Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
QUEST FOR TOM HICKATHRIFT
Apart from one extremely dubious tale in Charles Sampson’s ‘Ghosts of the Broads’, East Anglia can lay claim to only one traditional giant: namely TOM HICKATHRIFT, the giant of the Norfolk Marshland. Tom is mentioned many times in works on local folklore, but I don’t know of any serious attempt to follow up the dozens of different threads of legend and try to discover Tom’s ultimate origins. That is my quest here – but I have a feeling that this will only lay the foundations for a much deeper study.
((NB. This is an updated version of my paper 'The Norfolk Giant' that originally appeared in the Summer 1981 issue of 'Lantern', the journal of the Borderline Science Investigation Group)).
Part 1 - The Land of the
The majority of the action in the tales takes place in the far western corner of Norfolk, in a rough triangle bordered by King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Downham Market, and more specifically in that area marked nowadays on the map as ‘Marshland Fen’. Upon the western edge of this region is ‘The Smeeth’, a name that once applied to the whole Marshland (and probably derives from an Old English word meaning ‘smooth’).
This was, in olden days, a fine pastureland about 2 miles or so across and of 1200 acres in extent. Over 30,000 sheep and cattle were grazed here by the ‘Seven Towns of Marshland’ to whom the plain was common – namely Tilney, Terrington, Clenchwarton, Walpole, West Walton, Walsoken and Emneth. In 1923 the area was made into the new parish of Marshland St. James, and the Smeeth is now (or at least was, when I went there in 1980 and ’81) a straggling collection of both private and council houses, with a school, pub and small church, all strung out along Smeeth Road.
Somewhere in this region of the Marshland, say the legends, was born Tom Hickathrift, “in the reign before William the Conqueror”, the son of a poor labourer also called Thomas Hickathrift. His father died not long after Tom was born, and his poor old mother was forced to work day and night to support him, since he was very lazy, and ate a huge amount, “for he was in height”, says one story, “when he was but ten years of age, about eight feet, and in thickness five feet, and his hand was like unto a shoulder of mutton; and in all parts from top to toe, he was like unto a monster, and yet his great strength was not known”.