WEIRD SUFFOLK: The ghostly lights at Syleham which tempt travellers into treacherous water

The ignis fatuus, or Will-o'-the-wisp. Coloured wood engraving by C. Whymper. Picture: Wellcome Coll

The ignis fatuus, or Will-o'-the-wisp. Coloured wood engraving by C. Whymper. Picture: Wellcome Collection - Credit: Wellcome Collection

Will o’ the Wisp has led Suffolk travellers on a merry dance for hundreds if not thousands of years. Weird Suffolk investigate the cold fire that haunts the marshes.

Syleham and the Rover Waveney
Reports of Wll-O-The-Wisp being seen on the marshy fields of Syleham

Syleham and the Rover Waveney Reports of Wll-O-The-Wisp being seen on the marshy fields of Syleham could be explained away by the close proximity of the river. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019 - Credit: Sonya Duncan

In the Waveney village of Syleham, there were stories of ghostly lights that lured the unsuspecting to a watery death - deadly marsh sprites that struck in the dark. Since the 18th century, tales were told of Will o' the Wisps, the flickering lights which appeared to be dancing across the marshes, beckoning those that saw them to move closer to find the source of the light. Syleham's name derives from the Anglo/Saxon 'sylu', meaning a 'miry place' and it is the village's marshland where the so-called Syleham lights, lanterns or lamps have been spotted, ghostly dancing lights that hypnotise those that see them.

In 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Will o' the Wisp as many called the ghostly lights that hover and wheel above boggy marshland on dark, moonless nights, in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. "About, about in reel and rout, the death-fires danced at night; the water, like a witch's oil, burnt green and blue and white." Coleridge's "death-fires" were first mentioned in print in 1563, described as ignis fatuus: "foolish fire that hurteth not but only feareth fooles."

Forty years later, Shakespeare wrote of "wild fire" in Henry VI Part I, while Will o' the Wisp was first mentioned by the dramatist John Day in the early 1600s. Sir Isaac Newton wrote of the eerie marsh light in his opus Optick, published in 1704. Popular tradition said Will, the Lantern Man or Jack o' Lantern, carried candle-lit lanterns in the darkness to attract weary travellers, who they would lead across the marshes to their certain death. Across the border in Norfolk, the ghost lights of the 'Lantern Man' are infamous and are said to account for at least one death, that of unfortunate Joseph Bexfield who was lured to his death by ghost lights on the marsh at Thurlton in August 1809.

Not all Will o' the Wisps are said to be dangerous, some are said to guard treasure or to highlight dangerous ground where travellers should not tread, others are said to be spirits of the dead trapped on earth looking for salvation by claiming other souls. The scientific explanation for Will o' the Wisps is a far cry from the romance and mysticism of folklore, sadly. It is believed the ghostly lights are produced when organic material decays, causing the oxidisation of hydrogen phosphide and methane gas which produce a so-called 'cold flame'.


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This argument is given further weight by the fact that since many marshes - including Syleham's - have been drained and reclaimed, sightings of ghost lights have diminished significantly. Of course to be able to report a sighting of ghost lights you need to make your way home in the first place…

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