Norfolk Superstitions

It’s nearly St Valentine’s Day – and while today we might dismiss it as a marketing gimmick, it has always been a very big thing in Norfolk. In Victorian times, people could spend as much money on February 14 as they did at Christmas. As well as buying sweets for their sweets, people would walk through their villages with bags of ‘love tokens’ to give away to others that they met on the way.   

And Norfolk children anticipated the date with as much eagerness as young lovers and sweethearts, because this was the day Jack Valentine paid a visit. He moved with stealth: creeping up to the door, knocking, and running away. The person who opened the door would see nothing except a present on the doorstep, usually sweets or a small toy,  left by the mysterious visitor.

It’s a custom which only seems to happen in Norfolk – and places where Norfolk folk have taken the legend of ‘Jack’ and passed it on. And families here still carry out the tradition today - so watch out for a knock at the door if you’re staying with us on February 14. Nobody ever saw ‘Jack’, but some say he was swarthy, wearing a large hat or cape which allowed him to disappear...Sometimes the present would have a string attached and would be yanked out of reach every time the recipient tried to grab it. This was often accompanied by the sound of giggling from behind a nearby hedge. Naughty old Jack.

In the 1800s, Norfolk children would also set out before dawn on St Valentine’s Day to sing rhymes in exchange for sweets, cakes and pennies. Once it was light, their requests could be refused so they had to move fast and be as persuasive as possible!

Norfolk has a wealth of superstitions, customs, myths and legends. You may notice if you go into someone’s house by a certain door, you will be asked to leave the same way. It is considered unlucky to leave by a different door – some say because that would leave an open path for bad spirits to move through your house. Doors also featured on New Year’s Eve (or Old Year’s Night as many Norfolk people call it) when the front and back doors would be opened at midnight to let the old year out and the new year in.

Sailors are renowned for being a superstitious bunch and, being a fishing and sailing village, Winterton has held on to a lot of the traditions which go with a dangerous life at sea. For example, did you know it is is considered very unlucky to leave port on Friday? Fishermen in the Winterton area would have adhered to this religiously, along with many other maritime rituals to keep them safe while  carrying out what was a very dangerous occupation.

Women were not welcome on board and it was thought whistling on board a ship could ‘whistle up a storm’, changing the wind’s direction and putting the boat in peril. The only person allowed to whistle onboard was the cook – if he was whistling, he wasn’t stealing the food! Fishermen often threw a handful of coins into the sea before the nets were cast – “silver for silver”, they said. A Silver Darling is the local name for a herring.

Sailors were also known for their tattoos. They believed that a tattoo or an earring would save them from drowning and a star, ship or a compass were popular choices, to help them get home. Mentioning pigs while at sea was considered unlucky, but some fishermen and sailors historically favoured pigs or cockerels as a decoration. It was said God would see an animal which could not swim and pluck it to safety, along with the sailor it was drawn on.

And it’s not just the seafaring who hold to superstitions. If you are out for a walk on the beach, look out for stones with holes in. Also known as hag stones or witch stones, you often see these hung outside houses near the sea. Their purpose is to keep witches, evil spirits and other nasties away from home and hearth.

If you find a few, perhaps you could leave one at your cottage at the end of your stay to keep it safe for when you return...