I have been meaning to visit Woolpit for a while now. Since we set up the new version of Immortal Wordsmith and focused on pursuing creative goals, I have had a million and one ideas flood through. In a way, stepping away from needing money has been very liberating and today I found myself at a loose end.
Izzy was busy making tea, or cooking tea or making love to tea… so she didn’t want me to pick her up for this adventure. I had a rare day of not actually having anything planned and took the opportunity to go and do a bit of exploring and investigating.
My target location – Woolpit.
Getting to Woolpit
For me this was pretty simple as it is about an hour or so away by car. But, I should imagine if you’re intending to get to Woolpit by public transport you would have a hard time. Which brings me to the unusual thing about Woolpit itself, it is in the middle of nowhere.
“And what?” you may be thinking. Well, here are the facts and why that is unusual;
- Woolpit is on the A14 a major trunk road from the port towns to Cambridge. Woolpit sits about halfway on that road.
- Woolpit is a very small community and there aren’t many built up towns anywhere near which makes it unusual because it is a historic settlement. What on earth drove people to set up a community there? And, more importantly, given its remote location why do people stay there?
- Most inland settlements are focused around bodies of water (rivers, lakes) but Woolpit seems to just have popped up a thousand years ago and not expanded since. I can understand why it hasn’t expanded, the community has little infrastructure and I imagine village folk rely on shopping in Stowmarket (which is miles away). I can’t really understand the appeal of settling there in the first place though.
What ever the reason as there must be, I don’t think anyone actually knows and it is the first curious thing about a very curious little village.
Woolpit the Village
Today, it is easy to reach Woolpit by car and there is a junction from the A14 that takes you to the village which is also clearly signposted. You will also notice a couple of “Woolpit Museum” signposts which you may feel like dropping in on.
As I arrived, I was going to pay the museum a visit, but when I had parked in the sleepy little village, I realised that the museum wasn’t open. It turns out that it is only open at select times on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays. I suspected that I wasn’t missing anything anyway as the building that housed the museum was a small historic cottage.
I walked first to the church which has the words “Good Will to Men” etched onto the tower. I had driven passed the church on the way in and I was struck by how grand it was. It seemed out of place compared to the rest of the village and was easily a church worthy of a large town. Perhaps this church pointed to a religious reason for the original settlement, perhaps it was once a quiet and remote monastery. I didn’t go into the church grounds as there was a group of children on some kind of tour or trip – instantly conjuring up images of my childhood trips where we would be told to put paper over carvings and scribble to get the impression.
Outside the church and approaching the village centre is the famous (well not famous, but famous for Woolpit) sign depicting the green children. Oddly, the sign is placed facing those that are leaving the village. Anyone entering would get the back to front version.
Which brings me onto the next (and largest) curiosity of Woolpit.
The Green Children of Woolpit
There is a legend that is possibly folklore but is also recorded as fact in historic accounts that tells of two children (a brother and sister) that were found near the village of Woolpit in the 12th Century. The reason this was odd is because the children were green, spoke an unknown dialect and perhaps most bizarre (I can’t imagine my boy doing this) they only ate raw beans.
The children were found close to the wolf-pits (where the name Woolpit is thought to derive from) outside of the village. Wolf-pits were large dug outs that were used for hunting and trapping and were likely used to trap wolves that would hunt village sheep. They were then moved back to the village where their peculiarities were studied more closely.
The children by all accounts settled into village life, although the boy did die. Infant mortality rates weren’t great in those times so this is not unusual in itself. The girl grew up, and integrated with the community although the villagers noted that she was “very wanton” or in modern language, promiscuous. Again, this isn’t that fantastic, even in context of a religious community.
Examining the Green Children Story
There are three key propositions to the Green Children of Woolpit story.
- The children’s skin was green but returned to normal colour.
- They spoke a language that wasn’t recognised in Woolpit.
- They only ate beans to start with but soon ate other foods.
Without these three specific attributes the story would be unremarkable. The account itself provided by the children is one that it is odd – but I will explain my thoughts on why that is.
The account provided by the children seems a bit fantastic in that they were herding cattle with their father, got lost, followed the cattle into a cave and crossed over into our world. The next thing they were aware of was that they woke up by the wolf-pits.
Many people are certain that this points to the children being aliens and that they were green because of their alien origin. This story may well be the true original little green men story.
My Green Children of Woolpit Theory
My thoughts are this;
The children explaining where they had come from must have come after time had passed and they had learnt the language spoken in Woolpit. We know they didn’t speak well when they were found. This means they were both trying to recount an event that would have been very traumatic for both of them. It also means that they likely drew on facts and filled in gaps.
We can take their account quite literally. They identified cattle because their father was herding cattle. In terms of credibility it is more incredible that aliens would have cattle than two children would cross from an alien world to ours. Why would alien species have an earthly animal that they are keeping as livestock (otherwise why would the aliens be herding it). That element proves too fantastic to be true and so the mundane solution is that they were separated from their father while out herding cattle. Other bits of their story are no doubt them trying to form a sequence of events.
The two important and I think key things about this story are that we don’t know how old the children were and we don’t know how long they were lost before they were found. If they were young and had been lost for a prolonged period of time it is likely that the explanation is rather mundane for the whole series of events.
In my opinion, the children were lost for a while, in fact this fits with the facts as many historians think they were actually lost from either Thetford Forest (matching the description of where they went missing) or Bury St Edmunds (the story recounts loud sounds attributed to the bells from Bury). If the children were lost from near Bury then that would have been about 3-5 days on foot. Longer if they were children.
I think they were lost from nearer the forest area and when they were within earshot of the bells, they tried to follow them which meant they ended up in Woolpit, which would still be approaching the bell tolls on a north to south route.
The green complexion because they were sick. There is a sickness that causes acute green tinged skin called Hypochromic Anemia. If the children had walked even for three days, they did so without provisions. They likely ate anything they thought was edible.
Hypochromic Anemia can be caused by numerous things that are fairly likely to have occurred to the children;
- Low Iron Take or Iron Loss (we can safely assume they weren’t eating meat and it is possible they tried to live on pod-like things ((hence their want to eat beans) that were likely low in iron).
- Hookworms – a parasitic infection that is ingested and caused by poor hygiene.
- Lead Poisoning. If they encountered lead or slept in a lead mine along the way they could have exposed themselves to high concentrations of lead. Remember, lead was mined heavily and was used heavily in medieval England. Queen Elizabeth I used it as make-up, by way of an example.
My personal theory is that they had a deficient diet which ties into the dietary observation as well as the children’s skin recovering after they start eating different food. The only eating beans aspect is actually not that spectacular on its own – we all know how fussy children can be with food, especially young children.
That only leaves the language as unexplained. This could be for a few reasons. Mainly that England had many types of dialect at this time. We know that Latin was used by the Catholic Church, middle English was being developed and coming into common usage but, because of the Norman invasion, a variation of French was also favoured by middle/high society.
Throw in the remnants of Scandinavian languages from the north and regional variants, it is quite possible that a language uncommon or unknown within the small closed community of Woolpit could have been spoken by the children. It is also possible that the children spoke their own language and I think this is most likely.
How Can the Children Speak Their Own Language?
12th Century England was very different to the England of today. In context of today, the story of the Green Children of Woolpit seems alien. Back then, the landscape was sparsely populated and whole communities were segregated, remote and largely operated on a feudal basis.
For most, life was incredibly simple, you were born in a town, grew up and worked and then died in the same house you were born. You didn’t travel because traveling was a long and laborious process. Merchants would come through town occasionally to sell things and if you really needed something you packed up your cart and made the day’s journey to the local town market.
That was it, the world was a very small place for the majority of people. The horror films with the homicidal inbred farming family that lives out in the sticks were a very common feature in 12th century England (maybe not the murdering bit). Those same inbred and segregated families were too poor to be educated, lived off the land and likely spoke in a very nuanced way to one another. Much like the garbled languages of the yokels and hillbillies in horror movies.
Leaving the sign and the Green Children of Woolpit behind me I head towards the village. There are many old buildings, some Tudor and some later. The village itself is a lazy sleepy traditional English village. It would be nice perhaps to return on a warmer summers day and enjoy a pint in the beer garden of the pub.
Today was overcast though and it was hard to imagine spending any prolonged amount of time there. The centre of the village is listed as a “conservation area” but it isn’t clear what that is or what regulation protects it. I am sure many of the buildings are grade II listed if not some grade I listed.
There is a village pump in the centre of the village which was erected in 1897 to mechanically draw water. Before that I imagine a well stood there (which ties back to the curiosity of why anyone settled here away from a water source). The placards tell a story of a monk travelling to Rome to get a grant to stop the King misappropriating funds from Woolpit abbey, taking years to make the journey. It’s funny how far people will go if they feel put out by something.
In the case of the Woolpit monks, the placard says they enjoyed the funds that were retained so it is possible it was motivated by greed.
I spent about forty-five minutes in Woolpit. I could possibly have spent an hour if the museum was open. If you’re thinking of visiting, I would say don’t expect too much, and make sure you check out other museums and attractions in the area as part of your visit. Woolpit sits on the fringes of society with a tiny population and seems to be preserved by ritual and tradition more than anything.
It is more connected today now with the A14, but it is still out of the way. It is a curious place with a curious story and some nice buildings. I suspect it will always be as it has been (especially with its conservation status) although, upon visiting, I am still not quite sure why people still choose to live there.
Perhaps if you’re a “Woolpittian” you can fill in the only piece of the Woolpit puzzle I haven’t worked out? Comment below.