Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
East Bilney is a tiny hamlet in the parish of Beetley. A little way north-west of the church, at TF952199, can be found the Bloodfield, so-called because it is said to be the site of a battle during the English Civil War. Sword hilts, spurs and horse trappings are supposed to have been found here, but there's no record of such a battle.
St. Withburga's Well
"The ruins of a tomb which contained the remains of Withburga, youngest daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles, who died in AD 654. The Abbot and Monks of Ely stole this precious relique and translated it to Ely Cathedral, where it was interred near her three royal sisters, AD 974".
Thus runs the inscription on the stonework of St. Withburga's Well (TF987134), a sunken vault at the west end of East Dereham churchyard. Her 'three royal sisters' (Ethelburga, Sexburga and Etheldreda) were also saints, as was her brother Jurmin.
Source: M. R. James: 'Suffolk & Norfolk' (Dent & Sons, 1930), p.14.
A house of the 17th or 18th century in Old Becclesgate (at TF986133) is supposed locally to have once been a monastery, with a tunnel leading from the cellars to the Guildhall. According to a former owner of the house, she crawled a short way along more than one passage when a child, and believed they once brought water northwards from St. Withburga's Well - which is possible, as the well was popular as a spa in the 18th century. (See also another holy well here.)
St. Nicholas' church has a tower detached from the building. It's said the bells were originally hung in the 13th century lantern tower rising from the centre, but they became too heavy for the structure and were removed to the bell-tower in the churchyard, specially built in the 16th century. In 1797 it was used as a temporary gaol for French prisoners on their way from Great Yarmouth. One tried to escape by hiding in a tree, but was shot and buried in the graveyard (his memorial is near St. Withburga's Well.)
R. H. Mottram: 'East Anglia' (Chapman & Hall, 1933), pp.179-80.
Noel Boston & Eric Puddy: 'Dereham' (G. A. Coleby, 1952), pp. 148-9.
According to legend, the bells of St. Nicholas ring by themselves once a year, on Christmas morning.
Source: W. B. Gerish: 'Norfolk Folklore Collections', Vol.4 (unpublished, 1916-18, compiled by William de Castre), p.71.
Pilgrim's Meadow pit
Here was a field known as Pilgrim's Meadow, and in it a deep pit that has now been filled. Legend says that a 'golden cradle' lay buried at the bottom of the pit.
Murder in the Well
Still marked on OS maps, but hard to find nowadays, the ancient Mary Bone's Well (TF847287) can be found a little south-east of the remains of the Augustinian St. Mary's priory, between Coxford and Broomsthorpe. Local legend says that the well is named after a woman named Mary Bone, who was drowned there by a priest from the priory.
A smuggler's grave
Just outside the village to the west along the A149, at about TG195426, is a spot where a skeleton was unearthed during road-widening in 1906. According to legend this was the body of a smuggler, slain during an attempted escape from the excise men. Others have said it was a murdered pedlar of watches, targeted for robbery at the local inn. Either way, the remains were finally buried in Runton churchyard. Some have suggested the body was in fact connected with the 'ghostly light' that used to haunt near Runton corn mill, a windmill that still stands about 600 metres away, at TG200422. The light was known to cross the fields from the mill, and disappear into the earth in a copse at or near this spot.
Walter Rye: 'a History of Norfolk' (Elliot Stock, 1887), p.227.
The witch tree
The roofless nave and tower of St. Mary's church date back to the 15th century, and now stand ruined and clothed in ivy (TG481197.) Incongruously, in the middle of the nave grows a large oak tree, which some call the Witch's Finger. But tales have come into being that say an evil witch was once buried on the spot, and the church built on top of her to seal away her wickedness. As an added twist she had a wooden leg, which has sprouted and grown into the oak tree, its influence hastening the building's ruin. Ghostly monks and whispering voices have also been experienced here. Some have said that the witch and other troubled souls may be seen if you visit the church at midnight on Halloween; others, that the spirit of the witch herself will be released if you walk round the tree three times.
Langmere (TL906884) is a single small lake, one of many such meres throughout Breckland, but when the water level falls, the little island in it becomes connected to the shore by a narrow isthmus. It used to be said that any shepherd or cattleman who drove his animals onto the island would suffer misfortune or ill. The water was believed to be the domain of the Devil, and none would ever dare to hunt fowl or fish there.
Source: Olive Cooke: 'Breckland' (Robert Hale, 2nd edition 1980; orig. 1956), p.73.
At Cross Green, on the corner of Briston Road and Ramsgate Street, stands the former White Horse inn, now a private house (TG090342). Locals tell of a smuggler's tunnel from here, running for several miles north to the coast at Cley. It used to be said that if you placed your ear against the ground here, you could hear the singing of the smugglers1 (or, presumably, their ghosts).
About 500m further along Ramsgate Street are the various buildings that make up Mount Farm. During the 1970's, the cellar of one of the houses here was flooded and part of a wall collapsed, revealing a stone-lined tunnel which was soon after bricked-up for safety. This has been loosely connected to old tales of a monastery once having existed here. In the middle of the farm stands the octagonal late-Saxon tower of the former parish church (TG086347), which became dilapidated and was rebuilt using some of the old masonry on its present site, half a mile away. In the field next to the tower, a tractor supposedly fell through the earth into a bell-shaped 'storage chamber' where the monks stored their crops.2, 3 Unfortunately for these tales, although Binham Priory owned one of the Edgefield manors from the 12th century until the Dissolution, there is no evidence of any monastic presence in the village itself.4
South of Mount Farm is Mill House, standing on a man-made hill known as The Mount (TG087343). In local folklore this mound was a beacon site, for setting a signal fire to alert the country when danger was near1 (see for example the Armada Beacon, at Theberton) - however, there was actually a post-mill on the spot, which went out of use in 1833.2
In 1986, to mark 900 years since the original Norman census, the BBC launched the Domesday Project, in which over a million people (mostly schoolchildren) submitted information on history, life and lore in their local community. In addition to the tunnel story above, the kids of Edgefield recorded that, in the area of the village known as The Green, there is a hole in a particular hedgerow known as Bodger's Gap. According to their tale, in 1911 a young man named Mr. Bodger killed his father with an axe, then also slew a Mr. Ford who tried to stop him. Bodger fled through the gap in the hedge, and because of all the blood that was spilt, nothing has ever been able to grow at that spot ever since.1
Legend aside, the circumstances behind the story are substantially true, but have obviously become garbled in memory. At about 2am on June 30th 1907 (not 1911), blacksmith and off-duty parish constable Walter Ford saw, in his next-door neighbour's back garden, a young man whom he knew to be William Jacobs, who lived in Ramsgate Street with his elderly father. Jacobs was a labourer, who had recently 'got religion' and become almost manic in his efforts to recruit others. On that morning, he was shouting out for the Batchelors, who lived there, to come join him, so Ford went over the fence to calm him down. Suddenly, Jacobs pushed him down and stabbed him in the back multiple times with a small knife. Mr. Batchelor came out and was badly wounded, and as Ford tried to crawl away, Jacobs leapt on him and stabbed him again many times. When others arrived due to the commotion, young Jacobs did indeed flee through a hedge. Walter Ford died of his wounds a few hours later, and Jacobs himself was found standing beside the main road by other constables. He offered no resistance at all, saying that he had seen "the devils of the night", that he had meant to kill many others who "did not have the faith", and that "I have been cutting and slashing the whole night. I must have killed two men". When they went to Jacobs' house to tell his father, they found the old man dead, his head split apart by a meat cleaver. Jacobs was later found guilty of the murders, but insane, and he was committed to an asylum.2
2. Maurice Morson: 'Norfolk Mayhem & Murder: Classic Cases Revisited' (Pen & Sword Books, 2008), p.156-60.
On the site of an earlier building, the 15th century Elsing Hall (TG039160) is said to be joined to St. Mary's church (TG051165) by a subterranean passage just less than a mile long. Supposedly, the tunnel was uncovered many years ago and a dog sent down to explore it, with a small bell around its neck. Like the music of the fiddler at Binham, after a while the sound of the bell faded away, and the dog was never seen again. The entrance to the passage was then closed up, and its location has remained lost ever since.
In the writer W. G. Clarke's day, rumours abounded of a tunnel beneath the park grounds at Euston, not far from Thetford. Euston Hall (TL898786) dates basically from around 1670, and was built for Lord Arlington. In 1748 a 'Grecian Temple' or summer-house was erected in the park, and then the legend of a tunnel between the two arose. But as far as Clarke was concerned, the 'tunnel' was no more than a covered passageway that led to an ice-house.
Source: W. G. Clarke: 'In Breckland Wilds' (Robert Scott, 1925), p.152.