The spookiest myths and legends in Norfolk

Black Shuck weather vane in Bungay.
Photo: Bill Darnell
Copy: Jon Welch
For: EDP features

Black Shuck weather vane in Bungay. Photo: Bill Darnell Copy: Jon Welch For: EDP features Archant © 2005 (01603) 772434 - Credit: Archant © 2005

Norfolk was once home to plenty of legends and superstitions. In time for Halloween, here are just a few of them.

East Anglia is a beautiful and breath taking place, with a rich history going back millennia. The first people are believed to have lived here hundreds of thousands of years ago, so it's unsurprising that many stories have been told over the years about the landscape and people within. In no particular order, here are just a handful of our favourite myths and legends from the county.

Black Shuck

No Norfolk legends list would be complete without this infamous demonic dog. Black Shuck is said to wander East Anglian churchyards at night and its sighting is seen as an ill-omen. The first written descriptions of the hound date back to 1850 and although versions vary, the creature is described as being unusually large, with black shaggy fur and red blazing eyes. 

One of the most famous stories of Black Shuck takes place in Bungay in neighbouring Suffolk. With a crash of thunder, Black Shuck burst through the doors of the Holy Trinity Church and ran up the aisle, killing two people and causing the church steeple to collapse. As the hell-hound exited, it left scorch marks by the north door which can still be seen today. 

A grassy courtyard with a statue of Black Shuck prowling

Black Shuck prowling Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk - Credit: staticgirl, Flickr

The Hethersett Faines 

Speaking of demonic creatures, Norfolk is also home to the Hethersett Faines. These calf-sized creatures with abnormally large, glowing eyes are even suggested to be a relation of Black Shuck although their territory is much smaller.

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In 1920, Walter Rye wrote of an encounter on the outskirts of Hethersett where a man was knocked off his feet by a gust of wind, only to see something slinking away, with eyes like a bicycle lamp. Others said that they had seen the creatures many times and always gave them plenty of room as they passed.

The Witch's Leg

We all know that Norfolk has a huge number of medieval churches, some are still in use whilst others were eventually left to ruin. One of the latter is St Mary's in the woods near East Somerton. Not much is left there now, save the roofless tower and a handful of crumbling walls that would have once housed the nave. In the centre, a huge oak tree has grown which one could mistake for a romantic sentiment if they did not know the truth...

During the height of the English witch trials, it is said that a suspected witch was buried alive under the church. This particular woman had a wooden leg and so she enchanted the wood to become an oak tree and destroy the church above. Now, legend says that if you walk three times around the tree, the witch's spirit will be released.

The back of the Tombland Alley where Tudor style buildings stand crooked

Tombland Alley in Norwich - Credit: Elliott Brown, Flickr

The Grey Lady of Tombland

On of the most infamous ghostly sightings in Norwich is of a young woman, dressed in grey, who appears to float through the streets and homes of Tombland. There are several versions of her origin but perhaps the most gruesome is that she was a victim of the plague that swept through Norwich in 1578. Thousands succumbed to the illness over two years and graveyards had to be raised to meet demand. In an attempt to quell the spread, it was ordered that anyone who was found to have the illness would be taken from their homes which would be subsequently boarded up and left until such a time when they could be certain that infection would be impossible. 

But when one house was unsealed by the bailiffs 40 days later, a shocking sight was found... The bodies of a man, woman, and young girl were found who had presumably been too weak to call out as they were barricaded in. That would be horrific enough in itself but, when examined, it became apparent that the man and woman had strange marks on their bodies: teeth marks. The young girl had survived the plague but had no means of escape from the boarded up house. She had resorted to eating her parents out of hunger, only to choke on their flesh. Now she is said to haunt the area of Tombland and Tombland Alley behind Augustine Steward House.

The Lantern Men

Many stories are told on the broads and marshes of Norfolk, but one thing is unanimous: don't follow the lights at night. In August, 1809 the mists swept in across Thurlton Staithe as a group of sailors sat at The White Horse Inn nursing a few drinks. One of them, Joseph Bexfield, remembered a parcel he had left on the wherry which was for his wife. Regardless of the protests by his fellow drinkers, he set out in the dark across the marshes where swirling mist and strange lights were later seen. Lantern Man was afoot and Joseph was never seen alive again. Legend says that he was lured to a watery grave by the lights of Lantern Man and his ghost can occasionally be see wandering the area. 

This is not the only sighting of Lantern Man in the county as the people of Irstead also claimed to be plagued by strange lights on the marshes. They also said you should not mock the Lantern Man - which they referred to as Jack o’ Lantern - as he would terrorise your home in the night.

A lit lantern casts an unsettling glow, surrounded by the dark

The Lantern Men wander the marsh at night - Credit: Joshua Bartell, Unsplash