Norfolk, A Land of Folklore

by | May 15, 2023

Norfolk can feel like an isolated county. Outside of the bustling suburbs of Norwich and the various market towns lies a sea of fields, marshland, woods, and The Broads. These are interconnected with narrow, winding roads, sometimes no more than a track. In the times before public transport or cars, people would have to walk this mysterious landscape, sometimes taking many days and occasionally traveling at night. Imagine as the night draws in, and the sounds of the birds fade into the dark, a Norfolk sea fog descends like a cold, clammy blanket over the landscape. Through boredom from the journey or fear of the unknown, many people find their minds wandering into the realms of the supernatural. This can likely account for much of Norfolk folklore.

Norfolk has many legends and ghost stories surrounding it. In the city of Norwich, before street lights, when the roads were narrow and twisted through the dark, leaning buildings stacked upon one another, strange things could be stalking every alley or yard. People often used this inspiration to entertain one another with fantastical stories. So for this reason, we have decided to gather together a few of these folklore tales for you to enjoy. Next time you take a wander at night, pay a little more attention to those strange sounds you hear in the dark.

The Lantern Men of the Norfolk Marshes

The wild bog lands of Norfolk mean that past settlers here have had to be careful navigating the county. One wrong step and you could find yourself sinking down into the claggy mud. Even today, walking along the many wetlands, the treacherous paths after a couple of days of rain can be very intimidating. In years gone by, these paths were navigated without the aid of a boardwalk and sometimes even at night. On these night-time journeys, many Norfolk residents and villagers described seeing something in the solid darkness. Strange, eerie coloured lights floating through the night air above the marshland. These lights are widely known as Will O’ The Wisps but here in Norfolk, they belong to The Lantern Men, who stand, beckoning any unwary travellers into the darkness.

The marshes and broadlands of Norfolk are said to be home to a manner of mysterious monsters and spirits

Seldom seen, The Lantern Men were thought to be spirits or creatures hiding in the darkness. On certain nights, they would stand out in the marsh, slowly swinging their blue/green lights back and forth. They try to catch the attention of anyone trying to find their way across the cold, wet ground. The victim would go to find the source of the light, at which point they would step into the quagmire. There they sink down into the sucking mud, never to be seen again. Some accounts report that some travellers make it to the spot where the lantern is being waved. Using a lantern of their own to navigate the treacherous terrain, they pick their way over to the spot, only to be knocked down. Some say their own lantern explodes in their hands.

There are even recorded instances where people have supposedly been murdered by The Lantern Men. One case is of Joseph Bexfield from Thurlton in 1809. As a Wherryman, (a job which involved sailing to and fro on the broads, transporting goods) Joseph was used to the mysteries of the waters of Norfolk. Perhaps this led him to be overconfident. While drinking with friends at The White Horse in Thurlton one pitch-dark night, Joseph realised he had left an important package for his wife on his Wherry boat. He endeavoured to go back and retrieve it, not wanting to disappoint her. The other residents at the inn begged him not to go. They could see the swinging lights of The Lantern Men over the broads and they knew that tonight was not a night to go wandering near the waterline. Joseph wouldn’t listen and made his way back out to his boat. Leaving the warm glow of the inn, he disappeared into the inky blackness.

The next morning, the alarm was raised as Joseph had never made it back home and a great search went out to try and find him. After two fruitless days, on the third, a horrific discovery is made. Joseph’s water-logged body is found floating in the river. Now, to many, the idea that this accomplished water man slipped and fell into the water was inconceivable. So, the conclusion was drawn that he had been drowned by one of the mysterious Lantern Men. His grave can be found today in Thurlton Churchyard.

Now, with our modern knowledge of chemistry and science, we have an explanation for the lights. Will O’ The Wisps, it turns out, are the product of marsh gasses that become ignited through oxidation (from exposure to the air). These produce bursts of photons (light that appears like flames.) Still, the original point of the legend remains. Don’t go wandering across the marshes at night, lest the lights and the clawing, sucking mud might claim you.

The Gildencroft Bogey

Picture going for an evening walk down Oak Street in Norwich. To turn away from the industrial estate, you take a turn down Sussex Street toward Magpie Road. It could be you’re thinking of going for a drink in the nearby Catherine Wheel. The dimly lit streets seem quiet, almost idyllic. Yet, as the light begins to fade from the city around you and the shadows between buildings and under trees start to lengthen and grow darker, you swear you hear something coming from a nearby alleyway. Raspy breaths and the sound of something sharp being dragged along stone. Accompanying the sound is a noxious smell, like rotting flesh.

Some of the Tudor housing still remaining on Gildencroft today.

Turning to see what could be making the noise and hideous smell, you peer into the gloom. The source makes you catch your breath. Two saucer-sized eyes are fixed on you. Below them, a large, animalistic mouth with razor-sharp teeth wheezes hungrily. The features of it’s large body are covered in dark, shaggy hair and you can see two long, powerful arms dragging scythe-like claws along the concrete. As you open your mouth to scream, the creature lets out a hideous cackle and charges. Turning, you desperately sprint into the busier parts of the city, hoping beyond hope that the thing behind you won’t be able to catch you up.

As completely fantastical as it sounds, similar reports have been made many times around the Gildencroft area of Norwich. Once a lot larger than the small residential area it is now, Gildencroft would have taken up much of the St Augustine parish between Oak Street and Pitt Street. It contained orchards and an area where Knights of the city would practice jousting and archery. In the nineteenth century, it became far more industrial and would have consisted of narrow streets and alleys. It is easy to see how this enormous network of alleys might lead someone to believe that something supernatural also lived there.

The Gildencroft Bogey, as this creature is known, is similar to many other kinds of ‘bogeyman.’ This is because it doesn’t appear to have any motive other than existing to scare those that see it. In the 19th Century, these urban creatures were very popular. In London, the theatrical Spring Heeled Jack was used to terrify the local inhabitants. Most large cities had their own monster. It could be that this was as a result of a very human fear of crime. Such high-profile cases as Jack the Ripper in London would cause all sorts of panic among people.

Entrance to the Gildencroft park

Here in Norwich however, it seems that the story of the Gildencroft Bogey was very real to the locals. One eyewitness in the 1880’s described it as following: 

I was walking to The Lathes when I saw it. It jumped out of the darkness and chased me down the road. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oh, ’orrible it was! All big and hairy! Eyes glowing in the dark, big as tea-saucers. Big sharp teeth… and its breath. Oh, verily it was most noxious. Forsooth, I swooned with a fit of the vapours. And when I came to, it had gone”

So if you find yourself in the area around the St Augustine Church, keep a wary eye out. You may just come across the hideous form of this monster yourself!

The Hikey Sprites

Pretty much every corner of the UK has legends of Pixies, Fairies and Sprites. Usually, these are a great little window into the local rural culture. Take the Hikey Sprites for example. Sadly, a piece of Norfolk culture that, is slowly fading away. Ask most people today if they know about Hikey Sprites and you will probably be met with a blank stare. Go back a couple of generations however, and most people would have been able to tell you their memories of these elusive pieces of folklore.

A fairy door found in Lion’s Wood near Norwich

In the 1600’s, about one third of England was covered in forest. Populations were a lot smaller as well and as a result you could walk all day and not see another person. Mix this with a lack of scientific knowledge and the woods became very mysterious and scary. Sprites were also blamed for small things going wrong around the house or farm. This could be milk souring, farm equipment failing or animals turning ill. 

Hikey Sprites in Norfolk were unpredictable at best. Sometimes they were said to help those that respected them or gave them gifts. Accounts exist of Hikey’s helping people to find lost donkeys or, in some cases, missing children! But they could also be malicious and sometimes downright evil. Parents and grandparents would often tell children to run home before dark. If they didn’t, the Hikeys might take them and force them into slavery or perform cruel acts. Some said that Hikey sprites would drain you of blood or even drive you mad.

As an oral tradition, it makes it particularly difficult to find stories involving the Hikeys. However, there are a couple of good sources, including a short book titled Hikey Sprites: The Twilight of a Norfolk Tradition by Ray Loveday. Ray visited many older Norfolk families to take down their own Hikey stories. Hopefully this local tradition can be remembered for future generations. Though whether there are sprites or not, the woodland around Norfolk always deserves your respect!

The Dragon That Terrified Ludham

If you visit the sleepy little town of Ludham, you will find traditional local shops, beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and easy access to the nearby tourist hotspot of Wroxham. What you might not expect to find there, is a subterranean dragon terrorising the locals. If local legend is to be believed, that’s exactly what happened several centuries ago.

St Benets Abbey, where the dragon is said to have last been seen.

In the story, the people of the village were surprised one day by the appearance of a monstrous creature. It was said to be 12 to 15 feet in length. It sported two large horns, scales and wing-like appendages, alongside a huge mouth filled with sharp teeth. Burrowing beneath the ground, it formed a large subterranean lair that stretched from the back of the village pub to the old schoolhouse. The creature would only come out at night. The people took to locking themselves inside after sundown to avoid coming across the terrifying monster.

On one particularly sunny day, the locals scattered as the creature burst from its tunnel in the middle of the day. It slithered to the outskirts of the village to bask in the sunlight. One particularly brave inhabitant of the village took it upon himself to roll a huge round stone into the entrance of its lair. The dragon returned after sunning itself to find the tunnel blocked. Despite thrashing against it and howling in rage, it became obvious that it was going to be unable to move it. Agitated, the monster ran through the village and fields towards the Bishop’s Palace, before turning toward the ruins of St Benets Abbey. After climbing on the ruined walls for a few moments, it found the shadowy entrance of the archway. With a growl, it headed down into the underground vaults beneath. Emboldened, the people filled in the entrance and buried it, sealing the dragon inside forever. The location of the vault entrance is now lost to time.

Interestingly, in the 18th century, it is recorded that the people of the village killed a large reptile. In 1782, the following report was posted in The Norfolk Chronicle:

“On Monday the 16th inst. a snake of an enormous size was destroyed at Ludham, in this county, by Jasper Andrews, of that place. It measured five feet eight inches long and was almost three feet in circumference, and had a very long snout; what is remarkable, there were two excrescences on the fore part of the head which very much resembled horns. This creature seldom made its appearance in the daytime, but kept concealed in subterranean retreats several of which have been discovered in the town … The skin of the above surprising reptile is now in the possession of Mr J Garrett, a wealthy farmer in the neighbourhood.”

The only type of snake that would fit into this type of description isn’t one you can find native to England. It could describe a Horned Viper. 33 inches long at full growth, it is a snake that is native to the deserts of the middle east and northern Africa. Not what you expect to find in the middle of Ludham in the 18th century!


Joseph Bexfield and the Lantern Men

The science behind Will O The Wisps

The Lantern Men in Hingham

The Gildencroft Bogey Evening News

Gildencroft Bogey Wildman Blog

Hikey Sprites

Hikey Sprites in fiction

Hikey Sprites educational sheet

Hikey Sprites Fairyist

Norfolk Tales and Myths Ludham Dragon

Ludham Dragon

List of Norfolk Cryptids

This Hollow Land (Aspects of Norfolk Folklore) – Peter Tolhurst