We’ve had the great things I have eaten and my predictions for 2015 in the world of food in an earlier post so, in the interest of balance, (and to retain my rep as a misanthrope) here’s some of the things I’d like to see the back of. In no particular order.
Hunks of meat and food on the street. Don’t get me wrong, I love a beef short rib and those hunky lumps of pork cooked down into a soft mush, all with burned edges, caught and crisp. But enough. You’ve missed the boat, the plane has flown, this culinary ship has sailed, taking much of the skill and originality with it (probably to Hawaii which is the new land of pork glory). The same applies to those stratified pork bellies slopped onto plates with poorly rendered flabby and pallid fat backs. Send those over elaborate burgers back to the pass too- intimidating, daunting and indecent, often the product of a disillusioned bankers vanity project – that dirty food joint or street cart, kitted out to resemble a truck that has bounced along the rutted streets along the US/Mexican border towns although these banker wanker ones have barely lived six months off the production line. I love food trucks, the ‘real’ ones whose food has evolved from the clientele, surroundings and background of their owners, established because their owners either cannot afford stratospheric rents and business start ups or because they truly live the street food lifestyle. I hate these fake Disney versions seen all over the UK now. They have no soul.
Damn roofing slates and off cuts of olive wood under everything. When I have paid over £11 for a course, I do not expect to lose half of it off the side of my roofing tile/lump of wood/chopping board. Plates please or at least some semblance of appropriateness with regards to what you put under my food. Things that scatter (fries, peas) don’t work. Things that sit there in damp lumps (coleslaw, burgers) might do.
Greaseproof or butchers paper under everything. I am not seated in a South Carolina pulled pork joint with a tar paper roof and mesh over the sindows or a Chesapeake Bay soft shell crab shack where the paper table coverings are pulled off the roll between customers. I am in a suburban eating house with a stock cupboard full of flatware, linens and cutlery. Use them.
Jam jars, Mason jars and Kilner jars. Unless they are act of preserving or serving proper pickles, home preserves or condiments, they have no place on my table. They don’t look homespun or even down home. They look pretentious at best, the appropriation of a life we don’t have at worst. Even more deplorable are the places where the Branstons and pre bought pickled onions are decanted into them. Drinking out of jam jars makes me dribble my drink too, something I thought I had grown out of in 1966. I can just about cope with this when I am outside, at dusk and barely visible, surrounded by pleasantly inebriated peers (who don’t notice). Inside, no, especially when I have paid about eleventy billion pounds for my cocktail or ice tea.
Uptight over intellectualised food. Humourless, clenched and earnest to the point of devout, where has the fun gone from food and eating out? Let’s have some perspective and some light heartedness without the arch knowngness either. I don’t go out to eat to hear some cobbled together philosophy of food alongside the genealogy of every ingredient on the plate- it is boring. And the only food journey I am interested in when eating out is the time distance between order and food in front of me.
Single food joints. We have the cereal cafe in East London and although I don’t think the proprietors are behind the breakdown in economic and social order in Shoreditch, as intimated by the infamous Channel 4 interview, I do think these type of places are tiresomely arch, self conscious and contrived. I also go <blech> at the thought of beard hairs+milk+cereal particles coming together in an almighty collision of boak-dom. Next we’ll have the cheese on toast bar where you can choose from a mix n match menu of toast and cheese varieties. We already have water menus so that particular piece of sadness is already with us. When I see these I think of W C Fields: “Don’t drink water, fish fuck in it.”
Paleo bollocks, ‘clean’ eating, worthy juice bars, nutritionist written books and menus by people with a diploma from an obscure online college. Believe the state registered dieticians who have been through years of externally assessed, peer reviewed training and are professionally and legally accountable for their practice, but be wary of some nutritionists- especially those that ascribe moral values or personality traits to food and eating. A food stuff does not possess inherently bad qualities; it is the way it is grown or distributed that is bad or good. This demonisation of sugar or bread or eggs or dairy is ridiculous. Beware the diet and lifestyle guru that resembles a pale, etiolated fish bone.
The fetishisation of poverty and cucina povera. No Jamie, the Sicilians do not feed a family of four on three San Marzanos, a bag of mussels and some olives grown on Uncle Tomassos’ farm. Neither can they do it for a few euros. Families across Italy, Spain and Greece are suffering economically, are experiencing a reduction in farm fresh, easily available foods because of encroaching supermarkets, and world wide recession. Stop romanticising a world that has changed greatly over the last decade.
The same goes for the fetishisation of bare boned food joints and corner stores. Stripped back brick, exposed wiring and heating, pressed tin ceilings, formica topped tables and even sawdust on the frigging floors. These places are like this because they cannot afford to decorate any differently (not because they decorated that way) or because there is no need to tart them up, and apeing them is the food equivalent of dressing in rags because you saw it some poor kids in them on the TV news and thought they looked cool.
Paying for the prime reservation times in restaurants, a free market economy action that is only free to those who can pay for it: often those least appreciative of good food. Just as many sporting events and major rock concerts fill their front row seats with corporate entertainment ‘guests’, as opposed to true fans, restaurants are starting to do this too. Yes you need to survive, to have a good turnover of high rolling customers but really, is this the soulless clientele you most desire? If so, re-name your place Hogarths and widen the doors to welcome the striped shirted, thread veined faced Soams-ian people of the world.
Food waste. Restaurants need to subscribe to food waste minimisation programmes, campaign for the reinstatement of laws that allow pigs to be fed on kitchen waste (an environmentally friendly way to produce food) and work towards educating customers about the level of food wastage, estimated to be between 20-40% of all catering food stuffs.
Disgusting illegal practices surrounding tipping. The British government made it illegal for companies to use tips or service charges to make up a minimum salary. Employers must differentiate between the service (or cover) charge (which they are allowed to keep or deduct an administration charge from), and tips which they are not. They need to ensure customers understand that a service charge intended as a tip may not go to their server at all. This should be clearly written on the menu. I have recently been made aware of three businesses in my home town of Bury St Edmunds who are retaining part (or all) of staff tips on occasions for different reasons and I intend to bring this to the attention of the relevant authorities.
In the meantime, customers should:
Make sure they pay any tips or service charges in cash and ask the restaurant whether all of the tips are paid to staff on top of the minimum wage- remember tips paid via credit or debit card for the purpose of being taken from the till as cash may not end up in the servers pocket;
If you are not happy, do not pay the service charge on your bill – it is usually optional – and also avoid any establishments that do not pass on their tips to staff. Make sure the management know of your objection to their policy.
Fucking cupcakes, tiers of over decorated layer cakes and cakes covered in thick slabs of fondant, shaped like trucks, Hulk Hogan or the terracotta army or something. These cake reality shows have a lot to answer for in their attitude of “fuck the taste, as long as it looks like something that is not a cake.” Cake pops, whoopie pies and (sad to say) supermarket macarons all go in the skip of hatred too. These are, more often than not, mouthfuls of saccharine poison.
Enough of the smoked, brined, barbecued, pickled and cured foods. You’ll all be giving yourselves stomach cancer at this rate. Ease up.
A recent piece in OFM (Observer Food Monthly) titled ‘The best thing I ate in 2014’ got me to thinking about the best things I have eaten this year, both at home and whilst out and about in East Anglia and further afield.
Some of the best things included:
The wild mushroom, treacle bacon and Reblochon on toasted sourdough at the Horringer Six Bells which was one of the best things I have ever eaten;
Marmalade gin from Slamseys, infused with Seville oranges, tart and rich and warm and the blackberry gin from the Ely Gin Company, absolute autumn fruitfulness in a bottle;
Brunswick stew made by a friend from North Carolina to James Villas‘ recipe in ‘The Glory of Southern Cooking’;
The cornbread at Lockhart, light, sweet, bubbling in its cooking tin and the wedge lettuce, served as James Villas himself recommends with a ranch dressing, allowing the sweet icy crunch of the lettuce to stand proud.
And for what its worth, here are the things I think will attract greater attention next year:
Cup cakes and macarons are exhausted. Lets elevate the humble madeleine with all manner of flavoured soaks and dipping sauces. The combinations are endless starting off with the Proustian lime tisane. Imagine a tumble of madeleines on a plate served with little pots of chocolate spiked with chile, madeleines brushed with chestnut honey, soaked with an all spice and rum sugar syrup or dipped into pots of cardomom infused chai?
Hawaiian food because it has that sweet salty thing going on and is a wonderful melange of culture and history- Russians, Portugese, Japanese and the English- as the islands were settled. There has been regional food in Hawaii for centuries, taro root, seawood etc, but its failure to blend in with the food of incomers from Europe or build itself into a base for modern Hawaiian cooking meant it faded into the background. With only a few thousand people left who are descended from the original natives of these islands, the call for it was less too. What we have, on the surface, is a kind of fusion of eastern and western elements but there are signs that the new breed of chefs and cooks are seeking to meld the old, original ingredients, techniques and recipes with the newer. Cottage industries all over the archipelago are producing great raw ingredients and products: goats cheese, species pineapples and macadamias, venison, passion fruit and chocolate. In addition, the indigenous fish swimming in the local waters are spectacular. Old recipes such as Lomi Lomi salmon are reinvigorated with a crust of crushed macadamia and the basic ahi poke is turned into gourmet food using best tuna toro, the local seaweed and fresh ginger root. As a contrast, street food fans are turning to other Hawaiian foods and remaking them for a generation of food lovers who want to eat on the run but also want to eat well. Malasadas, the Portugese doughnuts bought to the islands by immigrants are stuffed with local fruits, roots or creams made from coconut and fried.
All things Hungarian and Austrian. Because when you strip a lot of baking back to its roots, here’s where you end up.
German food. Nothing like a bit of Mittel European to take us through hard times. Comforting, unpretentious and generally straight forward (although Baumkuchen takes some work!). Barley, one pot eintopf with spatzle and kasepatzle (topped with cheese), high end interpretations of wurst with curry sauce (Currywurst) on the street, remoulade and curry mayonnaise with chips (french fries) as eaten by us on the streets of Frankfurt last week- all comforting foods. Even kale can be accommodated in a bowl of Grünkohleintopf – kale with smoked meat and sausages.
The recipes of the Pennsylvanian Dutch, (Amish, Mennonite and Moravians) settled in the USA will come into the spotlight although many of their best loved foods display a fondness for sugar that is not in line with healthier eating recommendations. That Mittel European influence is obvious, seeing as the original Amish were German and they ate hearty, rib sticking meals designed to fuel their heavy labour out in the fields. Potato filling with saffron, Shoofly pie, fry pies, tapioca and friendship cakes will prove popular. Porridge pots will be over taken by little pots of Wisconsin style tapioca.
Plain cakes. The trend for ridiculous hybrids and over decorating suddenly looks so old fashioned although we’ll still be exploring American cakes. Lady Baltimore cake and the classic pound cake will be seen more.
The obsession with the food of the American south will continue as late adopters join the party and lesser known regional specialities such as the Kentucky Burgoo and Brunswick stews will gain in popularity. The southern biscuits will start to accompany our food whether they be cat head, angel flake or the classic baking powder biscuit and we’ll see some more homely pies- meal pie, country pie and woodford pudding.
We’re going to go frontier, a logical extension of the flannel checked shirt and beardy face (the latter more a male thing, I acknowledge) that has run riot on our streets of late. From Pendleton blankets and Frye boots to the ingredients of states like Alaska and countries like Canada it’ll be all birch syrup instead of maple and steaks from moose plus high qual salmon cooked on planks, a variation of the smoked fish we’ve been inundated with.
There’ll also be a run on classic street drinks such as date shakes from South California. We’ll see renewed interest in fish boils such as you encounter in Wisconsin and Minnesota with restaurants and street food retailers putting on their own. Niche communities in the USA will be explored and their foods- Belgian Prune Pie in Wisconsin Door Country springs to mind- will emerge.
The cooking and baking of Appalachia, its culture and music will become more known, with Appalachian stack cake turning up in bakeries and restaurants. Sorghum as a sweetener will gain popularity along with hominy, parched and and boiled peanuts drunk with coke (although they are more commonly found deeper south) will start to be prepared in the UK. The more rustic meat products such as souse, brawn (headcheese) and scrapple will prove popular with the beardy hipsters as they try to out clever each other and the bacon cuts of other countries -fat back for example- will appear. The classic Virginia ham cure, air dried and then sliced and cooked alongside the little known Maryland ham with its stuffing of thick herbed parsley will vie for attention with more niche European ham varieties. We’ll be able to buy squirrel easily and accompany it with home made chow chow and watermelon rind pickles.
Cuba. Now the USA has ‘discovered’ it, we’ll be deluged with hipsters channelling Hemingway and turning their drinking dens in Brooklyn and Shoreditch (the latter complete with architecturally inauthentic pressed tin ceiling) into bodegas from Havana. Expect Farrow & Ball to rush out a cigar smoke stained paint and we’ll all be urged to eat pastries sweetened with sugar cane, black beans and yuca, malanga, mojo criollo, boniato and even more pork. The race to serve the rarest, hardest to get hold of rum is on.
Keep an eye out for new Temperance bars in the style of the original, Mister Fitzpatricks in Rossendale, Lancashire which has been going since 1859. This movement has its roots in the rejection of the widespread alcohol problems during the Industrial Revolution in and around Preston, 1835. A breakdown in family life was blamed on the easy availability of cheap gin and ale and of course, once productivity was affected, abstinence began to be promoted. It was important for working people to still have somewhere to go though to share a convivial drink and the opening of temperance bars across the textile districts of Yorkshire & Lancashire, spreading across the whole of the UK, provided this. Finally, a Preston Methodist cheese maker established a society under which a pledge of sobriety was taken which expanded beyond the churches to become part of every day life for the now sober British. Temperance Bars were the new social scene. Dandelion & Burdock might date back to the days of St Thomas Aquinas but it is coming back into vogue, along with the other drinks that Mister Fitzpatricks never actually stopped selling- sarsaparilla, ginger beer, cream soda, blood tonic and lemon and ginger plus temperance cocktails such as those sold at The Alchemist in Leeds, packed with elderflower and Fentimans delicious lemonade. The old health giving properties: dandelion to reduce water retention, ginger for soothing nausea or colds, rosehip for colds and immune boosting, sarsaparilla and for detoxifying are married with a new cool and most important of all, taste.
The great ice cream revolution has already started, from the trad Italian style gelato and super premium American ice versions to the mastic based ice creams of Turkey named Dondurma after the Turkish for ‘freezing’ and heavier than the Arabic kind. Containing milk, sugar, mastic and salep, the latter a powder from the root of an orchid, Dondurma is all about the chewy texture (sometimes eaten with knife and fork) and resistance to melting. In the past, mountain dwellers made it with snow, goat milk, mastic, and “dried orchidaceae powder” and in southeast Turkey, the ice cream was more solid and sticky because of the powder of the orchid flowers that grow there. This is definitely one for the hipsters. We’ll see them selling their versions from traditional carts, I bet you, and their flavours will have those trad names such as ‘Haleeb’.
We’ll also see toasted, smoked and salted ice cream hit the mainstream- recipes are already appearing on large food sites, partially as a result of the home curing and smoking craze where everything without a pulse is bunged in. Super premium is championed by the ice cream makers of the USA such as Jen’s Splendid Ice creams who use high quality ingredients and artisanal techniques married with high tech experimentation to develop new flavours. ((Red Beets with Mascarpone and Poppy Seeds anyone?) Developing from this are the Sno-Cones, sherberts, paletas and ice creams made from the milk of other animals and from nuts and seeds. The street sellers of Latin America with their ice filled carts piled high with paletas (solid frozen fruit sticks) made from chilé spiked watermelon and pinon are the inspiration here. Look out for flavours sold according to the source of their ingredients too- expect a whole menu of vanilla flavours using pods and seeds from all over the world. Much as you get with chocolate now.
Apropos to the ice cream appreciation, will be the return of fun. To get good ice cream one needs (as with most food and recipe development) to be a bit of une serieuse BUT ( and yes, a big ‘but’ interjection is required here) it should also be fun. Take Big Gay Ice Cream in NYC. It’s a real laugh but the quality is taken very seriously. This sense of playfulness urgently needs to spread to other food producers and makers. Less earnestness please and start to unhitch your wagon from the need to trumpet the origin, heritage and family tree of every ingredient (unless it is of real relevance).
Trash fish and more nose to tail. We’ve had nose to tail eating with regards to the beasts of the field. Now can we apply this to those that swim in the sea or inland waters? I am so happy that chefs are embracing a more economical approach to ingredients but less happy that supermarkets have cashed in (literally) by ramping up the price of ox tail, beef and pig cheeks and offal. I suppose the same will apply to trash fish: after all we saw this happen with monkfish. I am not sure however that nose to tail really extended to chitterlings though. I haven’t seen those on the streets of British cities. Not a lot of Menudo going on.
Remember that episode in SATC where Carrie and her friends ate at hot new NYC restaurant ‘Raw’ and grimaced their way through food they considered barely edible? Well since then we’ve come quite a way. Raw food will move away from cubes of baby vegetables and bizarre nut and fungi milks towards raw versions of recognised meals- pizzas, curries and stir unfries. The Icelandic chef Solla Eiriks eats a high-raw diet, and has championed raw food to Icelanders for over a decade and even manages to serve cinnamon rolls in her raw food restaurant chain.
Respect to Mexico. At bloody last. Never has a cuisine been more misrepresented and slurred. Wahaca is great but it isn’t the Mexican food I recall from my childhood being sold there. I think we need a clear division or philosophical demarcation between the authentic replication of regional Mexican cuisine and the influence it has over modern fusion cooking (or to phrase that a little better, a nuanced cooking that borrows technique, ingredient or style from a place). I cannot believe I used the word ‘fusion’- I hate it.
Oh, and can we have some proper tamales in Britain please?
Food writing- Cross over publishing will give us some high quality collectors editions of new and niche writing about food. But not just writing. From books like Cornbread Nation, the yearly collation of writings, poetry and images from the food community of the Deep South via the Southern Foodways to magazines like Toast, Lucky Peach, Gather and Kinfolk, the food writing world will champion new yearly or bi annual publications. These will be new hybrid book/magazines with high production values and things of beauty and function to keep and hand down: print, print and more print for a generation of people wanting tactility and real life form. We all crave the personal and authentic and the idea of posterity in magazine writing will reemerge. Nothing about these editions will be throwaway.
The re-publication of wonderful food writers such as Laurie Colwin, sadly died far too young in 2015 will hopefully herald the rediscovery of many others that have either died- James Beard, Craig Claiborne, MK Fisher or who don’t have a social media presence- James Villas. The food memoir has receded from the spotlight over the last few years to be replaced by the cook book cum memoir and collection of stand alone food writings but these trad, prose chaptered books are a breath of fresh air in a world where every food person has an opinion. I so want James Villas to be rediscovered. Finally, ‘Prune’ by Gabrielle Hamilton set the 2015 bar for cook books, dispensing with recipe headnotes and introductions. No guff, just bloody great recipes and meat mallet like straightforwardness. Less of the hyperbole and alliterative descriptions please.
As a small girl, one of my favourite push-me-pull-me activities was to terrify myself by avidly reading ghost stories (I read ‘The Shining’ aged eleven) and I coped with their scariness by telling myself that they were imaginary events with no existence outside the minds of their authors. One evening I was staying at a friends house and picked up her fathers copy of ‘Haunted England’, devouring it from cover to cover, huddled up in a black leather office chair that swiveled round and round. As I got further into the book, I grew more and more preoccupied with ensuring the chair faced the (now open) office door in that drafty cranny filled Edwardian house. A room that had always been as familiar to me as those of my own family house became filled with strange noises and unpredictable shadows and from that moment on I could no longer regard ghostly tales as entertainment nor see my everyday spaces in the same way. The thought that ghosts might be real and they might live near me was just too much.
Still, this did not stop me from going on a ‘camping trip’ to the grounds of the notorious Borley Rectory aged sixteen or so, although I was fortified and dulled, sensate wise, by copious amounts of cider sold to us via the off licence at the back of a local pub. (Things were laxer then.) I eventually passed out from sheer fright and drunkenness half in and half out of the tent, only to awaken hours later covered in dew and miniature cobwebs from the money spiders that infested the grounds. I haven’t been back since and despite the fact that I don’t think I saw anything from any world other than my own, I remain thoroughly spooked by the worry about what it would have meant to me and my spiritual standpoint had I seen ‘anything.’
The two counties of Norfolk and Suffolk possess a subtle spookiness: of mists drifting across the flatness of the Fens and the Broads, of a strange and porous landscape, bordered by a coast that is continually beleagered by the elements, arranging itself in a new form after each winter. A landscape of graphic linear horizons under wide skies contrasts with this sense of impermeability, rendering us more receptive to stories of ghosts and strange creatures themselves slipping through the semi permeable membrane of time itself. Told by cottage fires to children to scare them away from danger and in pubs and public gatherings over the centuries, the stories serve many purposes as well as that of entertainment. The very real dangers faced by our ancestors and the risks remain a familiar fact of life for inhabitants of this watery landscape- we may not face wolves and marauders in boats from the far north, but we do have floods and tides, land erosion and loss of habitat. We are vulnerable and somehow we have to find a way of managing the feelings this engenders.
It is not hard to conjure up the ghosts of the invaders and settlers who left their burial mounds, hidden treasures, caves and ringed settlements of huts, circled against fresh invaders. They arrived during times of war to defend us and left us their airfields and castles, whilst others built churches, cathedrals and monasteries to commemorate and celebrate their gods. The ancient towns and cities bear rings of concentric history from medieval grids and the black and white of the Tudors to the narrow alleys, grand squares and almshouse courtyards of their Victorian periods. To walk around the region is to slide from century to century and it is not hard to imagine that others, from times past, walk alongside you too. Here are their tales, some more well known, others less so.
(1) Borley Rectory, ghost hunters and artifice-
Harry Price was one of England’s most famous ghost hunters, dedicated to his mission to investigate suspected hauntings and with the potential to expose the fraud that might lie behind them. Since the early 1920’s when news of the suspected haunting at Borley first became public knowledge, the burned out remains of this rectory and its graveyard and grounds in a small village near Sudbury in Suffolk has captured the imagination of the public to become arguably, one of the most, if not the most famous of all national ghost stories. It is a tale full of gothic tropes- nuns, ghostly writings and fierce fires with strange figures seen in the flames. Pure Vincent Price.
Borley Rectory was built in 1863 for the Reverend Henry Bull on the site of an ancient monastery.The ghost of a sorrowful nun who strolled along the so called “Nun’s Walk” was already well known locally at the time, believed to be a disobedient sister from the nearby nunnery at Bures who had fallen in love with a monk from the Borley Monastery. The two had tried to elope and upon their capture, the monk was executed and the nun bricked up alive in the cellars of the monastic building. The family weren’t too bothered by her presence but their guests began to be startled by the nun appearing to peer at them through the windows of the new rectory and servants rarely stayed long. When Henry’s son Harry took over the rectory the visitations were reported to have increased with a ghostly coach and horses seen racing up the rectory drive.
The Revd Eric Smith and his wife arrived at the rectory in 1927 and they invited well-known psychic researcher, Harry Price, to visit, setting off nexplicable poltergeist activity where belongings were broken and stones thrown at the family and Harry Price. The Smiths only lasted two years before they moved, to be replaced by the Revd Lionel Foyster and his family whereupon the ghostly presences increased their activities. The resident ghost appeared to hold a penchant for the rector’s wife, Marianne, displaying its ardour in a bizarre manner- hurling objects at her and leaving messages scrawled all over the walls. Witnesses claimed to have seen these appear in from of their eyes, although most of the writing was illegible and unintelligible. Finally the family decided have the Rectory exorcised and life quietened for a while afterwards but the manifestations eventually returned in a variety of new ways with inexplicable music emanating from the nearby Church and servant bells ringing by themselves, communion wine turning into ink and “something horrid” attacking one of their children. The family left and successive Rectors refused to live in the rectory and who would have blamed them?
Upon his return in 1937 with a large team of investigators, Harry Price recorded a number of phenomena, the most chilling occurring during a seance where a ‘communicant’ claimed that the the rectory would catch fire in the hallway that night and burn down. A nun’s body would be discovered in the ruins. Nothing happened until exactly eleven months later when the rectory burned down after an oil lamp fell over in the hall. Locals claimed to have seen a nuns face peering from an upstairs window and ghostly figures cavorting around. When Price returned yet again in 1943, he discovered the jawbone of a young woman and gave it a Christian burial in an attempt to bring peace to the site. Locals still report supernatural happenings in the graveyard and the place has cemented its reputation as a spooky place to visit, regardless of whether these events happened or not.
If you are interested in Borley and its history, Neil Spring’s book ‘The Ghost Hunters’ tells the story of the rectory and Harry Price via the character, Sarah Grey, one of the new assistants taken on to explore the hauntings. Sarah says: “I knew of Borley Rectory, too, before I visited it with Harry – supposedly the most haunted house in England. I knew there was no such thing as phantoms; the many witnesses must be mad, or lying. I knew I could visit Borley Rectory without fear, return without harm. These are the things I thought I knew. I now understand the true meaning of terror.”
A new animated documentary film called ‘Borley Rectory is also currently in production. Noir-ish is style, the director Ashley Thorpe describes it as a ‘love letter to another age of horror’ after reading about Borley Rectory as a child in the Usborne Book of Ghosts.
(2) Newmarket gypsy boys grave-
In times gone by, a crossroads wasn’t merely a place where four routes intersected but was actually accorded a religious and spiritual meaning and people who committed suicide were sometimes buried nearby. Until the late sixties, suicide was treated as a crime ‘the murder of oneself’ and the families of suicides were not granted permission to bury them on consecrated ground. This is where the term ‘committed suicide’ originally comes from and refers to the commission of an unlawful act. Families would seek some form of religious meaning in burial by selecting a crossroads as the burial site of their loved one so they could be buried near what they saw as the shape of a cross in the road.
Drive in either direction on the B1506 near Newmarket and Moulton and you will reach a crossroads caused by an intersection with the B1085. Nearby is the unmarked grave where Joseph, a young lad from a traveler family, took his own life in the 17th Century and was subsequently buried. It is believed that some sheep from a flock he was herding went astray one day and, believing he’d be accused of their theft and knowing he would not get a fair trial in a society prejudiced against gypsies, took his own life rather than be hung for something he did not do. This is believed to be his grave and gypsy families erected a cross there in the seventies. In his book “Paranormal Suffolk,” the author Christopher Reeve says: “cyclists are mysteriously forced by some strange unseen power to dismount as they near the spot.” and local riders have long reported their mounts shying away or refusing to go close. Conversely there is also a well established tradition of race goers visiting the grave for good luck too. The belief is that if any flowers should appear on the grave during Derby week, then a horse from the Newmarket stables will win and the colour of the graveside flowers will foretell those of the silks of the winning jockeys.
(3) Tales of Norwich from ‘The Man in Black’-
Book yourselves on a Norwich Ghost Walk and you wil get two hours of ambulant history and ghostly tales as you tramp the streets of this atmospheric city with the ‘Man in Black’, a lugubrious Victorian historian and tour guide. Our favourite location, Fye Bridge is a 13th century structure rebuilt in 1829 and the site of a medieval ducking stool used to ‘test’ for witches. Should the poor women survive her ducking, she would then immolated on a wooden pyre, surrounded by baying crowds. Locals report multiple sighting of the ghosts of these witches, all of them carrying their own faggots –the piles of wood on which they would later be burned: a particularly sadistic executioners touch. The ghost walk uses local actors to simulate scenes from the past such as the ‘Faggot Witch’ who curses you and shakes her sticks as you pass.
Nearby Magdalen Street has been described as one of the most ‘haunted places in Britain’ with No19 infested by ghostly footsteps echoing through the empty parts of the building, cold spots and drafts, and a shadowy figure on its stairs, maybe as a result of a nineteenth century murder committed in the building. Staff at the Adam and Eve pub report a sighting of a ghostly hand holding a head in the car park, the terrifying sensation of somebody running hands through their hair and odd noises. Lord Sheffield, who died at the inn in 1549 is believed to be the culprit here.
The aptly named part of Norwich known as Tombland is the site of the Grey Lady hauntings, believed to be the earthly manifestation of a very unhappy and inadvertent victim of the plague. When the disease killed the occupants of the nearby Augustine Steward building, the house was boarded up for several weeks to prevent people entering or leaving but sadly a young girl in the house had survived the plague, only to starve to death, unable to escape. Her grey robes fade away to nothingness below the knees as she drifts around several location in the older parts of the city, it is understandable that after such confinement, unable to escape, her ghost is certainly not going to limit itself to one site.
(3) Disappearing and reappearing mansions in Suffolk-
Perusing the Bury Free Press last spring I was intrigued by a letter from a Jean Batram who spoke of her disquiet after seeing a house apparently appear then disappear moments later as she drove through the village of Rougham. She explained: “About five years ago, we were having a Sunday afternoon drive, coming into Rougham and going along Kingshall Street (I’d never been that way before) and up to the last bungalow. Looking across the newly harrowed field I saw a large house on its own very, very plainly. I said to my husband ‘look at that lovely house, I’ll take a look again on the way back’.
But coming back later, the house was gone and I asked if we were on the same road and he said ‘yes’, so I remarked ‘how odd’ as I knew very plainly that there was a large house standing on its own quite near across the field with trees behind it.”
NowJean was not the first person to see this strange vision and indeed is one of many over the last century and a half. In her book, ‘Ghosts of Suffolk’, Betty Puttick christens the apparition the “Rougham mirage” and goes on to talk about an eye witness account from 1860 when another local by the name of Robert Palfrey saw a large red brick double-fronted house behind ornate iron gates, only for the sight to disappear in a blink of an eye, right in front of him. Several decades later, his own great grandson reported the same phenomena whilst out with his horse and carriage. He drove past it and upon his return trip, noticed the house was no longer there. What is so odd about these sightings is that the house is described as not only being very large, making one wonder how locals had such little awareness of such a house being constructed, but was also of Georgian appearance. That period of architecture ended around 1830, only thirty years before Mr Palfrey’s sighting so it would seem likely that had it existed, locals would report their memories of its construction. Remember how under populated rural regions were then (and still are)? You could not hope to slip in and out of a village let alone build a house in one, unnoticed. The building of such a house would have involved hundreds of locals, from those sourcing and supplying the raw materials to the many who would have been intrigued and gossiped about the potential inhabitants.
Well known and respected psychic researcher Tony Cornell carried out his own investigations in the seventies and could find no corroboration of either its existence or the lack of; however he did find some evidence of the existence of a residence called the Kings House, demolished in the early 1800’s through his research of local maps. The mystery continues although I look away from the alleged site whenever we drive past, frightened that I might accidentally see it (which would be NOT a good thing for this frightened of ghost houses person).
(4) And haunted airfields-
Suffolk and Norfolk provided a temporary home to thousands of the ‘over paid, over sexed and over here’ American Airforce men during the Second World War and it appears that some may have decided to remain here, long after their corporeal life was over. Rougham Airfield (What it is about this little village that makes it so seductive to ghosts?) has long been reputed to be the eternal wandering grounds of a number of these young men from the U.S. 8th Air Force 1942-1945 who tragically were killed during their posting here.
After the wars end, most of the airfields north of the village were returned to the farmers and were reintegrated into the surrounding arable fields, although a few acres became the Rougham Industrial Estate, whilst the remaining grass taxi and runways were turned over for commercial and civil use. The control tower remains though, and now forms the hub of the Airfield Museum with frequent open days, kite festivals and other events, giving the public a chance to visit.
Towards the end of the war, an American airman nicknamed L’il Butch wandered around the base, triumphant after his successful return from yet another bombing raid over Germany. He must have been greatly relieved to be back at base as he wasn’t too far off the end of his active service in England. He was seen and waved to by several of his colleagues as they too arrived back or headed towards their own planes. The curious thing was that several months earlier, L’il Butch had actually been killed on a bombing raid over Germany and had not returned at all. He seemed to not know that he had died, according to his friends, and apart from their knowing that he was dead, his ghost gave no indication of being in anything other than the rudest of health.
Hauntings at the airfield were said to have increased from the seventies onwards, with locals reporting sightings of ghostly apparitions of American servicemen walking the fields and runways of the base and the noise of aircraft could be heard as they landed and took off. Eerie voices echoed around the control tower: one in particular sounds very distressing and is believed to be that of a pilot who ran out of fuel and crashed his plane at the base: ‘Why wouldn’t you let us land?’” he has been heard crying out in distress. Should you wish to further channel the spirit of these good natured and brave men, then Lavenham’s Swan Hotel has the Airmen Bar with one wall covered in their signatures. They relaxed and drank here and Glenn Miller was reputed to have set out on his fateful flight after visiting the bar. As Bernard Nolan stated in the East Anglian Daily Times: “We could get to Lavenham quite easily from where we lived in a Nissen hut just a few fields away. I can recall that we used to walk across the muddy fields in our flying boots, and we would take our boots off and leave them on the road and pick them up on the way back from the pub We usually came here to the Swan – it was one of our favourite haunts.” It is such a shame that so many of the cartoons and graffiti created by the airmen has now disappeared although the group Eighth in the East was established to record and research the legacy USAF had (and still has ) upon East Anglia.
“And a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring. And its wild bark thrill’d around, his eyes had the glow of the fires below, t’was the form of the spectre hound.”
Or as Enid Porter said in ‘Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore”: “The noise of rattling chains over the desolate fields on moonless nights announced the invisible presence of these hounds; sometimes their heavy breathing might be heard. The important thing to do was to take shelter immediately, at home if possible, and to lock and bolt doors and windows so that the fearsome animals, foretelling death or other disaster, could not come by”
The Anglo Saxon had a word for a devil or demon; ‘Scucca‘, as did the Norse Vikings; ‘Shukir‘ and both of these served as shorthand, after a manner, for their Norse ‘Dogs of War’, the gods called Odin and Thor. Some historians claim this was the name of Thor’s faithful old dog whilst others state the dog actually belonged to Odin. So one of both of these may have given their name to the ‘Black Shuck’, the East Anglian colloquial name for a terrifying canine beast that is super sized (and I don’t mean St Bernard sized- think bigger). Huge and black with eyes the size of saucers, the Black Shuck pads almost soundlessly behind you, dogging your step and getting closer and closer: your inevitable fate, should you look directly into those eyes, is death within six months to a year. Equally its name may simply be a bastardisation of’ Shucky’ which simply means shaggy, and the legend merely a story of the shaggy dog kind.
The Black Shuck is a local version of a legend that is common to many parts of the UK and even in East Anglia, he is known by other names: the Galleytrot in Suffolk and Old Scarfe in other parts of Norfolk. In Essex they call him the ‘Hateful Thing.’ One of his more famous stamping grounds lies between Sheringham and Overstrand where, in 1890, a young boy reported being hounded farther out to sea by a large dog that would not let him come ashore. There are numerous sightings over centuries, all remarkably consistent regarding behaviour and appearance, although Overstrand village legend also tells of a gentler Black Shuck. In this version, a Dane, a Saxon and Shuck the dog were inseparable friends who were drowned whilst out fishing one day and the Dane ended up being washed up at Beeston while his friend, the Saxon, washed up at Overstrand. Shuck roams the coast between the two looking for his friends and masters, doomed to never be reunited with them and to this day the village of Overstrand bears an image of this loyal hound on its village sign.
Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have based ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ on another of the Black Shuck’s routes, around Mill Lane which passes by Cromer Hall but replaced the flatter Norfolk with a wilder Dartmoor. The description of Baskerville is remarkably close to the appearance of Cromer Hall although stories telling of black devil dogs abound in Devon too so it is by no means certain that Doyle used the Norfolk prototype as his inspiration.
The benefits of tales and legends such as these are pretty clear. What better way to keep people safely at home as night fell, away from beaches, cliff edges and lonely dark lanes than by frightening them? Or they may have functioned as a way to explain what was then, the inexplicable- tragedies, misadventure and disappearances as people attempted to find their way home in the dark, in an inhospitable place. Curious children can be protected from drowning by an over elaborate tale of how one of their compatriots nearly drowned themselves after venturing too close to the sea. In addition, if you are involved in smuggling or other beach side capers, here’s how you warn away the curious and those who might wish to make a move on your lucrative trade.
What was probably a lightning strike in a church in Blythburgh, resulting in black striations on the inside of the church door, which locals described as the claw marks, sounds far more sinister blamed upon a gigantic black dog leaping from a beam up high, killing a boy and two grown men, before leaving the building with ‘a great thundering sound?’ It also avoids having to ask awkward questions of a God who sends a storm to kill pious church goers- and far more comfortable it must be to blame it on a black dog sent by a devil instead. Of course this would be encouraged by the church who could further turn such tales and subsequent fears to their advantage: “Pray harder, tithe more to prevent such evil visiting us again” maybe?
East Anglia is littered (get it?) with all manner of Black Shuck iconography, from the signs of its villages to street lights topped by weathervanes such as this one in Bungay, designed by a local child in a competition in 1933. The hound rides a lightning bolt and refers to his appearance in the town in 1577 during yet another thunderstorm which killed several worshippers in St Mary’s church. Two were killed after being touched by the animal and a third died after being “drawn together and shrunk up as like a piece of leather” according to Abraham Fleming’s account of this event in his pamphlet of 1577. This latter description sounds more like the effects of the intense heat of a bolt of lightning. The weathervane cum streetlight, which was erected on the site of the old water pump has an inscription which reads: “All down the church in midst of fire the hellish monster flew. and passing onwards to the Quire he many people slew.” Should you want to know more, then ‘ byShock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Case Study in Folklore’ by Dr David Waldron and Christopher Reeve is a great (albeit non academic) account of the history of not only the Bungay and Blythburgh events, but the historical and cultural background to the myth.
Should you wish to toast the legend of the Black Shuck then there are available locally, several fine ales brewed by some small independent breweries in regional hostelries or via off licences. Hellhound, a Suffolk brewery based in Hadleigh,started up only a few years ago, has Cerberus as its logo and brews Black Shuck, a 3.9% porter described by them as dark bodied with notes of caramel and raisin and is a ‘breakfast stout’, brewed with porridge oats and coffee. We drank it at a Norwich pub called The Murderers, a suitably named place for an ale named after a dark legend. In Old Buckenham, the Wagtail Brewery brews ‘Black Shuck’, a stout using malt from Wells-next-the-Sea. According to the label: “Since Viking times, the inhabitants of Norfolk have told of a wild black dog with flaming red eyes, the appearance of which bodes ill to the beholder.” Made as a vegan beer in total contradiction to its namesake who we feel sure is NOT a vegan, this ale is shuck dark with a very mild scent of coffee, roasted and woody in the mouth.
(6) The haunted drowned town of Dunwich
From a land haunted by dogs and people, we turn to a land haunted by an entire disappeared village, a place once inhabited by real Suffolk folk, busy and full of life. By the eleventh century, Dunwich, right on the edge of Suffolk where it meets the tea coloured waters of the North Sea, was one of the greatest ports on the entire east coast with a naval base, monasteries, churches, huge public buildings and its own mint. Locals lived well off the fat of their labours in shipbuilding and trade and a fishing fleet of more than seventy ships went out every day. From its earliest beginnings as a Roman fort, Dunwich became the capital of a Saxon kingdom and the place where St Felix converted East Anglians to Christianity, and the tenth largest in England with two parliamentary seats. There was much to be lost when the town eventually tumbled into the North Sea that had provided it with such a good living.
Prior to this disastrous and terminal event, the towns expansion and prosperity had been curtailed by a huge storm in 1328 which tore through the town, shifting the shingle of the seabed, changing the current and ended up blocking off its harbour. Walberswick became prosperous off the back of this because ships were diverted there and this caused animosity between the two towns. During the subsequent storms, houses, churches and windmills were lost and by 1540 the sea had engulfed the market place and Dunwich was lost. All that was left was the 13th century Franciscan friary on the edge of the cliff and the Leper Hospital chapel in the present churchyard.
Coastal erosion has not ceased and the land continues to recede at a steady old rate, first recorded in Roman times. The soft boulder clay of this coastline is crowned by a layer of shingle which has an essential impermanence, shifting so much the coastal mappers cannot keep up. Man has not helped either with the construction, in the early 20th century, of a new pier at Lowestoft. This altered the tides and the current began to encroach upon and take All Saints church, formerly one of Suffolk’s most impressive churches. That one church tower remained upright on the beach until its eventual collapse in 1900. Until the 1950’s walkers still came upon its masonry, littered across the shoreline and the former graves gave up their contents, scattering bones across the cliffs. The thundering surge took not only the village, all six parishes of it, but also wiped out an entire hunting forest, hills and the harbour which was stopped up by a shingle bank so impenetrable, its fate was sealed forever.
Today Dunwich is a little village of less than 120 residents although its numbers swell hugely during the tourist season. There are some fishing boats left, a shadow of the former fleet and the gorgeous pub ‘The Ship’ which sprawls on the corner of the sandy tracks down to the beach. The Flora tearooms cook and serve up hundreds of thousands of plates of expertly friend fish and chips and the heath teams with walkers and bird watchers. Near to the pub is the Dunwich Museum that tells the tale of this lost place.
“But!” I hear you cry…“What about the haunting? “
That lost undersea world, our nearest thing to Atlantis has attracted many pilgrims over the years who come to sit on the sand and perch on the cliff tops, listening for the church bells, ringing their futile and haunted peels from the bottom of the North Sea. “Where frowns the ruin o’er the silent dead?” we might ask as we sit on the beach at night, the only light coming from the few buildings that cling to the marram grass tufted cliffs, and the only noise the soft clatter of the thick crust of pebbles that make up the beach here as the waves move up and over them. There is a myth that Dunwich had over fifty churches, perpetuated by Thomas Gardner, a Southwold historian, but there weren’t that many.
The seabed here attracts divers and snorkellers, attracted by an subterranean history as rich as that of ground sites and experienced divers, who are not easily spooked nor vulnerable to all manner of fancies, tell of unsettled feelings, of not being alone down ‘there’. Fishermen too, another breed of folk not prone to flights of imagination talk (although they do like a good yarn) speak of seeing an Elizabethan sailor who wanders the beach at nights fall, eventually wading out to a boat anchored a way out to sea. They hear the bells, infinitessimally muted by a hundred of more feet of waters, hear the cries of ghostly children playing on the beach at dusk and see the phantom horseman astride his steed. Said to be a former squire of the Dunwich heathlands (now owned by the National Trust), he only appears during the full moon when the tides turn, scaring those that encounter him. The phantom horseman is not the only phantom horseman either and when there’s a full moon, locals have seen the ghostly apparition of a past landowner racing his horse across the heathland at full gallop.
Walk the cliff path near the grade II* listed Greyfriars Priory ruins and you may see the apparition of a man, striding along in angry search of his adulterous wife who ran away with her lover. The ruins of the priory and those of the old leper hospital in Dunwich are the haunt of ghostly monks (I have yet to come across a priory that isn’t home to a monk ghost of three!) who roam its grounds, blissfully unaware that it is in need of urgent repair. Finally, if you are brave (and daft enough) to visit St James Church at dusk, you may bump into the spectral remains of the leper inhabitants who are said to haunt the churches graveyard.
That old East Anglian ghost mascot, the Black Shuck likes it here too and its glowing red eyes have been reported to peer at visitors who come here at dusk (who in their right mind would want to come to such a spooky place at night?) with a notable sighting reported in 1926 of a giant dog which loped around the tumbled stones. Dunwich has a plethora of animal ghosts with flocks of ghost sheep and cows seen along the shoreline, reminders of the real animals who were once raised here and perished during the storms, their water logged corpses washed up along the shore for months afterwards.
One of the worst tales for sheer weirdness is the encounter a young couple had with a pair of ghostly disembodied legs along the Helena Walk Trail in 2011. Hearing strange footsteps following them, they turned around to see these spooky floating legs, hovering a few feet above the pathway. Wearing dark trousers and boots, the legs ran away into the trees lining the pathway and may have belonged to the ghost of the brother of the Lord of the Manor who apparently fell in love with a local serving maid. Banned from ever seeing her again, he is said to have pined away and died from a broken heart. I do not know how he became separated from the rest of his body.
(7) The wailing babes in a (Norfolk) wood
The trope of the pint sized ghost- that of a child- is a familiar one over the centuries and in many cultures, one that should fill us with nothing but sadness for the tale of a young life cut short. Yet all too often films and books with stories of child ghosts and spirits (is there a difference between the two?) are the scariest. What lies behind this might be the fear of the partially formed spiritual and religious persona, a child with an incomplete grasp on (adult) morality and therefore more vulnerable to inculcation by evil. I don’t know.
Or maybe the thought of these ghostly spectral children are too vivid a reminder of the vulnerability of our own children, of our family happiness and security? What could be worse than the spectre of your child, a child, so near and yet so far away, hovering in the doorway, in a wood or other familiar place? I think that as a mother, I would be driven out of my mind by this, not comforted. With ghosts (and specifically the ghosts of children) A fear of something I want to keep outside has somehow made its way inside and lodged itself into the realms of possibility- that one of my own children might, one day, die before me. Anyway…<pushes that thought firmly out of my mind>, we go on.
In 1595, Thomas Millington published the story ‘The Babes in the Wood’ in Norwich and again in ballad form as ‘Children of the Wood’ in 1640. Millingtons story was written in a time when some Protestant and Catholics were making all manner of wild accusations at each other, so it may have had a nefarious and political intent. But folk tales tend to contain a grain of truth….
According to folklore this tale was based on a wicked uncle from Norfolk who decided to dispose of his two child charges in the local woods, Wayland Woods, known previously as ‘Wailing Woods’- an ancient woodland near Watton. A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), oak, ash, hazel and bird cherry trees grow freely here, providing a home to the only naturalised Golden Pheasant population and the woods are a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England, dating back to the last Ice Age. The nearby Thompson Common is renowned for its pingos, a series of 300 shallow pools which provide a home for water beetles and dragonflies. These circular ponds were created during the Ice Age when water beneath the surface froze to form lenses of ice, pushing the soil upwards. Starting in nearby Stow Beddon, the Great Eastern Pingo Trail is an eight-mile walk that encompasses this phenomena and many other local sights.
To date, no other place has been strongly associated with the tale and it is now believed to be at least partially based upon a true series of events in the sixteenth century. The name ‘Wayland’ is derived from the cries of the children calling for help, cries that woodland walkers allege they hear to this day. Other sources say the Vikings named the woods Waneland, a place of worship which may be another origin of the legend. In pagan times it has been alleged that people sacrificed unwanted children to appease and praise the gods, often by leaving them in remote places. Could these two tales have melded- the pagan woodland sacrifices and the 16th century deaths into one combined source of the legend?
The legend tells that these two children were left in the care of their uncle at Griston Hall on the edge of the woods, following the death of their parents. On reaching the age of majority (21) they were to inherit their father’s fortune, but should they pass before this time the wealth would go directly to the uncle. The uncle plotted to dispose of the two children to stake his claim to the wealth after hiring two cut throats to take them and murder them in the woods. One of the cut throats appear to have possessed a stronger moral code than the uncle though (only ever so slightly though) and killed the other in order to prevent him from going ahead with the murder. The surviving cut throat abandoned them there (remember the children were aged three and one under two) and they died of exposure and starvation. Their bodies were found under an oak tree where robins had covered their bodies with leaves, an absolutely heartbreaking detail. In 1879, the tree that the babes had reputedly been left under was struck by lightning and destroyed.
Griston Hall used to contain a wood carving that was described as depicting the tale of the Babes in the Wood, placed there by a family descendant as reminder of his ancestral cruelty. The village signs of Griston and Watton commemorate the tale and locals will tell of the white wraiths seen flitting from tree to tree in the woods as darkness falls. Ground fog or the spirits of these unfortunate children? Who knows.
Watch the clip below which shows a pregnant woman taking umbrage with anti-abortion activists standing outside a BPAS clinic in London. The activists are filming women as they attend consultations, and they wear recording equipment around their necks. Initially they denied filming when she challenges them but watch their capitulation. The clip by @sunny_hundal helpfully illustrates the need for the BPAS recent #BackOff campaign which seeks to protect women from harassment and filming by anti abortion groups on British streets.
Aside from taking a moment to marvel at her general awesomeness, we need to stop and think about some of the wider ramifications of allowing people to harass women in public spaces and whether the law should indeed be amended to make this either a criminal act or more easily dealt with through a civil claim.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service have recently launched a campaign to address this issue:
“The government is being urged to take action to protect women attending pregnancy advice and abortion centres amid an escalation in anti-abortion activity. The Back Off campaign calls for the establishment of zones free from anti-abortion activists in the area directly around registered clinics and pregnancy advice bureaux.
“Women attending these centres are now regularly exposed to groups of anti-abortion activists standing immediately outside. Many of these people bear large banners of dismembered foetuses, strew pathways with plastic foetuses and graphic images, distribute leaflets containing misleading information about abortion, and follow and question women as they enter or leave. Often, these people carry cameras strapped to their chests or positioned on a tripod. Women report feeling intimidated and distressed by this activity as they try to access a lawful healthcare service in confidence.”
The frustration of BPAS with the current laws on harassment and public order is apparent:
“The police have made clear that the legal options to counter this activity are limited, and attempts to use the Public Order Act to curtail their activities have not been successful. Appeals to the churches who support these people to reflect on the impact on women have failed. We echo the recent comments of the judge in the case of harassment outside the Marie Stopes centre in Belfast, who made it clear that it was entirely inappropriate “for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any form, shape or fashion and questioned either to their identity, why they are going in there and being forced to involve themselves in conversation at times when they are almost certainly going to be stressed and very possibly distressed”.
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, commented further:
“One in three women will have an abortion. These activists don’t stop women needing abortions, they simply make what is already a difficult day that much harder. Women should feel confident that they can approach centres for pregnancy advice and abortion care without fear of intimidation, or anxious that their identity will be compromised by protesters filming outside. Establishing zones free from anti-abortion activists around clinics would provide the reassurance and security women need. There is absolutely no need for the space outside clinics to become a battleground. Wherever one stands on abortion – pregnant women deserve better than this.”
Whenever I butt heads with people claiming to be ‘pro-life’ (or anti-abortion as I prefer to refer to them) what I find most astonishing is their belief that their right to demonstrate trumps a woman’s right to obtain medical and nursing care, unmolested and with dignity maintained. Any supposed concern for the sacred vessel of the pregnant female form does not extend to caring about the effects their intimidation might have upon her and her pregnancy. As far as they are concerned (and I draw my conclusions about it from their actions) her rights will always come second to their right to challenge her.
People should be able to express their views but what anti-abortionists are doing in this case does not constitute an appeal to politicans or even a show of hands. It is not intended as an entreaty to those that make the law. What it actually is attempting to do is frighten, humiliate and bully a pregnant woman into doing what the protestors want her to do. Women attending the clinics cannot feel assured that these strong-arm tactics with their undercurrent of aggression won’t erupt into outright hostility and they run the gauntlet of these protesters in the knowledge that medical staff at American clinics have been murdered by anti-abortion activists.
The protesters intend to make accessing health care (which may or may not include a termination) such a perceived and actual risk to a womans privacy and dignity that she would rather not do it. And if she does, the emotional and psychological damage from this harassment may be far greater than any residual effects of the termination. The threat of public exposure is NO basis upon which to make a decision to have a child or not. It is a particularly vicious form of blackmail that says: use a clinic that offers terminations and we will put the film of you walking up its steps online.
Research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has shown a positive correlation between severity of symptoms and the perception of threat during the trigger event(s). PTSD has also been diagnosed in the people who work in these clinics because of the threatening conditions they work in. The development of mental health problems may thus occur in women who eventually decide against a termination after using the clinic, flying in the face of the apparent concern these protestors claim they have for women and their unborn foetuses.
The anti-abortion protesters claim that they are not harassing women ( according to our current laws), because each individual episode does not constitute the course of harassing action required for successful prosecution. They claim that the freedom of speech is an inalienable right. and it is, but only if that speech is not seen as harassing, threatening, intimidating and a deterrent to seeking lawful treatment- an abortion. These individual ‘actions’- all the separate women approached and harangued over the course of the day by anti abortionists- should be cumulatively aggregated so the offenders could be prosecuted through the courts.
As things stand now, should a woman decide to pursue a claim of intimidation against her, current legislation requires making a complaint to the police about each individual instance or episode by each individual harasser. So on top of the breach of privacy endured by a woman, further invasions of privacy is incurred through the necessary reporting and subsequent legal action. She will have to make a statement, identify those involved, engage legal representation, attend court, possibly be questioned and endure any media exposure that might result. And the activists know this.
Let me describe some of the harassment that women are exposed to as they try to access advice, support and possibly a termination through a clinic such as the ones run by the BPAS. These tactics also impact upon staff working there or in nearby clinical facilities:
Having leaflets and graphic images of dismembered foetuses thrust into their hands, pockets and bags. Or waved directly in their faces;
Pregnant staff require escorting into and out of the clinics by police, private security or other staff members;
Staff are verbally intimidated and harassed. They are identified to passers by in a pejorative manner;
Women are given incorrect information designed to frighten or trigger guilt;
Having bibles and religious tracts thrust into their faces;
Being screamed at, shouted at, asked intrusive loaded questions, asked about their pregnancies;
Having to find their path through a gauntlet of people all seeking to make it as hard as possible to find a way into the building.;
Being confronted with graphic large posters that line the street leading to the clinic, making it impossible for them to maintain a low profile;
Being filmed and recorded by cameras and video recording devices;
Having to fear the footage of their entrance to the clinic being put on a public viewing platform such as Youtube;
NHS staff on premises where a clinic is located have felt so intimidated by the protestors outside they have asked for the abortion service to be withdrawn from the facility where they work;
Losing their anonymity, something enshrined within NHS policy and the policy of private health care providers.
The anti-abortion protestors will again maintain that they operate within the law. Claiming that it is ‘legal’ and therefore permissible is a facile argument because the law is fluid and changes all the time. It used to be legal to send ten year old children to work in cotton mills but that does not mean that it was right and fair at that time. The rules and legal conventions of a society may be created in a post-hoc kind of way because, (as is often the case), they are preceded by the acts that make them necessary. Amazingly enough, there is no definitive legislation that stops people filming members of the public as they use health-care (with or without their knowledge), even if it might be an offence to publish those images without their consent. Filming under these circumstances needs to be stopped and women (and the men who respect them) are demanding change as a direct result of their own lived experience.
Many of the British based anti abortion activists are supported by the even more virulent American organisations who have the right to free speech enshrined within the First Amendment, which has no literal legal equivalent in the UK. Unfortunately the protestors appear, at times, to conflate free speech with hate speech, and the latter is something the UK does legislate against. It is up to the law to clarify this in relation to what is said to women by protesters in the public spaces outside clinics. As it stands now, a woman can pursue individual claims of harassment under the Public Order Act but these would have to be multiple named claims (same as before) against each individual which (again) further reduces her right to privacy and anonymity. Anti-abortion organisations must not make the mistake of believing a lack of pursuance under harassment laws means that women do not feel harassed by them. Claiming that women aren’t that ‘bothered’ about their protests and using this as basis to justify their continuance is disingenuous. Women are not going to use an equally troublesome and archaic legal system that makes is near impossible to gain adequate sanctions. The same limitations apply to the clinics themselves. Each one has the option of taking out restraining orders against individuals or a group, but this is costly, time consuming and the protestors merely circumvent this by reorganising themselves under a new organisational name.
The right to protest is a legal right, enshrined in UK law by the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights recognises a right to peaceful assembly in its article 11. It also recognises a right to freedom of expression, allowing individuals to express their opinions. In the UK, by law an organiser of a demonstration must inform the local police of their intentions, six days prior to the event and the police have the right to make any changes to that demonstration that they deem necessary. However, anti abortion activists circumvent the law on protests by organising themselves as a gathering (legally called ‘an assembly’) in a single location and they do not move from this location. In addition, they organise multiple single gatherings at every clinic in a region that offers termination of pregnancy.
These protest assemblies are different from marches because the organisers do not have to notify the police but the police retain the right to impose conditions on an assembly, if they feel they are necessary to prevent serious public disorder from taking place, or if they feel that the purpose of the gathering is to intimidate others. As with the law on protests, the police have the right to amend the location of an assembly, limit the number of attendees and shorten the length of time any protest runs for. It is this part of legislation which could be made more appropriate for anti abortion protests outside clinics.
Adopting a ‘buffer-zone’ will not fully protect pregnant women from people seeking to impose their views upon them and it will not stop those people from demonstrating in the street or in the vicinity of the clinics. But what it will protect against is pregnant women having their actual personal space invaded: it will protect them from being filmed and photographed and the subsequent placing of the film online; from having literature pushed upon them; from having people questioning them at a distance of less than several feet, jostling and acting as a barrier between the woman and the care she seeks out. It may be feasible to enshrine new legislation in a similar fashion to that which exists for research facilities where animal experimentation takes place: clauses were included in the Serious Organised Crime Act and Police Act 2005. These did not ban all protests or free speech but provided a corridor of protection where women and employees could move in and out of the vicinity free from harassment and infringements of personal space. It also made it easier to protect their cars from attack from people placing incendiary or other devices underneath them, an act of issue- terrorism. (These attacks have also happened in other nations where abortion is illegal.)
It is an incontrovertible truth that the abortion rate remains pretty stable and similar whether abortion is protected by a countries laws or not. It is an incontrovertible truth that making abortion illegal correlates with a high maternal morbidity and mortality rate. Making abortion illegal will NOT result in more women choosing to give birth or hand over their newborns for adoption. Instead they will seek out an illegal abortion and they will seek it with the same determination, courage and strength that sees them successfully negotiating the threatening hordes of demonstrators outside clinics in order that they retain reproductive autonomy and body agency. What DOES reduce the rates of abortion is excellent and early access to education in contraception, in relationships, sexuality and autonomy alongside easy (and inexpensive) access to contraception. It is not a coincidence that many of the groups opposing lawful access to termination of pregnancy also oppose sex education in schools and the provision of contraception to teenagers.
What I find especially arrogant about the act of foisting anti abortion literature on women whilst they attend clinics is the presumption that the women actually need that information at that moment in time or are receptive to it. The act of gaining permission for a termination under British law involves plenty of opportunities to inform oneself as one goes through the legal and clinical protocols. Women talk of the hours of thought expended in coming to a decision to terminate their pregnancy or not to. Behind the anti abortion lobby lies a profoundly anti women rhetoric, built upon paternalistic ideas of women being undeserving of full agency; of displaced jealousy over their ability to conceive and gestate children; of needing male input and control of their decisions. This rhetoric is usually underpinned by a religious justification- religion being the ultimate in patriarchal systems. Women are NOT coming to these clinics to engage in a debate and if they had doubts in their mind then this is a conversation to be had, not in the street with a total stranger, but with trained professionals or with family in a protected and confidential space.
One in three women will choose to have a termination of pregnancy and I feel a measure of quiet pride that I live in a country that is still supportive of that right. I also value the right to protest but this must NEVER take precedence over a woman’s right to obtain advice, support and the treatment of her choice in an anonymous, discreet and protected manner. The right to protest is not harmed by the womens right to not be protested at directly outside a medical facility. There are plenty of opportunities for those against abortion to make their feelings known, both online and in the larger world. We must not become a society where decisions are fueled by fear of exposure and approbation by those who do not have to stay and face the consequences of those decisions.