Weird Norfolk: Unearth the mysteries of this beauty on the Norfolk Broads
PUBLISHED: 11:39 10 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:03 10 September 2019
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Dragons, demons, monks and artists haunt lonely, lovely St Benet’s Abbey - and there’s just time for a free guided tour before the dark days of winter.
St Benet's has been gathering ghosts and stories for a thousand years. King Canute failed to hold back the sea, but he found enough dry land in the Norfolk marshes, close to where two rivers meet, for a majestic monastery.
In its heyday the abbey founded by the Viking king owned land and property across Norfolk. Its grand church was surrounded by accommodation, kitchens, a hospital, gardens and fishponds.
Today just the ruined gatehouse remains and, sketched across the riverside site, the skeleton of the huge abbey church, protrudes in flinty mounds through the meadow.
Three hundred years ago a mill was crammed inside the gatehouse and, ruined in its turn, its stark silhouette adds to the strangeness of the site.
This place, midway by water between the ancient villages of Ludham and Ranworth, is loved for its isolated beauty today. Walkers come, and boaters, painters and photographers, and on the first Sunday of every August the Bishop of Norwich leads a service in the ruins.
But mostly St Benet's is alone with its history - of prayer, pilgrimage, treachery, violence and
The first stories are of Christian hermits, slaughtered by Viking raiders. Then, less than 50 years after the Abbey was founded, Norman invaders arrived. A monk named Essric agreed to open the heavy doors to them - if he could become abbot. He let them in, was pronounced abbot, and promptly hung for his perfidy.
The terrible events are said to play out again and again and if you are unlucky enough to be passing at midnight, cover your ears and eyes against the final agony of the "shrieking monk" of St Benet's.
Screams rend the air, a body writhes, and then swings, heavy and silenced until the next midnight manifestation.
In 1928 a doctor and his crew moored alongside the site reported seeing watching the monastery rematerialise and the monk betray his brothers, and pay the terrible price.
The threat of evil loomed large in this boggy landscape in medieval times. Beset by disease, hunger, war and disasters both natural and man-made, people tried to protect themselves with prayers and charms.
In recent years thousands of simple drawings have been found scratched into stone and wood in churches - often close to the entrance to ward off the witches and demons believe to lurk outside. One of the most common patterns is the "daisy wheel" of interlocking petal shapes, designed to trap evil spirits. On the outside wall of the ruined gatehouse of St Benet's a daisy wheel sits high up to the left of the arch.
There is also part of an image of a late 15th century figure, obscured by later carvings.
Satan is here too - in the form of a carved dragon.
A weathered saint and dragon are linked to the story of the monstrous dragon which terrorised nearby Ludham. When his labyrinth of tunnels beneath the village was blocked up he flew in fury to St Benet's and was last seen vanishing into the underground vaults of the Abbey.
Another monk ghost said to haunt the river between St Benet's and Ranworth is Pacifus. He was helping to repair the ornate screen in Ranworth church when Henry VIII's men arrived. By the time Pacifus and his pet dog returned everyone was gone, some stories say murdered. Pacifus still rows the river with his dog, searching for his brothers.
In fact St Benet's was the only monastery in England not to be closed by Henry VIII. Instead the abbot was made Bishop of Norwich. The abbey itself was abandoned and its buildings demolished but the Bishop of Norwich is Abbot of St Benet's to this day.
Today the site is owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, with just the ruins of the church still owned by the diocese - and leased to the trust for 199 years.
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Norfolk Archaeological Trust is a charity dedicated to protecting Norfolk's history and working with local communities to look after 10 free-to-enter sites including Caistor St Edmund near Norwich, Burgh Castle near Yarmouth, Binham Priory, Bloodgate Hill Fort in South Creake, and Middleton Mount near King's Lynn.
It more than £50,000 a year to protect and conserve all 10 sites and the trust relies on the generosity of individuals and organisations for funding. To find out more about its work, to become a volunteer, or to donate to its work visit www.norfarchtrust.org.uk
St Benet's is open daily and the Friends of St Benet's Abbey lead free guided tours every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 3pm from May until the end of September. www.stbenetsabbey.org
Scenic St Benet's has been painted by artists ranging from John Crome to "mini Monet" Kieron Williamson. An exhibition of pictures of St Benet's at Norwich Cathedral library from September 9-30 will include an original Keiron Williamson, paintings by 18th, 19th and 20th century artists and and photography. Open Tuesdays to Thursdays 9.30am-4.30pm, plus Friday September 13 for Heritage Open Days. Images of St Benet's is part of the celebrations of the abbey's 1,000th anniversary and a new guidebook will be on sale.
Did you know…?
Our churches are alive with pictures scratched into sacred stonework. Hidden for centuries they are finally being found and interpreted. As time softened the indentations, and stonework was painted over or rubbed smooth, the medieval graffiti of crosses, circles, stars, knots, ships, faces, animals, and symbols, made by ordinary people to implore protection and ward-off evil, became virtually invisible. Norfolk's Matthew Champion chanced across this hidden cache of medieval art a decade ago, and launched the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey to find and log it. Now tens of thousands of examples have been found across the country, with more than 5,000 in Norwich Cathedral alone.
Contrary to legend, Canute, the founder of St Benet's, was not foolishly insisting he could control the tides, but demonstrating how even the king of England and most of Scandinavia was subject to the laws of nature.
The name Benet is a shortening of Benedict.
Keen to cash in on the pilgrim trade the abbey tried to tempt people to its shrine of St Margaret of Holm, martyred at Hoveton in 1170.
Norfolk knight Sir John Fastolf was one of St Benet's greatest benefactors, and the inspiration for Shakespeare's Falstaff. He and his wife are buried at the Abbey.
The mill, built into the ruins of the gatehouse, is thought to be the second oldest windmill in Norfolk and was used to process rapeseed oil from 1725.
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