Babes in the Wood
This patch of forest known as Wayland Wood, or equally as "Wailing Wood," is often attributed to be the same woods behind the popular children's ballad Babes in the Wood(s), Poor Babes in the Wood(s), Two Lost Babes, or Children of the Wood(s).
The ballad was originally published in 1595 in nearby Norwich by Thomas Millington and has been passed down over the ages. It concerns two children who are either led in to the forest or wander in on their own, depending on which version you hear. Once in the woods, the children are either abandoned and/or become lost and ultimately die huddled in one another's arms. A robin then swoops down and covers their small bodies with branches and sings to them all day long. The ballad has inspired everything from pantomime performances to an animated short film released in 1932 by Disney, though the latter had a much different ending. Though versions of the tale have emerged from places like Canada to Italy, most point to this spot as its place of origin.
The story goes that this really happened in the 16th Century right here in Wayland Wood, which is just outside the village of Watton. According to the legends, two children were sent to live with their uncle (who reportedly lived in nearby Griston Hall) when their parents died. According to their will, the three-year-old boy and younger sister were to inherit their money when they got older. However, a stipulation was added that said if the children died before then, the money would be passed on to their uncle, who quickly devised of a plan to get rid of the children. He recruited two men to take the children into Wayland Wood and dispose of them, giving him an alibi in the process.
The two children went along happily with the promise of games, but their innocence soon overwhelmed the two men. Not willing to do the deed, yet also not quite ready to return the money they were paid, the two men left the children in the forest. Some versions even have one of the men slaying the other who did not have the same moral crisis and leaving the children there with the promise of returning with bread. Either way, the children were left to their own devices and could only wander around the forest, until ultimately they starved to death. Bad fortune was said to have haunted the uncle up until his death when he finally confessed to what he did.
There is recent evidence that the story does in fact have roots in something that really happened. In 1562, Thomas de Grey was only seven-years-old when his father passed away. He was made a ward of the Queen, who sold him into marriage. Similar to the tale, the boy had an uncle who had been despised by the boy's father before he passed away, but nonetheless was to inherit the Griston Hall Estate if the boy should die. At the age of eleven, the boy went to visit his stepmother and died mysteriously while he was there or on his way home and the uncle inherited the estate. The uncle was a devout Catholic Recusant, members of which were hated by the Protestants in the area, who jumped on the opportunity by claiming that the uncle caused the boy's death. He did not make matters any better when he made a claim for the dower property of the boy's widow. The story caused a stir and morphed its way into the ballad that was published shortly thereafter.
Despite the possible origins of the story, there are stories that persist to this day that the ghosts of two children haunt Wayland Wood. There have been several alleged sightings of two small forms walking hand in hand at night, searching for a way out of the forest. Others report hearing the sound of children asking for help or crying in despair. The latter is one of the reasons the woods are also known as Wailing Woods. If there really are two small spirits wandering the forest to this day, it certainly lends credence to the original theme of the tale.
The Area Today
Wayland Wood is still around today, though in 1879 lightning destroyed a giant oak tree, which was long rumored to be the place the poor children died. Both of the nearby villages of Watton and Griston commemorate the tale of Babes in the Wood in their village signs. The sign in Watton depicts the two children under a tree, while the sign in Griston has the two children on one side and the evil uncle on the other. The house the uncle was said to have lived, Griston Hall, reportedly had carvings over the years that depicted the child murders as well. Time and restoration has since removed the various depictions, though the house is reportedly a bed and breakfast today.