Suffolk walk: Murder at the mill and the legend of Potsford Gibbet
- Credit: Jayne Lindill
Early autumn and Halloween is on the horizon. A circular walk around Letheringham explores the legend of the Potsford Gibbet.
Green children, a black dog, haunted ponds, a witch-donkey - Suffolk has its fair share of weird goings-on and spooky legends. There are dark deeds aplenty, and many places have a Gallows Hill on the local map. But a haunted gibbet? The words alone bring me out in goosebumps. I have to go there...
First, a bit of background. The story goes that on February 10 1698, the ghastly murder took place at Letheringham Water Mill of two men, a father and son, both called John Bullard. They were brutally attacked by a man wielding an axe, then hog-tied to a beam in the mill - possibly still alive - where they hung until they were discovered.
Not long afterwards, a man called Jonah Snell was found wandering the area, his clothes stained crimson, clutching an axe dripping with blood. He was arrested and appeared at West Wickham Sessions Court. Snell offered no defence and was found guilty of the cold-blooded murder of the two men who had been working at the mill when Snell, their employee, attacked them.
Snell was hanged at Potsford Wood between Wickham Market and Letheringham on April 14 1699, his body displayed in an iron cage suspended from the gibbet in the wood, a grim warning to others contemplating dark deeds. There his remains mouldered until 1740 when the cage was eventually taken down and what was left of Snell buried nearby.
It seems the murderer didn’t exactly rest in peace, however. While Snell’s body was still in the cage, local tailor James Gall was passing by the gibbet on his way to work at Letheringham Farm. He looked up at Snell's gruesome remains and muttered ironically: “Ah, old fellow. Wouldn’t it be strange if thou were to come down from there?”
Returning before dusk he discovered that the cage was empty. Assuming the remains had been removed, he went on his way, but as he did so, he heard the faint sound of clanking chains behind him. Somewhat alarmed, he began to walk faster but the noise grew louder and louder. Gall fled, the clanking chains matching his pace, until he reached home and slammed the front door shut.
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Fast forward to the 1980s, when a passing lorry driver stopped in the middle of the day to answer the call of nature. Stepping into the woods, he saw the remains of the gibbet and paused to read the explanatory plaque. Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and was confronted by a cadaverous face, shrouded in a black hood.
A local gamekeeper also reported feeling an icy hand grab him by the shoulder at the same spot. Then, in 1997, a couple who went to the woods, intrigued by ghostly lights in the trees, claimed they heard clanking chains at the site of the gibbet and saw a black, shapeless apparition staring in their direction and moaning gently. Believe what you will, but the story is enough to draw me there.
1 The walk starts in Easton (IP13 0ED), where there's a free car park in The Street, just off the village green. Easton looks postcard pretty on a warm, sunny late summer morning, with All Saints Church, standing proudly with its unusual octagonal tower, and the White Horse pub getting ready for the day. I walk south-west along the quiet road in the direction of Letheringham, passing Easton's famous crinkle-crankle wall.
2 Just after Pound Corner, I turn left - signposted Letheringham and 'Water Mill' - along a quiet lane that winds past pretty cottages, crossing a bridge over the Deben and down to Letheringham Water Mill. The ghost of the unfortunate John Bullard senior is said to haunt the place where he and his son met their violent deaths. The mill is far from sinister these days, however, nestling by the River Deben and brilliantly converted to luxury holiday cottages, where dogs are welcome and doubtless enjoy some excellent local walks. The lane wends round to the left, past Letheringham Old Hall and a marvellous Suffolk barn that looks like every one I've ever seen in illustrations of Polstead's notorious Murder in the Red Barn (except it's black).
3 After about half a mile, at a sharp right bend in the road, I take the footpath opposite on the left, a wide, grassy track that heads uphill and along field edges. The views of the surrounding countryside are superb. I stay on this for about three-quarters of a mile until I reach Potsford Care Farm. Here the path crosses over a track and heads down a cinder track to the left of the livery stables.
4 Reaching the B1078 I turn left. This is the road to Wickham Market and is quite busy, so with great care I head gently uphill for about a quarter of a mile, with Potsford Wood on my right. A safer option might be to walk along the field edge on the left hand side of the road.
5 Cresting the hill I find what I'm looking for, the public footpath sign and metal gate that lead into Potsford Wood. The path is bit overgrown with nettles and brambles, but soon, on the right, I find what I've come to see. The Potsford Gibbet, or what remains of it, is a jagged post, about eight feet high, surrounded by a low iron railing. I read the plaque - "Remains of Potsford Gibbet, in use at the end of the 17th century, last known hanging April 14th 1699 (Jonah Snell)" - and await a tap on my shoulder. Nothing. It is a bit creepy though, and I do feel as though I'm being watched. But then, I undoubtedly am - these are woods, after all home to all sorts of creatures, curious about this human intruder.
6 Moving on, with no clanking chains behind me, the path emerges into a green opening and then becomes a track. I follow it until it meets a road and take the footpath on the right next to a cottage. After about a quarter of a mile across two fields it meets a lane. I walk along this for another quarter mile, past Whitehouse farm.
7 Reaching Home Farm it take the footpath (right) and follow it for another half-mile down to Potsford Brook where it meets the B1078 at Park Corner (8). I cross over and head up a fairly steep lane in the direction of Letheringham.
9 As it flattens out into Park Road, I have woodlands on my left and somewhere over to my right the beautiful, moated Letheringham Lodge. Reaching Park Farm on the left, I take the footpath beside the farm and follow it for a long, straight half-mile across the open fields with outstanding views. A buzzard rises out of some tall trees, soaring overhead.
10 Just past Cutter's Grove, I find the footpath sign in the hedge on the right which takes me across a small bridge. I skirt around a field and emerge onto a track, turning right along a grassy path. More superb views as I descend, past hedgerows thick with hips, sloes and blackberries, towards little St Mary's Church and the remains of an Augustinian priory.
11 Beneath the priory walls and paddocks, the path becomes thick and overgrown. My goal is the road back to Easton - the way to it is through a gate and across a paddock below the church. Through another gate, I emerge into a farm yard which I cross and exit onto the road. I turn right and head back to Easton. The road is quiet and has a wide, grassy verge to walk on. Just past Sanctuary Bridge, Suffolk Libraries' mobile library is parked up awaiting customers. 'Make it part of your routine' goes the slogan. Good advice.
12 Reaching Easton I hear the excited chatter of children enjoying a day out at Easton Farm Park where a Halloween Festival is planned for October 23-31. There's a patch of golden pumpkins nearby, ripening in the sun which should be ready just in time. I retrace my steps past the crinkle crankle wall and back to the village. I've worked up quite a thirst. Ah, the White Horse is open and the garden looks very inviting...
Length: approx. 7 miles/11km
Time: approx. 3.5 to 4 hours
Getting there: A12, exit to Framlingham, B1078, B1116, take turning for Easton (Easton Road) Satnav IP13 0ED
Access: Minor roads and lanes, one short stretch along B1078, footpaths, field edges, stiles (approaching Potsford Care Farm)
OS Explorer map: 212 Woodbridge & Saxmundham
Points of interest: All Saints Church Easton, crinkle crankle wall at Easton, Potsford Gibbet, St Mary's Church Letheringham and remains of Augustinian Priory
Ts & Ps: Easton White Horse Pub