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The missing stone of Southery which once marked the gateway to hell

This is a story with so many wonderfully strange elements: a stone that fell from the sky at Halloween, an erratic parson’s disappearance and naked women looking to be healed.

It is said that on a dark and stormy Halloween night in 1642, a stone fell from the sky and crashed into a small Fenland village on the edge of Norfolk. The stone, the legend says, made a mighty hole that marked the entrance to hell, falling to earth amid thunder and lightning close to a mill.

A star falls into the pit of hell as locusts torture souls at the entrance to the pit. From a 16th century woodcut. CREDIT: Wellcome Collection

At daylight, the local parson ventured outside and discovered a large hole which, he and other villagers, presumed had been caused by lightning. Inside the hole, a fierce fire burned for several days until it was extinguished by rainfall of almost Biblical proportions: in Southery, rumours began to fly. Some said that the hole was the opening to a tunnel which led directly to hell, and it became known as The Way In.

Over the following year, Southery's parson began to act in an erratic manner and, by 1643, he had disappeared without trace. By this time, the mysterious hole had filled with water and its name had telescoped to the Wayin Pond. Years later, the decision was taken to drain the pond and clear it of debris. There, under thick layers of mud, a strange blue stone was found and alongside it, the skeleton of a man wrapped in iron chains: was it the parson? The Southery parish registers date only from 1706, so no mention is made of the poor iron-clad wretch found in Wayin Pond.

Opposite the pond was a pound, which served as a gaol, a safe place for livestock and a makeshift drunk tank: the stone was taken there to become a kind of seat outside the stone building.  Swiftly, the boulder earned a reputation for having magical powers and became a magnet for locals, who attributed a host of superstitious beliefs to the rock.

Women who were in pain from joint or ligament problems would visit the stone at midnight, shed their clothes and sit on top of it naked in the hope of being cured, farmers believed would ‘sweat’ ahead of bad weather. Villagers would spit on the stone to ensure good fortune and a virile 80-year-old credited the Southery Stone with his ability to still be able to father children - every day he drank the dew that collected on top of the stone (although of course it could have been saliva…).

It's said that the village sign marks the site of the Wayin Pond. CREDIT: Google Maps

When preachers visited the village, they would use the stone as an al fresco pulpit - gradually, the new parson grew tired of the obsession with an inanimate piece of rock and declared that everyone was effectively worshipping a piece of space debris, a meteorite which had shattered as it broke up in the atmosphere. And as Kirsty MacColl taught us, it’s wrong to wish on space hardware.

To hammer home his point, he had the stone removed and placed in a garden on the King's Lynn to Cambridge road where it enjoyed a peaceful retirement as a buttress for a garden wall.

When writer and friend of the Norfolk Folklore Society Trevor Heaton went in search of the magical stone of Southery, his investigations led him to Stocks Hill at the junction of Westgate, Upgate, Church Street and Common Lane at the spot where Hill House stood until the 1950s, when it was demolished and - it seems - the stone was removed.

The Wayin, or Waring, pond was filled in many years ago and the village sign stands on the spot where the magical stone was found - as an aside, another meteorite was observed falling to earth in Woodbridge in the same year and lightning struck twice in Southery when, on July 17 1848, Samuel Douglas died when he was struck by a bolt in his own bed.

Whether the gateway to hell in Southery has been completely closed, however, is an altogether different issue.


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