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Weird Norfolk: The magic oak of Ashwellthorpe

PUBLISHED: 09:30 22 December 2018

Ashwellthorpe Hall and moat. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Ashwellthorpe Hall and moat. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2018

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, but in Ashwellthorpe, a little Christmas magic meant the oak tree in questions sprung up in front of a festive crowd’s very eyes.

The story takes places in Ashwellthorpe Hall, which was rebuilt in around 1600 by Sir Thomas Knyvett, who was the man who arrested Guy Fawkes, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and who was renowned for his great hospitality and generosity. For this reason, when a mysterious Londoner and his troupe of guests arrived at the Hall at Christmas time, Sir Thomas welcomed them all

inside.

Immediately, the Londoner decided to show his appreciation, pulling out an acorn and telling the assembled company that what they saw before them was actually a magic acorn harvested from a magical oak tree. He set the acorn in the Grand Hall, stood back and the crowd watched open-mouthed as an oak tree shot up immediately, filling the entire space with huge tree branches covered in moreacorns. As gifts go, it was not one that Sir Thomas appreciated, especially as dinner was about to be served and they needed space to lay the table. The High Sheriff of Norfolk, who was also known as Baron Berners, ordered his servants to cut down the tree, but when the branches lay on the floor of the hall, they found themselves unable to move the heavy logs – at which point more magic was summoned.

A brace of goslings appeared and helpfully drew away the logs, dragging them outside. When the guests looked to see where the branches had been taken, they discovered that they had vanished entirely. As the Ballad of Ashwell Thorp notes: “not a chip then could be found”.

Reportedly this is why the hall had geese on its moat for years and why those visiting from London were viewed with some suspicion…

On the east-facing panel of the village’s sign, towards the top, the goose, oak leaves and the wording Ashwell Thorpe Oak Legend is carved into the wood, commemorating the ballad which tells the story of Sir Thomas’ generosity and his visitor’s unusual gift.

One verse says: “There was a Gentleman from LONDON citty came, the Countrey for to see. And all in the Pryme of jovial CHRISTMASS Time, there merry for to be.

“This LONDONER did say if the Gentry would give way, a trick to them he w’d show, that an Acorn he would sett if they would please to ha’te which to a great Tree should grow.”

Sir Thomas was buried at Ashwellthorpe after his death in February 1616. It is not known whether his coffin was made of oak.

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