There are many accounts of huge and hellish hounds haunting the British countryside. Few, however, are as gruesome as the legend of the wolf-hound ghost of Southery as repeated by W H Barrett in his book Tales From The Fens (1963).
The setting is Southery, a small village on the Norfolk-Cambridgeshire border and the period is the early Middle Ages. Back then the Fens were vastly more extensive than they are now and Southery was an island, surrounded by marshes and water courses. Islands tend to attract religious men and monks from Ely were determined to build a church here. The locals, however, had other ideas. The Southery Fenmen were a law unto themselves, self-sufficient, fiercely proud of their independence and given to robbing any boats that passed through their domain. They resented the intrusion of the holy men and several monks were found with their throats cut as a warning to keep away.
The Abbot of Ely refused to be intimidated and sent armed men into Southery Fen to bring the miscreants to heel, but in those unfamiliar swampy conditions they were no match for the Fenmen. The landowner, the Baron of Northwold, then came up with a more imaginative solution: he provided the monks with a pack of enormous wolf hounds to guard them. The plan had a flaw, however: there was little in Southery Fen with which to feed the hounds but fish, and they refused to stomach it. Instead they took to ranging round the island and the fens in search of meat. At first they sustained themselves on the bodies of the murdered monks and soldiers they found but this resource did not last long. Soon they were out of control, preying on living people, monks and fen folk alike. The monks gave up and returned to Ely. The wolf hounds became cannibals, hunting each other until only one was left: a savage, intelligent bitch ‘as big as a donkey’.
This survivor too began to starve but was rescued in a weakened condition by a Fenman who brought her home and looked after her. In time this feral hound became almost tame, at least in her behavior towards her adopted family and their neighbours. One day she disappeared from the village and was thought lost for good until, several weeks later, she returned, her coat matted, her paws worn and bloody as if she had travelled miles beyond the fens. And she was pregnant – by a wolf. The wolf-wolf hound hybrid grew up to be even bigger and fiercer than its mother. It remained tame towards the Southery folk, however, and would go out hunting for them, often raiding farms for meat.
The final act in this drama takes place on the island on the day the long-delayed church was finally completed. The Bishop who had arrived to dedicate it took no chances: he surrounded himself with a gang of soldiers. Out of the reeds fringing the perimeter of the island, emerged the enormous wolf hybrid, intent on hunting fresh meat. He leapt on to the throat of one of the soldiers, dragging him down and feasting on him even while he was still alive. The rest of the soldiers sent flying a volley of arrows into the animal’s hide. It snarled at them in defiance, its jaws bloody, and then slinked back into the reeds to die.
Even now this is not the last of the fearsome wolf-dog of Southery. Long dead, it has continued to haunt the fields around Southery village. Night-bound travellers may hear its pad-padding behind them on the lanes and at midnight on May 29, the anniversary of its death, its eldritch howling may also be heard. To hear either is a certain omen of death. ‘And if you look at the cornerstones of the charnel house of the ruined church, you will see that they have been gnawed, the marks having been made by the wolf-dog, which comes on that night every year and tries to get to the bones.’
Text © Richard Holland 2013