An easy and captivating walk along Norfolks River Bure
Not only does this walk provide some classic Norfolk scenery and historic features but it also traces the route said to be taken by the phantom carriage of Sir Thomas Boleyn in his annual act of penance for betraying his daughter Anne when she was sentenced to be executed. The walk is then made into a circular route by returning via the Bure Valley Path alongside the narrow gauge Bure Valley railway.
Coltishall to Buxton Walk - Essential Information
- Start point
- ColtishallView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- End Point
- BuxtonView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Total Walk distance
- 16 miles
- Walk difficulty
- Riverside footpath, return along trackside footpath beside the Bure Valley Railway
- There are some riverside areas that are liable to flooding
- Date of Walk
- Walk Time
- 10:00 to 16:00
- Griffmonster, Kat
- Weather Conditions
- Bright sunny spring day
Spring time. The clocks change. The evenings start to be filled with a little enchanting light. A day with sunshine and blue skies gives a little promise that summer is not too far away. Such was the occasion for this walk. A weekend in Coltishall. Daffodils in bloom. Plans for a walk not totally solidified although such partially formed schemes present a sense of adventure.
This route was first discovered on the OS map. A right of way that followed the river Bure. There was little other information that could be gleaned from online sources so it was going to be a day of discovery. Waymarked trails are easy and simple and clearly defined and usually well kept by local councils, with both web and published literature available to advertise the route. Common footpaths, however, can be a challenge, especially in such times of austerity when councils have limited funds to maintain their upkeep, and landowners take advantage of the lack of maintenance by incorporating them into their land. It is not supposed to happen that way, but it does. Therefore, this endeavour was going to be an adventure. To see how far we could get. To keep going until it was insurpassable. In the end it proved to be a revelation. The path was clear, well defined and looked well used throughout. A well worth exploration and one that is encouraged for other walkers to follow.
The River Bure is one of the longest rivers on the broads, rising near Melton Constable and winding its way through Aylsham, Coltishall, Wroxham and Acle before merging with the Yare at Great Yarmouth. The present limit of navigation is Coltishall, which makes this walk free from the hoards of tourist cruisers that can fill the main river during the tourist season. Such a tranquil setting provides a perfect backdrop for the feast of historic features that are presented along the riverside. It would be too much to go into detail for each one, and indeed many of the features can only be viewed from across the river and not specifically explored. Therefore, the following is brief summary of what is encountered along the route to whet ones appetite.
Coltishall Bridge - There has been a crossing here for many centuries and although the present bridge dates from the 1920's, this replaced an earlier 19th century construction which itself replaced an even earlier stone bridge that dated from 1762.
Great Hautbois Castle - Just beyond Coltishall heading up river, on the right bank (or should I say the starboard side) is the site of Great Hautbois Castle, a 14th century fortification of which only ditches and foundations remain. Not much can be viewed from the riverside path other than the various ditches.
St Theobald church, Hautbois - The round tower of the 11th century St Theobald church can clearly be seen on the land that rises above the river towards Hautbois. At first sight it appears to be a normal parish church but look more closely and it is but a ruin with only the tower and chancel still standing. The church was left to decay in Victorian times when a new church was built closer to the village centre. According to An essay towards a topographical history of the county of Norfolk, Volume 3 (Francis Blomefield, 1769) the church was renowned for an image of St. Theobald, commonly called St. Tebbald of Hobbies, and was the destination for pilgrims who travelled many miles to witness the miracles that were said to take place here. The reference to 'Hobbies' is the pronunciation of this hamlet which is still in common usage today. So, all of you who harken from places and regions afar, whether you be pilgrims, wanderers or just a curious visitor, when you extol to all and sundry that you are off to partake in the glories and wonders of a tiny Norfolk hamlet of 'Hort-boy's', stop, think, and prepare you speech with proper tongue and state clearly and confidently that you are to visit 'Hobbies'.
Mayton Bridge - As described in the main feature of this walk, the phantom carriage conveying Sir Thomas Boleyn passes over the two Mayton Bridges. The bridge across the Bure is one of those bridges, and it is used by the river path to swap over to the Fretingham side of the river. Not far down the road towards Fretingham is the second bridge which now crosses a small backwater although some have postulated that this may have been the original course of the river. The second bridge dates from 1630 and it includes a small brick and tile alcove on each side. A local once related to me that these were the sentry boxes for the guards who collected tolls to cross the bridge many centuries ago when it was the main route from Norwich through to Cromer.
Little Hautbois Hall - Looking across the river now gives the view of the 16th century Little Hautbois Hall which is a fine example of a Tudor manor house. Today it is rented out for holiday accommodation or as a wedding venue. There is a bricked up window on one of the upper floors. A local tale states that this room was blocked up and sealed as the result of a violent poltergeist although I can find no further information about this story other what has been related by word of mouth.
Buxton Water Mill - This impressive structure originally dates from 1754 and was in working use right up until 1970 after which it was sold off to be converted into a restaurant and craft shops. The building was destroyed by fire in January 1991 but the owner pledged to restore it to its original condition and within two years the project was completed and the building is now used as a hotel and conference centre.
St Andrews church, Lammas - The name of Lammas is said to have been derived from La Mers, so called because the churchyard is washed by the River Bure which can certainly be appreciated from the footpath on the opposite bank. This church, with its square embattled tower, dates from the 12th century and was said to have been founded by a person named plainly as Osbern who was granted the area by Ralf de Belfago. The present building owes much to a 19th century restoration although there are still traces of its original angle-saxon origins.
Oxnead Hall - This fine building and its accompanying landscaped gardens date from the 17th century when it became the home of the Paston family. Although most of the hall was demolished in the 18th century there is still enough to cast ones eyes over. Just up the river is the Oxnead Mill and its associated canal and lock.
Burgh Mill - This mill with its decaying weatherboard walls was in use up until 1977 and was briefly restored in 1989 for a TV series 'Campion'. Unfortunately it looks in need of a lot of care and attention these days.
Beyond Burgh Mill is Burgh church on the opposite bank and this is where the walk leaves the river to return via the Bure Valley Path as there is no access further along the river bank. A track leads up to Brampton church and then roads through the village lead to Brampton station on the Bure Valley railway. This gives the option of either walking back along the Bure Valley path or catching a steam train on the narrow gauge railway. The advantage of walking is that one can come off route to find a pub at Buxton. Taking the train, one can only cast a longing peer up through the village in full knowledge that a pub desperate for your custom is being forsaken. A simple method around this dilemma, for those who are both walkers and steam train enthusiasts, is to walk to Buxton, take in the pub, and then continue from Buxton station on the train! Then everybody is happy. For details of fares and timetable have a look at The Bure Valley Railway website.
Thus far the walk has encountered several bridges, Coltishall, the two at Mayton, Buxton by the mill, Oxnead and just beyond Brampton is Burgh bridge. These seven bridges are ancient crossings and are supposedly the route, together with five others, that the ghostly apparition of Sir Thomas Boleyn takes in a carriage drawn by four phantom horses each year on the night of May 19th. This annual event serves as his penance for doing nothing to save his daughter Anne, Queen of England, from execution in the Tower of London. The other bridges include Wroxham, Aylsham and Blickling but the location of the further three are unknown. Some references suggest that Belaugh is another location but there is no conclusive evidence that a bridge ever existed at this tiny hamlet between Coltishall and Wroxham. The whereabouts of the other bridges is a complete mystery.
The Thomas Boleyn tale is one of Norfolks many historic ghost stories and is probably one of the better known legends. The day of this walk was not the 19th May and, as expected, not a ghost, a spook or a phantom was to be seen. A few dog walkers. A man in a boat. Plenty of wildlife but no ghosts. I guess the day light hours are not the most conducive time for ghost spotting. Later that day we had a chance meeting with a young couple from Buxton. They had alighted the train at Coltishall as we sat and watched the steam engine pass through the station. A little later we met again in The Red Lion in Coltishall and this time conversation ensued over a pint of beer. They related that after many years of promising, and planning to do but not doing, and putting it off until another day, they had finally taken the train from Brampton, where they lived, to the pub at Coltishall, with the intention of walking back later. What a fantastic way to get to the pub. By steam train.
Even though there was a little light left in the early evening, it was nonetheless fading by eight and it would most certainly by ndark by the time they reached home. But they had torches. They were well used to walking the route as it was where they took their dog. Winter walks in the dark by the river. They knew it well. They had no qualms about it. Maybe I should have brought up the subject of Sir Thomas Boleyn, an inquisitive question as to whether they had heard the tale, or indeed witnessed the event first hand. But then modern Norfolk folk dont believe in such claptrap and even if they did, I certainly did not want to scare them with ghostly tales on their dark walk home. It wasn't May 19th so they should be safe. The night would not disturb them.
A simple walk using quiet country lanes and footpaths to roughly follow the course of the River Ant
The walk starts at Coltishall bridge which connects the communities of Coltishall and Horstead. Take the path that leads down to the river on the Coltishall side of the bridge and follow the course of the river. Continue until Mayton bridge where the path navigates up to the road.Cross the bridge and continue on the opposite side of the river bank. The River eventually bends round and goes under the railway and on up to Buxton Mill. Take the path down the side of the Mill which leads back down to the river side. Keep to the path through to Oxnead Hall. Cross the road and continue along the river bank through to the footbridge to Burgh church. Follow the path that leads up to the bridge, away from the river and up into Brampton village. The path passes the church, then continues through the village and eventually meets a junction. Turn right and proceed down to the railway bridge. On the right is a path up to Brampton station.
Either take the train or walk along the Bure Valley Path alongside the railway track through to Buxton station. To visit the Black lion pub, follow the path from the station into a small housing estate and out onto the main road. Turn right and follow the road through the village, bearing off to the left at the junction, where the old Crown pub is located which is unfortunately no longer trading. Continue up the road until the junction and the Black Lion is located on the corner.
Return back through Buxton and there is access back to the Bure Valley Path by the bridge across the main road. Continue along the trackside path through to Coltishall station where one can either return into Coltishall or continue ahead to Belaugh Green. Belaugh Green is marked by a road crossing where this trail navigates back into Coltishall. Turn right onto the road and follow this down to the junction with the main Wroxham road. Cross over and follow the lane down to the river. Continue through to the green where both The Rising Sun and The Kings Head pubs are located. Continue up to the road and follow this into the village. The Red Lion pub is on the right hand side before the church.
The Black Lion, Buxton View in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Lion Road, Buxton
Originally a cottage, this unassuming brick building was converted into a pub in the early 19th century and included stabling for horses. Today it is a clean, friendly local that pool and sky tv and occasionally hosts live music. Opposite the pub is Dudwick Park which was the inspiration for Birtwick Park in the children's story of Black Beauty and who author Anna Sewell had family connections with the village. The pub serves two ales, Adnams and a guest.
An online comment to this pub states 'a local pub for local people'. This is certainly captures the essence of this edge of town hostelry, not that it discouraged passers by such as ourselves. Although this was late lunchtime with little trade and tv sport playing to no-one but the landlord, this convivial chap was soon to spark up friendly conversation with us. A choice of two ales with the Sharps Doombar providing a fine refreshment after a good walk. A true English pub in the old fashioned sense.
The Red Lion, Coltishall View in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Church Street, Coltishall
The 17th century pub in the centre of Coltishall. Food served and always at least five ales on offer with local Norfolk brewers being well represented.
The Red Lion is really the place to go for ale in Coltishall with a decent selection of guest and regular Norfolk ales. Friendly and welcoming and always a perfect place to rest ones weary legs. One instantly feels at home sitting at the bar and the staff are always ready to engage in conversation. On this occasion we had offerings from Woodfordes, Adnams and Humpty Dumpty. You cant beat Humpty Dumpty ales and this was worth a few pints for the days efforts.
The ghostly tale of Sir Thomas BoleynView in OS Map | View in Google Map
A story retold across countless websites and published in a myriad of books is that of the ghostly legend of Sir Thomas Boleyn, the father of Anne Boleyn who became Queen of England as one of Henry VIIIs wives. On 19th May 1536 Anne was executed at the tower of London on charges of adultery, including incest with her own brother George, Viscount of Rochford, who had been executed two days earlier. It is said that Sir Thomas was too afraid to petition the king on behalf of his children. For this failing, he is said to have to pay penance on the anniversary of his daughters death for 1000 years by undertaking a spectral journey across 12 bridges along the River Bure in a ghostly carriage drawn by four phantom horses.
In some accounts the story is embellished to include accompanying shrieking demons and headless horses that breath fire although no mention is ever made to how such creatures are able to breath with their heads missing. Other accounts have the host sitting in the carriage with his head removed from his body and clutched in his hands, with some saying that it is he who is breathing fire. There are also warnings to those who attempt to witness the event, that they may meet their own doom if they catch even a glimpse. Even the number of bridges varies depending upon which account is read, with 11, 12 and even 40 being quoted as the number that are said to be crossed.
With such a plethora of descriptions of this legend it would be useful to know the original source of the story. The earliest trace so far found is from a publication produced in 1850, titled Notes and Queries (Notes and Queries, Number 29, May 18, 1850") This was a periodical that was founded in 1849 and still survives to this day. Its subtitle at the time was 'A medium of inter-communication for literary men, artists, antiquaries, genealogists.etc. and it also included a 'mission statement' of "when found, make a note of it" which is attributed to Captain Cuttle, a retired hook-handed sea captain featured in Dickens' novel Dombey and Son. Notes and Queries appears to have been a Victorian equivalent of the modern day internet forum, allowing its correspondents to convey interesting notes and findings as well as offering response to others' notes and findings.
In the Number 29 edition, dated May 18, 1850 there is a note from a correspondent who signs himself of as E.S.T., which is thought to have been a Revd E.S.Taylor of Ormesby. In his note, which is published on page 468, he states:
Sir Thomas Boleyn's Spectre. Sir Thomas Boleyn, the father of the unfortunate Queen of Henry VIII., resided at Blickling, distant about fourteen miles from Norwich, and now the residence of the dowager Lady Suffield. The spectre of this gentleman is believed by the vulgar to be doomed, annually, on a certain night in the year, to drive, for a period of 1000 years, a coach drawn by four headless horses, over a circuit of twelve bridges in that vicinity. These are Aylsham, Burgh, Oxnead, Buxton, Coltishall, the two Meyton bridges, Wroxham, and four others whose names I do not recollect. Sir Thomas carries his head under his arm, and flames issue from his mouth. Few rustics are hardy enough to be found loitering on or near those bridges on that night; and my informant averred, that he was himself on one occasion hailed by this fiendish apparition, and asked to open a gate, but "he warn't sich a fool as to turn his head; and well a' didn't, for Sir Thomas passed him full gallop like:" and he heard a voice which told him that he (Sir Thomas) had no power to hurt such as turned a deaf ear to his requests, but that had he stopped he would have carried him off.
He continues to state that
This tradition I have repeatedly heard in this neighbourhood from aged persons when I was a child, but I never found but one person who had ever actually seen the phantom. Perhaps some of your correspondents can give some clue to this extraordinary sentence.
This certainly seems like first hand knowledge of the tale being related to the innocent ears of a child and would suggest that it had been passed down through the generations by word of mouth. Considering that his account is from 1850, it would suggest he picked the tale up as a child in the early 1800's, and bearing in mind that he described the story tellers as aged, it would firmly place the story back to the 18th century. No doubt the same story had been handed down from the previous generations.
It is curious that he notes that he has not encountered anyone to have seen the apparition although he had earlier related a tale of someone who had heard the event but dare not look. It is also interesting to note that he described the route as a circuit yet the bridges mentioned would be a linear route unless the phantom procession returned along the same route. It is also uncertain where the additional bridges were to make up the 12 unless the course went beyond Wroxham. In some more modern accounts there is mention of Belaugh bridge, although there is no record of such a bridge ever crossing the Bure at this little hamlet.
There is no immediate response to Revd Taylors note although 12 years later the subject does get a brief mention from a subscriber named as H D'Avener in which he states (3rd series, vol. i. p. 438 )
Bail Brigg, a very ancient name, and long the terror of the benighted peasants, who firmly believed it was one of the forty bridges Sir Thomas Balyn was compelled to cross to avoid the torments of the furies.
In a later account (3rd series, vol. ii. p. 53) the same author notes somewhat candidly:
Bais Brigg, crossing the rivulet called the Gar (a tributary stream to the river originally of the same name), which supplied the piscaries in the disparked grounds of the ancient residence of the noble but extinct family of Paston, was for ages avoided by the benighted peasants, few daring to enter the lone lane, but few indeed ventured to cross the "troubled" bridge.
A firm believer in this spectral visitation having occasion to cross the bridge in the nocturnal hours, took with him, as was his custom, a companion. The two, as they came near the scene of terror, perceived a glimmering light; as they approached it, it shone more glaringly forth on either side from beneath the arch, a place of no human habitation ; soon the very focus of the light was seen, and a gaunt figure was limb by limb developed, crawling over the parapet. They were amazed ; but their very senses reeled as the figure stalked along upon their path, and stood before them — the light was raised, and a piteous voice beseechingly exclaimed, — u Pray, sirs, as you came along did you see anything of my ducks
at which a second subscriber, who signs himself as the initials MF, adds
The reference to the phantom familiarised with Bais Brigg caused by a speech made by the noble Marquis of Lothian to the members of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, on one of their excursions, at his well-known mansion of Blickling. After showing his treasures, collected by himself and many previous generations of Hobarts and Harbords, with the relics of the Boleyns, he facetiously said " he had been told there was a ghost in his house, but that he could not show it to them."
The wanderings of the restless spirit of Sir Thomas Boleyn has been long a favourite topic with the neighbouring gossips; and his being compelled to cross forty bridges within a given space of time, has been the alleged penance he doomed to suffer to save himself from the more dreaded power of the " Evil One." This is the substance of a tale of many years, but should more be found deserving a record it shall be forwarded to your correspondent.
The River Gar is the old name for the River Yare and Bais Brigg is thought to be Bay Bridge at Brundall. This would mean that the route had proceeded down the Bure then back up the Yare and is probably why the figure of 40 bridges is quoted. However there is no indication as to where D'Avener has obtained his information from. M.F's account attests the stories being related by the Marquis of Lothian to the members of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society. Blickling Hall passed to the Marquis of Lothian in 1850 so this would appear to be a legitimate source.
Another reference in 1866 in the book titled Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft by Greaves Nall offers a speculation that the course may extend to Caister
Tradition states that the "Headless Horses" have been seen at Caister, A similar apparition is attached to Blickling Hail in the neighbourhood, once the seat of Sir Thomas Boleyn, father of the ill fated Anne Boleyn and her brother, Lord Rochford. The spectre carrying his head under his arm, may be seen once a year driving a coach with four headless horses, over a circuit of twelve bridges in that vicinity. As Sir Jeffry Boleyn, purchased Blickling Manor from Sir John Fastolfe, and complained of his bargain, it is possible his restless descendant occasionally extends his drive to Caister.
Another account from 1862 is recorded by Cuthbert Bede, the penname of Edward Bradley (25 March 1827 – 12 December 1889), who was an English clergyman and novelist who published an account in his book The Curate of Cranston on page 229. This account is actually taken from another publication to which he contributed the same story in 1854, namely The Illustrated London Magazine. The two accounts are exactly the same and read as follows:
The spectre of Sir Thomas Boleyn, (the father of Anne Boleyn, Queen of Henry the Fat,) is another carriage-and-four ghost, but one who deserves a paragraph all to himself, for he takes his rides in a singularly unique manner. He is not content with his headless coachman and horses, nor is he satisfied with simply detatching his head from his shoulders, but he revisits society, carrying his head under his arm, as though he were St. Denis himself, and as though his head was a crush gibus hat, which he puts under his arm for convenience' sake. As regards this head, however, thereby hangs a tale. As it lies snugly under his arm, flames of fire issue from its mouth, and the spectator is horror-stricken at the sight. Sir Thomas resided at Blickling, near Norwich ; and he is condemned to travel thus, with his flaming head underneath his arm, in his carriage drawn by four headless horses, and driven by a headless coachman, for the term of one thousand years. Alas, poor ghost ! Indeed, Sir Thomas is altogether an out-of-the-way ghost, and has to take a longer drive than the ordinary carriage-and-four ghosts; for twelve bridges, in the vicinity of his former home, have to be passed over by him, ere he can find rest for another twelvemonth. It is but " only once a year " that he takes his ride, but that once is quite enough to last him for the twelve-month. I wonder what carriage-duty he pays. Perhaps he has compounded!
He does not relate how he had came by the story. It is included in The Illustrated London under a general section of Superstitions and within the Curate of Cranston in a chapter on 'Carriage of four ghosts'. He certainly wasn't local to the area as he was born in Kidderminster although he did have a curacy at Glatton-with-Holme, Huntingdonshire between 1850 and 1854 and it was at this point of time that he contributed to the The Illustrated London Magazine. The story is pretty much a candid version of Revd E S Taylors account and may have been taken from the original Notes and Queries and embellished.
Quite why such a ghostly story should arise is unclear. Thomas Boleyn certainly did occupy Blicking Hall but he had moved to Hever in Kent around the time of the birth of Anne and had no associations with the area at the time of his death in 1539. Some historians even state that Annes birthplace was not at Blickling so it is unclear why such ghostly manifestations should be associated with the area. There are many ghost stories pertaining to the broads, a notable collection being produced in Charles Sampsons book, Ghosts of the Broads, in 1931. Much of these, which he attested to being picked up from locals during his excursions to the Broads, are historically incorrect, as detailed by an appraisal of his work by M W Burgess in The Lantern journal from 1982. It is curious that this particular ghost story is omitted from the collection.
As shown from the extracts contained in this feature, the tale was certainly being circulated in the mid 19th century both in published accounts and by word of mouth. It's origins are no doubt a lot older and maybe there was an old tradition of story telling in the region that was passed down through the ages with additions and embellishments being added by each generation. It could be that the differences in the tales are just the metamorphosing of the tale through different communities across Norfolk. With the introduction of the railways during the 19th century there must have been a consequential increase in visitors to the area. No doubt such ghost stories and spooky tales were readily plied to gullible outsiders visiting the area. Stories that were no doubt traded in darkened hours in the inns and hostelries of the Broads. Such story telling still exists and occasionally one will hear a Norfolk tale being related that has not been recorded in published form. I have heard examples myself. Having said this, when I attempted to find out about another ghostly Broads story concerning a Wherry, the response was, in no uncertain terms, 'Broadsmen don't believe is such things'. Maybe one has to right for the right time, the right occasion, the right moment, for such a story to rise into conversation naturally.
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: ... 2016-01-15