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Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse Folklore Trail

In rural communities of the past, people’s lives depended on bountiful harvests and healthy livestock. Everyone was on guard for any signs of looming disaster. When things did go wrong, the people lacked the viewpoint of modern science to determine cause. Instead, they would place blame at the door of the evil eye, of witchcraft and devils, of envious fairies and even mildly annoyed bees.


Explore the themes of superstition and folklore throughout Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse with the Norfolk Folklore Society.


1. Corn Dollies, Collections Gallery:

These beautiful straw figures were made to celebrate a successful harvest, often from the very last sheaf gathered from the field. Some say the Norfolk Lantern design originated in Romania, but could it be connected to the unsettling story of the Lantern Man who lures people into danger on Norfolk’s waterways with his glowing light?

2. Black crepe cloth, Collections Gallery:

It was a well-known Norfolk folk custom that beekeepers should keep their hives informed of any deaths in the family. The head of the family would, together with a younger relative, head to the beehives, whisper the name of the dead person to them and then cover the hive with a piece of black cloth. ‘Telling the bees’ is a ceremony noted across Britain, America and Europe.


3.  Cauldron, First Farmers’ Gallery: 

Found in Feltwell in Norfolk, this Late Bronze Age cauldron would have been used for feasting rather than spell-casting, but feasts themselves were often magical. There is a legend that a ghostly procession takes place in Salthouse in Norfolk every May, snaking from the slopes of the village to the mere at midnight and ending with a magnificent banquet cooked over fire.

4.   Pot, First Farmers’ Gallery: 

Are the markings on this beautiful piece of pottery lunar symbols? Ancient humans used the moon as a calendar in the sky, watching the course of the moon and noting its position over the natural horizon and the change of its phases. King’s Lynn’s St Margaret’s Church has a moon phase clock with a dragon hand: around the dial is spelled out “Lynn High Tide”. Or is it “Edith Gihnnyl”?


5.  Original 18th century schoolroom floor:


This glimpse of the past also offers us a window into old belief systems. A tiny boot, believed to be from the late 19th century, was recovered from under the floorboards of the girls’ school at Gressenhall and is now part of its folklore collection. Concealed shoes or boots hidden in buildings are often classic examples of a popular magic designed to bring luck and turn away evil. It was once believed that witches were attracted to the scent of human shoes and if they ventured inside, the shoes would forever become their prison.

6. The Laundry Rooms:

Folklore surrounds the process of laundering clothes, particularly on New Year’s Day when it is thought to lead to bad luck, a hard year or even death. Norfolk had a famously wise washerwoman, who lived in Irstead and whose predictions, proverbs and observations were shared across Norfolk in the late 1700s and early to mid 1800s. One of Mrs Lubbock’s sayings was that salt added to a wash would keep out thunder and turn away foul spirits (it can also help remove stains, maintain bright colours and reduce yellowing in clothes!).


7. The Orchard:

Gressenhall’s orchard is filled with different varieties of a fruit linked to folklore by many golden threads. The apple has been steeped in rich symbolism throughout history, portrayed in myths, fairy tales, and proverbs as having magical, life-giving powers.

8. Horseshoes, The Farrier’s Forge, Village Row:

Horseshoes have been linked to superstition for hundreds of years: the legend is that the Devil asked a blacksmith to nail horseshoes to his hooves, but as they were nailed on, the pain was such that he begged for the shoe to be removed. The blacksmith agreed, only on the condition that the Devil would never enter a home with a horseshoe hanging by the door. In Norfolk, horseshoes were linked to a witchcraft case in 1679 when Anne Diver was accused of bewitching Thomas Cutting’s family and animals: he ‘cured’ the problem by throwing a horseshoe with seven nail holes in his fire.

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9. Bread, the Farmhouse Kitchen:

Bread made on Good Friday was believed to last forever and protected you from curses and bad luck for seven years: you would hang the Good Friday loaf by your fireplace as a talisman and as medicine. One Norfolk story tells of a woman who tried to cure her neighbour from a violent illness by “giving her two doses of Good Friday Bread”. 

10. Farm wagons, Museum of Norfolk Life:

Forever linked with farming, Norfolk children were taught to make a wish when they saw a wagon-filled with hay. They would then count to 13 as they watched the bales, they then had to turn away and not look back. The wish would come true when the bales were broken.

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