Legends of the witches
Canewdon stands at the heart of historical (and contemporary) witchcraft
lore in Essex – unfortunately, I suspect that much of it, especially
that reported in the 1960’s, has been exaggerated beyond recall. Here,
I’m only concerned with those apparently genuine traditions that centre
about a local landmark, in this case, the 14th century church of St.
As recorded in the 19th century: “A tradition exists, and is believed by
many, that so long as this steeple exists, there will always remain six
witches in Canewdon”.1 An extension of this was that when a
village witch died, a stone always fell from the church wall.2
Cause and effect seem to have been reversed in an alternate version,
where it is said “Every time a stone falls from the tower, one witch
will die, and another will take her place”.3
From the same source as the latter comes the legend that “Those who walk
round the tower at midnight will be forced to dance with the witches”.
An old churchwarden of St. Nicholas told visitors in the 1950’s that
simply walking around the church alone at midnight would make ghosts and
witches appear and sing to them.4 Variations on this seem to
have propagated on the web – with dubious authenticity – such as: a
ghost will appear at the top of the tower if you run three times
backwards around the church; if you walk round it anticlockwise seven
times on Halloween you will see a witch; if you do the same thing
thirteen times you will vanish; but if you do it only three times,
you’ll go back in time!
A local woman in the 1940's mentions “the crossroads where a witch was buried”.
From other sources, it seems likely that this would be the staggered
crossroads at TQ896942, where Anchor Lane, Scotts Hall Road, Lark Hill
Road and the lane to the church meet. Although this is usually construed
as the witch having been executed there,5 an earlier source
says the witch actually committed suicide and was buried at the spot
with a stake through her heart.6 In all reports the
crossroads is haunted, perhaps by the (oddly headless) witch who wanders
from the churchyard towards the river.
A patch beside the river Crouch in the north of the parish has long been
known as the ‘Witch’s Field’. A witch was said to have been buried there
after drowning, and for long afterward it was thought no crop would
succeed in growing there.7
1. Philip Benton: ‘The History of Rochford Hundred’ (A. Harrington,
2. J. Westwood & J. Simpson: ‘The Lore of the Land’ (Penguin Books,
3. Eric Maple: ‘The Witches of Canewdon’ in 'Folklore’, Vol.71, No.4,
4. Jessie K. Payne: ‘a Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry
Publications, 1987), p.25.
David Pickering: 'Dictionary of Witchcraft' (Weidenfeld Nicolson, 1996).
6. Eric Maple: ‘The Dark World of
Witches’ (A. S .Barnes, 1964), p.188.
7. Peter Haining: ‘The Supernatural Coast’ (Robert Hale, 1992), p.146.
The Canewdon woman mentioned above
the 1940’s that she was told by her grandmother that, to make witches
appear, she would have to run seven times around a certain large tomb in
St. Nicholas’ churchyard.1 Another version says that the
Devil would appear instead.2 Perhaps referring to the same
grave, children would sometimes place their ears close to a particular
tomb in the hope of hearing the Devil shaking his chains beneath the
ground.3 Children have also shown interest in the grave of a highwayman,
said to have been buried in this churchyard in 1795. Apparently they
would dance around it seven times to make sure that the spirit within
stayed 'unquiet', as this would make it guard the other graves.4
2. Eric Maple: ‘The Witches of Canewdon’ in Folklore’, Vol.71, No.4,
3. Peter Underwood: 'Where the Ghosts
Walk: The Gazetteer of Haunted Britain' (Souvenir Press, 2013).
Gordon: 'Haunted Southend' (The History Press, 2012; ebook version)
Lost in the Lake
Canvey Lake is long and narrow, now a
freshwater nature reserve, but once part of the network of salt creeks
that threaded through this flat and low-lying part of Essex. The lake,
especially the path that runs along the
northern shore, is allegedly haunted by either a man, a woman,
or a horse and cart. The tale usually told is that the man, after
visiting a local inn, strayed off the path and sank into the soft mud,
cart and all. A variant is that he was trying to cross the lake when it
was frozen, but the surface gave way.1 Occasionally it's supposed to be
a woman who was the driver, and who now haunts the path searching for
her vehicle.2 But the horse and cart are sometimes said to haunt the
area on their own.3
Confirmation of the basic tale supposedly
came to light in the 1980's, when the lake was dredged. The skull and
partial skeleton of a horse came to light, along with some cart wheels,
all of which are now on display at the local Heritage Centre. There was
no sign of any human remains. However, I can't find any record that the
legend existed before this discovery.
3. Former webpage:
In Haven Road is the old weather-boarded
pub called the Lobster Smack (TQ772822), known to be a regular haunt of
smugglers in the 18th century. They are said to have built a secret
passage from the inn to the old vicarage belonging to St. Katherine's
church, in Vicarage Close. A resident claimed in 1990 to have seen the
entrance in the vicarage cellar, with a wood-supported brick-lined
tunnel leading to a chamber before emerging at the pub. Other tunnels
originating at this spot are rumoured to head for
Hadleigh - to either the
castle or St. Mary's church - and for the Hoy and Helmet pub in
'The Echo', online news 10/7/13.
An underground passageway that runs for 18 miles is said to connect the
late 11th/early 12th century castle here with Colchester Castle. As a
source of 1904 puts it: “There is an oral tradition in the village, that
a subterraneous communication formerly went from this castle to that of
Colchester; and the same idle tale is frequently told at the latter
place.” See also Colchester.
A much older reference from 1789, Joseph Strutt’s ‘Angleterre Ancienne’,
tells of a siege of Hedingham’s castle during King John’s reign. The
attackers thought those within to be starving, but when the defenders
threw fresh fish down on them, gave up in despair, believing the fish to
have been brought from Colchester via the secret tunnel.
Another tunnel legend crops up in H. Ranger’s 1887 book on Castle Hedingham: “A resident in the village was told by an old man, since
dead, that he remembered the opening to an underground passage leading
from the Castle to Bull’s Hill, near the gardener’s cottage.”
Source: Jack Lindsay, ‘The
Discovery of Britain’ (Merlin Press, 1958), p.7-9.
Poll Miles’ grave
Poll Miles is a well-known figure in Castle Hedingham folk-history, even
appearing on the village sign – although there’s no real evidence that
she ever existed. Tradition says that she was a young woman of the
1800’s who some thought to be a witch, and who drowned in the castle
lake. The trouble is that a heavily romanticised fictional account was
written in the early 20th century by the wife of the then-owner of the
castle, and now no one can tell where legend ends and modern fiction begins. In
Lady Margaret Majendie’s ‘Poll Miles: A Story of Castle Hedingham’,
(printed two years after the author’s death) the girl killed herself
after being jilted by her young man, and was buried in an unhallowed
grave at a crossroads outside the village. There may indeed be some
basis to the story, as Lady Margaret was told it by a local woman in the
1870’s, and at the time of the story’s publication, a man then in his
80’s still remembered the man who had dug the girl’s grave.
This spot is now thought to be at TL799356, where two footpaths meet a
minor road running south-east from the Sudbury Road towards Great
Maplestead. Fresh flowers are said to be left there anonymously either
at Halloween,1 or at Christmas,2 although
villagers used to shun the spot. See it on Google Street View
2. Federation of Essex Women’s
Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001), p.45.
Running round the church
Apparently, if you run round All Saints church at midnight thirteen
times, an angry, ghostly nun appears and chases you!
Carmel King: 'Haunted Essex' (The History Press, 2009), p.28.
Chignal St. James:
A knight at the moat
Within the grounds of 16th century
Chignal Hall (TL663103) is an 'irregular pond', which some have called
an 'entrenchment', and others a moat. There is a suggestion that it may
have once enclosed a castle keep, while historians say it's just the
remains of gravel diggings. An old cottage that once stood within the
moat (now occupied by a modern dwelling called the Moat House) was known
at the time as 'the king's robing room'. Here, or in the field next to
it, is said to be buried a knight still in his full armour.
A. J. Wilkins: 'The Chignals 1888 to
1988' (Chignal Parish Council, 2nd ed. 1988), p. 44. (Thanks to Rosemary
Hall for the information.)
http://www.pastscape.org.uk - chignal
So many secret tunnel
legends seem to have arisen from the discovery of blocked-up arches and
doorways in ancient cellars - and the same is true at Chigwell. Although
various owners have tried to push its origin back to 1547, the former
King's Head pub (TQ441937) actually dates from the 17th century, and was
- at least in local lore - a meeting place for Roundheads during the
English Civil War. The 'tunnel' beneath was supposedly an escape route
for them (now of course bricked-up), and led to St. Mary's church
(TQ440937), or possibly to a specific crypt in the churchyard.1,2
Others have suggested that it was actually an escape route for the
highwayman Dick Turpin!3
Still others 'know' that the
tunnel continued on to Chigwell School (TQ441938), originally built in
about 1620. All three buildings cluster about the junction of Roding
Lane with the High Road, and are so close together that the construction
of tunnels would seem a waste of time. Nevertheless, a former pupil has
recalled that, between 1954 and 1961, everyone at the school knew of the
tales, and he and another boy tried to dig their way into the tunnel's
entrance - which, by rumour, was in a utility cupboard next to the
Prefects' room. They obviously didn't get very far because the way was
blocked, oddly not by bricks or rubble, but by earth, which threatened
to collapse a flagstone above it. Supposedly, workmen digging the road
nearby exposed the tunnel about twenty years later.4
3. Scott Wood: 'London Urban
Legends: The Corpse on the Tube and Other Stories' (The History Press,
4. Marian F. Delgou:
'Charles Dickens at Chigwell', in 'The OC Mitre' (Issue 9, Dec. 2013),
The plague tree
As with many small settlements, Holy Trinity church (TL451386) at
Chrishall is nearly a kilometre away from the centre of the village, but
there’s no evidence that an older village ever stood nearer to the
church – despite what tradition says. Supposedly, the ‘old’ Chrishall
was burnt down – either accidentally or deliberately – to ‘cleanse’ the
place after the plague had struck. The victims received a mass burial in
a pit in the churchyard; exactly where isn’t known, but it must never
for any reason be opened up again.1 The site is said to be
marked by a yew tree, about which ghostly figures have been seen to
dance.2 However, according to more recent (and local)
information, the actual site of the plague pit is beneath what is now
the church car park.3
1. Enid Porter; ‘Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore’ (Taylor & Francis,
Treasure Holt (TM192175) is an early 17th century farmhouse (although
locals like to think an earlier house on the site dates back to the
1100’s). Supposedly once an inn, there are all sorts of tales of ghosts
and witchcraft attached to the old building. Smugglers too, who are said
to have dug tunnels from the house leading beyond the wooded area
surrounding the inn, and to ‘the cemetery’ (presumably the graveyard at
St. John’s rather than the municipal cemetery, which wasn’t opened until
Smugglers were very active in Clacton in the 17th and 18th centuries.
More subterranean passages are believed by some to run from St. John’s
church (TM177165) to the 16th century Ship Inn (TM176164), and from the
inn to the coast.2,3 A known smuggler named George Wegg lived
next door to the Ship, and perhaps the huge cellars beneath his house
contributed to the legends.4 Also reputedly linked to either
the church or the coast by tunnel are a house in Valley Road called
Eaglehurst, and the 16th century Queen’s Head (TM175164) in St. John’s
In 1937, a Mr. L. J. Latham produced a
report claiming to have found the following tunnels originating at St.
John's church: to the site of the vanished church at Holland-on-Sea, to
St. James' church at Little Clacton, and to the remains of the priory at
St. Osyth. Unfortunately, he claimed to have found these passages by
means of divination. Within St. Osyth itself, he reckoned to have found
other tunnels from the priory to the Red Lion inn, and to St. Clere's
This is a little hamlet on the western outskirts of Clacton, apparently
named after a tree that stood at the junction of the B1027 and Little
Clacton Road (TM157163). A tree still stands in the centre of the grassy
triangle, but it’s not the original. That one was struck by lightning in
about 1950-60, and the stump removed. A highwayman by the name of John
Bocking was traditionally hanged upon the elm, and his body buried at
the foot of the tree. His ghost supposedly haunted a nearby modern house
at one time.1 Unfortunately I can’t find any evidence that
John Bocking actually existed. He was supposed to be an associate of
Dick Turpin2 – hence the nearby pub called the Brace of
Pistols - but wasn’t a named member of Turpin’s ‘Essex gang’.
A very different tale says that the tree in fact grew from a wooden
stake plunged into the body of a man named Bocking who committed suicide
and was thus buried at the threeways.3
2. David Bain: ‘Pubs, Pints & Publicans’ in
‘Great Bentley Parish News’ February 2010, p.7
C. E. Britton: ‘Autumn Botany at Clacton’ in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (Vol.17,
1912), p.254 (inc. footnote by W. Cole).
Ghost from the water
Near the London Road/St. Johns Road roundabout at TM171164 there used to
be a pond. It was avoided by children as, late at night, the ghost of a
woman on a white horse would rise out of the water.
Another tree from a tomb
In the churchyard at St. Mary & St. Clement’s (TL470318) is or was a
tomb belonging to a woman of the 17th century. She was alleged to have
said that, if there was indeed a heaven or a hell, then an ash tree and
a maple tree would grow over her grave. If an ash grew out of her tomb,
her spirit would be in heaven; if it was the maple, she would be down
below. Eventually it was an ash tree that grew and split her tomb.
Today, there are no visible graves older than the 18th century. See also
Source: Jessie K. Payne: ‘a Ghost
Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.23.
Within the church itself, set into a
recess in the wall of the north aisle, is the marble effigy of a
recumbent knight. Clad in armour and mail, he is thought to date from
about 1250, and although his exact identity is unknown, he may well have
been one of the medieval lords of the manor. An odd tale has grown up
that this knight actually fell to his death from the walls of the church
during its construction.
Source: Letter from Mrs. Jean Brooks of
Chelmsford, in 'Essex Countryside' Vol.6, No.25 (April/May 1958), p.199.
Marks Hall lakes
North-north-west of the town is the Marks Hall estate, owned during the
English Civil War by Sir Thomas Honywood, a staunch Parliamentarian.
Three lakes once in the grounds have over time been modified into two
(TL840257), which local legend likes to say were dug by Cromwell’s
Roundhead troops while billeted there before the siege of Colchester in
1648.The unlikely reason is that they were supposedly dug to keep the
troops ‘out of mischief’.
Although it’s several miles from the remains of the 12th century
Coggeshall Abbey (TL855222) to Colchester Castle, an underground
passageway still traditionally connects the two. Passing under the A120,
the sound of horse’s hooves was said to change as they went over the
The Holy Thorn
Somewhere near Coggeshall was said to be a ‘Holy Thorn’ that blossomed
at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, like the one at
Woodham Ferrers and
several other places.
Source: ‘The ‘Holy Thorn’ at
Woodham Ferrers, Essex’ in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (1893), Vol.7, p.49.
No grass will grow
In the yard at the rear of Colchester Castle (TL998253) is a small
obelisk, marking the spot where Sir George Lisle and Sir Charles Lucas –
Royalist leaders during the English Civil War – were executed. Having
been shot, their bodies were allowed to lay there a while before being
removed. And as the tale now tells, “from that time to this, 'tis
observed that no grass will grow where these two brave men fell, but
that there is to this day the exact figure on the ground in hay time
that they fell in ; for it is good hay and grass round about, but in
these places.” There is certainly no grass on the exact spot now, as the
area has been paved over.
Source: “The Diary of Abraham de
la Pryme, the Yorkshire antiquary”, in the Publications of the Surtees
Society, (Andrews and Company, 1870), Vol.54, p.101.
In what is now a southern suburb of Colchester stood Berechurch Hall,
demolished in 1953. In the 1800’s Sir George Henry Smyth lived there,
and for his beautiful daughter he planted Charlotte’s Wood. In Lethe
Grove he created for her a grotto and bathing pool, which she loved so
much that she spent all her time there.1 Even after death, it
seems, as the white figure of her spirit is now said to haunt the Well
named for her.2
The golden king
Just beyond the western edge of the town is Lexden, where two front
gardens in Fitzwalter Road contain what remains of the Iron age burial
mound known as the Lexden Tumulus (TL975247.) How it looks now can be
seen on Google Street View
HERE. A partial excavation was
carried out in 1924, revealing the burial of a high status individual.
Reports not long after claimed that the archaeologists had found “a
magnificent table of bronze”, and “the skeleton of the chieftain clad in
chain mail and wrapped in a tunic of cloth of gold.” This was taken to
confirm the local tale told “for countless generations” that the mound
was “the burial place of an ancient king….clad in golden armour, with
golden weapons by his side, and accompanied by a table of solid gold….”1
A slight problem with this is that there was no skeleton at all, as it
was a cremation burial. There were the remains of a suit of iron
chain-mail, fragments of “spun gold ribbon”, but no armour or clothing,
and the “magnificent table” was a small bronze base for a lamp stand.2
There is also no evidence that this tradition, “as much of a village
institution as the mound itself”, even existed before A. Hyatt Verrill
recorded it in 1931, seven years after the excavation. That has never
stopped some from believing this to have been the grave of Cunobelinus,
king of the Catuvellauni, more commonly known as Cymbeline.3
Nowadays, it seems more likely that the mound was the burial place of
Addedomaros, king of the ruling Trinovantes.
1. A. Hyatt Verrill: ‘Secret Treasure: Hidden Riches of the British
Isles’ (Appleton & Co, 1931), p.27-8.
2. A. P. Fitzpatrick: ‘Cross-Channel Relations In The British Later Iron
Age’: Volume 2 (University of Durham, Dept. of Archaeology, 1989),
p.333, 342, 406.
It used to be thought that the name of Colchester derived from ‘Coel’s
Castle’, the fortification of a 3rd century king who founded the town,
and who has come down to us as the ‘Old King Cole’ of the nursery rhyme.
Later, some thought that this fictitious ruler was based on – or was the
same person as – the very real Cunobelinus.1 Whatever the
truth, the notion of King Cole (or Coyle) as an important legendary
figure in Colchester has persisted into much more recent times. Indeed,
in at least one tale from Essex, the king has transmuted into a giant
Until the 19th century, the Balkerne Gate (TL992251, a partially-ruined
set of Roman archways next to the Hole in the Wall pub on Balkerne Hill)
was known as ‘Colkyng’s Castle’. In Colchester Castle itself, the great
hall was known as ‘King Coel’s Hall’, while the remains of the Roman
temple upon which the castle itself was built were called ‘The Palace of
Coel’. ‘King Coyle’s Pump’ was a large public well from Roman times,
still in existence under the pavement at the junction of High Street,
Head Street and North Hill (TL994252).2
Outside the town itself, on the border of Lexden and Stanway, is ‘King
Coel’s Kitchen’. When William Stukeley drew it in 1759, it was thought
that this 60 metre diameter bowl-shaped depression was the remnant of a
Roman amphitheatre. In fact, it was found in 1974 to be a sand and
gravel pit, possibly a Roman or medieval quarry reopened in the 19th
century.3 Thickly surrounded by trees, the partially-filled
‘Kitchen’ can still be found today, at approx. TL959250, on the west
side of King Coel Road.
1. J. Westwood & J. Simpson: ‘The Lore of the Land’ (Penguin Books,
2. ‘The Colchester Archaeologist’, Issue No.14, 2001, p.17, 26.
3. ‘The Colchester Archaeologist’, Issue No.14, 2001, p.27.
As well as receiving tunnels from Coggeshall and Castle Hedingham,
Colchester Castle is supposed be at one end of a passage connecting it
with the 14th century Rose and Crown Hotel in East Street.1
The clergyman and traveler James Brome visited the town in 1700,
reporting: “The Castle is now quite demolished, and gone to decay, and
though they shew'd us a Brazen Gate, which gives entrance, as they say,
to a Vault fifteen Miles under ground, yet the Stories they multiply
concerning both, are so Romantickly idle and extravagant, that there is
little credit to be given to any Relations concerning them.”2
Much of the upper levels of the castle were demolished in the 1680’s,
explaining Brome’s opening sentence. And although the Roman drainage
system and extensive temple vaults beneath the castle might explain many
of the tunnel rumours, the idea of a vault fifteen miles underground is,
in my experience, unique in legend!
Various other tunnels are rumoured to be hidden beneath the High Street,
probably accounted for by cellars that extend beneath the road. The
basement of the Town Hall (TL995252) in this same street wasn’t
constructed until 1899, and there were no reports of any secret passages
being found then, even though it was built on the same site as the 12th
century Moot Hall. But at least one local man claimed to have, as a
little boy, gone into a tunnel that was used as a shelter during World
War Two, leading from the back of the Town Hall to the back of a
building at North Hill.3
Berechurch Hall, mentioned above, was alleged to have once been a
monastery – a rumour started because St. John’s Abbey in Colchester
owned all the lands around. A subterranean way was thus supposed to run
from the Hall to St. John’s Abbey Gate, still surviving at TL994252.4
the English Civil War the former Grosvenor Hotel (now a care home, at
TL991247) is supposed to have acted as a prison. However, it was only
built in the 19th century. Nevertheless a tunnel used for the transfer
of prisoners is alleged to have run to St. Mary at the Walls church (now
an art centre).5
& Fiddler pub (TL994249) in St. Johns Street stands on the site of inns
stretching back to the 16th century, and cellars beneath are said to
link to tunnels that run beneath the town. In a disused
passage in the 1640's, a chambermaid named Sarah is supposed to have
been bricked-up alive by none other than the Witchfinder General
himself, Matthew Hopkins. Her ghost still haunts the pub.6
2. James Brome d.1719, ‘Travels Over
England, Scotland and Wales’ A. Roper,1700, p.112.
3. ‘Daily Gazette’ January 1st, 2010.
4. Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry
Publications, 1987), p.31.
6. Carmel King: 'Haunted Essex' (The
History Press, 2009), p.59-60.
Treasure in the tunnel
Until 1561 Copford Hall (TL934227) was a residence of the Bishops of
London, including Edmund Bonner (c.1500-1569, known as ‘Bloody Bonner’
for his persecution of Protestants under Mary Tudor). In the 1540’s he
feared the work of the reformers, and legend says that he hid some of
the valuable church plate from their prying hands in a tunnel that
existed between the hall and Copford’s nearby church of St. Michael.
Source: Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost
Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.15.
Treasure in the mound
There was another tradition that the church plate was instead secreted
in a mound in Copford Park, although nothing came to light when a trench
was put through it in the 19th century. The earthwork was recorded as
30m in diameter and about 1 metre high, with traces of a ditch around it
and charcoal found at its centre. Nothing seems to be visible now, and
although there are some candidates for its position, the exact location
of the mound remains unknown.
Only two barns and a stone well survive of the Cressing Temple
(TL799186), founded in 1137, and marking one of the first land grants in
England to the Knights Templar. The well is about 13.7 metres deep and
lined with Reigate stone. Some have suggested it to be of Roman date,
but it is definitely of Templar construction. Towards the bottom of the
well is a small bricked-up archway in the wall. The bricks are
Victorian, suggesting a drainage function, but that hasn’t stopped the
origination of a legend that it was a priest hole and escape tunnel
leading to the late 16th century Hungry Hall, about half a mile away at
former Horseshoes pub (TL793204) in Church Road has been dated back to
at least the 15th century. It's said that part of a tunnel is still
visible there, leading to All Saints church. But as it's only a few
metres away, it hardly seems worth it.2
1. Pamela Brooks: ‘Essex Ghosts &
Legends’ (Halsgrove, 2010), p.59.
2. Vicky Passingham: 'Best of Both Rural
Worlds', in 'Limited Edition', (Feb. 2009), p.68.