By Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and Rector (i.e. president) of the University of Dundee. Craigmurray.org.uk.
Tens of thousands of people follow this blog, direct and through facebook and twitter. I believe they mostly do so because of the posts I write which present facts the mainstream media elides, or a commentary designed to open up radical ideas for discussion. I am always very grateful that so many people are prepared to consider alternative ways of considering news and politics.
But it is also just an intensely personal blog, where sometimes I work through my own thoughts and experiences in life from a variety of motives, and in the hope that they may strike a chord with some people. Recent events have caused me to think back over my own childhood, and frankly I do not expect this next to be of much interest at all to the large majority of habitual readers. I am recording this because I want the knowledge to survive me, from a feeling that folk tradition is important.
I was looking up the postcode for Beeton Regis church to tell somebody how to get there, and in doing so came across the wikipedia entry for Beeston Regis. It includes this passage:
The strange story of Farmer Reynolds’ stone
Within the churchyard is a large stone being used to cover a grave. It is approximately 4 feet (1.2 m) long x 2 feet (0.61 m) x 18 inches (460 mm) high, being a rectangular block of granite, with circular depressions on the uppermost surface. On each side is inscribed the names of the grave’s occupants. This is originally one of a pair which stood at either side of a pathway in the yard of the farmhouse, in the grounds of the ruined Beeston Priory. The path itself led to what is now known as the Abbot’s Freshwater Spring Pond.
A local tale says that about 1938–41, when both boulders were in place, a farmer named James Reynolds often drove his horse and cart along this pathway. Several times, a hooded grey ghost would hide behind two boulders and would leap out from behind one of the stones at sunset, and try to grab the horse’s reins before vanishing. This, although terrifying the animals, seems not to have perturbed the man unduly. However, he ordered that the stone in question be laid upon his grave after his death, in an attempt at ‘laying’ the apparition. James Reynolds died in 1941 and, in accordance with his wishes, the boulder now lies atop his grave, his wife Ann Elizabeth also being interred there in 1967. There is no record as to whether or not the ‘exorcism’ was successful, and indeed, a local woman who knew the Reynolds could not confirm the story. The other stone of the pair can now be seen lying against the north wall of the churchyard.
In fact these stones were not originally in any of the places stated. The priory farm had a massive old tithe barn, right on the main Cromer road. The ancient road had become depressed through use below its hedgerows, and there was a grass verge bordering the barn, about a foot high and a couple of feet wide to the road. There in the grass and part embedded in the verge were these two large black granite boulders.
In the early 1960s we used to walk past them twice every day as we walked the mile to and from Sheringham Primary School. Legend was that they were haunted, and that after dark they would roll across to the other side of the road. This was associated with ghosts in some way that was not entirely clear, but linked to the monks of the priory. I therefore recognise the lines of the Wikipedia story. We were always scared walking past them at night and used to run past the spot.
At some point the stones were removed from the highway onto the farm itself – I believe about the time the tithe barn was demolished. At first the façade wall and great wooden doors of the tithe barn were left standing as it was contiguous with the farm wall. By the time the stones were removed from the highway I was either an adult or had an adult understanding, and was angry that these stones – which were an important part of community folklore – had been removed from the highway into the farm, as I was convinced they had been part of the highway and not on land belonging to the farm.
You have to know Norfolk to understand why these boulders had this mystic reputation. There are no boulders in Norfolk. The houses and churches are built out of flint beach pebbles. There is no source of granite for hundreds of miles. A primary school teacher whose name I remember as Donhau explained to 10 year old me that they are glacial erratics, left here by the receding last ice age, and it is undoubtedly true that the North Norfolk ridge is its terminal moraine. He also said that the apparently man made depressions in them were erosion by the ice. All of which makes sense, and it would make even more so if there were anything else remotely like them scattered around. But I see no contradiction between them both being glacial erratics and being used by the local Iceni for the sort of rituals Celts did with stones with depressions elsewhere. If they held the aura they did for the entire local community in 1960, how much more did they 2000 years earlier?
The legend of Black Shuck as recounted on the Wikipedia page is correct, although it misses out the universal belief that if you saw it you would die shortly after. But it misses the legend connected to Orban Beck. This was reputed to be bottomless, and the legend was that at night you could see a horse and cart being driven into it by a dead man. This again I am inclined to suspect was a folk memory of a Celtic chariot burial or ritual.
What I am struggling to explain to you was how, in what was then a very small and tight knit rural community, these legends were part of the everyday reality we lived in. I have been trying and failing to recall how I first learned them, but I think they were passed from child to child rather than taught us by adults, though they certainly were subsequently confirmed to us by adults. Of course they did not believe in them. But nor would they lightly scoff at them.
I am happy I recorded all that – I am still unsure of my own point, but I find the idea that this remembrance is now indelibly out there on the internet strangely reassuring.