We tame myths, chase birds and find fascinating facts and fiction about Norfolk villages featuring animals in their names
Norfolk place names featuring... animals
Antingham. Fee fi fo fum… I’ll grind his bones to make my bread. Antingham, at the end of Norfolk’s only sailing canal with locks, has not one, but two bone mills. Mills more often ground grain into flour for bread, but both Antingham mills crushed bones from local butchers and abattoirs until the mid 1930s, for farmers to use on their fields as fertiliser (rather than for giants to bake with). The bones were ground with stones brought as ballast from all over the world in ships docking in Yarmouth and carried by wherry to Antingham, near North Walsham.
Beeston Regis, or the King’s Beeston, if you speak Latin, was once plain Beeston-next-the-Sea. But it was part of lands inherited by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Lancaster, and when he became King Henry IV, humble nextthe-sea became fancy Regis. The village, near Sheringham
has the famous, and dizzyingly high, for Norfolk, Beeston Bump, made from the earth and stones brought south by vast ice sheets, and left behind the as the glaciers melted.
Buckenham, near Brundall. It’s not just named after a male deer (possibly.) It’s also a wonderful place to spot wildlife. Take the train to Buckenham Station request stop at weekends (check before you travel) and step into Buckenham Marshes RSPB reserve. It is one of the best places in Britain to see the taiga bean goose with one flock overwintering in the Yare valley and one near Falkirk in Scotland. Tens of thousands of wigeon, teal, lapwings and golden plovers flock here too and there are famous rook roosts at dusk, plus birds of prey, including barn owls, marsh harriers, kestrels and peregrine falcons.
Catfield, near Stalham. Sixteen saintly kings and queens are painted on a very unusual 15th century screeen in Catfield church, although only the locals – St Edmund, with the arrow which killed him and St Olaf with a battleaxe – can definitely be identified.
Horsey. The name of this east coast village, famous for its seals today, means an island grazed by horses. The 18th century owner, Sir Berney Brograve, battled coastal flooding and petitioned
Parliament for sea defences. But he is remembered in folklore for his foul temper and even more foul deals with the devil. His five times great granddaughter researched the man behind the myth and discovered a man crazed by grief, fear and ill-fortune.
She read tales of floods, ghosts, smugglers firing cannon balls at his house at night, disease, fist-fights with tradesmen over money, and her ancestor cowering all night in Brograve Mill, believing the devil was pounding on the door with his hooves. He was widowed twice with just four of his 17 children surviving him. “When I first started researching, nearly everything I found about Sir Berney was bad,” said Cheryl Nicol, who turned her research into the book Sir Berney Brograve: A Very Anxious Man. “He was a black-hearted man whose soul belonged to the devil. A reputation like that doesn’t come free; you have to earn it. So I waded through all the tall stories in search of the real man.”
Oxborough is dominated by magnificent Oxburgh Hall, now owned by the National Trust. It is still home to the Bedingfeld family, who have lived here since 1482. Its treasures include wall hangings made by Mary Queen of Scots while she was imprisoned and a ‘priest hole’ room, accessed by a trapdoor in a tiled floor, where Roman Catholic priests could hide
‘Wreningham is said to be named for an ancient story of a witch disguising herself as a wren to escape witch hunters’
from Protestant search parties in Tudor times. Even further back in Oxborough history is the Oxborough Dirk – a huge sword, too heavy to wield in war, which was probably created for ceremonies around 3,500 years ago. It is one of just six large dirks found in northwest Europe and was found when a walker literally tripped over it in boggy ground in 1988. It is now on show in the British Museum.
Swanton Morley, right in the centre of Norfolk, is actually named after cows rather than swans, with Swanton derived from the Old English for a herdsman’s enclosure. Abraham Lincoln might never have become one of the greatest American presidents if his Swanton Morley ancestor had not disinherited his son in favour of his
fourth wife. The family, thrown into poverty, eventually emigrated to America. The American connection was rekindled in June 1942 when the first combined British and American bombing raid was launched from RAF Swanton Morley. Astonishingly both Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Dwight Eisenhower travelled to Swanton Morley for the occasion.
Author Ian Sansom has written a series of comic thrillers starring Professor Swanton Morley, named for the village.
Wolferton is famous for its elaborate railway station, beautified especially for the royal family. In June 1886 a circus, complete with performing animals, arrived at Wolferton en route for the 21st birthday part of Prince George at Sandringham. One of the elephants refused to return to the train, uprooting a lamp post and demolishing the station gates before it was persuaded back on board. The line, and station, closed in 1966.
Wreningham is said to be named for an ancient story of a witch disguising herself as a wren to escape witch hunters. The villagers beat the hedges and bushes with sticks to try and flush her out, but she flew away – only to return each Boxing Day, when villagers would re-enact the hunt. Versions of the story also exist on the Isle of Man, in Ireland and in France. It could be rooted in pre-Christian mythology as the wren was considered sacred by Celts and druids, and it was unlucky to harm the bird – apart from as a midwinter sacrifice. Later the feathers were thought to protect against witchcraft and protect fishermen from shipwreck. Today Wreningham, near Wymondham, has a community bar called the Witch and Wren and a pub called The Bird in Hand.
A seal resting at Horsey Gap
BELOW: Buckenham marshes
ABOVE: Beeston Bump near Sheringham
ABOVE (CLOCKWISE): Wolferton village sign, Oxburgh Hall, Brograve Mill, Horsey, and North Walsham and Dilham Canal