The Bridges of Soddenham County

444 soddenham-candlesmoke-bridge
Candlesmoke Bridge 2014

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:

soddenham-bridges-pamphlet
“Soddenham And Her Bridges” by Lionel Plume (Nullbrigg, 1985)

It is not known whether the bridge had a name at the time of the Witch Trials, but it had one afterwards.

soddenham--witches

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.

soddenham-witch-trial

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.

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Lady’s Bridge 2014

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…

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6 thoughts on “The Bridges of Soddenham County

  1. Hi Les,
    How fascinating! Reading this today helps to make sense of some of the things I can remember from my early childhood in Soddenham. As children we often participate in things and hear things without fully understanding their significance. I had heard tales of witches in Soddenham but thought it was something parents made up to scare their children or to make halloween more convincing!
    Of the few summers I can recall of my youth in Soddenham I can remember playing witchy-twiggs on Candlesmoke Bridge. It was similar to what people now call pooh sticks but the winner of witchy-twiggs was the one whose twigg arrived last. It never made sense then but I used to connect witchy-twiigs with a rhyme that the girls would shout while they were playing skipping games. All I can remember is the first part which went: “Candle smoke, candle smoke, you’re a witch without a boat, candle smoke candle smoke, you’re doomed if you sink, you’re doomed if you float…” There were more verses but I cannot remember them. I wasn’t a girl and I certainly didn’t do skipping. I was however very good at witchy-twiggs. Perhaps now that tweeting is a pre-occupation for young people and skipping has gone out of fashion so too the rhymes have disappeared? Have you ever come across that one?
    You make no mention of it but from you’re research do you think there is any truth that the Witches Teat was built on the site where the the women deemed to be witches were burned at the stake? I remember hearing about it being the case. I was also told it was something never to be mentioned in public, as if a curse would be placed on those who spoke of such horrors. Like so much of Soddenhams history it is hard to separate folk lore from the real facts. Maybe you can enlighten me?
    As they say you can take the person out of Soddenham but you can’t take the Soddenham out of the person. I am very much enjoying your website and have learned so much. Keep up the good work.
    Kind regards,
    Mr Pickard

  2. Ah! Mr. Pickard – witchy-twiggs brings back a few memories! I doubt that there are many who don’t have fond memories of long afternoons peering over the side of the bridge hoping that theirs didn’t catch the current and come out first!
    I do remember the rhyme too – as far as I can recall there were three verses:

    Candle smoke, candle smoke, you’re a witch without a boat.
    Candle smoke candle smoke, you’re doomed if you sink, you’re doomed if you float.
    Candle smoke, candle smoke, whisper your spells.
    Candle smoke, candle smoke, and pray to God that no-one tells.
    Candle smoke, candle smoke, if you do wrong.
    Candle smoke, candle smoke, they’ll call you a witch and cut out your tongue.

    Or something along those lines. It was long ago, and as you allude, children’s games have changed and rhymes like these are in danger of being forgotten. I think I might put together a small pamphlet of rhymes and sayings from Soddenham soon, and shall call upon you to wrack your memories for more gems from yesteryear!
    You are also right about the story of The Teat being built upon the site of the burnings, but I cannot find any evidence to support this. The earliest reference to that particular spot mentions a well, which seems much more likely. Given what scant records survive from that period regarding the trials (there were much more high profile trials in Norfolk during that time and those were sent to the local Assizes for trial, rather than the local magistrates that were used in more isolated areas) it could be assumed that the burnings were closer to the pits, perhaps even amongst them, as this sort of summary sentencing was designed to terrify the locals and deter them from witchcraft. I have further posts about the witch trials in progress and hope to have them finished in time for the new year.
    Much of Soddenhams history has indeed been entwined into folklore, which I suppose makes it an even more interesting place to study. I am currently interviewing a number of village ‘elders’ and there are some interesting stories emerging, at times sometimes the facts are stranger than fiction!
    Thankyou for your thoughts Sir, should you ever return to Soddenham you will be wamly welcomed.

  3. Remarkably intriguing piece Mr Taret, you certainly are a wise gentleman and know more about Soddenham folklore than I’m sure you let on. I’m looking forward immensely to finding out more of the village history which your knowledge and expertise is surely unparalleled. I especially like idea of producing a pamphlet of rhymes which you should most definitely compile before history reclaims these verses and they disappear forever. Thanks again for your sterling article Mr Taret, please send my warmest regards to Unwin as I hear his Toby jug obsession is on the rise again. All the best to you and yours.

    1. Thank you Sir, I hope I meet your high expectations as I endeavour to furnish this website with Soddenham history and culture. There will be an announcement made when the pamphlet is published – I will be discussing this tomorrow with Mr. Nullbrigg who I hope will continue the tradition of our local pamphleteering.
      You are not the only one to notice Unwins toby jug tendencies as he has taken one to the Teat and insists he be served the brew in it! I will keep an eye on him for you…

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