Aylmerton and Northrepps are, by day, perfectly pleasant Norfolk villages a short drive away from the seaside resort of Cromer. Framed by poppy fields and arable farming, these chocolate-box villages conceal an ancient evil, deep within their land.
Known locally as ‘shrieking pits’, these hell dimensions take the form of shallow pits, dug for the purposes of medieval Iron-ore mining and smelting. While these pits are present in a variety of local Norfolk landscapes, it is those at Aylmerton and Northrepps that are known by the moniker of ‘shrieking pit.’
It is said that the spectral figure of a woman haunts the five pits at Aylmerton, wailing in search of her lost child. The common story is that the woman’s baby was murdered by her jealous husband, who believed the child not to be his. After killing and burying the child in a pit, he returned to dispatch with his wife. Subsequently, the grieving woman haunts the pit for eternity, searching for her long-dead child. She is said to be tall, clothed in white and wanders and peers into the pits, wringing her hands and shrieking or moaning. It is said that she has been seen at all hours of the day, and is not confined to the typical spectral hours of dusk and night.
The same woman, who is also often described as appearing in a ‘winding sheet’ (a shroud), has been seen roaming around the nearby area of Weybourne. However, the story alters somewhat here; many believe the Weybourne pits to have been created by Cromwell during the destruction of Weybourne Priory.
At Northrepps, by the ominously-titled Hungry Hill, the shrieking pits bear the legend of another grief stricken woman.
The Eastern Daily Press reports this legend;
‘It is said that at midnight on February 24, the spirit of a village girl named Esmeralda appears between the veil of the living and the dead. At the age of 17, Esmeralda had fallen in love with a wealthy but untrustworthy young farmer who conducted a secret relationship with her behind his wife’s back.
The local vicar discovered the affair and ordered them to draw it to a close – the farmer skulked back to his wife and, without word from her sweetheart, Esmeralda’s heart broke and she drifted into misery and depression, unable to forget her love.’
While taking a walk one frosty night, the desperate girl threw herself into a pit. An act which she immediately regretted. It is said she called for help for some time, before succumbing to her death. It is said her cries for help can still be heard on February 24th, the anniversary of her death.
Northrepps not only has the legend of the suicidal teenager, but several other stories of people disappearing into the pits. Aside from a horse and cart, another legend states that the pits are in fact called ‘grave holes’ and that the shrieking came from the souls of long-dead Viking heroes buried beneath the soil.
Previously, the pits have been cited as graves or prehistoric dwellings. An alternative, and more likely, reality is that the pits are the result of medieval iron ore digging and smelting pits from the 9thand 11thcenturies.
Nonetheless, the legends prevail, and Norfolk’s shrieking pits continue their wailing. But ghosts or none, you’d do well to mind your step.
With Christmas behind us, New Year on our minds and the lingering scent of roast poultry clinging to the curtains, I have been racking my mind for a seasonal topic.
While spirit snowmen are a thing of horror fiction, it would seem that ghostly chickens have their claws firmly lodged in the niche echelons of British folklore.
Before I am reminded by a helpful reader that ghost turkeys would arguably be more festive, in the true spirit of a family Christmas dinner, I say to you; ‘you get what you’re given’.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English statesman, philosopher and an early purveyor of scientific methods and reasoned scientific thought. According to John Aubrey’s vivid account, Bacon died as a result of failed experiments In preserving meats.
On a particularly cold night in January, Bacon was travelling to Highgate with the King’s Physician, when he was suddenly struck with the thought of using snow to prevent meat perishing.
Bacon and the Dr Winterbourne were so keen to test his theory that they alighted the carriage, and rushed to a ‘poor woman’s cottage at the bottom of Highgate Hill’, where they purchased a chicken. After delightfully commanding the woman to slaughter, pluck and remove the bird’s innards, Bacon went about filling the carcass with snow.
Shortly after his poultry-stuffing efforts, Bacon caught such a severe chill that he was unable to return home and was laid up in nearby Arundel House. Bacon’s sudden ill health was worsened by his hosts lodgings, Aubrey describing his bed as ‘damp’ and unused for some time; resulting in his death from pneumonia in ‘2 or 3 days’.
Aubrey’s accuracy in his accounts has been criticised for many years, by his contemporaries and modern academics alike. However, this is all immaterial; Bacon is a minor character in this feathery tale.
Since Bacon’s untimely death, there have been multiple accounts of a spectral white bird, resembling a plucked chicken, scuttling around Pond Square, Highgate. The chicken appears to run in wild circles before disappearing into the ether.
In 1943, an account given by Aircraftman Terence Long states how, after crossing Pond Square late at night, he was startled to hear the thundering clatter of a horse and carriage. Following this terror, he found the ensuing silence pierced by the shriek of a bird, after which a chicken appeared, racing in circles, before disappearing. Similarly, another wartime sighting was recorded by a Mrs J Greenhill who reported seeing the chicken on several occasions, describing it as a ‘large whitish bird’.
In the 1960s, a stranded motorist encountered the same plucked vision, as a chicken appeared, winding in circles, before dissipating into the night air. However, in the 1970s, the bird took the form of the ultimate passion-killer by manifesting directly next to an amorous couple who were intertwined on a park bench.
Rather disappointingly, I have failed to find any especially recent accounts of this spectral fowl, but I live in hope. Perhaps the chicken is finally at peace with its fate. Perhaps the human imagination is a wonderful, if bizarre thing.
In the meantime, here’s a festive thanks to you, ghost chicken, for your part in scientific progress and for the future joy the British people experience, knowing our freezers can be filled to the brim with breaded fleshy offcuts every festive season.
When packing your kit for a casual night of burglary and thieving, you may be tempted to stick with the old tried-and-tested balaclava, torch and crowbar combination.
However, dear reader, may I suggest bucking the trend? Instead, try arming yourself with a tried-and-tested illuminating aid from yesteryear; the severed hand of a hanged man.
Lightweight and versatile! Let me tell you about it…
A Hand of Glory was of particular interest to burglars and house-breakers of yesteryear. It was a widely-held belief that using the dried and pickled hand of a hanged man as a candle or candle holder would transfer somewhat magical powers to the bearer. While the specifics vary between countries and regions, the desiccated hand generally assisted in robbery.
The hand’s powers were recorded in many 18thcentury documents and varied in inventiveness and severity.
These included, but were not limited to:
Possessing the ability to burn forever; providing endless light.
Providing a light only visible to the perpetrator and not to the householder.
Holding the ability to unlock any door.
Magically rendering any person motionless upon presentation of the hand.
The most consistent and well known of these abilities was that placing the hand outside or on the doorstep of a house would render all the occupants in such a deep sleep that the burglars movements could not wake them.
While using the hand as a candle holder seems the most practical of setups, there are many stories in which the fingers themselves act as candles. In such accounts, each finger that catches alight signals the number of inhabitants within the house who are sleeping. Subsequently, once the finger begins to burn, that person was believed to be unable to wake. However, an unlit finger could create confusion; the lit fingers could signal that all inhabitants were sleeping, but did not account for everyone within the house. An unlit finger could signal there were no more inhabitants or that one was still awake. There are similar accounts of burglars misjudging the amount of people within the house on account of inhabitants outnumbering flaming fingers.
The practicalities of lighting fingers may not have suited all criminals, so a popular alternative was purported to be bending the fingers around a separate candle which was itself sculpted from the deceased’s fat with the man’s hair as a makeshift wick.
But how does one create their own hand of glory? Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have been a task requiring specialist work, and it was certainly no mean feat to find an abundance of hanged men in the 18thcentury.
When creating your mystical severed appendage, there were rules to be followed. Your hand had to come from a man who was still swinging from the gallows. A right hand is preferred, especially if your chosen felon was a murderer – the right hand being regarded as ‘the hand that did the deed’. However, even severed hands aren’t black and white and some preferred to use the other, as left hands were traditionally thought of as the ‘sinister hand’ in Christian tradition.
Preferably, you should remove the hand at night, unless there’s a mad rush following the hanging. Afterwards, a series of blood-draining, finger positioning, pickling and mummifying follows.
In 1722, Petit Albert recorded how to prepare a hand yourself –
‘Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gibbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well. Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat, nitre, salt and long peppers, the whole well powdered. Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days until it becomes quite dry. If the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain. Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie, and use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold this candle when lighted, and then those in every place into which you go with this baneful instrument shall remain motionless.’
Examples of ‘Hand of Glory’ usage have been noted all over Europe for around 400 years. The name itself is thought to derive from the French term ‘main de gloire’, a version of ‘mandragore’, meaning ‘mandrake’. Mandrakes have long been regarded as having magical properties. Some historians believe the folk-beliefs surrounding the hand of glory relate directly to these mandrake beliefs. It was thought to be a plant that would grow beneath the gallows of a hanged man, directly from his ‘seed’. Which is a thought to dwell on in itself.
Mandrake leaves were also thought to resemble hands, which is an understandable reference. Similarly, in Saxon times, it is said that mandrakes were thought to shine at night, which similarly may have fed into the legend of the Hand of Glory’s powers.
But how does one protect their household from the mystical powers of a severed hand?
18thCentury householders had several options. A popular option was that, upon finding a burning hand, one could extinguish the flame with sterilised milk or blood, rendering it useless. However, no historical preventative ritual would be complete without an elaborate concoction of animal bits –
‘The Hand of Glory would become ineffective, and thieves would not be able to utilize it, if you were to rub the threshold or other parts of the house by which they may enter with an unguent composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen, and the blood of the screech-owl.’
As most Hand of Glorys have been lost to the fleshy sands of time, there are few remaining today. As far as I am aware, the only remaining hand in the world rests in Whitby Museum where it is very nicely displayed beside a monumental Victorian jet and fossil collection.
Whitby’s hand was found in the early 20thcentury, hidden in the wall of a thatched cottage in Castleton by stonemason Joseph Ford. It has been in the museum’s possession since 1935 and continues to be a draw to this day.
As hanging and extreme superstitions lost their place in society, so did the Hand of Glory. And although only one hand remains, those of you living in historical houses might find some withered treats within your walls should you ever wish to take on renovations…
In 1896 John Ashton published his work ‘The Devil in Britain and America’. Within it, he reproduced a curious image from 1532 (some claim 1539), accompanied with the explanation ‘Facsimile of the only known specimen of the Devil’s handwriting.’.
In Ashton’s introduction, his main gripe with previous works concerning Satanism and witchcraft was that such works were not only repetitive, but that none were illustrated. Thanks to Ashton’s pictoral obsession, this devilish calligraphy was re-introduced to the western world.
Ashton himself was not the originator of the image, merely the reproducer. The writing itself first appeared in Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi’s snappily titled ‘Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam Syriacam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas’, which, for non-Latin buffs, roughly translates as ‘Introduction to the language of the Chaldean, Syrian, and Armenian, and the ten other languages.’
Understandably, this is far from being some Encyclopedia Satanica; rather an early (western) study into Syriac and Armenian languages, with a hefty glossary of alphabets and brief studies into the roots of European languages. If you’re so inclined, there are many full, free copies available online. Just remember to brush up on your Latin fluency beforehand.
Albonesi’s satanic calligraphy is said to have come about by the conjuring abilities of Ludovico Spoletano, an Italian man of which little else is known. It would seem that Albonesi himself may have encountered the story via his correspondence with the French linguist, Guillaume Postel, with whom he discussed many supposed ‘magical’ alphabets.
It is said that Spoletano summoned Satan himself and asked him a series of questions. The Devil, famous for his consideration and compliance, answered by writing his responses on a piece of paper in his own hand. However, Satan is said to have delivered his answers by levitating the man’s pen and quickly scribbling his answers.
The Devil’s answers have never been deciphered as they follow no known, coherent languages. Most notably, the script contains a series of pitchfork characters, some upright, some upturned – which, understandably, has created very powerful images in the thoughts of the devout and occult-minded alike. Contemporary linguists and cipher-enthusiasts have continued to study the ‘devils handwriting’. The writer behind ‘ciphermysteries.com’, interpreted the script as possessing bat-like symbols, in keeping with the devilish theme of pitchforks, and is potentially based on a Latin or Italian root. However, even they conclude that the text makes little sense and may well be ‘nothing more than a joke making fun of Albonesi or Postel’!
Ashton himself comments that, although the responses have never been deciphered, he was ‘told by experts’ that ‘some of the characters may be found…(in)…Amharic, a language spoken in its purity in the province of Amhara’ (Amhara being an ethnic division within Ethiopia). As interesting as such an Ethiopian root may be, it is his final comment that undoubtedly grips the imagination. Amharic, he adds, ‘according to a legend, was the primeval language spoken in Eden.’
While there are many reported instances of man directly communicating with Satan, there are few that have retained considerable interest over the centuries. It would seem that the fact that this (supposed) interaction produced, tangible, physical ephemera has led to the myth’s longevity.
For what may well be a cipher of pure gibberish, the devilish curiosity of Satan’s handwriting has garnered interest for over 500 years. While it may never be deciphered, its hellish place has been truly reserved in paranormal and occult history.