Route details, maps, pubs, features, local history and folklore for a wide variety of walks focusing primarily on Norfolk and Suffolk

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Down the Blyth Valley in Pursuit of Black Shuck

River Blyth near Halesworth

An 18 mile walk down the Blyth Valley in Suffolk from Halesworth to Blythburgh, then across the heaths and commons to Leiston.

It was the legendary hell hound that supposedly came this way in 1577 and terrified parishioners of Blythbrugh church after doing a similar job at Bungay. This walk is in two sections, the first section follows the River Blyth along the Waveney Way towards Southwold. The Waveney Way is a Ramblers association walk and does not have waymarkers along the route. An optional second section cuts across to Westleton and onto Leiston. Both Southwold and Leiston have public transport links to Halesworth making the walk simple to do.

Saxon Way, Halesworth to Library Square, Leiston Walk - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
Saxon Way, HalesworthView in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
Library Square, LeistonView in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
18.2 miles
Walk difficulty
Easy

Transport:

Nightingales - Bus Service
Service Number
521 - Leiston to Halesworth service operated by Nightingales buses
Timetable
Anglian - Bus Service
Service Number
88 - Anglian Bus service from Southwold to Halesworth and Norwich
Timetable

Walk Data

Date of Walk
2011-04-10
Walk Time
10:10 to 18:00
Walkers
Griffmonster, Kat
Weather Conditions
A fine sunny spring day. Warm but with a fresh easterly breeze.

Walk Notes

This was a really pleasant spring days walk. I had originally planned to drive to Southwold then walk back from Halesworth but as there is a bus from Leiston it seemed a better idea to do the complete walk. It was unfortunate that the river defences were crumbling so that we could not walk the total distance along the river bank. It must also be noted that there are no waymarkers for the Waveney Way and I had to purchase a copy of the leaflet from the Norfolk Ramblers.

Blythburgh church was a delight to visit. I drive past this most days and have always wanted to stop off and search out the marks of Black Shuck on the door. I wasn't disappointed whatsoever here. The church is full of wonders including a priest hole up a very small circular staircase. I struggled to get up there but it was worth it.

The Crown, Westleton
The Crown, Westleton

Directions

The path follows the River Blyth through to Wenhaston where, due to erosion of the river defences, navigation is across fields to Blythburgh. Here it rejoins the river alongside the estuary and leads into Walberswick Nature Reserve. Once this trail reaches the road there is the choice of following the Sandlings Path through to Southwold, or taking the Sandlings Path in the opposite direction and with a mixture of Sandlings and other footpaths the route winds its way through Westleton, Eastbridge and finally Leiston

Halesworth to Blythburgh

Take the path through the park on Saxon Way, opposite the car park. The path will follow the river out into the countryside. When the track meets the railway, ignore the first path that goes under the railway and carry on following the signs for the East Suffolk Line Walks to the next bridge. This is a small tall arched bridge that is only as wide as the path. Keep to the river on the left across the first field until you reach a small footbridge across it. From here on keep following the river all the way through to Mells. Here the East Suffolk Line Walk departs up the road into Mells, but another path will continue on along the river bank all the way through to Blyford Bridge where you need to head into Wenhaston. After the initial few houses another path on the left leads across the fields to a little lane with houses on its left. This will lead back down to the river, however recent erosion of the defences will make it impassable so ignore these signs and continue up past Low Farm. The footpath is supposed to lead straight across the next field but you will find that you need to navigate along its bottom border. This leads onto a farm track to Laurel Farm. Keep to the footpath as it passes briefly into the marshes then across a field and up to the road. Turn left and follow the road through to the main A12. Turn left and after 20 yards a footpath on the left will lead through to Church Lane and onto the church. From the church take Priory Lane back down to the A12 and cross over to the White Hart pub. The path continues along the banks of the estuary. This can either be reached through the pub garden or by walking up to the river bridge on the road. Follow this path through to Walberswick Nature Reserve where it follows the course of the old Halesworth to Southwold railway track. Don't follow the footpaths marked on the OS map but keep to the nature reserve track. This will eventually lead out onto the Walberswick road.

Blythburgh to Southwold

Just past the building on the left of the Walberswick road is a footpath with a waymarker for the Sandlings. Follow this all the way to the river, over the bridge, then take the riverside track past the Harbour Inn and onto the point where the ferry operates. Here a footpath leads alongside the rear of campsite and up into Southwold.

Blythburgh to Leiston

Just before you reach the buildings on the left cross the road and follow the track with the Sandlings waymarker which points virtually back the way you came. This leads up to the Sallow Walks Covert and follows these through to a road. Turn right on the road and follow this all the way through. It turns into a sandy track that is quite potholed and liable to large puddles in wet weather. This comes out at Five Finger Post junction on the Westleton to Blythburgh road. Cross the road and follow the road round to the left. Keep on this until the road bears round to the right at Poplar Farm. Here a footpath leads straight ahead. Take this and keep following in a straight line over a road and where the path bears round to the left, there is another path on the right that leads down the edge of the field and into Westleton. Just before the Crown pub a lane leads off on the left. Take this and keep on the road until it meets two footpath signs on the right. Follow the sign which leads straight on. This little footpath leads across heathland and down into the woods eventually joining a track and coming out on the Eastbridge road. Continue straight on and up into Eastbridge. Half a mile past Eastbridge take the track on the left with a Sandlings waymarker. Keep to this until it meets the Sizewell road. Continue straight ahead and down into the dip where a footpath on the right leads down into Leiston.

The Cathedral of the Marshes at Blythburgh
The Cathedral of the Marshes at Blythburgh

Pubs

The White Hart, Blythburgh View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Address
The White Hart, Blythburgh
Website

The White Hart was originally built as an ecclesiastical court house in the 13th century but has been an inn for many centuries. Inside there are fine examples of ancient beams and woodwork and also a large inglenook fireplace. Outside is a large garden overlooking the estuary. It has a ghostly past with an old man in monks habit being witnessed as well as mysterious knocking sounds on an old oak door which leads from the bar to the living quarters. In 1967 a fire damaged the pub and ever since these ghostly occurrences have not been heard or seen. This is currently an Adnams establishment offering three Adnams ales.

Review

A pint of Adnams Southwold Bitter. This was rather expensive but with a garden with extensive views across the Blyth estuary it makes an idyllic place to have a drink.

The Crown, Westleton View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Address
The Crown, Westleton
Website

A Coaching Inn that dates back to the 12th century. Offering food and accommodation and guest ales from local breweries. It has dining areas and terraced gardens at the rear.

Review

The Westleton Crown didn't disappoint with its guest beer - this time I sampled a pint of Green Jacks Excelsior which was very refreshing and well worth waiting the 20 minutes or so to get served because there was some rather upper class talking gent ordering a colossal amount of drinks for what I presumed was a birthday event. I caught a remark from one of the ladies with him who said, and I quote, 'Hangovers always remind me of the cleaner as I used to have to get a cleaner in each weekend because I was too hungover!'

Priory Lane, Blythburgh
Priory Lane, Blythburgh

Features

BlythburghView in OS Map | View in Google Map

Blythburgh is said to date from Anglo-Saxon times and with the coming of Christianity in the seventh century grew to become an important centre of authority in the region. This lasted until The Black Death reached the town during the 12th century when the population was virtually wiped out. Since these times the village had much less significance in the locality. In 1785 a new turnpike road was carved through the heart of the village and in 1879 the Southwold Railway opened a station at Blythburgh and a hump-back bridge was built to carry the main road over the tracks. Today the village is renowned for the huge area of flooded marshes which lead to the estuary of the River Blyth.

References

Blythburgh ChurchView in OS Map | View in Google Map

The Cathedral of the Marshes, as the Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh is better known, can be seen for miles around and stands out as a floodlit icon in the night sky. A church at Blythburgh can be dated back to AD654 and according to tradition the bodies of Anglian King Anna and his son Jurmin were brought here after they fell at the Battle of Bulcamp on the Blyth estuary. The present church can be dated to 1412 when the Prior was granted a licence to rebuild. The decline in the church started with the reformation in the 16th century with the removal of altars and images, the whitening of walls and smashing of the stained glass. This lack of stained glass in the windows is still seen today. By the 17th Century the church was near to collapse and would have ended up as a ruin had it not been for a national campaign in the 1880s to restore and reopen it.

Black Shuck

It is said that during a powerful storm on 4 August 1577 Black Shuck, the East Anglian devil dog, burst in through the church doors and ran up the nave, past a large congregation. During the ensuing confusion the feared dog killed a man and boy and caused the church tower to collapse through the roof. As the dog left the building, he left scorch marks on the door which can still be seen on the church's north door to this day. On that very same day Black Shuck also appeared at St Mary's church in Bungay and reaped similar havoc.

The Tale of Black TobyView in OS Map | View in Google Map

The story of Black Toby is one that is often told to visitors of the Suffolk village of Blythburgh that sits by the Blyth estuary. The tale has been repeated in numerous books, articles and websites in much the same words as described below.

Black Toby was the nickname of a tall muscular Negro who was a drummer boy in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of the Dragoons. During the mid 1700's The Regiment was stationed at Blythburgh to counteract the endemic smuggling of the area. The Dragoons were not welcomed by the locals, who no doubt had connections with the smuggling trade. Conversely the Dragoons, an ill-disciplined band of troops disliked being stationed in the wilds of Suffolk and consequently there was a lot of hostility between the locals and the Dragoons. Toby, whose real name was Tobias Gill, was said to be a pleasant soul until he drank when he would end up in fights and brawls.

It was one night in June 1750 that the lifeless body of a local girl named Anne Blakemore was discovered on the walks just outside of Blythburgh. It did not take much convincing for the locals to come to the conclusion that it must have been Black Toby who had committed the murderous deed. He was known to not handle his drink and further more he was a member of the hated Dragoons. So it was that Black Toby was tracked down and sent to Ipswich Prison. On August 25th 1750, despite pleadings of innocence, Tobias Gill was found guilty of murder of Anne Blakemore at the trial at Bury Assizes and was sentenced to be hanged.

On 14th September Black Toby, still pleading his innocence was dragged to the gallows on the walks where the murder was alleged to have taken place. There he pleaded to be allowed to be tied and dragged to the London Mail coach rather than face the gibbet. His pleas were refused and he was hanged in chains at the four cross ways and his body left to swing from the gibbet for months afterwards. The gibbet remained in place for 50 years after his death, eventually decaying into pieces, some of which were used to make a thatching comb by a local thatcher.

It was only later that the murderous deed was questioned. The fact that there were no marks on Ann Blakemores body and very little evidence that a murder had taken place at all let alone the fact that Black Toby had any implication all points to the drummer boys innocence.

Since that fateful day stories of the ghostly sightings of Black Toby wandering about the walks and the churchyard have pervaded through the centuries. There are also stories of a headless driver of a phantom black coach drawn by four headless black horses around this area.

Another ghostly sighting in the area is that of Ann Blakemore. She is reputed to appear each June 24th at Five Finger Post, the crossroads in the dip between Blythburgh and Westleton. She wears a blue dress and dashes out in front of passing cars causing drivers to believe they have hit someone.

But how true is this tale? The key character, Toby Gill and the murder of Ann Blakemore are all facts which were recorded by the press of the day. The murder was recorded in the June 30th 1750 edition of the Ipswich Journal:

Tobias Gill, a black, one of the drummers in Sir Robert Rich's Regiment was committed to Ipswich gaol, the coroners enquiry having found him guilty of the murder of Ann Blakemore of Walberswick.

Later, the actual sentence was recorded in the August 25th, 1750 edition of the same publication

At Bury Assizes, Toby Gil, one of Sir Robert Rich’s drummers received the death sentence for the murder of Ann Blakemore of Walberswick, next Monday is appointed for his execution which will probably be in Ipswich and he is to be hanged in chains near the place where he committed the murder.

Now this report is interesting because many of the iterations of this tale have Toby being hanged to death in chains. This report clearly states that he was most likely to be executed at Ipswich before his body was returned to Blythburgh for the practice of gibbeting, otherwise known as hanging in chains. There is a common misnomer about hanging in chains, where it is assumed the condemned meet their death on such an apparatus. This was very rarely the case. Death was usually carried out on the gallows where the accused were hung until dead. Afterwards the body was mounted in chains and hanged on a gibbet to act as a warning to others against such heinous crimes. This is clearly stated the 19th century book Hanging in Chains by Albert Hartshorne, where numerous cases of hangings followed by gibbeting are used as examples of this practice.

However, in most accounts of the story, there is always the description of how Toby, at Blythburgh, pleads for mercy and offers to be tied to the mail coach rather than being hanged. If he had been hanged at Ipswich then he was already dead by the time he reached Blythburgh so then how could this be true. In 1808 Gentleman's Magazine, there is a short excerpt by a D Davies which states

On the walks near this town Toby Gill, a black drummer belonging to Sir Robert Rich's regiment, was executed for the murder of Ann Blakemore, for which he was tried at the Bury Assizes in August, 1750

This assumes his execution was at Blythburgh. The newspaper report only speculated the execution would be at Ipswich so could we speculate that Toby was brought back to Blythburgh alive, where he was executed on the gallows on the walks and then subsequently hung in chains. This could well be where the confusion of the story has been made

The location of the Gibbet and/or Gallows varies as to the account one reads. Some report it being at the Four cross Ways which is where the present day water tower is situated. A more likely position is by the entrance to the present day heathland known as Toby's walks. On old maps this is the location of Tobys Barn which no longer exists but which some accounts of the story state that his ghost was encountered. A third possible location is the Five Finger Post Crossroads which is on the parish boundary between Blythburgh and Westleton and is the reputed location of the haunting of Ann Blakemores ghost.

In fact the reference to the walks could be any number of areas, with Lumphall Walks, Newdelight Walks also both being in the parish although one would surmise that the area that has taken the moniker of Tobys Walks to be the logical choice. It is also worth noting that the present day site of Toby's Walks is just a small section of the heathland that once existed and the majority of the heath was on the opposite side of what is now the A12 trunk road. This can be seen on the early Ordnance Survey maps where the heath covered the triangle of ground that is bordered by the A12 and the Wenhaston Road and the name of Tobys Walks clearly being declared on the Wenhaston side of the road. There is also a confluence of tracks at the junction where the heath meets the Walberswick road and this could be another possible location of the gibbet.

The ghost stories that have emerged after this event could be attributed to smugglers tales. The regiment that Toby Gill was part of were stationed at Blythburgh to counter the abundant smuggling operations that were a constant activity in the area. Such ghostly tales were said to have been invented by the smugglers to keep prying eyes away from the smuggling activities. This idea has been put about in many articles and publications as well as the explanation by numerous locals who don't believe in that superstitious 'that mumbo jumbo'.

There are alternative views and speculations such as those contained in Chris Halton's youtube video The Hanging of Toby Gill which was published on 30th April 2016 and is dedicated to the ghostly side of the story. Firstly, Chris points out that the term 'Black Toby' may not refer to the persons colour and may have been a demarcation of his lewd behaviour. Such a conjecture has to be questioned as the newspapers of the day such as the Ipswich Journal were reporting him to be a black which would indicate this to be ethnicity rather than a behavioural description. Indeed, the documentary actually quotes a similar extract from the Derby Mercury.

A second supposition is the location of the hanging which the video alleges to have taken place at the crossroads with the Walberswick road, indicating that the grassy knoll, which still exists today, is the location of the gibbet. There are a couple of points to note here, firstly he refers to this as the execution site which is discussed previously in this feature in the use of gibbets and secondly he refers to this as Five Finger Crossroads. However this crossroads is not known as such, Five Finger Post crossroads is the junction further down the road towards Westleton where five roads meet, namely the Westleton, Blythburgh, Hinton, Dunwich and the Walberswick roads. Today the Walbersick route is but a muddy track inaccessible to all but farm traffic and there is now only a four finger post. This junction is the meeting of the parish boundaries so may be more in keeping with the placement of a gibbet and is the reputed location that Ann Blakemores ghost has been seen.

Lastly the documentary alleges that the hanging may have been a way to placate the locals and regain their trust. The Regiment had been placed at Blythburgh to counteract the proliferation of smuggling in the area. There certainly appears to have been a lot of animosity between the troops and the locals from the various accounts of smuggling that have been published from the time. Virtually everyone was involved in the trade from the local farmers, the innkeepers and even the clergy as there was a general ill feeling from the public at large to the punitive taxation on such things as tea, beer and spirits and even common essentials as salt, leather, and soap. The smuggling was therefore legitimized in the eyes of the common man who see is as a means of survival in times when starvation was never too far away. Therefore I don't think there was any trust to start with, and the general feeling towards the troops would have been that of resentment to their presence. Having said this, the locals animosity may have provoked the military to take action to appease them for an alleged murder of one of their own.

Despite these criticisms, the video is worth watching and in truth we may never know the real story, the locations and what actually happened concerning Toby Gill.

References

Westwood Lodge, BlythburghView in OS Map | View in Google Map

On Lodge Road, which leads from Walberswick around the edge of the marshes and through to Five Finger Post junction on the Westleton road, just as the tarmac road surface comes to an end there is a 40 room mansion on the right. Although the present building dates from the 16th century, a manor has stood here since at least the 14th century and was the home to the Lords of Westwood. The mansion once sat in 240 acres of parkland but this has long since been turned to farmland. In 1391 the Manor of Westwood belonged to Micheal de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk before passing to the Hopton family in 1465. In 1592 it was sold to Alderman Robert Brooke from Aspell and remained in the family until John Brooke inherited it.

John Brooke was a wild and troublesome man who earned himself the nickname of The Great Troubler due to his constant interference in local affairs which included enclosing the common land and his harsh treatment of his servants and those who were in his employ. He had a wilful impatience for which neither man nor beast, including his own horse was spared. His manner was harsh, and his decisions were beyond question. So it was on a normal day in 1652 that John Brooke was due to set off to Blythburgh to pass judgment on some poor unfortunates in the court that day. As he prepared to leave he had a sudden onset of sharp pain but stubbornly refused assistance stating that he would go to Blythburgh or die. He never made it to Blythburgh and passed away aged just 26. His widow married Sir William Blois and the property remained in the possession of the Blois family up until modern times. It is currently the premises of Suffolk Reclamation, a reclaimed building materials company.

It is said that the building is haunted with tales going back to at least the early 19th century with reports of the ghost of John Brooke riding his horse up and down the corridors. The hauntings became so terrifying that the inner room to the master bedroom, from where these hauntings were said to emanate, was bricked up. In 1865, during alterations to the building, the bricked up room was opened up and it was reputed to contain just two objects, a saddle and a whip, and despite the dust and cobwebs throughout the room these objects were in pristine condition. The saddle and whip were ceremoniously burned and it is said that the hauntings ceased from that time on.

However, there has also been many more recent reports of a ghostly lady in a silk dress appearing both in the house, in the grounds and on the track outside. In the 1960's the farmer who then resided in the house and the gardener both testified to witnessing the ghostly form. In the 1970's a group of policeman conducted an investigation of the house and managed to tape record the sound of thuds with no logical source to the sounds. Other encounters are said to continue.

White hart, Blythburgh
White hart, Blythburgh

Links and Bibliography:

Images

Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on any image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Click on an image below to view the Image Gallery

Maps

Below is the route depicted on the OpenStreetMap, Ordnance Survey Map and Google Map. Links to full page versions are found in the Essential Information

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: ... 2016-05-21

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