Halloween is just around the corner so. This is the time of year when we start digging around some of the most interesting corners of the world in search of dark legend, myth and lore. Today we bring you to England to explore Norfolk folklore and the famous story of St. Mary’s Church and the Witch’s Wooden Leg.
The county of Norfolk in the East of England boasts the highest concentration of Medieval churches in the world, with just over 650 in total. Drive to any place in Norfolk, and you are guaranteed to find at least one such church. Norwich, the county’s main city, has enough for worshippers to visit a different one each week for a whole year!
However, not all of Norfolk’s Medieval churches remain in working order. For nature lovers, explorers, and ghost hunters, these ruins are little havens. The word ‘ruin’ brings to mind a set of expectations: crumbling walls, broken arches, missing windows, and wild foliage. Ruined churches are no different. Except for one. St. Mary’s of East Somerton has all of these typical traits. What is not so typical is the massive oak tree growing right in the centre of the nave. In terms of Norfolk folklore, this is one of the more curious stories.
About St. Mary’s Church
This tree is sometimes called ‘The Witch’s Finger.’ Looking at it, it’s not hard to see why. It’s straight and has few branches, and with a bit of imagination it could easily be a giant finger pointing out of the earth. But according to legend, the oak tree isn’t a finger at all. Instead, it’s a leg. Centuries ago, when St. Mary’s was still in use, it is said that a witch with a wooden leg was caught and buried alive in the church’s foundations. From her wooden leg, the oak tree grew and ruined the church, coaxed by her vengeful spirit.
The ruin of St. Mary’s lies in the grounds of Burnley Hall, tucked into a small patch of woodland about halfway down a bumpy, single-track road. It is easy to access if you drive or cycle, but as the turning for it is on a main road (and by this I mean a Norfolk main road, which means it isn’t that much bigger than the aforementioned single-track road the church is on!) it’s not really feasible to walk to it.
When the track enters the woods, it becomes gloomy. St. Mary’s sees little sunlight. Once beneath the trees, if you didn’t know the church was there it would be extremely easy to carry on and miss it altogether. Over time, the plants and trees have claimed the stone for themselves. Just take a look:
St. Mary’s was built in the 15th Century. It is Grade II listed, and has perpendicular architecture. This style of building began in England in the mid-14th century, and puts emphasis on vertical lines. It was commonly used for churches.
Originally, St. Mary’s was in its own individual parish. Over time, this was consumed by the nearby, larger parishes of West Somerton and Winterton. After this, St. Mary’s was used as a chapel for the residents of Burnley Hall until the 17th century before it fell into disuse.
Now, over 300 years later, what once were tall windows have been reduced to gaping holes. There is no sign of the chancel (the area behind the altar at the east end of the church, used for the choir and minister’s seats), except a broken archway which would have led to it, and only three stages of the tower remain; the section which once contained the bell is missing. You can stand at the base of the tower and look up, to the open sky.
Norfolk Folklore, the Witch’s Wooden Leg
Norfolk folklore goes on to say that walking around the oak tree three times will release the witch’s spirit. And it’s not just the witch who is said to haunt St. Mary’s either. Other legends tell of sightings of monks, sometimes angry and clearly wanting their church to be left alone. At night time, there are stories of the sound of whispering voices and pokes in the back from unseen hands…
Whether it is haunted or not, there is no denying that St. Mary’s is a spectacular ruin. Walking around it conjures a peculiar feeling – not eerie as such, more calming. Even after all this time, remnants of the serenity present at most religious sites can be felt. But at the same time, it’s not a place you would want to linger. Almost as though the walls themselves want to be left alone, to become one with the plants which have overtaken them.
Since the oak tree has already wrought her revenge, perhaps all the witch’s ghost is simply in need of a new leg before she can rest in peace. Who knows? If you happen to have a spare one, you could go and ask her. Just make sure you don’t anger the monks in the process. They might poke you!
Norfolk folklore is rich with myths and legends. Its shrouded in mystery and has a abundant share of ghost and supernatural tales. Norfolk is a place which looks like a legend in person. From its craggy cliffs and windy shores, it blankets this region of England in ominous folklore which has been woven into Norfolk’s heritage like black shuck, Toadman, Tom Hickathrift and the Peddlar of Swaffham (just to name a very few). Check out this site for more information on the great legends of Norfolk and for tourism info, you can visit their tourism site here.