Follow the north coast of Norfolk in early summer and you’ll come across a landscape of cornfields bathed in the rich red glow of poppies. Tucked away from the coastal road, a couple of miles inland from the seaside town of Cromer, you will come to a village that hides a painful secret.
Here you’ll find Hungry Hill, ready to devour the spirit of any traveller wishing to scale its deceptive height.
Half-way up the hill lies an unremarkable lane; travel its lonely path and you’ll come to a deep hole in the ground surrounded by grey-green willows.
The trees guard the pit with sinister outstretched branches entwined in a mesh of green and brown. Battle through the curtains of foliage and you’ll find yourself standing at the edge of a gloomy willow-hung hollow known as The Shrieking Pit.
Even in spring or summer, it’s a far from inviting place; for here, dismal shades bathe a stagnant pool and mournful shapes bow to it. The air is lifeless and leaden, suppressed by the paucity of hope.
Visit the spiritless hollow if you must; but if you do, ensure that it is not February 24th when the air is damp and the light so dim that you are barely able to see the edges of the pit. For on this day, you may hear something that quickens your heart and prickles your skin: a wailing voice, centuries old, carried forth on icy air through the creeping branches; the voice of Esmerelda, once so young and fair, back from her grave!
Nimble and graceful, with flowing brown hair and the kindest of faces, Esmerelda was the fairest of all the young women living in the village. At seventeen, she had blossomed from a shy, young thing into a creature whose passing provoked green-eyed stares from women and captured the hearts of men.
Suitors would try to outdo each other in pursuit of her hand, desperately hoping to win her smile and redden her cheeks.
But Esmerelda desired a life that none of these young men could offer; instead, she pined for another: a well-off but untrustworthy and worthless young farmer who lived in a nearby village. Though already married, he had charmed her with interminable wit and a careless attitude to honesty, knowing that he could never honour their relationship and make her his bride. But Esmerelda chose secret romance over common sense, and continued their doomed affair, dreaming that somehow, one day, they would become husband and wife.
Though the affair was conducted in secrecy, their clandestine meetings were discovered by the local vicar. He ordered them to end their love affair threatening punishment if they chose to continue. Grudgingly, the farmer did as he was asked; but, rather than tell his lover, he chose to return to his wife and forget her, dismissing her as easily as she had dismissed his betrothal to another.
Without word of her sweetheart Esmerelda grew broken-hearted, weeping in private for days on end. Keeping her feelings secret, she continued to work, scrubbing the floors of the farmhouse at the end of Craft Lane. But inside, the loss grew like a dark shadow across her heart; and the desire to be reunited with her lost love became unbearable.
Hurt deeply by rejection, she had taken to nocturnal wanderings along Craft Lane, and over Hungry Hill. On these moon-lit travels, she sought distraction from the star splashed sky though it was never enough to lift her soul and bring her back from despair.
One bitter night, with a cold wind threading its way through the shadowed willows, Esmerelda shuffled along her familiar route, the shimmering light of a full moon illuminating her path. Her heart was now numb with sorrow and she walked with jagged footsteps, now and then letting out a painful sigh. At the end of Sandy Lane, she left the path and came alongside a large open pit, its waters lying under a deep frost.
Sensing something hidden and calling out to her, the lost heart moved to the water’s edge bending her body to gaze deeper into its shimmering darkness. The voice was clear now, rising above the gentle lapping of the water’s edge. The words dripped with heavy emotion, pleading with her: “Come to me my darling ….come to me my darling Esmerelda”. It seemed the words spoke for an eternity. Only for a brief moment did she hesitate and consider whether a malevolent spirit had hold of the night.
Then, without fear, she threw herself into the pool, spreading her arms wide in anticipation of the warm embrace of her lost love. But no tender caress came, only the glacial touch of the hollow’s icy waters. With a gasp of realisation, the innocent child awoke to her terrible fate; with desperate flapping arms, she pounded the surface of the water, her voice shrieking woefully through the willows, loud enough to awake those secure in their cottage beds. The second cry dragged some to their windows, whilst others pulled sheets over their heads and shivered with fear.
The villagers knew something awful had happened but few left their homes to investigate further. Only one brave fellow, who had seized his gun and ran in the direction of the piercing cries, managed to battle his way through the trees and undergrowth. There he heard little and saw even less, save for the faintest of ripples on the surface of the pool. Assuming he had taken the wrong route, he turned around sharply and squinted ahead to seek out a route through the willows. But as he did, a blood-curdling cry launched itself from the depths of the pit; and just as quickly as it had come, the cry faded and Esmerelda was no more.
To this day, locals say that at midnight on February 24th, voices can be heard and shadows seen near the pit; but do not ask me to confirm such a tale, for I have better things to do than go wandering into the night.