Cambridgeshire is full of mysterious folklore legends. CHRISTINE MILLER tells us of five of the best.
The Lantern Men
First on the list of Cambridgeshire folklore are the mysterious lights that happen to frequent the Wicken Fen which are very similar in nature to the spooky tales of the Will-o’-the-wisp.
Many witnesses who have seen the Lantern Men claim they manifest as eerie, unsettling, dancing orbs of light that flit through the county scouring for victims, attempting to lure them to a cold, watery death.
Don’t dare whistle on your evening jaunt around the Fens, whatever you do, as they are said to be particularly attracted to the sound. However, if you do find the ominous, dreaded lights approaching you, locals will tell you that the best course of action is to lie down flat, with your lips touching the ground, and definitely don’t look up.
That should see them off.
A Toadman, according to Cambridgeshire legend, was usually a ploughman who would make a nefarious pact with the Devil in order to exert control over his horses.
A complicated ritual involving, you guessed it – toads, would be enacted, and once complete the now fully-fledged Toadman was able to yield unlimited psychic control over any horse: a talent that would have had quite the appeal in 19th-century Cambridgeshire. Being a ploughman that was able to turn an unruly horse into a tame one telepathically could be rather good for business.
In his poem, Sam Appleby, Horseman, John Reibetanz describes the ritual ceremony that a ploughman would have to undergo in order to gain his unholy powers:-
“I hung the limp toad up to dry
Overnight on a blackthorn tree, like Shecky said,
Then stuffed it in an anthill for a month,
And by the full moon’s light pulled out a chain
Of bones, picked clean.
Then came the tricky part.
You carry the skeleton to a running stream
To ride the moonlit water, but you dare not
Take your eyes off it till a certain bone
Rises and floats uphill against the current;
Then grab this bone – a little crotch bone it is,
Shaped like a horse’s hoof – and take it home,
Bake it and break it up into a powder:
The power’s in the powder.”
The Black Shuck
The Black Shuck is the name given to a ghostly shaggy, snarling, black dog with large, menacing red eyes that wanders throughout East Anglia, including the Cambridgeshire Fens – and has done for centuries – but it is allegedly particularly active on the A10 between Cambridge and Ely.
It is said to be a harbinger of doom; if you are unfortunate enough to come face-to-face with its menacing stare, tragedy will befall you, so says the legend.
You can read about the Black Shuck in more detail here.
Although mostly spotted in Suffolk, the creepy Shug Monkey is said to also stalk the roads close to the village of West Wratting in Cambridgeshire, in particular Slough Hill Lane.
It is generally said to have the face of a snarling monkey with protruding eyes and the body of a sheepdog, although some accounts differ on its physical attributes.
Some have even suggested that it’s more bear-like in form, while a man in the 1950s who witnessed the beast but thankfully lived to tell the tale, recounted that the thing was at least ten feet long.
And on another occasion, a startled onlooker discovered that the being had a massive wingspan which it used to fly away into the Cambridgeshire night sky.
It’s been compared to the Black Shuck in that it may bring about misfortune to those that come into contact with it.
Just what that misfortune could be, however, is not known.
The story goes that young Tom Hickathrift was just like any other boy his age, that is, until he began to grow at an exponential rate.
It got to the point where he was a giant, literally, compared to his friends. His rather unique stature served him well, however, as legend tells that he was able to swiftly dispatch “The Smeeth”, a particularly loathsome and unpopular ogre in the area.
As the years progressed and Tom advanced in years, there was much discussion about where the famous local hero should be buried. Tom decided to throw a gargantuan boulder to settle the matter – where it landed is where he would lay for eternity.
The boulder hit All Saints Church in the little village of Tilney, and this is indeed where Tom was buried.
You can visit his grave to this very day.