As well as historic and literary figures, Breckland has many folk tales assoctiated with the area the most famous being the Babes in the Wood tale reputed to have taken place in Wayland Wood near the picturesque market town of Watton.
Boadicea, or Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, is said to have poisoned herself after her defeat by the Romans in AD62. Two mounds rival each other as the traditional site of her burial. One is a fine tree-covered Neolithic barrow on Garboldisham Heath, the other is an earthworks near Quidenham church known as Vikings Mound.
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Little Lord Dacre, aged seven, died at Nunnery Farm in Thetford after a fall from a wooden horse in 1569. His ghost was later seen prancing up and down on a headless rocking horse. So troublesome was this apparition that it had to be laid to rest by a clergyman. A hundred years later it was claimed that blood stains could still be seen on the wall where he fell. He was rumoured to have been murdered by his guardian, Sir Richard Fulmerston, but however he died, Sir Richard cannot have been to blame since he died three years before his ward.
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Withburga was the daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia in the 8th century. She is attributed with a miracle which gave the town of Dereham its name. During a severe famine, two deer appeared daily in answer to her prayers to provide milk for the nunnery she had founded. When a huntsman set his dogs on the deer he was divinely punished by a fall from his horse which killed him.
St Withburga’s grave in the church at Dereham was venerated as a shrine for many years. However, the monks of Ely Cathedral stole her relics in the 10th century to place with those of her sister, Saint Etheldreda. A spring burst from Withburga’s empty tomb and became famous as a healing well, which may still be seen in the churchyard.
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The Babes In The Wood
Wayland Wood, near Watton, sometimes called Wailing Wood, has been long associated with the tale of the Babes in the Wood. This ancient story was first published as a ballad in 1595 in Norwich. It tells the tale of two orphans left in the care of a wicked uncle who planned to murder them for their inheritance. He hired two men to take them into a wood and kill them but one of the men took pity on the babes and killed his companion instead. He then left the babes in the wood who eventually starved. They died in each others arms and were covered with leaves by a robin.
The story is an old one and no-one knows how it became associated with Wayland Wood but the tradition was so strong that when the oak tree under which the babes were said to have died was struck by lightning in 1879, people came from all over the county for souvenirs. Nearby Griston Hall Farm is reputed to be the home of the wicked uncle.
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The Croxton Gamekeeper
A game keeper was murdered by poachers in Croxton and not knowing what to do with his body they slung him in their cart along with the rabbits. Seeing a pit (known as Chalk Pit Head) they decided to dispose of him there but as they were lifting him from the cart he partially recovered and swore to haunt them. They rapidly finished him off, but the site has been haunted ever since.
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The Quidenham Procession
A godless owner of Quidenham hall left directions that when he died his coffin should be carried to the church by twelve drunken men when the church clock struck midnight. Accordingly, a drunken procession tried to carry out his last request but when they came to the bridge near the churchyard they fell over the parapet into the river. Their shouting and laughter followed by a dreadful splash and hideous cries is still carried on the midnight air.
Thetford Castle Hill
Thetford Castle Hill, according to legend, was once the site of a magnificent castle full of treasures. When the King was threatened by an attack, he ordered his men to raise a mound over the castle, treasure and all. The most general belief is that 7 silver bells from the Priory are buried under the hill.
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A Thetford craftsman of the 13th century had a vision of the Virgin Mary who told him that he would be cured of a disease if a chapel was built in her honour. A Thetford woman had a similar vision. In course of time a stone Lady Chapel was built at the Priory and a statue of the Virgin erected there, taken from the site of the old cathedral in Thetford. On re-decorating the statue, it was found to have a hollow in the head which contained the relics of saints. These had miraculous powers of healing and before long Thetford became a focus for pilgrims from far and wide.
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A round barrow between Thetford and Euston called Tutt’s Hill, commemorates an ancient act of treason. When the Danes were attacking the Saxon town of Thetford, they were unable to find a weak spot in the town’s defences. A local shepherd called Tutt led them in by a secret way across the marshes. He was promised a reward beyond his highest expectations. He received it – he was hanged on the mound that now bears his name.
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The Pedlar of Swaffham
A pedlar of Swaffham, dreamed that he would find his fortune if he went to London Bridge. He stood on the bridge for three days without any luck but then chanced to meet a stranger. The stranger told him that if he were to heed such dreams he would be in Swaffham digging for gold under a pear tree in the orchard of a certain pedlar. The pedlar returned home to find his fortune in his own backyard.
This story is told with variations all around the country but in Swaffham it is associated with John Chapman, merchant who helped to rebuild the church in 1462. He is depicted on a bench end in the church with his pack and his dog. Another bench end is said to show his wife, leaning over the shop door holding a string of rosary beads.
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