Spooky Suffolk: The scariest locations in the county
- Credit: Archant
This is a spooky time of year, as days grow ever shorter and things go bump in the night. Lindsay Want peeks into Suffolk’s haunted past . . . and present
No need to wait for the frosty fingers of autumn to send a shiver down your spine – Suffolk has perfected its own chilling formula to give you a goose bump or two. Traditionally, it’s laced with time-honoured tales of Bungay’s rampaging hell hound, shifty gangs of Snape smugglers, hit-and-run highwaymen, Polstead’s Red Barn murderer and outlandish suggestions of little green men touching down in Rendlesham Forest or even little green children popping up in Woolpit. But dare to venture out with your imagination anywhere in Suffolk and you may never walk alone again.
When George Orwell went for his late afternoon stroll around Walberswick in July 1931, the ghostly Victorian gentleman he encountered was not strutting down the street, but wafting his way around St Andrew’s picturesque ruins. At Barsham, by the shrouding mists of the Waveney, shifty shapes in medieval clothing reputedly loiter by the old plague pit, while a Georgian lady busies herself about the church and somehow keeps switching the lights off.
Bells of lost churches toll beneath the great expanse of waves as mysterious monks drift between the ruins on the cliff-top fields of Dunwich, but few risk catching sight of the shades of greyfriars, oft accompanied after dark by human shrieks and black dog howls around Bungay’s priory remains. Where the landscape points in some way to the past, so the mind’s eye seems to follow. Didn’t Mrs Pretty look out from Tranmer House across the bumpy folds of land above the Deben to see a ghostly horseman? She asked local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to delve a little deeper and the rest, of course, is Sutton Hoo history.
Mind your back
Across manor house sites from Boulge to Beccles and Long Melford’s Kentwell Hall, Suffolk boasts enough phantom coach-and-horse combos careering down historic highways to cause one mighty spectral traffic jam. You can’t help feeling the need for eyes in the back of your head along the Blyth-side smugglers’ path from Walberswick either. Here, it’s only natural to quicken your pace through Deadman’s Covert and side step the area of Westwood marshes haunted by the luckless drummer boy, Tobias Gill.
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Listen up and you might still hear him, dashing down towards Yoxford with his coach pulled by four headless horses, as you speed off to win sanctuary beneath the angel roof of Holy Trinity, Blythburgh.
Another word of warning though – don’t stop to admire the village sign. As if the rather macabre, hollow eye sockets of its angel are not unnerving enough, a bizarre, even for Blythburgh, distinctly Renoir-esque painted lady will be watching your every move from behind it. It’s all creepy stuff, but then this forgotten port is the place where Suffolk’s devil dog, Black Shuck, left his mark on the church’s north door with his burning claws.
Painting a devilish picture
These days, we joke about ‘better the devil you know’, but in centuries past the people of Suffolk were strangely well acquainted with Beelzebub, as good folk focused much of their lives on keeping him at bay and striving to carve a path towards heaven rather hell.
Wherever you go in the county today, you’ll soon discover that the Devil really is in the detail. A pew end in Wilby church warns that the cunning beast is always just behind you and ready to pounce; another in Freckenham shows him feeding an unfortunate, hat and all, into the hungry jaws of hell. At Ufford, he hides rather tongue-in-cheek under the ‘misericord’ or flip up seat designed to provide bottom support to those standing through long services, and even if you can’t see him, he’s bound to be somewhere in the wings in Stanningfield’s 15th century ‘Doom’ painting too. Perhaps the brazen depiction here of bare-buttocked souls leaping out of their coffins to receive their final judgement is a devilish act in itself, a cheeky little move by the folk artist, creating a naughty-but-nice distraction from any rambling sermon.
All doom and gloom?
Living in harsh, unsettled times in a Suffolk landscape at the mercy of unexplained elements, where hell and high water were no doubt synonymous, our ancestors led fragile lives, caught between the Devil and the deep blue (or should that be mucky brown?) North Sea. From Stoke-by-Clare and Chelsworth to Ilketshall St Andrew near Bungay, miraculously surviving doom paintings in village churches really bring the fears and uncertainties of medieval life home, but none is more vivid than the one at Wenhaston, painted on wood and rediscovered in 1892.
Who even today is not transfixed by the grisly, Brueghel-esque gremlins which corral poor souls and chain them into gapping hellish jaws? Their contorted features match the carved faces and rooftop gargoyles whose gaze always seems to follow you. It’s an unsettling scene, warts and all, but there’s a warm, motherly smile here too, that’s equally familiar. Shared by a benevolent angel as she takes a more upright soul in to her sanctuary, it is a welcome and comforting ray of sunshine which has surely been putting fears aside for centuries.
Sign of the times
At Hessett near Bury St Edmunds, there’s no question about where our medieval ancestors thought sins would lead. The walls of St Ethelbert’s are home to one of Suffolk’s finest ‘educational’ wall paintings where horned and winged devils dance around the mouth of hell, and more satanic jaws swallow up the proud, angry and greedy, the lazy, lusty, envious and avaricious. It’s detailed and colourful, and although it might not scare us into reforming our ways today, it does offer a great lesson in medieval costume.
The writing’s on the wall
Keep a look out for pentangles, hexfoils or ‘daisy wheels’ and strange double V signs carved into historic buildings around Suffolk from barn walls to domestic mantel beams and even church walls and pillars. This purposeful ‘graffiti’ was extremely commonplace and intended to ward off evil spirits. Beams from trees struck by lightning were very sought after as building materials and timber hearth lintels were often ‘scorched’ before being used, in the belief that wood which had already seen fire was less likely to attract the devil and burn again.
Shoes, cats and kittens, even a swan’s wing and pig’s trotter have all been found in wall cavities of medieval houses, considered to be charms to ward off evil spirits. Leather shoes have been regular finds in farmhouse chimneys, but also in public places such as guildhall halls and churches.
Head to Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, one of East Anglia’s oldest town houses dating from 1180, to find out more and see an unrivalled collection of spooky finds including a rather macabre mummified moggy. www.weststow.org/moyses-hall
A few old Suffolk wives’ tales
Never cut your toenails on a Sunday – it’ll be sure to let the Devil in!
Want to avoid nightmares? Put your boots heel to toe by the bedside or hang a flint with a hole in it above your bed.
Always enter and leave a house by the same door.
Make a hole in the bottom of the eggshells when you’ve had boiled eggs for breakfast. If not the witches will come and make them into boats.