Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
The growing stone
On the southern boundary of the parish lies Weald Bridge, beneath which flows the Cripsey Brook. Once, about 400m west of the bridge, there was a flat slab of Hertfordshire conglomerate, about 2.8m x 2.2m, that lay across the stream bed (at approx. TL507065).1 Some time after 1914 it was broken up due to local fears that it would grow to block the brook and thus flood the surrounding fields.2 Other boulders that were believed to grow, and even to 'breed', are known in East Anglia at Blaxhall and South Weald.
1. A.E. Salter: 'Sarsen, Basalt and Other Boulders in Essex', in 'Essex Naturalist' (orig, 1910, revised 1914, Vol. 17, 1912), p.190.
2. Gerald Lucy: 'Essex Boulders: A Gazetteer', in 'Essex Naturalist' (New Series, No. 20, 2003), p.118.
A little outside the town, beside the river Chelmer, are the remains of the 12th century Beeleigh Abbey, partly now a private house. (TL840077). As with most religious establishments, there is supposed to be a subterranean passage from it to the church of All Saints (TL849070) in the High Street. It’s said that archaeologists once found the tunnel entrance and sent a dog in to explore, as it was too blocked by rubble for a man to enter. The dog later reappeared in the abbey cellar.1 A story constructed to explain the appearance of phantom monks at the abbey suggests that they were buried alive when the tunnel collapsed on them, while trying to escape from the soldiers of Henry VIII.2
Right next to All Saints church is the partly-14th century Blue Boar Hotel, a former coaching inn, where a passage is said to run towards the river near Beeleigh Abbey. This sounds rather like a garbled version of the previous tunnel tale.3
1. Pamela Brooks: ‘Essex Ghosts and Legends’ (Halsgrove, 2010), p.18.
2. Former weblink: http://www.nightwatchmanchronicles.com/AGFS.pdf
In a private garden on the north side of Beeleigh Road is a circular brick well house, an 1805 rebuilding of a 16th century original. Known variously as Cromwell’s Well, Little Crom Well, and St. Helen’s Well, one tale says that it was actually discovered by Oliver Cromwell. However, Cromwell wasn’t born until 1599, and the well was already owned by Thomas Cammock in 1587. It was Cammock who used the well, fed by a small spring, to pump a public water supply to a pump, which still stands at TL849072, on Cromwell Hill not far away. Another tradition says the well got its name from Cromwell nearly drowning in it whilst watering his horse.
Alan Smith: ‘The Image of Cromwell in Folklore and Tradition’ in ‘Folklore’ Vol.79, No.1(Spring 1968).
Another smuggler’s haunt, the 16th century White Hart Inn (TM106318) is rumoured to have had a tunnel that led from its cellar to the Stour river,1 while it has been suggested that it also extended across the High Street to the former Alston’s brewery.2
The timber tower
The top half and spire of the tower of St. Andrew's church (TL911238) are made of timber, with elm cladding and oak shingles. Although timber towers or spires are not that unusual, especially in Essex, this one has given rise to the legend that the original masonry tower was shot off by cannon during the Civil War. Supposedly, the tower was used for gunnery practice when the Parliamentarians were preparing to attack the Royalists during the siege of Colchester in 1648. This is often quoted as fact in guide books, but in truth, there's no evidence that it ever happened.
A church that moved
There is a brief reference – but no details – to a tale that the stones of St. Mary the Virgin’s church (TL525120) at Matching kept being moved to the present site from the one originally intended. This type of story crops up all over the country, with the culprit usually being the Devil, and is probably an attempt to explain why the parish church stands isolated from main areas of habitation.
Source: Janet & Colin Bord: ‘The Secret Country’ (Paladin Books, 1978), p.132.
The haunted causeway…
The Strood is the causeway road that connects Mersea Island to mainland Essex. Although constructed by Saxons in the late 7th century, for many years it was believed to be Roman, which explains why it is supposed to be haunted by a Roman soldier. Some say that he walks the Strood at midnight, after suffering an untimely death.1 Some say that only his top half is visible, as the road level is higher now than in his day (when the causeway actually didn’t even exist).2 Yet others have said that, in full centurion battledress, he haunts not only the Strood but the Peldon Rose pub on the mainland side of the road.3
Not far from the Strood, on Barrow Hill at TM023143, is Mersea Mount, a conical, flat-topped burial mound that actually is Romano-British. The main ghost here is a Roman soldier (perhaps the same one that walks the Strood?), standing guard over the Mount’s occupant1 – although a complete chariot with horses has also been known to frequent the area.2 A more-well known haunting, that of two Viking brothers battling every night over a woman, is completely fictitious. The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould invented it for his 1880 melodrama ‘Mehalah’.
2. Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001), p.240.
Legends can begin from rumour, and rumour from the absence of facts. That certainly seems to be the case at St. Edmund's church in East Mersea. With as little substance to the tale as that of the tomb at Pitsea, it seems to have become lodged in local lore that the grave of Sarah Wrench is that of a witch. She died in 1848 aged 15, and over her grave was placed a cage formed of curved iron rods. Such a cage is usually called a mortsafe, and was used from about 1816 to deter grave-robbers from stealing the recently-dead and selling the bodies to medical schools. Here, however, the tale has arisen that Sarah was a witch, with the cage placed there to prevent her from rising again.
Others have said that she was a suicide and/or had a child out of wedlock. This is strengthened by the fact that the grave is on the north side of the church, which traditionally was for the burial of criminals, suicides and the unbaptised - although this was by no means universal practice, and in any case, died out long before the 19th century.
Other problems with the story are that the Anatomy Act of 1832 put an end to body-snatching 16 years before Sarah even died; mortsafes were common in Scotland, but not in England; and there's no evidence that the cage even is a mortsafe - excavation would be needed to see if it's fastened by rods into a heavy plate or stone slab, as true mortsafes were. It would seem that rumour and gossip have turned a 15 year old girl into a witch, and a simple grave into local legend.
Richard Jones: 'Myths & Legends of Britain & Ireland' (New Holland Publishers, 2006), p.73.
Along with Loughton Camp, Ambresbury Banks, Canewdon and Upshire, Messing is traditionally said to be the site of Boudicca’s last battle, at a prehistoric ditch-and-bank known as the Rampart (TL908175 area) south-east of the village, near Haynes Green.1 In fact, one 19th century gazetteer – completely erroneously – believed the name of the village meant ‘the field of trampling’, in direct reference to the battle between Boudicca and the Romans.2
Hopping Bridge & Ducking Pond
Standing on the little humpback of the Hopping Bridge (TM113320) you can look over at the still waters of Mistley Pond as it's now called. It used to be known as the Ducking Pond, and was where the self-styled Witchfinder General himself, Matthew Hopkins, allegedly tested the witches of Mistley and Manningtree. Some say that, at the end of his reign of terror in 1647, he was himself ducked in this pond then executed (he actually died of natural causes at his home); but whatever the case local legend says that he haunts both bridge and pond, especially on nights of a full moon.
Close by the church is the impressive ‘motte’, the mound of a Norman castle that gives the village its name. Often called Boudicca’s Mount1 (TL904325), locals say that the queen’s warriors are buried there.2
Russell Edwards: ‘The River Stour’ (Terence Dalton Ltd, 1982), p.88.
Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001), p.155.
About halfway along Craig’s Lane is a tiny bridge over the Cambridge Brook at TL902327. This is said to be haunted at midnight by a headless woman, who carries her head under her arm.
Source: Jessie K. Payne: ‘A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Essex’ (Ian Henry Publications, 1987), p.107.
From the ruins of the Augustinian Thoby Priory (TQ626987), a tunnel is rumoured to lead to the 16th century Ingatestone Hall 1.6 miles away, at TQ653986. Both sites were once the property of Sir William Petre, who built the latter house.
Source: Pamela Brooks: ‘Essex Ghosts & Legends’ (Halsgrove, 2010), p.117.
Smugglers were once active in Mucking, now the tiniest of hamlets south of Stanford-le-Hope. Mucking Hall used to stand at TQ685810 until it burned down and was then demolished in recent years. From here a smuggler’s tunnel was alleged to run to the Crown Inn close by at TQ686811, also now torn down.1 Others say there was a whole tunnel system linking the inn to the creek.2
1. Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes: ‘The Essex Village Book’ (Countryside Books, 2001), p.158.
About 50m east of the site of Mucking Hall, beside Wharf Road, is a large stagnant pond that may be the one in which a local girl drowned herself long ago. Forbidden by her parents to marry the man she loved, even though she was bearing his child, she ended her life there, her spirit now haunting the pond and the nearby road.
Source: Carmel King: 'Haunted Essex' (The History Press, 2009), p.16.
St. John the Baptist's church is now a private house, but just outside the former churchyard there is still a long triangle of grass, upon which a large tree used to stand. From this a smuggler was once hanged, and his ghost now walks from the site of the tree, along the road, towards the former Crown Inn location.
Source: Carmel King: 'Haunted Essex' (The History Press, 2009), p.16.