingham and Southrepps.
11. Mother Gabley who raised a storm at sea
Mother Gabley was the first person condemned in Norfolk under the 1563 Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts which was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I. She was accused of causing the death of Robert Archer, Oliver Cobb, William Barret, Henry Gouldsmith, Richard Dye and others who had sailed from Spain to England.
In all, 13 men had died.
She had, it was claimed, boiled eggs in cold water, stirring vigorously to raise a storm at sea. Mother Gabley was hanged in King’s Lynn in 1583, probably at Tuesday Market Place.
12. The Devil and Brograve Mill
Brograve Mill lies in ghostly ruins close to Waxham and Horsey. With its gentle westward tilt, it is a mere skeleton of what was once a majestic eight-bladed windmill. Legend has it that the man who owned the mill in 1771, Sir Berney Brograve, wagered his soul that he could out-mow the Devil, a foolish bet which Lucifer won with ease. He turned to collect Sir Berney’s soul, but the landowner had disappeared towards his mill, slamming the door in the Devil’s face. Whipped into a temper, the Devil pounded on the door with his terrible cloven hooves and, the next morning, when Sir Berney gingerly opened the door, he found it pitted with hoof-prints and leaning decidedly to the west where Satan had attempted to blow the mill down.
13: The Wildman of Orford
Fishermen were perplexed when they raised their nets and found something mysterious in their day's catch: a glistening, naked creature with an extremely hairy chest and a ragged beard, seemingly a merman who was unable to talk and who seemed more fish than man.
Other reports claim the man dragged from the sea in the 12th century was covered from head to toe in hair, like a typical woodwose, the kind seen in many of the churches along the coast in Suffolk. Terrified, the fishermen brought the creature to land and he was imprisoned in Bartholomew de Granville's recently-built castle where he happily accepted raw food which he would squeeze the juice from before devouring - fish was his favourite meal.
Determined to hear his story, the poor Wildman was brutally tortured, his silence presumed to be an obstinate refusal to divulge his secrets. Perhaps realising that torture was bearing no fruit, the Wildman was eventually allowed to exercise in the sea, held in a particular area by three rows of strong nets placed across the harbour. With ease, the Wildman dived beneath the nets and appeared in the sea beyond them but then, to everyone's surprise, he returned and allowed himself to be taken back to the castle. As time went on, the guards grew less vigilant and on one of the occasions that he dove under the nets and out to sea, he did not turn back.