Thursday, 19 September 2013

Binham Priory Tunnel

In August we visited Binham Priory in Norfolk, a former Benedictine house established in the twelfth century - after the Dissolution the nave was used as a parish church -it's a beautiful place.  The west front has one of the earliest traceried windows in England.

It's also interesting from a folkloric point of view.  In 1898 a contributor wrote to Norfolk and Norwich Notes & Queries:  'It is believed that an underground passage leads from Walsingham to the church at Binham, where the natives still point out the spot where the entrance is said to be.  The story has it that many years ago a fiddler volunteered to walk through this passage from the Binham end, and to play his instrument all the way.  He began his journey alone...but was followed above ground by a number of people, who could hear the sound of his violin below.  All appeared to go well till about half the journey was accomplished, when the music suddenly stopped, and the man was never seen again.  The spot where the subterranean harmony ceased is still called "Fiddler's Hill"'.

An earlier story from 1892 names the fiddler as Jimmy Griggs and he's accompanied on his subterranean explorations by his dog Trap.  The line of the tunnel could be seen on the surface as a green bank.  It was said that at night 'a grate tall feller, like an old monk and dressed in black' [a Dominican monk] walked along this bank from Walsingham to Binham shaking his head and appearing to look for something.  In this version the dog runs trembling from the tunnel without his master who was said to have been taken by the Black Monk.

We couldn't see any signs of a tunnel at Binham but at the point where the fiddler's music stopped there is a large round barrow known as 'Fiddler's Hill'.  During road works in 1933 the mound was cut into and workmen uncovered human bones and those of a small animal.  The fiddler and his dog?  Despite the fact that there were two human skeletons, one of a girl, the animal skull was thought to be a dog's, so it's understandable that many wanted to believe that the legend was true.  Archaeologists thought that the burial was Saxon.  The mound still stands at a crossroads which would have increased local lore about it.  As Westwood and Simpson state in Lore of the Land (from which much of this information comes) 'Burial mounds in folklore are associated with a cluster of themes, particularly one categorized by folklorists as 'Path from grave to lower world.'  Detailed archaeological information about the barrow can he found here.

The early versions of the story have the tunnel running between Binham and Walsingham (where we were staying on holiday) but the information board at the mound claims that it ran from Binham to Blakeney.  A legend at Blakeney tells of a tunnel from the Guildhall to the Carmelite monastery and a later one that it finished at Wiveton -  there is also a story of a blind fiddler entering the tunnel but failing to reach the other end.  All photos by me.

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