Tom Hickathrift, Norfolk
The Fens can be a strange area, decidedly spooky when the mist envelops the flat lands; the sort of place where myths and legends take hold. It is to the Fenland area known as Marshland Smeeth that the story of Tom Hickathrift, the original Norfolk Giant, belongs.
In this area the residents of the seven towns of marshland – Clenchwarton, Emneth, Terrington, Tilney, Walpole, Walsoken and Walton - had the right to graze their beasts on ancient common land, vital to their prosperity and even survival. The legend goes that, supposedly before the arrival of the Normans , a landowner tried to take the grazing for himself. Tom Hickathrift, a quiet giant of a man standing eight feet tall, came across a fight between the dispossessed locals and the forces of the landowner, the latter getting the better of the struggle. Hickathrift who earned his living as a carter for a brewer in King’s Lynn , delivering beer to Wisbech , intervened for the locals: he broke off the axle of his cart and used it as a club, holding a cartwheel like a shield. The grazing rights were re-won, and Tom was a hero.
An alternative version has the lazy Hickathrift crossing the marshland inhabited by an ogre half as tall again as he. Too tired to go around the danger area he fights and kills the thing, again using his axle and a cartwheel-shield, thus freeing the district of its oppressive presence and winning its treasure into the bargain.
We may wonder if the tale is based on some real event, perhaps the arrival of the land-grabbing Vikings ; or land seizures after the Conquest; or even later enclosure of common land. Mike Burgess of Lowestoft , an expert on East Anglian folklore, has written a fascinating study of the story for those interested in exploring its detail and deeper aspects.
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