The Suffolk market town of Bungay: all is quiet, peaceful, serene. The Norman castle sits in silent ruin behind the high street. The fine flint tower of St Mary’s church pierces a cloudless sky. Shoppers make purchases from a string of independents: screws from Coopers Hardware, carrots and cauliflowers from Giddens & Thompson, Suffolk black bacon from Palfrey & Hall, humbugs and barley sugars by the 100-gram from the Chocolate Box, a place seemingly unchanged since 1973.
But all isn’t as sweet as it seems. There’s a dark undercurrent here in the Waveney Valley, where Satan worshippers lurk behind closed doors and the devil himself lords over it all…
“We’ve had evangelicals coming from Yorkshire to save us,” artist Stuart Pearson Wright tells me as I sit with him and a group of other creative locals in The Fleece pub. “Our souls are in peril, you see.”
The reason for this concern? Figures from the 2021 census, released earlier this year, showed Bungay has the highest number of Satanists in England and Wales: 70 people in the town and its surrounds identified as such. Which equates to one in 120, around one per cent of the population – and 100 times the national average.
No one here takes it very seriously; it’s likely a form-filling joke. But Satan is here. It’s undeniable. He’s atop the weathervane in the Market Square: the Black Dog of Bungay, the devil in disguise.
The Black Shuck legend haunts East Anglia. A large, dark hound, said to stalk the coast and Fens, Shuck is variously described as cloven hoofed, having one red eye, being the size of either an ox or a wee pony, a portent of death or a guiding spirit. He’s the possible inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, maybe JK Rowling’s Sirius Black. But it’s Bungay that claims the most substantial version of the Shuck tale.
On Sunday, August 4, 1577, during a morning service at St Mary’s, a thunderstorm “as was never seen the lyke” plunged the church into darkness. Suddenly a black dog – or “the divel in such a likeness” – burst in, killed two parishioners and attacked a third. He then travelled 12 miles to Blythburgh and slew more worshippers there, leaving scorch marks on the door (still visible to this day). ”This mischief thus wrought, he flew with wonderful force… out of the church in a hideous and hellish likeness.”
The account of this “straunge and terrible wunder” was published by clergyman Abraham Fleming shortly after the event, written from eyewitness accounts. “Other stories are more sporadically scattered across the region,” says historian Christopher Reeve, who’s written books on local folklore and looks after Bungay’s small museum. “But Fleming’s pamphlet is authenticated in a clear, decisive way – it’s unique.”
Bungay has certainly taken ownership of the legend. When it came to creating a town coat of arms in 1953, officials opted to crest it with a Black Dog, courant proper upon a flash of lightning. Basically, they chose to represent the place with an image of Satan, says Christopher: “I don’t know how they got away with it.”
The reason I’m here, though, is because the dog is now being celebrated in new ways. Last year saw the inaugural Black Shuck Festival, a one-day taster, cobbled together in a hurry, on a shoestring, by an immensely talented group of local people, including professional costume designers, artists and storytellers. Keira Knightly turned up. This year, the festival is back, with a wider array of events held over three days (August 4-6, 2023).
The programme is eclectic. Proceedings will kick off with a fancy-dress jog/procession from beautiful Blythburgh Church to Bungay, following Shuck’s route in reverse, led by the Black Dog Running Club. There will be music, puppetry, art exhibitions and a Shuck Shop as well as theatrics hosted by film producer and paranormal enthusiast Bil Bungay (whose name is a complete coincidence).
There will be a dramatic and spine-tingling reenactment of Fleming’s story, in the very church where the events occurred (with rumours of famous guests). And there will be a disco in the ancient cellar of the Three Tuns, reputedly among the country’s most haunted pubs; one of its restless spirits is poor Elizabeth Bowlynge, who in 1589 was chained to the cellar wall and starved to death for stealing a quart of ale.
There will also be a chance to write your own worries and fears on Shuck cards and ceremonially burn them on a pyre. A key focus for the festival, which will be raising money for charity YoungMinds, is mental health awareness; addressing the ‘black dog’ of depression.
“The festival is about confronting and vanquishing our demons,” says author and illustrator James Mayhew. “Each person can consider what this devil dog means to them.”
To this end, the event is about bringing joy. “We’ve been besieged with bad news lately. Any of us could be forgiven for having a black dog on our backs,” Stuart adds. “I remember a spirit of fun and silliness growing up in the Seventies; to an extent that’s been lost. It’s my hope that this festival will bring that back. People need to learn to laugh at themselves again. We’re sick of the misery. This is Bungay biting back!”
The Black Shuck Festival will be held August 4-6, 2023. Bungay Museum is open Saturdays 10am-3pm, Sundays and Thursdays 10am-1pm, April-October. Blyth Rise Stays, in nearby Laxfield, has smart Igluhuts and Lake Lodges (sleeping two/four); four nights from £430.