The Shrieking Pits

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Tucked away in the north Norfolk coastal hinterland, close to the villages of Overstrand and Northrepps, is a group of small ponds known as the Shrieking Pits. More of the same can also be found a few miles further west near Aylmerton close to Felbrigg Hall. Thought to be early medieval excavations for iron ore, the resultant pits have long been filled with water and softened by vegetation to allow them to blend in with the scenery as if they were natural features in this gentle post-glacial landscape.

Seeking them out, we made our way on foot from Overstrand, following the Paston Way inland through dark woodland and prairie-sized fields of barley and oilseed rape. The pits lie amidst arable land just beyond a farm at Hungry Hill, a name that points towards agricultural impoverishment at some time in the past. The pits stand beside a green lane, a byway of some antiquity that may have been here as long as the excavations themselves.

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The first one we come across is small, surrounded by willows of a uniform height. In the ring of tree shade that encloses the shallow pond, a wooden palette left over from some undefined farming business lies next to the water liked an abandoned raft. The main ‘pit’ is nearby, an altogether larger and more impressive pond edged in by semi-recumbent oaks. The water is glassy and ink-black, suggesting great depth and perhaps a little menace. On the far bank the surface is coated with pond weed the colour of puréed peas. A small wooden notice board has been placed next to one of the oaks is but it is bare, its writing long gone to leave it devoid of information other than that which can be told by wood grain alone. Despite this unwitting redaction, a tangible sense of genius loci suggests that there is something to be told of this place other than a chance meeting of trees and water.

Naturally with a name like Shrieking Pit there is a strong likelihood of dark legend. The mundane answer is that the name alludes to the sound emitted by the exposed gravels. But does gravel really shriek? It scrapes and it crunches but does it make a noise quite so dreadful? Shriek is a loaded word, a term that evokes emotion – fear, dismay, even terror. It is these qualities that inform the folklore associated with the place.

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The story goes that a grieving young woman haunts the locality. It tells of a heartbroken 17 year-old called Esmeralda who was seduced and then abandoned by a duplicitous local farmer. Inconsolable, the desperate young woman is said to have thrown herself into the water of the pit one dark night before immediately regretting her decision and crying for help that did not come. Her unheard cries are said to be heard at the spot each February 24th, the anniversary of her death.

Another story tells of a horse and cart vanishing without trace in the pool’s murky depths. Looking at the black unreflecting water it seems perfectly possible. Places such as this, although mere dust specks on the map, are the bread and butter of rural folklore. Such places inevitably become repositories of legend – features where the landscape can be painted with tales of intrigue, romance and horror. As the notice board is currently blank perhaps we should feel free to write our own story.

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References:

http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF6787-Shrieking-Pits

https://www.hiddenea.com/norfolkn.htm#northrepps

Winter Light

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Even in winter, the northeast Norfolk coast has its attractions, especially over the Christmas and New Year period when many flock here to see the grey seals that come to the beaches of Winterton and Horsey to give birth. For many it is an annual outing, an opportunity to walk off seasonal excesses, to get close to nature, to delight in the spectacle of the seals and their pups. Some are tempted to get too close, of course, but these days a dedicated army of volunteers in hi-vis orange jackets ensure that visitors and their naturally curious dogs do not disturb the vulnerable animals on the beach.

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We arrive to find grey seal mothers and their fluffy-coated pups scattered like driftwood along the shoreline. Some are on the sand close to the breaking waves, while others are further inshore along the tideline, or even in the hollows of the dunes that back this coastline. Here and then along the beach, a hefty bull seal waddles in awkwardly from the surf to try his luck with one of the nursing females – this is the season for both breeding and mating.

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The seals are not the only creatures of interest here today: walking north along the beach, a small flock of snow buntings – perhaps 20 or 30 birds – rise like a flurry of sleet on our approach before setting down again a little further ahead. Winter visitors from much further north in Scandinavia and the Arctic, they resemble frosted sparrows as they peck busily at the seaweed, sticking close together for security.

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The seals and birds are engaging but the real star this cold January afternoon is the quality of the light, which morphs from gloom to gleaming in the space of half an hour. At first it seems as if the sky is weighed down like stone beneath a dense slate-grey sheet of stratocumulus but cracks soon appear and, like a hagstone held to the eye, an opening forms in the clouds to reveal the blue that lies beyond. As the sun loses height  beneath the cloud layer, shafts of pale golden light break through. The play of light on the dunes invokes a ghostly atmosphere. The wind-bent marram grass of the dunes, caught in the glow, seems almost fluid – an impressionist rendering of a wave-tossed ocean. In the distance, beyond the luminous marram, the Perpendicular tower of Winterton’s Holy Trinity and All Saints’ Church rises loftily above the crouched bungalow roofs of the village. This fleeting serendipity of light gives the scene a numinous quality, an eerie supernatural glimmer. It is a scene that might be co-opted for the cover of a book of ghost stories – a lost work by M.R. James perhaps.

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Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk

I did a circular walk at Winterton-on-Sea a couple of weeks ago, striking out from the beach car park that looked a little forlorn out of season – largely devoid of vehicles, its wooden hut cafe bolted shut for the winter.

Winterton Dunes immediately north of here is a nature reserve known for its natterjack toads but, this being November, the toad population was in deep amphibian sleep, no doubt dreaming of munching insects in warmer times to come. But, even without the toads, it’s an affecting place – an undulating swathe of sand and gorse, birch trees and heather; a border zone where sea meets land meets sky.  There are other animals to consider as well: over the dunes on the beach grey seals have arrived in number to pup, their sluggish forms slumped awkwardly on the sand – plump, blotchy grey and vulnerable.

At Winterton Ness, where I leave the dunes to venture inland, large concrete blocks flank the track, a reminder that invasion was a constant threat along this coast back in the dark days of World War II. I walk inland along a farm track, through an isolated cattle yard that has leaked several inches of malodorous slurry over the concrete, before heading across fields to walk south. Here, pheasants are so prolific that I soon become immune to the shock of their flying up unnanounced in my wake – an explosive flurry of undersized wings struggling to lift over-the-top plumage clumsily into the air. There are so many pheasants here. This year, they seem almost plague-like.Walking along a lonely concrete road in the general direction of Winterton I come across a man on a bicycle, who dismounts to walk and talk with me awhile. He is a font of local knowledge. According to him, the supersized pheasant population is the result of the local landlord releasing 15,000 chicks into the wild – an awful lot of shooting for even the most enthusiastic rifle-wielder. We talk of other wildlife: the cranes that breed around here, the red deer that rut nearby, the barn owls and hen harriers that quarter the winter marshes. Then, as we approach a corner ahead, he utters, “I won’t walk along here at night on my own. Even the beaters won’t come here at night – and they’re a pretty hard bunch on the whole.” Before I have time to ask why, he answers for me, “It’s haunted, and so is the house by the corner.”The man with the bike starts to relate a story about a local who lived around here a couple of centures ago. Like many along this eastern extremity of the Norfolk coast, he was given to  smuggling and shipwrecking but this particularly unpleasant individual was also reknowned for his cruelty to women and his wraith – a cold, shadowy presence that is said to follow anyone foolish enough to wander around here at night – still haunts this stretch of the road.

We go on to discuss Winterton’s shipwrecking tradition and reputation for lawlessness that persists to this day (“The Yarmouth police don’t want to know about any trouble here, although they’ll come to Horsey just up the road”).  Then, as soon as we turn the corner, he bids me goodbye and disappears into the garden of a roadside cottage – the same one he had said was haunted.

Back at the beach car park, a couple of dog-walkers catching the last hour of silvery daylight eye me (conspicuously dog-less) with suspicion. In north-east Norfolk if you don’t have a furry friend with you then you are probably up to no good. If it’s the liminal hour just before dark then you almost certainly are.