WEIRD NORFOLK: Have you seen the ghostly lights at Hellington Common?
- Credit: Archant
It is a tale that has been passed down through generations, that recalls a battle centuries’ old between Vikings and Saxons and the ghosts of the dead that remain.
According to the stories, there are lights seen on Hellington Common in South Norfolk, itself part of a small hamlet six miles south-east of Norwich.
Spotted in the half-light of dusk, the lights dart around the common and have been described as ‘Will o’ the Wisps’, the flame-like phosphorescence on marshland that lured onlookers to follow the light despite the danger of doing so.
It is believed that in 866 AD, the Vikings sailed to Bramerton, probably stopping at Woods End common, and that in 1004 AD, King of the Danes Sweyn Forkbeard took the same route when his armies came to ransack Norwich.
Hellington is just over a mile away from Bramerton, so it is entirely possible that a battle took place in what is today, a peaceful and beautiful valley and site of a Norfolk Wildlife Trust nature reserve.
Forkbeard, a ruthless and cruel Dane, waged war on England and on Christmas Day 1013, was declared King of England, a title he held for just 40 days until he was murdered by an unknown hand.
One popular theory is that he was killed by the ghost of East Anglia’s St Edmund, who himself was murdered by Sweyn’s Viking predecessor after refusing to fight and instead attempting to negotiate peace.
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Edmund, the Patron Saint of East Anglia, came to the throne some time before 865AD, clashed with the invading Danes and was killed in the winter of 869.
Stories differ as to how Edmund met his end: some have him killed in battle, others say that he was murdered after refusing to denounce his Christianity.
The latter tale claims that Edmund was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows before being beheaded: his body was found with the head missing but then his supporters heard a wolf calling to them and found the creature guarding the monarch’s head.
When the head and body were reunited, they immediately fused together, leaving only a faint scar: this was to be the first of Edmund’s miracles.
Some people have put forward the theory that the battle at Hellington was, in fact, where St Edmund was killed, on the basis that its name in the Domesday Book is Halgatuna and the recorded but as yet undiscovered place of the Saint’s death was named Hægelisdun.
Those who claim to have seen the ghosts of the slain soldiers said they appeared as eerie lights at dusk, similar to Norfolk’s Lantern Men who patrol the Broads.
Weird Norfolk has written about these ‘will o’ the wisps’ several times before, in the cases of poor Joseph Bexfield who was dragged to watery grave at night by ‘death lights’ and the ghostly Lantern Man of Alderfen Broad.
In 1799, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about ghostly lights that hover and wheel above boggy marshland on dark, moonless nights, in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.
“About, about in reel and rout, the death-fires danced at night; the water, like a witch's oil, burnt green and blue and white.”
Coleridge's 'death-fires' were first mentioned in print in 1563, described as ignis fatuus: “foolish fire that hurteth not but only feareth fooles”.
Forty years later, Shakespeare wrote of 'wild fire' in Henry VI Part I, while Will o' the Wisp was first mentioned by the dramatist John Day in the early 1600s. Sir Isaac Newton wrote of the eerie marsh light in his opus Optick, published in 1704. Popular tradition said Will, the Lantern Man or Jack o' Lantern, carried candle-lit lanterns in the darkness to attract weary travellers, who they would lead across the marshes to their certain death.
In the mid-1800s, in a letter to a national newspaper, the anonymous 'EGR' spoke of seeing the mysterious 'ghost lights' in Norfolk regularly.
“It is popularly believed that if a man with a lighted lantern goes near one, the enraged Lantern Man will knock him down and burst his lantern to pieces,” he wrote.
“More than one labourer has assured me that such a thing has happened to himself. Quest: can the lighted lantern have ignited (marsh) gas and caused an explosion which has startled the rustic and burst his lantern?”
Regardless of startled rustics and broken lanterns, the scientific explanation for Will o' the Wisps is a far cry from the romance and mysticism of folklore. It is believed the ghostly lights are produced when organic material decays, causing the oxidisation of hydrogen phosphide and methane gas which produce a so-called 'cold flame'.
We will give folklore expert the late Jennifer Westwood the last word, just before we dismiss Hellington’s ghostly apparitions as a load of hot (or rather, cold) air.
“In Britain, he [the lights] was often known as Will o’ the Wisp and thought of as a sprite more mischievous than malicious, carrying a burning wisp of tarred straw’” she wrote.
“His other common name of Jack o’ Lantern, however, indicates a more substantial covered light. In marshy and coastal districts, he could be a true nightly terror: such a being was the Norfolk ‘Lantern Man’, neither small nor sprightly, but full-size, physically aggressive and extremely dangerous.”
Don’t have nightmares.