Black Shuckery … on the One Show

I know, you wait ages for a Suffolk folk tale on national tv and then two come along at once!  The One Show is apparently having a Suffolk fest at the moment, and this time it is Suffolk’s most famous celebrity beastie who’s in the spotlight: Black Shuck.  A little while ago they found the bones of a giant (devil?) dog buried at Leiston Abbey, and this investigates the dig and their discoveries, as well as relating a little bit of the Shuck legend.  Although: Blythburgh isn’t mentioned by name – why? and Bungay isn’t mentioned at all – no fair!  The article plays at 25.51:

Interesting they say it’s a Great Dane.  There was a Great Dane in the village where I grew up, Lower Layham, with whom I think my lifelong unease with dogs (was terror when I was younger) began.  It was huge, and, though I might be wrong, I think this was the dog that scratched (lightly) my face when I was a toddler.  I also met what seemed to ME Black Shuck or his Somersetshire equivalent in Rocks East Woodland, near Bath … also, I later found out, a Great Dane.  It was the size of a PONY and it followed me…

The actual Suffolk folk tale plot thickens as there have been a couple of sightings of Shuck in Leiston, though not at the Abbey, Mike Burgess in his excellent Hidden East Anglia website records James Wentworth Day in the 1950s describes how ‘a slinking, sable shadow slipped among the gravestones like a wraith, leaped the low churchyard wall and slid down the dark lane towards the sand hills like an evil whisper’ that Lady Walsingham and Lady Rendlesham saw when they went looking for the Galley Trot…

On Hedgehogs

Nothing really to do with Suffolk, I fear, but I wanted to share this very cute video I found on the Discarding Images facebook page on the nature of the hedgehog.  There are hedgehogs in Suffolk – my lovely cat, Simon, used to catch them (sigh, along with rabbits, a pheasant, and once a hare, believe it or not), so I’d find the prickly remains…  But ANYWAY this is very, very lovely!


This comes from Pliny the Elder, originally, with the grapes coming in with Isidore of Selville:

To prepare for winter, hedgehogs roll on fallen apples to stick them to their spines, then taking one or more in their mouths, carry the load to hollow trees. Hedgehogs foretell a change in wind direction from north to south when they retire to their lairs. When hunted, they roll up into a ball so that it is not possible to pick them up without touching their spines. (Pliny, Natural History, Book 8, 56)

The hedgehog is covered with quills, which it stiffens when threatened, and rolling itself into a ball is thus protected on all sides. After it cuts a bunch of grapes off a vine it rolls over them so it can carry the grapes to its young on its quills. (Isidore, Etymologies, Book 12, 3:7)

With thanks to for the info.

Reclaiming a little bit of Suffolk: St Fursey’s story

0129-wall-of-burgh-castle-800x600So why St Fursey? Isn’t he a Norfolk Saint?  What place does he have in this Suffolk blog?  Well, Fursey was based at Burgh Castle just over the border in what is now Norfolk, but was in Suffolk during my lifetime (just!).  The change came with the extensive local government reorganisation of 1974 that included a lot of controversial county moves – such as the rather shocking move from Yorkshire to Lancashire of my husband’s home village!  Simon Knott’s Norfolk Churches website says the parish was ‘unfortunate enough to be dragged into the northern county’ – but I’m saying nothing, having lived in both Suffolk and Norfolk… I made a decision in writing the Folk Tales book to stick to the modern county boundaries for my tales, so as not to tread on the toes of my fellow writers in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex. So, you won’t find a retelling of Fursey’s experiences in Suffolk Folk Tales, but rather in Hugh Lupton’s Norfolk Folk Tales.  But, in this blog I have a little more freedom, so here he is.

Fursey was an Irish monk, one of the other team to Felix, who was a member of the Roman mission. The Irish sent out many missionaries to the Anglo Saxons until the Synod of Whitby in 664, when Roman Christianity trounced so-called Celtic Christianity in what would become England (at least that’s the story we think we know – as ever the truth is probably a lot more complex).  Fursey was probably a royal prince himself, son of Finlog of Munster, and entered the religious life at an early age under the care of St Brendan.  His first miracle was to raise two sons of a chieftain from the dead.

In the 630s he was called in a vision to East Anglia, and, apparently on meeting the king’s daughter, according to this 9th century text, he was granted land:

The daughter of the king in the eastern country bestowed land on Fursa.                                She said to Fursa, ‘What manner of man art thou?’ said she.                                                      ‘Like an old smith,’ said he. ‘with his anvil on his shoulder.’                                                   ‘The anvil of devotion?’ said she.                                                                                           ‘Perseverance in holiness,’ said he.                                                                                                      ‘A question! If God should give thee a block where thine anvil might be planted, wouldst thou abide there?’                                                                                                                                  ‘It would be likely, indeed,’ said he.                                                                                                     Then she bestowed on him the spot where he was.[1]

That was at Cnobheresburg, according to Bede, which has been associated with the Roman fort at Burgh Castle since William Camden’s Britannia was published in 1586.  There is, it must be admitted, no sign of any monastic activity at Burgh Castle, so the place’s claim is as shaky as Dunwich’s claim to be Dommoc, Felix’s foundation, but no storyteller lets details like that get in the way of a good story, especially when there is no other contender for the site.  It was probably actually Sigeberht who requested Fursey’s aid, as there is no record of Sigeberht having married or having had children, but who knows?

Fursey brought a perhaps more exciting Christianity to East Anglia than the more pragmatic Felix, as he lived as much in the world of the spirit as the mundane world. He was beset with visions both before he came to East Anglia, and these continued while he was there.  In these visions he was visited by angels and demons who showed him the evils inflicting the world: falsehood, greed, discord and cruelty, as well as great host of saints and angels.  He bore the scars of one of these encounters for his whole life, when, about to return to his sleeping body, he was caught by a demon who thrust a burning soul in torment up to him, scorching his face and shoulder.  Fursey recognised the man, and realised that he had accepted the man’s clothes when he died, so he was at fault.  When he awoke, the scars were still on him.

There were miracles in East Anglia, too. Like many saints, he was able to bring forth a harvest a few days after planting the seed.  In a time of famine, his monks began to fear they would starve.  Fursey rounded on them, saying ‘those who love god by embracing poverty shall never be deserted in their hour of need’, and he and his fellow monk St Lactain went out and planted barley, even though it was not the season for it.  Everyone shook their heads, saying it was too late for that, but in three days the barley was above the earth, ripe and ready for harvesting.  That’s a tangible miracle for people who, unlike us (or so we like to think…), were reliant on their harvests for life or death.

He had another go at raising people from the dead as well. Interestingly, this story links to another tale in the book, the Bells of Minsmere, as it concerns what was probably the first Christian bell in East Anglia.  When the monks had finished the church at Cnobheresburg they were missing one vital ingredient of Irish worship, the hand bell Fursey would use to call the monks to prayer.  Bells were of great significance in the Irish church, with shrines for saints like Patrick being made in the shape of bells.  Patrick had carried bells with him to give to the new religious houses he founded, but bells were not easy to get hold of in England, particularly in such a far flung place as East Anglia.  Soon after, a widow brought her son for burial at the abbey, and as she was bringing him into the new church a bright light filled the space and when the light dimmed to manageable levels they saw a stranger standing in their midst.  Solemnly the man handed Fursey a finely wrought bell of pure silver, and then in another brilliant flash of light, he was gone.  For a long moment the church was silent, save for the muffled weeping of the mother, then Fursey rang the bell, and the purest sound that any had ever heard rang out, and as soon as it did the young man on the funeral bier sat up, alive and full of health, and the funeral procession became a triumph of joy.

Sarah Atkinson in her essay of 1907 about St Fursey[2], says that the bell was believed to protect anyone who lived in the area where you could hear the bell would be protected from injury during storms – a very useful tool for the fishing communities nearby to Burgh Castle – Caister, Yarmouth, Gorleston, Lowestoft and the other smaller settlements.  It is implied that this protection continued on after Fursey left – so perhaps it went to the little church of St Peter and St Paul in the village.  The earliest fabric of the church is 11th century, but maybe it was much earlier.  I am not aware that the bell is there now!

St Fursey stayed in East Anglia for 12 years, the last period of that as a hermit with just one of his Irish brethren, Ultan, for company. When Penda came rampaging across East Anglia, Fursey (probably correctly) foresaw that his monastery would be destroyed, and he and his monks left for Gaul, where Fursey set up a new monastery under the auspices of King Clovis.  He died not long after.  But I’ll let Bede have the last word.  Despite being a devout follower of the Roman church, Bede admired many of the Irish saints, and Fursey was no exception.  In his short history of Fursey Bede says:

‘An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard these visions from his own mouth. He added that it was a frosty and bitter winter’s day when Fursey told his story; and yet, though he wore only a thin garment, he was sweating profusely as though it had been summer, either because of the consolation or the terror of his recollections.’[3]

[1] ‘The Monastery of Tallaght’, ed. E. J. Gwynn & W. J. Purton, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 29C (1911-12) p. 134

[2] Sarah Atkinson St Fursey’s Life and Visions and Other Essays (Dublin: M H Gill & Sons, 1907), p. 265

[3] Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English People trans. Leo Sherley-Price (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 175

Other sources for the article are:

Steven Plunkett Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times (Stroud: Tempus, 2005)

Hugh Lupton Norfolk Folk Tales (Stroud: The History Press, 2013)

Image source: Knight, Charles: “Old England: A Pictorial Museum” (1845), 129.—Wall of Burgh Castle sourced from

Sparrows and the quest for meaning in life

Sutton Hoo

Irresistibly, I am drawn back to our Wuffings and the beginnings of East Anglian Christianity. It may seem a dry subject to you, but for me it really helps to see how the region developed and took shape over those early years, and, like it or not, Christianity shapes the history of our region, our island, the whole of Europe.  However, we know from many of the tales of mermaids and dragons, of witches and cunning men, of Syleham Lamps and fairy changelings, that the old ways – and human imagination – still kept their hold of the people of East Anglia, right up to today.

So, if you’ve read the previous blogs, A Puff on Wuffings and Woden or Christ? you’ll know that Rædwald made a hesitant half-start when it came to bringing of Christianity to East Anglian shores.  He goes off into eternity honouring an entirely different set of gods, and Mound 1 – if it were to be his – is not the latest non-Christian burial there.  Paganism held sway among some for a time, it seems.  But the march of the White Christ pressed on in East Anglia, and circumstance would see it well entrenched by the time the dreadful Penda years came.  Why such a quick turnaround?  Bede once more has an answer, in the famous sparrow story told while Edwin’s court debates the issue of Christianity vs. their own existing religion up north in Northumbria.

Imagine the warriors of the court sitting on long benches around the central fire with the noble women passing amongst them pouring drinks while the debate rages on the long winter’s night. Outside, the wind howls, and sends the smoke from the fire buffeting through the room.  An old warrior sits back and stares up into the dim, smoky recesses of the rafters.  Can he make out a flitting shape there?  Maybe a bird has strayed in out of the cold.  Whatever he sees, it prompts him to make this famous speech:

Your majesty, when we compare the present life on man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall … The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.  Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.[1]

The hope of a life after death for all, not only for those who were already rich and well-kept in this life was naturally desirable. With so much of the world in explicable except by supernatural means, religion and superstition had a power that many of us now cannot understand – at least while this little bubble of comfortable living we have constructed continues.  Edwin’s chief priest, Coifi, sees the writing on the wall, and immediately declares that his religion is worthless, has got him no gains, when others, less devout than he, have gained more, then jumps on a stallion and rides off to destroy the idols in the grove nearby at modern day Goodmanham in the East Riding.

Bede makes it sound very easy – but he is a Christian monk, with a Christian axe to grind. Between the lines of this time you can see that it wasn’t, really.  When Rædwald dies his remaining son, Eorpwald, becomes king.  Edwin of Northumbria then becomes the Bretwalda, and power passes into the north – effectively, Eorpwald owes allegiance to Edwin, as Edwin had done to Eorpwald’s father.  Edwin leans on Eorpwold, and the new king is christened.  Events move fast.  Eorpwald is killed by another member of the royal family, Ricberht, a pagan, and the kingdom reverts to paganism.  Who knows what was happening to the populace, what faith they followed.  In these times, it was all about kings.

For three years East Anglia stayed pagan, but then a new king arrived: Sigeberht. This young man had been in exile in France, which was already Christian, and Sigeberht had embraced the new faith wholeheartedly.  There may have been a balance – at first Sigeberht ruled with another king, Ecgric, another Wuffing, who was probably a pagan – as, let’s face it, most people would have been in the Anglo Saxon areas of Britain before 650.  But Sigeberht had a mission, and it didn’t take him long to put it into place.

First, he invited a French monk to join him to convert the masses. This was St Felix, for whom we get Felixstowe (probably).  Felix was made a bishop and set up a cathedral in Suffolk , probably at Dunwich, possibly at Walton near Felixstowe.  Unlike many of these early saints, he wasn’t a man for miracles.  He seems to have got on with the job in hand with minimal fuss, only ensuring that the villages of the Saints (the Elmhams, Ilketshalls etc.) were difficult to access to keep them pure and holy, and then after death playing the usual game of dictating where his body was going to end up – he went to Soham, a church founded by the saint, and then to the inveterate relic-hunters at Ramsey, beating the monks at Ely by casting a convenient darkness that bamboozled the Ely monks and allowed the Ramsey ones to escape with their prize.

No, for miracles we need to look elsewhere – and the next blog will be about East Anglia’s first miracle worker – St Fursey.

Photograph © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2013

[1] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Shirley-Price (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 129-30.

A surprising lack of mermaids


The Orwell Mermaid is a proper mermaid story, very similar to Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, but with an even more tragic ending than the Anderson story.  It’s a strange thing, though.  This mermaid story is one of very few in Suffolk.  There’s the Wildman of Orford, of course, but others are few and far between.  There’s a tale that a mermaid tried to gain entry to All Saints church in Sheringham, in Norfolk, but was told to go because she wasn’t a Christian – she nipped in, though, and is immortalised on a bench end.

Then there’s the Kessingland Nessie – or Kessie? – first spotted in 1750, it was seen by H Rider Haggard’s daughter in 1912, further up the coast in Norfolk by the crew of the Kellett in 1923, and again at Kessingland by beach walkers in 1978, but not seen as far as I know since – do you know? Captain Haselfoot of the Kellett writes in the log of the ship this account: ‘The time was about 9am. It was a summer day and the weather was calm and clear. I am not sure whether the sun was actually shining. I then observed rising out of the water about 200 yards from the ship, a long, serpentine neck, projecting from six or seven feet above the water. I observed this neck rising out of the water twice, and it remained up, in each case, for four or five seconds. Viewing with the naked eye only, I could not make out precisely what the head was like.’ It’s hard to doubt the captain – and it was also seen by another officer.  Who knows what lurks beneath?  One feels that Pleasurewood Hills has missed a trick in not having ride dedicated to our local Kessie…

In Suffolk the place to find mermaids, though, is not in la mer, but in freshwater – especially in pools. These mermaids are not the romantic (but still potentially deadly) figures we know from fairy stories, but rather a slightly different kind of monster.  In the northern Midlands and she’s called Jenny Greenteeth, in Yorkshire and Lancashire she’s a grindylow, and Peg Powler on the River Tees.  She’s like the Japanese kappa, and the Slavic vodyanoi or vodnik, the Scottish kelpie and many many more. She’s there as a bogeyman with one role – a role adults have assigned her.  She’s there to frighten children off from playing too near water, and expose themselves to the very real and present danger of drowning.

They are most prevalent in the Ipswich area and around – Yoxford and Rendlesham have sightings, and they’ve also been seen on the River Gipping between Needham Market and Ipswich. No surprise then that our sea mermaid came up the Orwell.  This is from an old man writing into the Ipswich Journal in 1877, ‘When I was quite a child, in 1814, we used to play at Rendlesham where there was a pond at one end with trees round it, the grass in early spring full of flowers … If we went too near our nursemaid would call out to us not to go so near ‘lest the mermaid should come and crome us in.’ A crome is a pond raking tool with sharp tines that curl over a bit like a person’s hand. There are still a few pools out of Rendlesham heading towards Campsea Ash, so beware if you are taking your children there, our mermaids are beautiful with long green hair and will entice your children if they can…

Image © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2013

In the bleak midwinter – a test of memory at Pin Mill

DSC00247 - cropTalking with my Mum yesterday about the weather (among other things!) made me think about the long-distance research I had to do for Suffolk Folk Tales. It hammered down with rain on Saturday morning, but was glorious with sunshine in the afternoon … here in Gloucestershire.  Just the opposite in Suffolk.  Weather’s always tricky, and it’s impossible to second guess it, especially four counties away!  And of course, if you work as well as write, you can only go on outings at set times – especially with train prices being what they are.  On the weekend I went over to research the Orwell Mermaid it snowed.  Oh boy, did it snow.  And then the snow bedded down.  But I had things to do, research deadlines to meet.  So off we went – and though I might have plenty to say about 4x4s in general, but stepdad really does need one to access his remote clients, and we wouldn’t have done this trip without it.

Because the story was set on the River Orwell, in that evocative location: Pin Mill. Down one of the steepest slopes in Suffolk!  Down we slithered – there is no way we could have got any further than the car park at the top of the village, I am sure.  Then we teetered down on foot – and straight into the famous Butt and Oyster pub for a warming morning coffee.  Then Mum and I went out to walk into the woods, to get an idea of the landscape around the village, away from what would have been a bustling port and boatyard.


The walk was silent except for the crunch of our boots in the crisp frosted snow. We walked past the houseboats along the shoreline, seemingly deserted in this cold weather, and then up the hill – we could barely work out where the path was going in some cases, there was so much snow.  Now, this is where memory starts to let you down.  In my memory, there was a dog, who barked, and I am sure that it was that melded for me the last scene of the story, where the fishermen’s dogs discover the mermaid lying on the frozen earth.  But am I imagining that now?  Whether or not there was a dog, the ethereal snowy landscape set the scene for me, and I knew how that last section had to be – the chill landscape reflecting the bleakness of our heroine’s emotions.  Would I have felt it so strongly if we’d visited in summer, with the birds singing in the trees, and lots of other folk tramping the paths, and coming in and out of the houseboats?  Well, the story only has one possible ending, but I know it would have felt very different, and thus I would have written in differently.

All images copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012