I’ve mentioned before the superstitions that persisted when I was growing up. Getting home from a pub or party might mean a longish walk along unlit moorland lanes. A few tins of Slalom lager, a full moon on a windy night and you might actually start believing that the shadows of clouds darting around on drystone walls were actually the Barguest. That was our name for it. You might know it as Skriker, Trash, Padfoot, Galleytrot, Gyrtrash, Mauthe or one of a dozen other names. Every part of this country (apart from Rutland – presumably too small to bother with) has its own legendary Black Dog. Usually described as being the size of a calf with eyes glowing like embers, a sighting typically means death within a year for the unfortunate witness. These beasts have been haunting the UK since before written history, and people are still seeing them. In Suffolk they’re known as Black Shuck.
This is Blythburgh church. It’s not far from Southwold, which we visited in may. Those magnificent angels are peppered with gunshot wounds, often attributed to iconoclastic troops billeted in the nave during the civil war, It’s more likely to have been over-enthusiastic 18th century attempts at controlling jackdaws. But that’s not why we were there. We were looking for the evidence of Black Shuck’s infamous rampage, which kicked off dramatically seven miles away at St Mary’s church Bungay, on the 4th of August 1577:
“… there fell from Heaven an exceeding great and terrible tempeste sodein and violent, between nine of the clock in the morning, and tenne of the day aforesaid.
“This tempest took beginning with a rain, which fel with a wonderful force, with no lesse violence than abundance which made the storme so muche the more extrem and terrible.
“This tempest was not simply of rain, but also of lightning, and thunder, the flashing of the one wherof was so rare and vehement, and the roaring noise of the other so forceable and violent, that it made not only people perplexed in minde and at their wits end, but ministered such strange and unaccustomed cause of feare to be conceived, that dumb creatures with ye horrour of that which fortuned, were exceedingly disquieted, and senselesse things void of all life and feeling shook and trembled.
“Therr werr assembled at the same season, to hear divine service and common prayer, according to order, in the Parish Churche of the said towne of Bongay, the people thereabouts inhabiting, who were witnesses of the straungenesse, the carenesse, and sodenesse of the storme, consisting of raine violently falling, fearful flashes of lightning, and terrible cracks of thunder, which came with such unwonted force and power, that to the perceiving of the people, at the time and in the place above named, assembled, the Church did as it were quake and stagger, which struck into the harts of those that were present, such a sore and sodain feare, that they were in a manner robbed of their right wits.
“Immediately herrupon, there appeared in a most horrible similitude and likenesse to the congregation, then and there present, A Dog as they might discerne it, of a black colour; at the sight wherof, together with the fearful flashes of fire then were seene, moved such admiration in the minds of the assemblie, that they thought doomes day was alread’y come.
“This Black Dog, or the Divel in such a likenesse (God hee knoweth all who worketh all) running all along down the body of the Church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible forme and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling upon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, insomuche that even in a moment where they kneeled they stra’gely dyed…”
Shuck also wrecked the church clock, knocked the clerk off the roof – he was up there clearing gutters and landed unharmed – and touched another witness who also survived, albeit
horribly shrivelled “as it were a piece of lether scorched in a hot fire; or at the mouth of a purse or bag, drawen togither with a string”.
At about the same time, Shuck crashed through Blythburgh church killing two men and a boy, burned the hand of another person and made his escape ‘in a hideous and hellish likenes’ via the North Door, leaving these claw marks burnt into the wood.
A 21st century media ponce up from London might be expected to think that the ‘claw’ marks look like scorches from a candle flame, and ‘Shuck’ an attempt by rural folk to try and make sense of a ball lightning strike. But that would be a different 21st century media ponce to this blogger.
Exterior shot of church is via bobba_dwj/creative commons