Have you seen a whistling ghost off the Acle Straight?
- Credit: Archant Library
It was the coldest winter for 200 years, and three friends out shooting near the Acle Straight didn’t think their blood could be any chillier: until they heard an eerie whistle.
There, approaching them on the ice, was a figure, walking purposefully towards the rivulet that was the only element of Breydon Water left unfrozen.
And as he walked, he whistled.
Weird Norfolk received a letter from reader JB Howkins, who described an unsettling meeting in the early 1960s, when he and two friends were close to the Acle Straight.
“With reference to your item ‘Acle Road Ghosts’,” wrote Mr Howkins, who lives in Broadland, “in the winter of 1962 or 1963, I and two friends were shooting on the north side of the Acle Straight.
“As it was getting dark and not having shot, we crossed over to the Breydon side of the road. Breydon was frozen over, except for a small rivulet in the centre.”
It is likely that Mr Howkins’ recollection is of The Big Freeze in the winter of 1962/3.
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Just before Christmas 1962 and from Boxing Day until March, much of the county lay under a frozen blanket of snow with temperatures in Norfolk dipping to -19C in January 1963.
Rivers and Broads froze over, ships were trapped in the ice and many birds and animals died in the Arctic conditions, possibly contributing to Mr Howkins’ poor luck while out shooting.
Colder than the harsh conditions of 1947, it was the coldest winter on record since 1740, with six metre snow drifts, impassable roads and train tracks and frozen telephone lines.
Archant’s photographic archives are filled with atmospheric pictures of Breydon Water’s Arctic past, boats stranded in ice, skating on a wide expanse of frozen water, birds skittering along searching for food.
The Breydon area was once a popular spot for wildfowling, shooting wild geese and ducks, before it became a nature reserve in 1968.
Mr Howkins continued: “As we saw no game and the weather was beginning to change for the worst, Billy Edwards and Arthur Bear and myself decided it was enough when the snow began to fall.”
The trio began to make their way towards home when they heard a noise pierce the chill air: a whistle, coming towards them.
“I said: ‘Did you hear that?’ ‘that whistle? Yes,’ they said, ‘look: someone is coming over the ice’,” wrote Mr Hawkins.
“And then a man appeared, whistling, dressed in ordinary street clothes and trilby, no foul weather item at all. He walked about 10 feet away from us, still whistling over the ice toward the centre of Breydon, and certain death.
“We three were in shock and when back on the road and home, Billy called into the police station to report what had happened. The next day, I got the EDP to see if anything was reported. But no, nothing, and there never was!”
“Years later I told this tory to a sideman [assistant churchwarden] at my local church. ‘What do you think?’ I said. ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ he replied, ‘you saw a ghost!’
“’You believe in ghosts?’ I asked, ‘oh yes,’ he said.”
Sadly, this stretch of water has claimed many lives over the years, some by accident, some by choice, so it is difficult to tell if the whistling man can be identified from those who have died there.
Superstitions about whistling ghosts echo across the globe. In China and Korea, it is unlucky to whistle as you walk at night in case you attract wandering ghosts that will then follow you home and remain to haunt you.
In Turkey, whistling at night is a sign you are calling for the Devil, while in Slavic cultures, whistling indoors is thought to welcome in poverty.
Some actors believe whistling backstage is unlucky, sailors ban whistling on board due to a superstition that the whistler draws bad luck to the entire crew and the ship.
In Norfolk, there are tales of other whistling spectres. Baconsthorpe’s spectral sentry has been heard whistling as he patrols from beyond the grave and the devil was said to whistle up storms in Broadland.
Sir Walter Rye spoke of strange devilish whirlwinds in 1877. These were, he said, fairly common in Wroxham, Woodbastwick, Horning and South Walsham.
Meanwhile, author Montague Rhodes James wrote quietly creepy tales where the most unimaginable horrors lay in wait in the darkness that stretched outside the lamplight.
One of his most terrifying was Oh Whistle and I will Come to You My Lad, which was filmed in Norfolk and Suffolk, the latter being James’ home from the age of three.
The 1904 story sees a professor find an old bronze whistle while he explores the ruins of a Knights Templars’ chapel. On the whistle are engraved the words: “Who is this who comes?” As the man walks away with it, he imagines something terrible just out of sight. That night, he cleans and blows the whistle and a vision comes to him which haunts him day and night…
Apparently, James was aware of a piece of East Anglian folklore which meant that hunters would never whistle for their dogs after dark for fear they would call up a fiend or ‘lantern man’.
Whistling or making whistling noises at night, is often linked to bad luck or evil spirits. The famous Lantern Man of the Fens is drawn to people who whistle and will then try to lure the unfortunate whistler to their death.
At All Saints church in Swanton Morley, it’s said that Satan can be summoned if you run round the church at midnight and then whistle through the keyhole, at which point the Dark Lord will appear.
A variation involves whistling through the grille that looks into a crypt under the chancel again, after circling the church at the witching hour.
In Great Yarmouth, a macabre discovery was made in the early 1970s when a mass plague grave was unearthed containing 15 grimly grinning skeletons.
A dark reminder of the plague which wiped out two-thirds of the town in the 1300s, those who succumbed to The Black Death were buried in plague pits around the town, including that at Friars Lane on the site which would house the town’s new fire station.
Within a fortnight of the opening of Great Yarmouth Fire Station in 1972, firefighters reported hearing something unusual at their brand-new headquarters.
First to get a midnight shiver down his back was Fireman Jimmy Jones: "Just after midnight I was sitting alone in the dormitory which is directly over the top of the friars' burial ground when I heard what sounded like whistling. It got louder as if someone was walking along the corridor and the sound stopped outside the dormitory. It was a very slow, tuneless whistle, almost like a dirge. I wouldn't have minded if it had been out of the Top Ten."
Less than two weeks later, a Mrs Nora Hand, 66, contacted the Eastern Daily Press to recount stories of her childhood, which she spent living in a house that was built on the same site as the fire station.
She claimed she had seen faceless monks and the ghostly figures of a young girl and an old woman at the house.
In the Eastern Daily Press of July 7 1972, she said: "People may laugh, but I regularly saw monks, misty figures wearing black cloaks and with no faces, walking about our house."
Mrs Hand, who said there used to be a graveyard near her parents' home in Garden Lane, claimed the appearance of the monks - "terrifying experiences" that always occurred about midnight - were often preceded by the sound of…whistling.