Weird Norfolk: The Norfolk landowner who nearly lost his soul to Satan

PUBLISHED: 13:32 08 December 2017 | UPDATED: 14:41 08 December 2017

Brograve Mill.

Brograve Mill. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

Brograve Mill stands as a lonely sentinel on land once owned by a man said to have made a bargain with the Devil which he had no intention of honouring.

He may have been “a black-hearted man whose soul belonged to the devil” but when Lucifer came calling for Norfolk’s Sir Berney Brograve on a dark and stormy night in the late 1700s, it was the man and not the beast that triumphed on the waterlogged land at Waxham.

Sir Berney was notorious in Norfolk – more of the man another day, his tales twist through the centuries each more terrifying than the other – and his mill, built amid the rushes that typify this bleakly beautiful stretch of coastline, was designed to reclaim the land which the North Sea was set on swallowing.

Built in 1771, Sir Berney’s mill stood on land he had inherited from several wealthy relatives – he also owned Waxham Hall and the manors of Horsey and Sea Palling, his wealth built on shifting sands and his fortune at the mercy of the flooding and erosion which has long plagued coastal fields.

Today, the mill lies in ghostly ruins, an isolated memorial to a time when men began to reclaim the land from the sea. With its gentle westward tilt, it is a mere skeleton of what was once a majestic eight-bladed windmill designed to power a pump which would drain the Brograve levels into the man-made Waxham New Cut.Only two stocks and two stubs of the original sails remain, but it is the lean that has fascinated generations.

Legend has it that the baronet had wagered his soul that he could out-mow the Devil over two acres of bean plants, a foolish bet which Lucifer easily won with dark magic and then turned to collect the soul he had been promised. Sir Berney, fleet of foot, disappeared towards his mill and just managed to make it inside before slamming the door in the Devil’s face and barricading himself in.Whipped into a temper, the Devil pounded on the door with his terrible cloven hooves and, the next morning, when Sir Berney gingerly opened the door, he found it pitted with hoof-prints and leaning decidedly to the west where Satan had attempted to blow the mill down.

Other stories are linked to the red brick structure, which can’t be reached by foot and can only be seen if you take a muddy path along the Waxham New Cut from Horsey Mere and peek at the crumbling mill, with its gaping holes and collapsing tower, from a distance.

Locals once claimed that the mill subsided five times and was subsequently straightened, but that it continued to sink and tilt – the miller was, it was said with heavy inference, a necromancer – who practiced the dark arts - and the mill was known as Devil’s Mill.

The mill ceased to be used in around 1930 and since then fallen into dangerous dereliction, waiting the lashing from a sea storm which finally reduces it to rubble. Recently, the mill has served solely as a look out point for weary cormorants who use it as a place to dry their wings.

Ironically, the cormorants strike an unusual pose as they dry themselves after diving for food: they stand upright, their wings outstretched, their profile eerily similar to a crucifix, avian sentries in place to repel any further visits from cloven-hooved enemies.

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