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The Spectral Wolf of Southery

Whispers of the supernatural still dance in the Norfolk air in Southery where tales of a

spectral wolf which haunts the marshlands have long been part of the village’s folklore.


Southery, on the border of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, was once an island cut off from the

mainland by Southery Fen and is now a fair-sized village in Fenland. Author Walter Barrett, in Tales from the Fens (1963) wrote that when monks came from nearby Ely to build a church in the village in the 14th century, several paid for their work in blood, their bodies found with slit throats, their meagre belongings missing. The Abbot of Ely sent armed men to look for those who had murdered the brethren but when they failed to find any leads, he went to the Baron of Northwold for help.


Southery lay in the Baron’s land and he was used to the dangers of the Fens, sending

wolfhounds rather than men to guard the monks as they built old St Mary’s church. The hounds quickly diminished the monks’ food and, legend tells, began to pad about the village feasting on the dead. After the corpses had been ransacked, they turned their attention to the living. The Southery people fled and went to live in the Fens and the monks returned to Ely, by

now too frightened to remain in the village to do God’s work.


With no prey, the wolfhounds finally fell on each other, cannibalising their kin until only one remained, a fierce female dog as big as a donkey. A Fenman found her dying of hunger in the reeds and gathered a few friends to bring her back to his hut where his wife nursed her back to health. She had recently had a baby and fed her milk to both child and wolfhound. The creature grew very fond of her new family and became tame and friendly, helping the returned Southery folk to catch food, bringing back fresh meat to the village.


Some months later, she went missing.


Having grown fond of the predator-turned-companion, villagers searched the nearby Fens

for her and after a few days came to the sad conclusion that she was dead. However, more than a week later, the wolfhound limped back to Southery, her feet torn and bloody: she was pregnant, despite the fact that there was not a single dog left in the village. The monks, who had also limped back to the village to continue building work at St Mary’s, said that the pregnancy was the work of Satan. Weeks passed.


One day, the wolfhound was seen carrying a single pup gently in her jaws, but far from a

helpless baby, her offspring was already close to the size of a full-size dog. Over the months, the pup grew as big as an ox, a strange creature which was neither dog nor wolf, but something unworldly that could not be explained.


When his mother died, it was her son who continued the tradition of catching fresh meat

for the villagers, effortlessly bringing home whole stags or livestock from outside Southery.

Finally, building work at St Mary’s finished and the Bishop of Elmham came to open the new

church, riding into the village with a troop of armed men, ahead of a feast.

Wolf by Stefano della Bella, 1620 - 1664. CREDIT: Rijksmuseum

One of the men had previously been to the village and knew all about the bloody days when

the hounds set upon the villagers: seeing the tame beast that served the community, he

became overcome with terror and readied himself for attack. As he squared up to the beast with his iron-tipped spear, the creature realised his attentions and pounced, ripping at the guard’s throat. It then, to the horror of all who were watching, began to eat the man.


The Bishop’s men, temporarily paralysed by what they were witnessing, roused themselves

from their stupor and let loose a shower of arrows at the beast which limped away towards

the Fens, mortally wounded. As it began the dance of death, the hound let out blood-curdling howls which echoed across the Fens and into the village, chilling all that heard them to the bone.


On Southery Feast Day, May 29 each year, villagers would gather for a day of celebration which would help to raise funds for the church to mark the day it was blessed by a Bishop. The phantom wolf of Southery – as black as night, bigger than a donkey - was said to return for the Feast each year on the anniversary of its death and villagers would not dare to pass the church after midnight for fear he would strike. An even more terrifying legend claimed that if you heard the creature’s terrible howls that night, you would be dead within a year.

Even today, it is said that if you visit the ruined church of St Mary and its charnel house, a

chamber where bodies or bones were once deposited, you can see teeth marks on the

cornerstones where the wolfhounds gnawed when food ran out in Southery. Or perhaps, as another tale has it, it is where the Southery wolf sharpens his claws before he lets out the howl that will condemn another unwitting person to their early demise.


There is a postscript to this tale. Hidden East Anglia (https://www.hiddenea.com) offers another story sent to the wonderful Ivan Bunn of an canine encounter in 1945 between Downham Market and Southery. In a letter written in 1976, the tale is told.


It was May 1945 and Mr J. A Cochrane was riding home late at night on his motorcycle from

his RAF base at Tuddenham to see his wife at home in Downham Market. Mr Cochrane had just passed through Southery and was close to Modney Bridge when his bike ran out of petrol with six miles before he reached Downham. Reconciling himself to the long walk pushing the heavy bike, he set off but within 10 yards realised he could hear something unsettling: “…a faint baying, as of a hound”. As he walked, the sound grew louder and louder until it was “quite ear-splitting”.


Accompanying the howling was the sound of a heavy chain or weight being dragged along

the ground: Cochrane estimated the noise was just a few feet from where he stood. Terrified, he began to run with his bike, but the sound eventually passed him, growing fainter second-by-second.


While Mr Cochrane didn’t see a large dog, when he told his story later, an old lady in Norfolk

was convinced that something would have happened to him within the year. Later, he ran into the back of an RAF lorry on the same spot he had had his encounter, but had been quick enough to avoid anything other than a very slight injury. He told everyone that he was convinced that he had been chased by Black Shuck that night: but could it have been the Wolf of Southery around the village’s Feast Day?


Or are Shuck and the wolf one and the same?

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