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Magic forest


One day in the 1800s, a young girl was walking along a road through the village of Elveden. Horses and carts would frequently travel this way, transporting passengers and goods north east to Thetford, or south west to Newmarket. She was passing a wood that bordered the road when she heard something that made her stop. A sound was echoing out from between the trees – the sound of music, chiming, tinkling, and beguiling; and beneath that another sound, the sound of high-pitched laughter…
When she was an old woman, the girl would tell people that the music she had heard that day was fairy music; a sound so bewitching that is was likely to snare passing horses and lure them down into the fairies’ magic dell. What’s more, there’s evidence to suggest she wasn’t the first person to perceive magical beings living in Elveden’s wood. This evidence lies not in other stories or accounts, but in Elveden’s very name.
You can tell a lot from a place name. The ending ‘ford’ is added to a town that was built astride a river, ‘eccles’ denotes a church, while ‘den’ means the presence of a valley.
For some time it was thought that Elveden was a name that came from the Old English word elfetednu, meaning ‘valley of the swans,’ as was posited by the professor Eilert Ekwall, one of the 20th century’s outstanding scholars of the English language. However, the unearthing of a 12th century medieval text seems to have changed that assumption.
Elveden Forest (c) Sarah and Austin Houghton-BirdElveden Forest is a bewitching place to be
Photo (c) Sarah & Austin Houghton-Bird

The text was written in Latin by a hagiographer (a person who writes biographies about saints). It’s called ‘Miracula sancta Wihtburge,’ and documents the life of Saint Withburga, an East Anglian princess and abbess who built a monastery in Dereham. (As the story goes, the Virgin Mary sent two milking does to feed the workers during the monastery’s construction, and after Withburga died, her body had not decayed after 50 years. Her tomb was later violated and her body stolen, after which a spring welled up in its place, which is still flowing to this day.) Amid the account of Withburga’s life, the 12th century hagiographer mentions a place that seems to be Elveden. Translated from the Latin, the description reads:

“…from the land of the king and martyr the blessed Edmund, which is called the valley of the nymphs in English.”

At that time, nymph was the English approximation of the word elf, suggesting that in Old English Elveden’s name would have been aelfe-dene, the ‘valley of the elves.’ And when we look back at Anglo-Saxon culture, this seems a likely truth. To the Anglo-Saxons, who populated East Anglia before the arrival of the Normans, elves were akin to fairies. They were dangerous supernatural beings, small yet human-like, and they caused illnesses in both people and livestock. As the Anglo-Saxons walked through the woods of Elveden, just as our young girl did in the 1800s, it’s easy to see how mischievous little eyes might have peered out at them from behind the leaves.


Suffolk is bursting with mysterious folk stories and horrible histories, and you can discover them through our article The Darker Side of Suffolk, or our film series, #TheOtherSide. If you have a particular favourite, why not share it with us via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using #TheOtherSide?