The Shrieking Pits

IMG_8413

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.

IMG_8411

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.

IMG_8414

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.

IMG_8416

References:

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

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

On Stiffkey marshes

IMG_1453

On August Bank Holiday Sunday we drove east along the coast road from Cley-next-the-Sea. The coastline was bathed in hazy sunshine; the sky, milky white and unthreatening. Rain and wind had been forecast for later – typical bank holiday weather it seemed but, as yet, no sign of it. Was this the proverbial calm before the storm? Somewhere on the way to Blakeney the traffic slowed to a steady 20mph as we joined the rear of a procession of vintage tractors that were heading west for some sort of agricultural shindig. With Countryfile pin-up tractors and new-reg Range Rovers processing past flint-clad farm cottages, corduroy fields and cow-grazed meadows, all boxes had been ticked, all necessary stereotypes fulfilled. This might just be peak North Norfolk?

Driving slowly through Stiffkey we caught a glimpse of the ghost image of a swastika on a flint wall, its attempted redaction incomplete. Daubed here during World War II by the village blacksmith (a communist), it marked the property of the writer Henry Willamson (a self-proclaimed fascist and unapologetic admirer of Hitler), who in 1938 had moved here from Tarka the Otter territory in Devon to try his hand at farming. Further along the village’s main street, the tractors stopped to park outside the church. Was this some sort of Christian tractorists outing, or had the machines been brought here in anticipation of a ritual blessing from the font of St John the Baptist? The church certainly had previous, for its eccentric vicars if nothing else. Most notable of these was its early 20th century incumbent, Harold Davison, who was defrocked in 1932 for showing a little too much enthusiasm for saving the souls of ‘fallen’ women. This same unfortunate cleric subsequently met an untimely end whilst performing an ill-advised Daniel in the lion’s den routine in a circus cage in Skegness.

IMG_1460

We parked just beyond the village campsite at the edge of the marshes. The area adjacent to the car park was busy with families and dog-walkers but after just ten minute’s walking in the direction of the sea we found ourselves more or less alone. Soon the rippled sand became wetter underfoot thanks to sea water left in furrows by the outgoing tide. We came to a long-redundant, rusted sewage pipe and followed it in the direction of its outflow into the North Sea. Our original target had been the Stiffkey Freshes, the vast sandy area revealed each low tide between the Stiffkey salt marshes and the western end of Blakeney Point. But now the predicted rain had arrived and a change of plan was in order. It was still some way to the creek that had to be crossed to reach the Freshes so, given the worsening weather, we compromised on a shorter alternative and just followed the pipeline a short way.

40272992_10155756858738479_3221181783592665088_n

In the rain-faded light, the sea lavender, already well past peak bloom, had lost most of its remaining colour. Fresh rainwater glistened on the sea-drained sand like a desert mirage; the precise edge of the sea itself, indeterminable to the eye at low tide. But all edges were fluid and transitory here. Retracing steps, we detoured along a path that followed a slightly raised bank, dried-up thrift and blackened patches of gorse indicating that this narrow strip would remain high and dry even when the tide came in. Redshanks piped in alarm from the surrounding marsh, a solitary curlew flew up, disturbed from its determined mud-probing. A few late swallows were swooping low for flies, feeding up before departure to points south.

IMG_1451

The path brought us abruptly to a wide creek where the skeletons of long-abandoned boats were slowly rotting into the black mud. A single wooden bench stood against a backdrop of dead trees – a suitable place to contemplate such entropy at work. One of the boats still clutched a rusted engine within its frame, although its hull had long been eaten away by salt monsters. Bottomless, with mustard-coloured corrosion and flaking red paint, what remained of its surface was a fantasy landscape painted in rust. We tried to continue beyond the bench but the track disappeared in a wide expanse of marsh samphire. I gathered a plastic bag full of the succulent jade-green stems and then joined the others in wondering which way to go. After several aimless, mud-spattered creek crossings, it became obvious that all we could sensibly do was retrace our steps back to the raised bank we had arrived by. This we achieved after much slipping and sliding on the mud. It was a soggy walk in mizzling rain back to the car park, where we discovered a newly arrived line of tractors parked tidily along the camp site fence.

40097780_10155756858513479_3437925195061395456_n         40080744_10155756858198479_6007870025388523520_n

40102434_10155756858303479_5552828732982427648_n         40198871_10155756858423479_9090802373705596928_n

That night, eating the steamed samphire with butter, I thought of the bench, the decaying boat and the glistening creeks with their swathes of sea lavender and glutinous mud. The Stiffkey marshes – each salty mouthful was imprinted with the memory of this tidal world: a landscape reduced to its bare elements, a simplified inventory of mud, salt water, salt-tolerant plants, birds and human detritus – boat wrecks, nylon ropes, and semi-opaque plastic vessels of indeterminate purpose. A place where land, like water, was fluid: each day and night, each tide, a death and rebirth.

IMG_1461

Baconsthorpe

The ruined castle at Baconsthorpe in north Norfolk can hardly be described as ‘hidden’ but it does lie nicely tucked away from the limelight, located at the end of a dusty farm track at some distance from the main road. Strictly speaking, it is not really a castle, more a fortified manor house, but with a large moat, thick flint walls and a no-nonsense gatehouse, unlawful entry by unwelcome visitors would certainly not have been easy.

To reach Baconsthorpe Castle  you can drive right up to the door from the village of the same name.  The site is managed by English Heritage and there is no charge for car park or entry. Better still, you could walk from Bodham, the village to the north that straddles the busy Holt to Cromer road. Certainly, to follow the footpath up and down the shallow valley before skirting Baconsthorpe Wood, makes arrival here a little more special. With luck, as the castle comes into view after leaving the wood you will be greeted by some of the sleek chestnut horses that graze in the meadow beside it.

 Next door to the gatehouse stands a group of old farm buildings that have seen better days — no doubt a bustling, energetic place before the middle of the last century, now their only role appears to be that of the storage of farm machinery. Within the gate there’s a compound and a bridge across to the inner court.  Here, to the east, the moat widens to become a large pond –  known as a ‘mere’ in these parts – which provides luxury accommodation for the ducks that thrive on the sandwich crumbs left by picnicking visitors. Swallows swoop low and fast over the water to grab unsuspecting flies but there’s little sound other than a summery rustle of leaves, the narcotic coo of pigeons and, during school holidays, the gleeful cries of children here with their parents.

What is of particular interest here is not so much what remains of the castle but what has happened to those parts that are absent. Certainly, it is not just the effect of the elements. Built as a 15th-century manor house by the locally powerful Heydon family, the inner gatehouse and fortified house were added at the time of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the buildings were converted into a textile factory at the height of Norfolk’s  profitable wool trade in the Tudor years. The outer gateway came in the Elizabethan period.

The English Civil War brought an economic downturn to the Heydon family fortune (Sir John Heydon commanded Charles I’s artillery, which did not endear him to the  Parliamentarians). The castle was seized by Roundheads and occupied for a while before eventually being sold back to the Heydon family. Encumbered by accumulated debt, Sir John Heydon was obliged to demolish many of the buildings to sell as architectural salvage. Many of the stones reportedly found new purpose in the walls of nearby Felbrigg Hall. The stained glass with the Heydon family crests were removed and installed in Baconsthorpe’s St Mary’s Church.

The voices of wealthy landowners, shepherds, textile workers and Roundhead soldiers would all once have echoed here within the castle’s sturdy walls. Now, apart from the subdued utterances of occasional visitors, they stand silent: mute witnesses to history; flint and brick repositories of the past.