The ghostly tales of Norfolk and Suffolk

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Photo by Candy Orr

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-

foxearth.org.uk
Photos from Foxearth.org.uk

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.

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Harry Price in his lab.

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?

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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.

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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.

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Borley Rectory – title image

(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.

Image from www.mildenhall.af.mil
Image from http://www.mildenhall.af.mil

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’-

Fye Bridge by www.broadlandmemories.co.uk
Fye Bridge by http://www.broadlandmemories.co.uk

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.

Augustine Steward Building
Augustine Steward Building from ParanormalDatabase.com

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-

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Photo from eerieplace.com

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.”

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Now Jean 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.

The Wartime Memories Project - RAF Bury St Edmunds, Rougham, USAAF Station 468
The Wartime Memories Project – RAF Bury St Edmunds, Rougham, USAAF Station 468

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.

Flying Fortress crash landed on Mount Rd in Bury St Edmunds- photo by Flying Fortress Pub archives
Flying Fortress crash landed on Mount Rd in Bury St Edmunds- photo by Flying Fortress Pub archives

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.

Find out more from the Airfield archives.

(5) The free ranging Black Shuck-

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“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.

Abraham Fleming's account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog Black Shuck at the church of Bungay, Suffolk A straunge, and terrible wunder
Abraham Fleming’s account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog Black Shuck at the church of Bungay, Suffolk A straunge, and terrible wunder

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 'clawmarks' of the Black Shuck at Blytthburgh Church by gothicbohemianstock.deviantart.com
The ‘clawmarks’ of the Black Shuck at Blytthburgh Church by gothicbohemianstock.deviantart.com

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?

Bungay street light, photo by permission Keith Pane
Bungay street light, photo by permission Keith Pane

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.

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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.

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All Saints Church before its collapse into the sea. Photo by Eastern Daily Press

 

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.

Dunwich beach
Dunwich beach

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.

Dunwich leper hospital ruins
Dunwich leper hospital ruins

 

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.

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Ruins of All Saints

 

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.

Dunwich heath to Minsmere trail
Dunwich heath to Minsmere trail

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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