Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
Source: 'Norfolk & Norwich Notes & Queries', Note 439 (29/3/1902.)
Born the son of a mythical king and queen, Benedict and Blide (or Blida, also a saint), at Bawburgh in 975 AD, Walstan left his parents at the age of twelve to work on a farm at Taverham. He soon gained a reputation for charity and piety, and walked unhurt through thorns and performed other miraculous acts. The farmer wanted to make Walstan his heir, but he would only accept two bull calves, which an angel had told him in a vision would bear him to his resting-place.
He continued his hard labour in the fields until one day, another vision told him to prepare for his end. He asked his master to harness the two calves to a cart and his body placed on it, the beasts being allowed to wander where they would. A heavenly voice called him to rest, and as he died, a white dove soared from his mouth into the sky.
On the spot on which he died a little spring welled up, placed by tradition in a field a little way north of St. Edmund's church at Taverham, in or near a plantation called 'Walstanham' - this was probably the Spring Plantation, a small part of which still survives to the north of the church, and known in the 17th century as 'Walstan Wong'. A source of 1859 records the well there, although another tradition places it not far from the church, in the eastern side of the Hall grounds.1
T. B. Norgate: 'A History of Taverham' (private, 1969).
'East Anglian Magazine', Vol.1, No.10 (July 1936), pp.568-9.
Mark Knights: 'Peeps at the Past, or Rambles Among Norfolk Antiquities' (Jarrold & Son, 1892), p.68.
W. A. Dutt: 'Highways & Byways in East Anglia' (Macmillan & Co, 1923), pp.159, 161.
Ghost Hill Wood (TG170136) stretches between Shakespeare Way and Eastfield, but once it was called Ghosthill Plantation, and covered an area further eastward, as far as what is now Orchard Bank. No satisfactory explanation has ever been found for the name, but it was called thus at least as far back as 1891. Before that, it may have been called Bunnett Hill, after the landowner. A man who lived at nearby Drayton in the 1980's recalled being told by the locals that the Ghost Hill name arose from a Saxons vs Danes battle, and that the clashing of Viking swords on shields could still sometimes be heard on foggy nights. This is almost certainly connected with the battle of Bloods Dale, about 1km away to the south-east.
Source: 'The East Anglian Magazine', Vol.6 (1946-7), p.184.
The buried castle
Castle Hill (TL875828) at 80 feet high is one of the tallest Norman mottes in the country, almost certainly built over much earlier earthworks. It's said that when the early 12th century Cluniac priory founded here by Roger Bigod was ruined after the Reformation, six silver bells (one version says seven) were taken from the priory church and hidden beneath the mound for safe keeping. Another account says they were bells of solid gold.
Charles Kent: 'The Land of the Babes in the Wood' (Jarrold & Sons, 1910), p.98.
W. G. Clarke: 'In Breckland Wilds' (Robert Scott, 1925), pp.164-5.
R. H. Mottram: 'Norfolk' (Paul Elek, 1948), p.7.
A muddy pool in the moat north of Castle Hill's ramparts is called Devil's Hole, from the story that walking round it seven times at midnight will conjure up the Devil.
'Norfolk Archaeology', Vol.16 (1904-5), p.41.
W. G. Clarke: 'In Breckland Wilds' (Robert Scott, 1925), p.164.
A pool on Carr Common, filled-in long ago, was called the Devil's or Frenchman's Hole, the latter from a tale that a Frenchman once committed suicide there. The 1st edition Ordnance Survey 6 inch map shows it to have been located at about TL 87278241.
Source: W. G. Clarke: 'In Breckland Wilds' (Robert Scott, 1925), pp.164-5.
On the Norfolk/Suffolk border just south of Thetford there used to be found Barnham Cross (TL864810), on the common named after it. It was said to have been a 'franchise cross', dividing the Liberty of Thetford from the Liberty of St. Edmund at Bury. All that was left when I last saw it was the base, broken and sunk into the sandy heath. Damaged in the early 1900's, it was also reportedly vandalised in 1986.. When I visited in the mid-1970s, the outline of the socket-hole could just about be seen, and W. G. Clarke said in 1925 that, because this hollow was sometimes seen to be filled with water, the legend had arisen that travellers to Thetford market during a plague had to wash their money in the basin.1 I visited the site again in May 2019, but the remains of the cross have now gone. It has been replaced in recent times by a stone pillar set within a rectangle of granite slabs.
1. W. G. Clarke: 'In Breckland Wilds' (Robert Scott, 1925), pp.166-7.
2. 'Vandalism to stones rapped' in the 'Eastern Daily Press', 27/9/1986.
On the sandy heath of Barnhamcross Common used to be a pine tree about which curious customs have gathered. Called variously the Trysting Pine, Kissing Tree or Wishing Tree, the trunk had twisted and curled itself into a loop not far from the ground. One tradition said that a person had to pull off or knock down a single fir cone, hold it in the right hand, place one's head through the loop and make a wish. Another version told that couples must hold hands through the loop, then kiss and pledge undying love, hoping the tree would bind them to it with its magic.
Source: 'The East Anglian Magazine', Vol.22 (Nov.1962-Oct.1963), p.67.
The Chantry (TL86968327) is a house of the early 17th century in White Hart Street, of similar vintage to King's House (TL86968316), which is less than 200m to the south, in King Street. The latter house was said to have been the occasional hunting lodge of King James I, with a supposed tunnel between the two buildings being used by him during his visits.1
King's House is also rumoured to have a tunnel to the Bell Inn, which is just the other side of the road. From there, a passage runs north-west to the ruins of St. Mary's Priory (TL86608336) 400m away. This is presumably part of the same tunnel said to run between the priory and Castle House, in Castle Street (TL87578302.) Other underground routes went from the priory to Ford Place (TL87428266), and to the site of St. George's Nunnery (TL87318230) - although the latter two places are adjacent, and may just be part of the same rumour.
All these places are on the north side of the river, where Thetford is said to be undermined by a network of tunnels resulting from medieval (or later) chalk mining. Even the mighty chalk-built mound of Castle Hill is supposed to have passages beneath it. Although there have been a few finds of such workings, there's little evidence that the industry was quite so widespread throughout the town. Imagination has of course conjured the tunnels into serving as escape routes, or places to hide valuables from the Reformation wrath of Henry VIII, or salaciously, to allow clandestine meetings between the various groups of monks and nuns that inhabited the area.
Apparently unconnected, on the south side of the river, is the story of a tunnel between a house somewhere in Bury Road and the oldest part of the Grammar School (TL86788304).2
1. David Osborne: 'Thetford Gleanings' (D. Osborne, 2003), p.34.
2. Thetford, Norfolk - Down Memory Lane Facebook group, 2017.
"The red-brick gateway which marked the entrance to the Place Farm or Nunnery at Thetford, is blocked by a wall and it is stated that this was built up seven times, and knocked down seven times by a carriage with four horses" (TL873823). My photo dates from the 1970s - the gateway is no longer blocked up nowadays. See it here on Street View.
Source: W. G. Clarke: 'In Breckland Wilds' (Robert Scott, 1925), p.166.
Chunk Harvey was a pirate, says the legend, who was betrayed by an ex-comrade, then executed and buried "where the old road from Thetford to Euston crossed the Icknield Way." Though not a suicide, Harvey was struck through the heart with a wooden stake, and W. G. Clarke noted that a pine tree could still be seen on that spot 150 years ago, believed to have grown from that very stake.
The old Euston road ran west of the present one, over Snarehill and past Tutt Hill, making Chunk Harvey's Grave in Thetford itself - probably at or near TL871825, just east of Mill Road, where a disturbed inhumation was found in 1957. The burial was actually that of a carpenter named Thomas Harvey, who hanged himself after an argument with his wife - an event reported in the 'Norfolk Chronicle' on September 16th 1786.
W. G. Clarke: 'In Breckland Wilds' (Robert Scott, 1925), p.164.
"Tradition says there was a subterranean passage connecting the College with the church".1
historian John Barnes said that the entrance to this tunnel had been
seen by his father at College Farm (TL932966). Thompson is little more than a hamlet now, with College Farm near the church occupying the site of a college of priests founded by the Shardelowe family in 1349.2
1. Charles Kent: 'The Land of the Babes in the Wood' (Jarrolds, 1910), p.38-9.
2. John S. Barnes: 'A History of Caston, Norfolk' (private, 1974.)
The giant's grave
When the giant Tom Hickathrift knew his end was near, he stood on the bank of a now dried-up river in the Marshland, took up a massive stone, and proclaimed that he wished to be buried wherever it may land. He threw the rock with all his might, and it landed it Tilney All Saints churchyard (TF568179) three miles away, and there he was buried beneath the stone.
For more details, and the full story of Norfolk's giant, see 'The Quest for Tom Hickathrift'.
Source: 1. W. S. Parsons, in the 'East Anglian Magazine', Vol.14, p.475.
St. Lawrence's churchyard (TF549148) is said to contain the entrance to a tunnel which, as usual in these tales, is blocked after a few metres.1 The passage traditionally led to the now-demolished Aylmer Hall across the road; only a mound now remains to mark the site of the original - perhaps 15th or 16th century - building.2
1. Former webpage: http://tilneystlawrenceparishcouncil.org.uk/history.html
The battlefield marker
West of the A140, an old track called Sheckford Lane runs north between Moor Road and Bond's Road. For the first 420m, it coincides with the parish boundary. Somewhere along this lane there was reported to be a stone with a cross cut into its side, that marked the site of a battle in Roman times. Although some had thought it might be the base of a medieval cross, it was located in 2008 at TM169839, among trees on the west side of the track, and described instead as a glacial erratic. Irregular in shape, it measured approximately 55cm x 50cm x 30cm, and showed no sign of any incised cross. It's possible that it could have been ploughed up in a nearby field, and used as a marker at a slight turn in the parish boundary there.
A fierce fire happened at St. Peter and St. Paul's church at Tunstall many years ago, leaving the tower and nave in ruins, only the chancel being left to be used for services. After the fire, tradition says the parson and one of his churchwardens argued about who should take possession of the church bells. Then the Devil popped up and snatched the bells away, scampering off towards the marshes. "Stop, in the name of God!" cried the parson. "Curse thee!" cried the Devil, dug a deep hole and leapt in, and it filled with water after him, becoming Hell Hole. The bubbles that continuously break the pool's surface are said to be caused by the bells, still sinking slowly down to Hell, while you can sometimes hear the muffled ringing far below the surface.
Less than a mile west of Tunstall is a long strip of marshy woodland called in part Hell Carr, and near this alder clump was the boggy pool known as Hell Hole (TG407078 area).
John Glyde: 'The Norfolk Garland' (Jarrold & Sons, 1872), pp.67-8.
'The East Anglian Handbook' (1885), p.71.
W. A. Dutt: 'The Norfolk Broads' (Methuen, 1903), p.333.