Weird Suffolk: Meet the wild men of the woods that ate children
Did you know that Suffolk boasts its very own Bigfoot? The legend of the wild man (and woman) and where you can come face-to-face with the Suffolk Sasquatch
If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise…
The woodwose, or wild man of the woods, is a mythical figure that first appeared in medieval Europe and is comparable to the satyr in classical mythology and to Silvanus, the Roman God of the woodlands. These curious creatures, covered from head to toe in thick hair and carrying a club, began to appear in English churches during the 12thcentury, carved into fonts, spandrels and roof bosses in precisely the same places where you'd find their close relative, the Green Man. Although terrifying in appearance, the woodwose is often seen fighting lions or dragons, both of which were considered a threat to humans, and it was widely believed that the woodwose would scare away evil spirits.
This did not, however, prevent them from also becoming like medieval bogeymen who could be used as imaginary behaviour monitors for wayward children - in art depictions, the woodwose's club sometimes included a child tied to it. And children had every right to have nightmares about the woodwoses: according to some legends, they had superhuman strength, were deaf to the word of God and some would think nothing of snatching a child and eating them. Adults had to be on their guard, too - male woodwoses were said to have abducted human women due to their "insatiable appetite" for the opposite sex while their female counterparts (far rarer to see in carvings and interpretations, although there is one shown in the font at St Catherine's Church in Ludham in Norfolk) were said to be able to disguise themselves as humans in order to seduce men. According to legend, if a woodwose is shown with an upraised club, he is yet to be converted to Christianity, if the club points down, the conversion has taken place.
Woodwose guard many churches in Suffolk, mainly from fonts and particularly along the coast, most dating from around the 15thcentury, some defaced during the Reformation. There are woodwose at Chedington, Framingham, Orford, Saxmundha and Stradbroke , Badingham, Walberswick and Halesworth, where the four woodwose on the font all strike a different pose, some comically nonchalant. At St Michael's in Peasenhall, a woodwose is poised to attack a wyvern (or dragon) in the spandrels as you enter the church, at Kelsale two woodwose stand on top of the tower matched in opposite corners by lions and at Southwold they are near the west door, silently watching the bell ringers as they go about their business.
At Haughley's Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a 'modest' woodwose on the 15thcentury font stands with a shield or hat placed over his groin and his other hand over his heart - all the woodwose on this font are different. Four woodwoses stare out from the font at St Peter's at Sibton, their bodies muscular and more human, while at St Mary in Mendlesham, two huge woodwoses brandishing clubs menacingly watch over their congregation from the roof of the north porch. At Cratfield in Suffolk, a woodwose and a dragon can be found in the spandrels of the porch, the wild man creeping towards the beast brandishing a club and a shield, while on a pedestal at Blythburgh church, staring out across the creeks and waterways, a stone woodwose sits, surveying Suffolk for eternity.
In Matt Salusbury's superb online guide to woodwoses in Suffolk (in which he suggests a wonderful woodwose tour), there is an exhaustive guide to a huge number of the wildmen of the county, including on fonts in Barking-cum-Darmsden's St Michael the Archangel, Holy Trinity at Middleton-cum-Fordley, St Andrew's in Covehithe and in Theberton. He says: "It's tempting to think Suffolk's woodwoses remember an actual briefly captive wildman, or even a species of relict hominid living among us in the flat plains of East Anglia, But folklorist Gregory Forth points out that unlike the Asian and American traditions of Bigfoot…there are very few surviving accounts of actual sightings of hairy wildmen in Europe." He adds that woodwoses didn't speak, enjoyed thunderstorms, felt affinity with animals, had knowledge of medicinal plants…and sometimes ate children kidnapped humans. You've got to have a hobby.
Of course, we have nothing to fear from 15thcentury wild men…or do we?
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The superlative Paranormal Database received a report from May 2011 from a lorry driver who was passing through fields near Elveden on the A13 when he saw a light brown to grey ape-like creature which raised from all fours to stand up on its hind legs. He described it as "semi-human like" and said it looked at him, showing its "forward facing eyes, long snout but a shorter face than a deer" and "small upright dog-like ears," before it ran away into the forest. And Mr Salusbury describes another unusual tale from a man he interviewed about something strange that happened to him as he walked with his partner back from a festival in Peasenhall in the summer of 2011.
As they walked along Rendham Road, close to woods, towards Sweffling, the man saw a figure on two legs, "seven or eight feet tall… silver grey, dark" which he sensed was "friendly".
"Could it be that the little woodwose carvings actually commemorate some local protective spirits, like the 'tall, hairy entity' that Phillip experienced - glimpsed fleetingly, yet giving the people of that corner of Suffolk in the fifteenth century the impression of something 'friendly'?" said Mr Salusbury. And while we discuss the Suffolk Sasquatch, was the famous Wildman of Orford - the man of the sea pulled up by 12thcentury fishermen's nets and held captive in the castle - actually a woodwose? Another tale for another day.