Soddenhams bridges have always played an important part in our history. Indeed, it was at Candlesmoke Bridge that began a chain of events that would lead to the village existing today, for without it we would have a very different story to tell. There was probably a crossing around that spot on the Leam for many years before records began; a fallen tree hauled to the narrowest point, replaced when rotten by a purposely felled tree, before anyone invested any time in the construction of an actual bridge. Although there was no actual village, there were many families living around the woods, along with itinerant workers and various ne’er-do-wells passing through to Dereham and Swaffham, so a crossing was a necessity in order to travel to the market towns.
These earlier crossings were documented in Lionel Plume’s pamphlet “Soddenham And Her Bridges” (Nullbrigg, 1985) concentrating upon the construction and architectural forms, but referring, sometimes directly but more often obliquely, to the folk history and mythology that has grown around them over the years:
It is not known whether the bridge had a name at the time of the Witch Trials, but it had one afterwards.
There are a number of references to the ‘witches under the bridge’ in the various accounts of the Anglian witch trials, but one in particular retells the events in some grisly detail. Jeremy Scleriac, a Swaffham lichen merchant who was a regular visitor to the area wrote in his journal of 1648 an account of the trial of the eight local women and girls, and included such details that suggest he may have witnessed the trial personally, but this is unlikely to be the case and probably the retelling of second and third hand accounts.
Scleriac details the trial and the sentencing, and adds comments from neighbours, but declines to embellish the grisly details that follow. Of the women, Martha Bright confessed to meeting with women under the bridge but denied being in league with the devil or apprenticing others in sorcery. Annie Foote confessed to meet regularly with Martha Bright but refused to state the reasons. Rebecca Murrow denied all accusations, whilst Gwyneth Benefields testimony and a representation by a Dereham magistrate put her under subject of testing. All four girls stated that they were gathering cowslips at the river to make posies, but their pleas were ignored. Only after lengthy ‘tests’ Gwyneth Benefield was proclaimed innocent, but was left permanently lame and without her tongue. The other three women and four girls were all found guilty and sentenced to be burned at the stake, which was to be lit from their own candles. As a final act of judgement and condemnation, Hopkins and his entourage also burned the bridge as they left.
The witch trials moved on leaving great sorrow in its wake. The families, friends and neighbours of the Murrows, Footes, Benefields and Brookers were understandably shocked by the absolute devastation that had been wreaked upon them, and cursed their own fear and cowardice too. This devastation soon turned to anger, with all the families accusing each other of sending for the Witchfinder, or spreading rumours and pointing fingers to set tongues wagging. This state of near-feud continued for several days until John Murrow, one of the eldest amongst them went from pit to pit with a handful of lichen (a sign of good intent) and asked each family to meet at the smouldering remains of the bridge to parley.
The true facts of what was said that day may never be known, but it was decided that they would be stronger together than existing separately as they had been previously. This was the real beginning of Soddenham.
Largely unseen today by those who drive over and rarely considered by those on foot, still occasional tales emerge, of women’s voices talking quietly beneath the bridges, which is impossible beneath Candlesmoke Bridge and unlikely beneath Ladies Bridge. There have also been many sightings of Murrows Mules over the years, as well as a few visits from the Black Shuck!
Today, our bridges lay quietly beneath the tarmac, but they still tell their stories if you listen hard enough…