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The Witch of East Somerton

Woodlands are places of folklore and fairytale, myth and magic, and nowhere is this more beautifully illustrated than at East Somerton, where you can find a bewitched oak tree at the heart of a hidden ruin.

A tall oak tree grows in the centre of a ivy covered ruin of a church
The witch's leg stands tall in the ruins of St Mary's, East Somerton. CREDIT: Stacia Briggs

The story of East Somerton’s witch is precious to the Norfolk Folklore Society and is where our journey began, many years ago, at a desk built atop a site where a witch bottle and a skeleton were found in a building where tales were written to be shared.

Our story and her story are forever entwined, and she is where all new adventures must begin for us, by ensuring the crimes of the past are never forgotten and we learn from the cruel mistakes made by our forebears.

In the dark, dark wood, there’s a crumbling ruin hidden in a grove, wrapped in ivy like a gift, a carpet of leaves underfoot pierced in its heart by a tree. The oak tree growing in the church’s nave is a signpost to a centuries-old crime which covers the shame of those who dragged an accused witch here, burying her alive in consecrated ground so her soul couldn’t join Satan down below.

She had a wooden leg, so the legend goes, and from it grew this mighty oak which – on cold dark nights – is joined by the witch herself who drifts purposefully across the skeletal ruins seeking those who imprisoned her in the earth.

Empty windows like eye sockets stare out into the woods from a house of God built in the 13th century and abandoned 400 years later in the wake of the Reformation. St Mary’s has an other-worldly, fairytale feel to it and stands in the grounds of Burnley Hall Estate in East Somerton close to Winterton.

A woman wearing a long black coat and a pink knitted hat hugs a tree. She is smiling as her cheek presses up against the tree's trunk.
The story of East Somerton’s witch is where our journey began, many years ago. CREDIT: Stacia Briggs

Next to a private, single-track road, the small woodland looks like any other, but walk into the dense woods and the sunlight begins to evaporate, replaced with dappled light filtered through a canopy of trees and then, within a matter of steps, it looms into sight: a flash of stone amid the greenery.

It seems scarcely believable that this peaceful place could have ever been the scene of such terrible suffering, but this legend has persisted across the sea of time, although when the accused witch is thought to have met her dreadful fate is unclear. Some say the witch was buried alive in the woods and the church built around her to contain her evil, others that she was taken to the abandoned church by villagers who felt it wise to dig her grave on consecrated ground.

This sheltered area of Norfolk’s coastline was once a hunting ground for witch-finders from the 1580s to the terrifying days of Matthew Hopkins’ black reign in 1645, persecution paid for by the people, state-sanctioned murder. Whipped into a froth of fear and suspicion, the county was quick to condemn and just as fast to commit: if East Somerton’s villagers discovered what they believed to be witchcraft in their midst, they would not have thought before acting.

A black and white photograph shoeing church ruins. You can just see a large oak tree growing in the centre of the ruin.
St Mary's church ruin viewed from the north side. Pictured in 1999. CREDIT: George Plunkett

Others call the tree The Witch’s Finger, bursting from the site of her execution to point accusingly towards heaven – either way her restless spirit has been seen at St Mary’s at twilight, pacing the church floor which is now entirely lost to nature. And hers is not the only spirit said to inhabit these shattered walls.

Monks have been seen in this once-sacred space, sometimes appearing to be angry and keen to clear curious visitors out of what was once was theirs: at night, whispering voices have been heard and unexplained jabs in the ribs and the back have been felt from invisible fingers.

At twilight, it is said that visitors to St Mary’s have the chance to speak to the witch beneath the earth if they circle her tree three times, gently whispering her name.

But it is rarely wise to wake the dead and even if The Norfolk Folklore Society could tell you her name, we would suggest, as ever, that one must be very, very careful what one wishes for.


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