When you take a drive through the tranquil farmland and lush green countryside of rural Norfolk, you would find it hard to believe that this quiet county could possibly be haunted by monstrous spectres with flaming eyes and a hellish reputation. But you’d be wrong. Norfolk and its neighbouring counties of Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex are supposedly home to the notorious Black Shuck and a horde of other ghostly hounds. Spectral black dogs which roam the coastlines, forests, graveyards and byways of East Anglia, these ‘shucks’ have been documented on numerous occasions throughout the centuries and, depending on which one you encounter, bad luck will supposedly befall you soon after.
Of course the most famous is Black Shuck himself. An ancient legend, some say his name derives from the old Anglo Saxon word ‘scucca’, meaning demon, but others say he is an English version of the old Viking war hound Shukir. Wherever he came from, whatever he is, Black Shuck strikes terror into the hearts of many, even today, and no one can forget an encounter with this huge black hound. I should know – my own grandparents and my aunt witnessed the beast, many years ago, while driving home from a party. My grandmother spotted what she thought was a black calf standing in the hedge on the side of the road and pointed him out to her husband but when she looked back it had vanished. My aunt, however, who was then just a young girl, saw him for what he was – a massive black dog with huge glowing eyes. Even now she can still remember the abject terror she felt when she saw him, and the hairs stand up on the back of her neck.
Her fear was understandable. Supposedly, if you see Black Shuck, you will meet your death within a year. Obviously this isn’t always true, as my family survived to tell the tale, and others who have seen him throughout the years haven’t met such an unfortunate fate. But the fear of seeing him never fails to leave an indelible mark – and you never know when you might encounter him, as there have been sightings all over Norfolk, from Wisbech to Sheringham, Great Yarmouth and Cromer (he obviously prefers the coast).
There are many terrifying stories about this devil dog which have sprung up over the centuries. A boy was driven into the icy waves of the North Sea by a massive black dog; a huge evil hound killed members of a congregation in Blythburgh, Suffolk and made a similar terrifying appearance at a church in Bungay. Shuck is also said to roam the lanes of Blakeney as he journeys between Wells and Sheringham, and a woman thought she heard him one night in 1968 as she walked past Cley Hill late one night, on her way home to the village of the same name.
If the reports are anything to go by, however, Black Shuck is just one of a multitude of spectral hounds which roam the highways and byways of this county. A headless dog is supposed to haunt the area around Coltishall, another wanders along the cliff paths at Cromer – perhaps searching for his master, who drowned out at sea – while yet another ‘shuck’ stalked local man John Harries as he cycled from East Dereham towards RAF Swanton Morley in 1945. A much less imposing ghost dog is also rumoured to haunt Raynham Hall; a spectral spaniel, he is never seen but is heard and ‘felt’ wandering up and down the corridors of the stately home.
There is a well-known theory doing the rounds which suggests that many of these ghost dogs are the guardians of ‘ley lines’ – or ‘corpse ways’ as they are rather morbidly known – which are found in churchyards and barrows. Supposedly the spectral hounds guard these corpse ways, along which the spirits of the dead travel from graveyard to graveyard.
Of course, these spirit dogs are by no means confined to Norfolk. A black dog has haunted Newgate Prison for more than 400 years; the benign figure of the ‘Gurt Dog’ is said to guard playing children and people who travel alone through the county of Somerset; and Devon’s yeth hound is a headless spirit, supposedly of an unbaptized child, which haunts the county’s woodlands. There is also the notorious Barghest, a terrifying hound which stalks the inhabitants of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the black dog known as Hairy Jack has been sighted many times in Lincolnshire.
But Norfolk is where Black Shuck famously roams, and I can’t help feeling a twinge of strange pride at his legend, despite the whispers of death and danger that surround him. Maybe it’s just that as a devoted dog lover I find it impossible to think the worse of any dog – even if he is massive and black, with flaming eyes, and rumoured to be a hell hound…