An 7 mile circular walk connecting the Norfolk town of North Walsham with Bacton Woods
The Norfolk countryside holds a lot of hidden gems and this walk discovers a few. The route uses country lanes and footpaths to provide an easy circular ramble. The woods are worth the effort and hold a hidden secret of the location of a gibbet on which, during the late 18th century, William Suffolk's body was hanged in chains for his murderous deeds. The return route passes the iconic Ebridge Mill and then leads onto the Weavers Way for the final section back to North Walsham
North Walsham to Bacton Woods Car Park Walk - Essential Information
- Start point
- North WalshamView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- End Point
- Bacton Woods Car ParkView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Total Walk distance
- 7 miles
- Walk difficulty
- Country lanes, footpaths and woodland trails
- The road past Ebridge mill is particularly straight and although not busy vehicles do tend to speed along this section. Care must be taken when walking up to the footpath from the mill
- Date of Walk
- Walk Time
- 11:00 to 14:00
- Griffmonster, Kat
- Weather Conditions
- Warm summers day
A walk needs a purpose. It is no good to have an aimless wander with no particular intention. A walk needs a goal, even if it is merely a visit to a distant hostelry, to give a sense of purpose and reason. On this particular occasion, a visit to North Walsham had been planned, with the intention of addressing some business that needed to be concluded. That would take half an hour but the 60 mile journey necessitated something more than a mere half an hour of deliberation. A walk was called for. But where? A purpose was most definitely needed.
Perusing an OS map, together with a little web research soon found an area east of the town called Bacton Woods with the added attraction that it was the location of that infamous medieval instrument of justice known as a gibbet, and as such, evidently had a reputation of being haunted. What could be a better reason to tailor a walk to these little known areas off the beaten track. Being only 7 miles it would provide a suitable perambulation before having to return on the bus back into Norwich, and then onto Suffolk. Country lanes. Footpaths. Woodland trails. It sounded ideal and was out-of-the-way such that it was something of a Norfolk secret that the passing hoards rarely discovered.
The route starts as a ramble along the country lanes to the east of North Walsham. Little traffic uses these lanes and it makes for a pleasant stroll along Anchor Road towards a small hump back bridge that is the crossing point of the Dilham Canal. Just beyond the bridge is the Bacton Wood Mill which was restored by former Electrical engineer Laurie Ashton in 2013 (see Norfolk News article about this). As testified by many websites and information sources the Dilham canal is Norfolk's one and only canal and was constructed in 1825 to provide wherry access from the River Ant up to North Walsham. Another fact that is bandied about, is that this particular watermill was rebuilt in 1747, with evidence that a mill existed on the site since the times of the Domesday Book. This begs the question of how such a mill could be operational before the canal was constructed and a water course was created. This glaringly obvious question is ignored by most references. Could the 17th century builder have foreseen the canal being built? Maybe the canals plans had been in the pipeline many years before its construction? Even so, it is stretching the imagination that the probable Saxon inhabitants a thousand years ago could have had a suspicion a canal was to be built many centuries later. That would have been one huge gamble with little return. Or was it the fact that the canal was built purely to connect a series of land-bound water mills?
The 1854 publication of History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk by Francis White provides a suitable explanation for our curiosity. On page 538, under a section headed
Tunstead Hundred there is the following description.
[the River Ant] intersects and bounds this hundred during its whole course from Antingham to the [river] Bure, and was formerly navigable only as high as Dilham; but by deepening the channel and cutting a canal upwards of seven miles in length in 1825-6 at the cost of £32,000 the navigation was extended to North Walsham and the bounds of Antingham
This solves the mystery. The canal followed the course of the River Ant and the canalisation was merely a means of opening up the river to provide a navigable route. It is a stretch of the imagination to actually call this a canal when in reality it is no more than the river Ant that has been deepened and straightened. Three cheers to the Norfolk County River-wideners Association for they have fooled the masses ever since.
Feeling proud to have resolved the history and mysteries of the Dilham canal, we continue up the hill. On the right by the bend in the road, hidden in the undergrowth is a pillbox. One should stop, observe and take this sight in as it is a very rare example of a half-oval shaped World War One pillbox. For Pillbox spotters it is probably the highlight of the walk, but for the rest of us, we can at least pay our respects to this unfamiliar item of military architecture. If, like myself, one is rather ignorant of pillbox history, then you had better prepare yourself because this walk contains further examples of such defences from both WWI and WWII.
Bacton Woods is discovered by following a track on the right hand side of the road opposite the Richardsons Saw Mill. The path leads down to the north western edge of the forest and then one should take the first footpath on the left into the trees. This ancient forest is presently managed and maintained by The forestry commission and boasts a mix of 30 different species of trees, both native English and introduced, together with open spaces full of heather, broom and gorse and picnic areas plus a car park. The northern section was originally ancient broadleaf woodland which was replanted with conifer after WWII in an attempt to make the nation self sufficient in timber. The southern section is part of the old Witton Heath although the forest has covered most of this area for centuries. Within the woods are a bronze age burial mound, a pond and an ancient pot boiling site. A series of colour coded trails offer a variety of routes through the woods and for this particular walk, the route roughly follows the yellow and red markers but do not feel restricted and plan ones day accordingly. The walk described here navigates along the northern side of the wood to the car park then returns through the centre of the woods, past the pond and across the Witton Heath area.
As mentioned earlier the woods contain the site of the macabre gibbet on which executed criminals would be hung in chains as a warning to others against such crimes. Their bodies would be left there to rot until their remains were either taken down or fell to the ground. The gibbet has long gone, with its wooden post claimed to have been used in a the construction of houses at Knapton. The area is said to hold the foreboding of years gone by and has been the focus of various ghost hunts and vigils. The exact location of the gibbet is difficult to determine but is thought to be soon after one enters the wood, where the path proceeds into the more dense section of woodland and which is marked on Ordnance Survey maps as Gibbet Piece. The main feature to this walk discusses one known legend attached to the gibbet, that of William Suffolk whose body was hung on this artefact as a consequence of his murderous deeds.
We did stop at the location ascribed to the gibbet, to take in the air and as an opportunity to take some photos. The birds in the trees twitted unperturbed by the grisly tales of yesteryear. A crunch of dropping twigs broke the stillness of the day. There was no tense atmosphere, no lurking shadowy figures, no sense of a skeletal finger tapping ones shoulder. No mysterious cloaked figure showing up in the shadows on the photos. Nothing untoward at all. Maybe a night time visit would be more scary.
Leaving the woods from the southern edge, a footpath leads across a buttercup laden meadow down to Ebridge Mill which provides an ideal place to take a rest and admire the scenery. There is a simple wooden bench in front of the mill where the river, sorry canal, branches into two courses. The view ahead overlooks the bend in the river with Bacton Woods covering the eastern side. A magnificent piece of Norfolk scenery. A place to sit and ponder the day.
The five story former flour mill dominates the valley and although it looks redundant in the photos taken here, it is currently being converted into a trio of three-storey houses. Records show that a mill stood here since the 16th century when it was known as Swaffield Mill. Since then the mill has been known as Eastgate Mill, Walsham Mill and the present day Ebridge Mill. The mill was part of a family concern of Cubbitt and Walker Ltd from 1869 to 1998, after which it was sold to Duffields and subsequently closed.
The road past the mill, although not busy, is fairly straight and vehicles do tend to motor at a rate of knots so care must be taken whilst walking up the hill to where a footpath leads across the fields on the left. One can short-cut this route by continuing along the road directly into North Walsham, but I would advise not to do this on account of the nature of the road, plus one would miss out on some delightful scenery and walking and, for the budding enthusiast, more pillboxes.
There is one pillbox, dating from the first world war, at the start of the footpath. On the hill over looking the river valley there is a brick constructed WWII item. These defences would have protected the river crossing at Ebridge Mill to the east, and formed part of the line of defences established along the River Ant during both World Wars. As such, there are some excellent views across the Ant valley towards Honing church which can be seen neatly tucked in a gap between the trees on the opposite side of the valley. Also on that side of the valley was once a 15th century stone cross which marked a crossing of roads. The crossroads no longer exist although a footpath tracks the course of one of the former roads up from Ebridge mill and it is alongside this, resting in a hedgerow that a moss-covered stone fragment of the cross shaft is said to rest. Sadly this cannot be seen from the vantage point of the pillbox so this must be a walk for another day.
The footpath emerges onto the road at white horse common and then follows the Weavers Way back into North Walsham. The name of the common seems particularly interesting although little can be found on where it is derived from. There was a White Horse Inn which is still identifiable by a large white horse on a black background on the building which is now a private residence. Maybe this land was once all part of the inn. There are records (The post office directory of Cambridge, Norfolk and Suffolk By E. R. Kelly) that show White Horse Spa and Bluebell Commons were enclosed in 1830.
The last section of the walk follows the Weavers Way back into North Walsham. Before it heads across the fields into town, there are some magnificent views from the top of the hill overlooking White Horse Common.
A circular route through some typical Norfolk countryside
From North Walsham market place head eastwards, turning left into Church Street just before the road meets a junction. Turn right into Hall Lane. After 700 yards, as the road head towards a modern housing estate, take the left fork into Manor Road. Continue along this road for 500 yards and take the first left into Anchor Lane. Follow this country lane, passing over a hup back bridge by Bacton Wood Mill and then up the hill. Continue along this lane until there are woods on the left hand side. Keep ahead until a track and bridleway is encountered on the right, opposite Richardsons Saw Mill.
Follow the track and take the first footpath on the left (300 yards). Follow this path which deteriorates into a smaller path. Keep going straight ahead and eventually this leads onto a broad track that ends at the Bacton Woods car park. A trails map is found on an information board by the car park and one can tailor ones walk around the woods with respect to time available. The route used in this instance is that defined by the yellow markers which leads back through the centre of the woods, past the pond and onto the Witton Heath area. Where the trail junctions, turn left, and then keep bearing right to take a footpath down to a meadow overlooking the Dilham Canal. A footpath crosses the meadow to emerge opposite the Ebridge Mill.
Walk past the mill and up the hill where a footpath on the left leads across the fields overlooking the river valley. This emerges onto a road where, turning left, the route follows the Weavers Way trail back into North Walsham which is country lanes virtually all the way. At the first junction turn left onto Kirtlings Beck Road. At the end of this road turn right onto Holgate Road, then left onto the Happisburgh Road. This is a fairly busy road but there are pavements and there is only 200 yards until the trail leads off onto Field Lane on the left. Follow the road up and around a series of bends. A footpath on the right then leads into a North Walsham housing estate. Continue along the road through the estate and then right where it junctions with the main road.
Kings Arms Hotel, North Walsham View in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Kings Arms Street, North Walsham
An Inn has stood on this site since at least 1650 although the present building dates from 1750 after the original building was burnt down in the Great Fire of North Walsham. Among the hiistoric figures to have used the pub are Horatio Nelson whilst he was studying at the nearby Paston College, Gracie Fields and famous RAF ace Wing Commander Stanford Tuck. The present day inn is a busy town centre hostelry catering for the local townsfolk and including sports tv, regular live music, an extensive food menu and accommodation. There is always a guest ale available along with two standard ales.
I will make no bones about it, this is a typical town centre pub. Busy. The hub of activity and a lot of characters who probably prop the bar up every day of the week. Therefore one does tend to feel like a stranger when first entering the place and a lot of eyes turn to see who is entering their establishment. However the beer is always good and reasonably priced and it does appear to be the place to go when visiting the town.
Bacton Woods GibbetView in OS Map | View in Google Map
Search for any clues about the history of Bacton Woods Gibbet and the name of William Suffolk will no doubt be highlighted. The story has been recounted in several publications including a 2013 book entitled Paranormal Norfolk by Frank Meeres, a senior archivist and author from Norwich. This tells the story of William Suffolk's murderous deeds and includes what it terms as
his confession although it fails to cite specifically where this was found. There is a list of references at the end of the book but these are just generalized references of archive material from the Norfolk Records Office.
For the sake of this feature we will recount the story from resources printed around the time at which it unfolded and are publicly available on the internet. This specific account is taken from the Gentleman's Magazine of 1797, (Volume 81 page 342) which contains this short extract
March 21 , pursuant to his sentence, William Suffolk, aged 46, was executed on the Castle Hill, Norwich, for the wilful murder of Mary Beck, of North Walsham - An intimacy substituted between the prisoner and the deceased, which the brother disapproving desired Suffolk to discontinue his visits. Upon this, a violent dispute arose, in which Suffolk declared to the brother, that he should see a great alteration before night. Accordingly, meeting with the deceased unfortunately in the course of the day (Feb 3) on the common near North Walsham, Suffolk, he with a large stick attacked her, and repeated his blows till he left her for dead. In this state she was discovered, and had only strength to declare that Suffolk was the murderer, who, on being taken into custody, and soon after being informed by the constable that she was not then dead, declared, that, if he thought she could have stirred hand or foot, he would have beaten her till this time. His body is hung in chains near the spot where the murder was committed.
Although difficult to read, this passage appears to state that William Suffolk was having an affair with a lady by the name of Mary Beck whose brother disapproved of the relationship. Suffolk subsequently attempted to murder the lady but failed to do the job to full effect and was convicted by the words of his victim who was found by her brother. We could presume the
common near North Walsham referred to was most likely Witton Heath due to its close proximity to the location of the gibbet.
The Paranormal Norfolk account attests that Mary Beck was Suffolk's neighbour and she had had his child which they were both complicit in its murder soon after she gave birth. The confession, as contained in this book, relates that Mary Beck had tried to end the relationship and it was this that had provoked the attack, in which he
struck her with a cudgel and
repeated the blows three times and left her for dead before he
dragged her cross the horse-road, and left her head in the cart rut.
The confession also reveals that Suffolk was born in Swaffield, was married with four children and worked in husbandry which was the old term for farming either crops or animals. Also revealed is that his mother had died some time before but his aged father was still alive.
After conviction, his trial was conducted at Thetford Assizes as related on page 330 of The Monthly Magazine and British Register for 1797, Volume III. He was subsequently executed on Castle Hill in Norwich and then his body was hung in chains close to where the murder had taken place.
The next entry that can be found is 4 years later in Norfolk Annals A Chronological Record of Remarkable Events in the Nineteeth Century, Vol. 1, for the year 1801 where there is a brief mention for the date of May 18th which states:
The body of William Suffolk, who was executed in March, 1797, for the murder of Mary Beck, of North Walsham, was taken down by authority of the magistrates and interred on the spot where the gibbet was erected.
This was a full four years after the event. The fact that the body had survived in chains for that length of time may have due to it being tarred, to preserve it from the action of the weather. Such methods were employed in other documented cases of gibbeting such as described on page 126 of A foreign view of England in the reigns of George I and George II, a 1902 publication that translated the 18th century letters of Monsieur Cesar de Saussure to his family.
Like most sites that once held a Gibbet, it has gained a reputation for being haunted and is the focus of many ghost hunters. One particular account of an alleged spooky encounter was recorded in the Paranormal Norfolk book which it quotes as being related by Norfolk historian and ghost writer Neil Storey in the early 1980s. The story states that some children who were playing at the site of the gibbet discovered a skeleton on the grass nearby. They fled the scene to there parents, presumably close by in the woods. However when their parents returned to investigate there was no evidence of a skeleton.
Another reference comes from the Paranormal Norfolk blog which relates that dogs act strangely in the vicinity of the gibbet site, with one account posted by John Brownlie where he attests that his dog refused to enter the darker part of the wood. He also states that the gibbet's creaking can sometimes be heard on the breeze although it must be said that the many trees will also creak in a similar manner.
Links and Bibliography:
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: ... 2016-07-11