As twilight fades into a Norfolk night you’ll experience an uncanny beauty. In velvety darkness, or under star-spangled skies, the Island is magical and strangely surreal. On certain evenings, as the full moon emerges, time seems to stand still and everyday objects are starkly outlined beneath its silvery beams.
The murmuring sea, and wind softly moaning through the pines, adds to the unsettling atmosphere. No-one knows what could lie beyond our understanding; on the edge of reality. Some question the existence of the paranormal but perhaps, as Shakespeare suggested: There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Night birds call – rats, and chickens, rustle in the hedges and a chill breeze whips across the valley. The very history of the Island, the suffering of countless sad and tortured convict souls, might make it the ideal home for troubled, roaming spirits. No wonder ghost stories, and supernatural sightings, have flourished on Norfolk; the unseen world feels close and very credible.
Richard Davis, author of The Ghost Guide to Australia, claims Norfolk has more documented wraiths per square kilometre than any other state or territory. Kingston, of course, is reputed to have many apparitions. An enigmatic figure, seen near the pier; in daylight and by reliable witnesses, is believed to be the spectre of an Irish prisoner who died by drowning. Described as lean, gaunt and sharp-featured, and wearing the garb of a nineteenth century labourer, he appears and then, quite suddenly, evaporates.
Government House has a phantom violinist – a convict musician who tutored the Governor’s daughter, fell in love, and endured her banishment to England when their illicit affair was discovered. Some swear his ethereal melodies still echo within the mansion’s thick, stone walls. Decades ago, the wife of an Australian Administrator was so distressed by the sad strains of this music she called in a priest to ‘exorcise’ the building. The melancholy tunes continued to be heard.
In recent years another ghost, who coveted shoes, was believed to inhabit Government House; visitors complained about footwear which inexplicably went missing and then rematerialized. Those working in Georgian-era buildings doun a Toun(down in Kingston) speak of mysterious footsteps, odd sounds, unexplained happenings and poltergeists.
Bloody Bridge, below Music Valley, has a grim reputation too. Legend has it that a group of convicts murdered their cruel overseer, and hid his remains within the bridge they were building. The crime was revealed when his blood slowly began seeping from the stonework – and they were all executed. No official account of this gruesome episode exists but, standing on the bridge today, surrounded by shadowy, ancient pines, there is definitely a sombre, mournful feel to the place.
The Cemetery, not surprisingly, is also a focus for weird fables and spine-tingling encounters, and even the bravest sullun(people) might be reluctant to wander there, alone, by moon or lamplight. In olden days local superstition said those walking past the graveyard, after sunset, must whistle to send wandering spirits back to their resting places. Even in recent times the little burial ground by the sea, with its convict graves, aging crypts and monuments, is a disturbing place for some.
Ray Martin, journalist and ambassador for Norfolk Tourism, recalls having:
“…a war-hardened 60 Minutes cameraman refuse to spend an hour amongst the tombstones at night, even though we collectively offered him two hundred dollars as an incentive”.
In the 1930s J L Ranken, a writer, visited Norfolk and was regaled with accounts of the paranormal. He reported:
Quality Row, where most of the official houses stand, has its eerie tales. Soldiers in the colourful uniforms of old, and Empire-gowned and crinolined ladies are said to have revisited their old homes, and the clanking of the chain gangs is held to re-echo at times.
It was claimed, he wrote, that spirits foregather after dark on a lonely stretch of the Cable Station road and that a solitary figure was often seen above Headstone:
” …standing on the cliff and gazing out to sea… He is supposed to be the ghost of a convict who expected to escape … and was drowned while attempting to reach the boat.”
Ranken also visited Limerick Cottage, a sandstone house which stood in the famous Pine Avenue (a pathway lined with magnificent Norfolk pines; later cut down to make way for the air strip built during World War II). Here he learned about ‘Susannah’ – rumoured to be the restless spirit of an Officer’s wife – who died there in 1841, fifteen days after giving birth to a daughter.
A local woman said: “…she and several others went on the verandah and saw a light among trees at the end of the garden. From that light a girl came towards the house. They all thought it was a living girl until the floating movement of the figure and a certain luminousness about it informed them otherwise. The face of the girl was pale and lovely, ‘beautiful like an angel’, and, though badly frightened, the spectators felt the ghost meant them no harm”.
Of course, there has always been a grand tradition of fraedy (scary) tale-telling on Norfolk. ‘Boonie’ Buffett once said terrifying each other was a favourite local pastime in the kerosene lamp, pre-TV days. Families and friends gathered together in the evenings and listened to someone spin chilling yarns. One lady says her fear of the dark stems back to her Pa “…larnen fraedy stories to dem lettle sullun” (telling frightening stories to the children).
It’s easy to dismiss it all as myths, dem tull (hearsay) or creepy folklore to entertain the youngsters; but some genuinely believe they’ve had supernatural encounters. Hearing people you know, and trust, describe peculiar events, with utter sincerity, is quite unsettling. An old Islander told me about a wraithlike figure that doggedly ran ahead of him, along Stockyard Road, before abruptly vanishing into thin air. Another man spoke candidly about being visited by the spectre of an elderly family member; on the very night, he later discovered, that she died far away.
Accounts of unearthly travellers, taking lifts with the living in their vehicles, are also quite common on Norfolk. Maev Hitch reported: “…on their way uphill [from Kingston cenotaph] they become conscious of feeling that someone else is with them…at Middlegate a stop is made, either planned or unplanned, and the feeling of having company disappears.”
Rachel Nebauer-Borg is convinced a long dead great aunt, who she’d never met, hitched a ride in her car. After confiding in a co-worker, she was shown a photo of her relative – who looked exactly like her ghostly passenger. She was told others regularly saw, and picked up, this phantom near Sattie’s corner.
Fascinated, and upset, by her experience Rachel has come to believe certain people are sensitive to ‘past echoes’; and are able to tap into powerful feelings, or events, from earlier times. She is certain such people serve, sometimes unwillingly, as a conduit for supernatural beings and manifestations. Rachel has researched paranormal activity on Norfolk, now hosts her own popular Lantern-Lit Ghost Tour, and is sure the unseen world exists. She really feels some of us, like the young protagonist in The Sixth Sense movie, can “…see dead people.”
There are those on the Island who would agree with her theory. A newcomer to the Island was driving along a dark road, late at night, when he saw a young woman, naked and covered in blood, screaming and running madly behind him. Shocked, he stopped the car and got out to help, but the apparition had dissolved without trace. Speaking to trusted friends he discovered others had seen the ghost of a ‘distressed girl’ not far from Sattie’s corner. To this day he cannot traverse the area without shuddering, and involuntarily checking his rear-view mirror.
Another local lady is certain she’s seen a spirit from beyond the grave, ‘the woman in white’, who is said to wander Hundred Acre Reserve. Driving home one evening, completely sober and awake, she was stunned when a white figure drifted in front of her car, and then melted into the forest. A tourist also vows she beheld a girl in white; who flitted ahead of her, through the gloom and tall trees, before disappearing. Other Islanders won’t venture down specific pathways if they’re walking, alone, in Hundred Acre.
When listening to those who’ve witnessed bizarre and inexplicable things, the idea of apparitions, desperately trying to communicate with the living, is persuasive. Much of the folklore revolves around messages being delivered by the recently departed – a fisherman seeks help from a friend, visiting him in the middle of the night, at the exact time he was later found to have died at sea. A mother is convinced she sees her son, home from the war; but eventually receives a telegram telling of his death, on a distant battlefield, at the precise hour of her vision.
Things look different at night. When moon shadows lengthen, we can contemplate uncanny happenings and believe in a more mystical universe. Then Norfolk’s ghosts seem all too real in the whispered words of storytellers; staring into the dim half-light.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 04 Issue 01, 2020. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.