The county of Norfolk, England, is home of the world’s greatest concentration of medieval churches, with over 650 scattered in the area.
Drive to any place in the county, and you are guaranteed to find at least one such church.
Try to imagine Norwich, its main city, that has enough for worshippers to visit a different one each week for a whole year!
However, since some of these date from at least half a millennia ago, some have not survived as well as others.
In the woods of East Somerton barely stands one such church: it is St Mary’s church, with its glassless windows, decaying walls, and a tower in which one can look up into the open sky, in short, the definition of a charming romantic ruin.
The ivy-clad ruin is one of Norfolk’s best-kept secrets, tucked away in the tiny village of East Somerton between the shallow waters of Martham Broad and the coastal town of Winterton-on-Sea.
Dating from the 15th-century, originally St. Mary’s was in its own individual parish. Over time, this was consumed by the nearby, larger parishes of West Somerton and Winterton and, after this, it was used as a chapel for the residents of Burnley Hall until 17th century, when it fell into disuse.
Since then, the church has remained abandoned, with forest that seem devouring its stones one by one. Only the 13th-century tower and the 15th-century nave remain, while the chancel is completely missing.
Enter the building through the cathedral-like arch, once the doorway to the church.
However, its most striking feature is a tree located in the center of the ruins locally known as “The Witch’s Finger”. Looking at it, it’s not hard to see why: It’s straight and has few branches, and with a bit of imagination it could easily be a giant finger pointing out of the earth. But according to legend, the oak tree isn’t a finger at all. Instead, it’s a leg.
Well, probably sometime ago, a squirrel must have darted in to bury an acorn in the ruined nave and, as a result, today a large oak towers up within the centre of the building.
However, local legend disputes the discarded acorn theory and it seems this thin oak tree is actually the work of a local witch: as story goes, during the height of England’s witch trials, a suspected witch was buried alive in the church by the angry villagers of East Somerton.
The buried witch, in her suffering, is said to have enchanted her wooden leg to sprout a tree that would destroy the church above. The legend goes on to say that if anybody were to walk around the tree three times, the witch’s spirit would be released.
However, it’s also believed that ghostly monks haunt the church and keep intruders from releasing her spirit….
Author’s notes: the church is part of the signposted circular walk from nearby Winterton-on-Sea. The dunes at Winterton are of international importance as the gradual weathering of mollusc shells has given rise to an alkali soil that is home to flora and fauna normally only found on chalk downs.
During the late-autumn and winter months, it is not unusual to see some of Norfolk’s Atlantic grey seals nursing their pups among the dunes.