The Best Guide to Norfolk Folklore, Part 1

If you haven’t realized already, Norfolk is weird and proud of it! In fact, when you really start to think about it, our county is the perfect candidate as a folklore capital – it’s certainly old enough, with stories easily dating back to the Roman period, and with our rural roots still standing strong, it comes as no surprise that Norfolk is home to a cornucopia of cryptids, it’s fair share of fairies and more than a handful of horrors… 

Folklore is responsible for much more than simply scary stories and old wives tales, and in fact, local myths and legends can be more relevant to the way things are now than we think. Being as historically and culturally rich as it is, Norfolk has many fanciful and frightening legends, from ancient kings to magic cows (yes, seriously) to things that go bump in the night – we hope you’re sitting comfortably because here is our first part of our ABC guide to Norfolk Folklore!

King Gurgunt 

Norwich castle is thought to have been built by William the Conqueror, not long after their conquest sometime between 1066 and 1075. Originally built as a motte and bailey style fortification, over the next several hundred years the castle found itself being home to some of the most important moments in Norfolk’s history!

Painting of Norwich Castle

Now, what if we told you none of that was true, and in fact, the castle was built by a mysterious and unknown mythical king named Gurgunt? While yes, technically this isn’t the truth, and the historical record shows that old Gurgunt probably didn’t exist, isn’t thinking that an ancient king is ready to burst forth from Castle Hill, armour and all, when Britain is in danger more fun? As legend has it, Gurgund was the son of Belanus, a Celtic god of healing – and after falling in love with Norwich, decided to build the castle and the city that surrounded it! When it came time for Gurgunt to die, he decided he would be buried at the base of his castle, surrounded by his worldly treasures and possessions, waiting to rise again when truly needed.

This legend clearly was popular in the 16th century too, as during a visit by Queen Elizabeth I in 1578, the Mayor of Norwich Robert Wood, dressed in his likeness and followed the royal procession through the city, hoping to present the story of Gurgunt to the monarch. As the party reached Town Close, Wood (as Gurgunt) had his chance and began to tell his story, just as it began to rain, causing the Queen to find shelter, and cutting Gurgunts tale short, and relegating it to mere local legend.

The Lantern Man 

While folklore can be fun and fanciful, it can also strike fear in the hearts of locals and even folks county wide – such stories have been known to keep children awake at night, and even cause people to walk a little quicker home from the local public house. One such tale would be that of the Lantern Man… This folklore figure is far less enjoyable than our friend Gurgunt and actually has been purported to be the reason behind multiple deaths in the area – as is the story of Joseph Bexfield. 

Man In  A dark Field With a Lantern

It was 1809, and Joseph Bexfield was a wherryman – a now antiquated profession of rowing a certain type of boat known as a wherry. Joseph, and his fellow sailing friends found themselves one August evening in the White Horse in Thurlton. It was a pitch-black night, as cloudless nights on the marshes tend to be, when Bexfield remembered he had left a package for his wife on his wherry. His friends pleaded for him to stay, not for the darkness, but for the lights that punctuated the pitch blackness – the Lantern Man was making his rounds. Of course, Joseph’s story would not be a memorable one if he had decided to stay – stepping confidently out into the darkness, Bexfield was never seen alive again.

The Fairy Cow of South Lopham 

Often, a story’s title is so interesting that you can’t help but read on – as is the case of the fairy cow of South Lopham. Located just east of Diss, the village is a small one at that, but like all places, South Lopham has its own secrets and legends. 

Technically, this is the story of the locally fabled ‘Ox-Foot Stone’, a large sarsen stone that has an impression that looks, apparently very much like, that of an ox or cow’s hoof pressed into it. Located on the eponymously named farm in the village, the stone has garnered a handful of local stories and fables around it, some a little more fanciful than others.

Photo of the Ox Foot Stone responsible for The Fairy Cow of South Lopham legend

As one legend has it the print was that of not just any cow, but a fairy cow, who in an act of fairy friendliness would appear on the stone during a time of drought, offering milk to the thirsty townsfolk. The mystic bovine would only appear for as long as the drought, and when the hardship was over, the animal would stamp its hoof once upon the stone and vanish.

Another tale suggests that the impression in the stone had less to do with fairies, and more to do with people drinking too much, which immediately is more believable. As the story goes, a villager one night, who had ‘drunk too deeply of the Norfolk nut-brown ale’, made his merry way down to the meadow to milk the very ordinary cow. Alas, in his stupor, the villager had mistaken his sieve for his pail! Soon enough, he had milked the cow dry, but in his stupidity, kept milking the poor animal, so much in fact he drew blood, causing the creature to moan in pain, and stamp its hoof so hard, it left its print in the stone!

Posted on February 15, 2022

Posted in Arts, Blog