Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
An old lady dressed in grey is said to haunt Weir Pond at the corner of Church Road (TQ929895), and has been reportedly seen a number of times in fairly recent years.
Source: 'Small Beginnings' No 11 Winter 2005-06 (newsletter of former pupils of old Barling Primary School), p.1.
The current name of Bannister Hall (TQ926897) is a modern one, but part of this old farmhouse dates back to the 15th century. Once known locally as Rogues Hall, smuggling tales say that there was a subterranean passage leading from the cellar to the waters of Paglesham Reach, about 500m to the north. A 'gothic stone arch' used to be pointed out as the tunnel entrance in the cellar, which was long ago filled in.
The red monk
The apparition of a red-robed monk gliding across Church Road then sliding into the walls of Holy Cross church (TQ714898) may have been a hoax, as was later claimed, but tales of such a spirit seem to have been around for much longer. Some have said that he may be the shade of a former rector, one of two who were expelled at the Reformation. You may supposedly summon the ghost if you run anti-clockwise around the church on the night of Halloween.
The stone that went up the hill
At TL577097 is St. Botolph’s church, and in the graveyard close to the north-east corner of the building is a large triangular stone embedded in the grass. The church is isolated, and on the highest point of a ridge, but legend says that it was meant to be built down in the valley. The villagers wanted to use this stone in its construction, and dragged it down the hill – but next morning found it back at the top of the hill. This happened twice more, until they gave up and decided to build the church on the hilltop, next to the stone.
The rock was originally laying flat, and described as 1.6m x 1.3m x 0.3m in size. But in 1984 it was heaved upright and embedded into the ground by the so-called 'Markstone Liberation Front', so that now only 1.2m x 1.1m x 0.3m is visible. Dr. Ernest Rudge classed this as one of the markers on his alleged ‘Puddingstone Track’ – but this is a basic sarsen, with just a few veins of flinty pebbles in it. Calling it a ‘puddingstone’ seems rather a stretch to me.
E. A. & E. L. Rudge: ‘Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex’, in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (Vol.28, 1951), p.177.
Jack Lindsay: ‘The Discovery of Britain’ (Merlin Press, 1958), p.202.
Gerald Lucy: ‘Essex erratic boulders: a gazetteer’, in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (New Series No. 20, 2003), p.125.
The White Elm
At the staggered junction of White Elm Road, Hyde Lane, Slough Road and an unnamed footpath is White Elm Corner (TL796029). At this crossroads, so legend says, a notorious highwayman was executed and buried. A wooden stake was driven through his body,1 from which grew the White Elm that once gave this spot its name.2
1. M. W. Hanson: 'Essex Elm' in 'Essex Naturalist' (New Series) No.10 (1990), p.42.
2. Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001), p.23.
The un-built cottage
Somewhere along the Stock Road (the main B1007 that runs north-south through the town) there was once an old cottage that some mysterious force did not want to be built. Every day a portion that had been erected was found ‘un-built’ the next morning, with all the materials scattered about by unnatural means.
Source: Jessie K. Payne: ‘a Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.8.
As at Woodham Ferrers and several other places, somewhere here there was once said to be a ‘Holy Thorn’ that came into leaf at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, a descendant of the original at Glastonbury.
Source: ‘The ‘Holy Thorn’ at Woodham Ferrers, Essex’ in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (1893), Vol.7, p.49.
St. Mary’s church (TL507227) at Birchanger is said to have a subterranean passage leading to the former Victorian dwelling known as Birchanger Place (demolished in the 1960’s, and replaced by an estate called Harrisons.) Others think it went to The Cottage (TL505231), a 17th century house in Birchanger Lane.
“There is in the village of Bocking, at a corner, a curious and very large grotesque figure of oak, which was evidently in the time of Elizabeth a pilaster in some house-front. My friend Edwards, who was wont to roam all over England in a mule-waggon etching and sketching, when in Bocking was informed by a rustic that this figure was the image of Harkiles (Hercules), a heathen god formerly worshipped in the old Catholic convent upon the hill, in the old times!” So wrote C. G. Leland in 1893.1
Now commonly known as ‘Old Harkilees’, this carved oak figure of a bearded man, 1.6m (5’ 3”) tall, with long flowing hair and crossed arms, can be found in Braintree Museum, where it ended up after restoration in the 1980’s. Thought to date from the 17th century, some have suggested it to be an effigy of Charles 1st, while its name may derive from either of two former Bocking clothiers, both of whom were named Hercules. In the 1930’s it stood at the corner of the Six Bells Inn (TL760242) in Bradford Street, later being raised to gaze out from the first floor wall. The original Six Bells, thought to have been a late medieval church alehouse, was demolished in the 1930’s, while its replacement has since been converted into flats.
Apparently generations of Bocking children were told the tale that ‘Old Harkilees’ would step down from his position on the wall and walk down to the river when the church bells strike midnight. A picture of the figure can be found here.
1. Charles Godfrey Leland: ‘Memoirs’ (D. Appleton, 1893), p.404.
2. ‘Braintree and Witham Times’, July 9th, 1987.
Betty Potter’s Dip
During the 1640s, when Matthew Hopkins the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ was active in Essex and Suffolk, Boxted had its own witch in the form of Betty Potter. She lived in a cottage beside the Straight Road, south towards Colchester, and was known for both curing a wealthy merchant’s daughter, and for bewitching the horses pulling a wagon load of wheat south from Rivers Hall. One night the squire’s son and a gang of locals dragged Betty from her cottage and hanged her from a nearby tree in defiance of Hopkins, who wanted to bring her to trial. Apparently Hopkins then claimed that the dead witch came down from the tree and vanished, although all her clothes were left behind.
Since then, the little dip in the road at that point has been named locally Betty Potter’s Dip (approx. TL991294), and her ghost haunts the tree and the Dip every October 21st at midnight. In 1815, rents from the use of the nearby Betty Potter’s Piece or Field, along with two other fields, were used to establish a charity for the poor. By 1881 the income was being used to support the National School, but in 1919 the Piece was sold and the proceeds invested.
There is said to be a smuggler’s tunnel from the church of St. Lawrence (TM144307) to the river Stour.1
The old manor house of Bradfield Hall (TM133292) in Steam Mill Road is supposed to have a secret passage to the former 12th century priory in Wix. A 16th century farmhouse known as Wix Abbey (TM163289) now occupies the site.
Nos. 7 & 9 Bradford Street (TL759236) were undoubtedly originally one house; but while the historic buildings record calls them 17th century, local researchers have dated them somewhat specifically to 'about 1380'. A cellar beneath No. 9 has been suggested as a possible entrance to the underground passage said to run all the way to the 19th century Franciscan convent just across the river Blackwater, at TL763243.
Shrouded by trees, in the angle between Roth Drive and Mosbach Gardens, is a small duck pond recently restored by the Thriftwood estate community after years of neglect (TQ616937). Once much larger when it was set in an open field, a local tale says that the Mosbach Pond is haunted by a farmer and his horse, who fell into it one night. It seems that only the ghostly whinny of a horse can be heard, rather than a spectral manifestation.1 However, a resident of the area thinks the story has been elaborated over the years, as he had heard it back in the 1960's, when only a horse and wagon were said to have been lost in the water.2
1. 'Brentwood Gazette', February 23rd, 2013.
2. 'Brentwood Gazette', March 6th 2013.
The tree from the tomb
In 1771 a Harwich man named John Selletto died, and was buried in a tomb near the main door to All Saints church, at TM077187. Supposedly an atheist, he is said, on his death-bed, to have uttered the words: “If there is such a being as God, when I am buried a tree will grow up and break open the stone of my grave”. Sure enough, over time an elm tree broke out of the side of the monument, and began to tilt the whole tomb over at an angle.1 In 1941 the tree was removed, as the tomb had reached a dangerous condition.2 See also Clavering.
1. ‘Notes & Queries’ March 23rd, 1929, p.207.
2. Jessie K. Payne: ‘a Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.23.
Legend says that a tunnel runs from Brightlingsea, under the Creek, to St. Osyth. Smugglers might have been a hardy and enterprising bunch, but such a construction would have been well-nigh impossible, even for them. Rumours that a stone ford may long ago have existed across the Creek at low tide could have arisen from a flawed memory of another ford altogether, or indeed from the tunnel legend itself. And all this is compounded by the fact that 19th century maps do indeed show a trackway heading across the Creek at this point, whether in error or not, no one seems to know.
Source: Matthew Fautley & James Garon: 'Essex Coastline: Then & Now' (Potton Publishing, 2005), p.48-9.
Dragon’s Foot Field
Past the church of St. Mary with St. Leonard runs a footpath called New Barn Lane, heading northwest into fields. After about half a mile it reaches an area where a scatter of Roman tiles, bricks and other finds suggests that a villa may have once stood (TL694111).1 Just south of the path is a shallow depression which some fancy to be the footprint of a dragon – hence the name Dragon’s Foot Field.2 On a map of 1771 it is called 'Drakes Fut'; on tithe maps, however, it is marked as two fields: Hither and Hinter (Further) Dragonsfoot. The legend here is that in the 11th century the local landowners, the Mandeville family, intended to build the church here, but a dragon (it’s usually the Devil in these types of stories) kept knocking it down each night and moving the stones to the present site, at TL705104.3,4 Another version says that the church was being built where it now stands, but every night the dragon would take the stones back to the field were they came from - the very field where the villa once stood.5
3. Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001), p.37.
4. ‘Essex Chronicle’ 11/9/2008.
In the early 15th century the chancel of Broomfield church was extended, with a large window being built into the new east wall. Some materials from the old wall were reused, including a carved head that was inserted with its face outwards, and which locals have long referred to as the Devil's Head. It's said that if you walk around a certain table tomb nearby seven times, then the Devil himself will appear.
Source: Ken Searles: 'Broomfield. The Churchyard Fence Lists. The People and the Buildings' (unpublished, 2007), Vol.1, p.48; Essex Record Office, T/P 774/1/1.
The Red Hills
From TL839395, an old track leads across the fields north-north-east towards Bulmer church, ascending a slope known hereabouts as the Red Hills. The name is supposed to derive from a battle between the Saxons and the Danes that was fought there. Just to the west is Dane Field (sometimes Dean Field), which might help support the tale.