As with many rural counties, Suffolk has its fair share of myths and legends, and not all of them are from the mists of time. Even today there are regular news items about mysterious animal sightings, and some just cannot be simply dismissed as hallucinating observers catching a vision of next door’s cat.
Mystery Animals of Suffolk catalogues a wide range of yet-to-be-identified animals together with creatures of local tradition from the region briefly known as the Curious County.
The book opens with an examination of mythical entities of East Anglian medieval storytelling, including the woodwoses (wildmen) that survive as figures carved on the fonts, porches and towers of Suffolk’s churches. There are tales too of encounters with baby-snatching fairies and “certain little people” clustered around Stowmarket. The mystery animals surveyed then become progressively more plausible, with the last third of the book devoted to an account of over 170 modern mystery big cat sightings within Suffolk.
No book on this subject would be complete without mentioning Black Shuck – Suffolk’s phantasmal black dogs appearing from ancient folklore to encounters in 1970s Lowestoft. And then there are the evil freshwater mermaids and what a pamphlet from 1665 described as “the body of a mighty giant dig’d up at Brockford near Ipswich.” A cavalcade of spectral coaches and coach horses, equestrian ghosts and invisible horses have been seen and heard in Newmarket, Holbrook and elsewhere. Sea serpents are seen off the Suffolk coast, particularly around Kessingland – were they misidentified whales? – an Orford Ness “sea dragon” and a winged “serpent” in Mendham in 1662. There were also numerous imps in 17th century Suffolk, according to dubious testimony from local witchcraft trials, taking the forms of ducks, exploding mice or “lice of an extraordinary bigness”.
Mystery Animals of Suffolk closes with a detailed account of local sightings of big cats (black leopards, pumas, lynxes, bobcats and something like a domestic cat “but five times as big.”) Featured are numerous interviews with eyewitnesses and photos of a possible black leopard from Wortham, North Suffolk and of a well-documented escaped West Suffolk bobcat. There’s investigation of big cat “kill signs” (evidence of predation on livestock) from around the county and a look at big cats that seem to wander into Suffolk from Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex including the “Norfolk Gnasher” and the “Beast of Balsham”.
This is a fascinating book and journalist Matt Salusbury treats the investigations seriously, but with healthy scepticism and a touch of humour.