Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
The Smugglers Elms
Until the 1980’s, three pollarded elms stood at approx. TQ933926, at the junction of Paglesham Road and Easthall Road. In tradition, these large and hollow trees were used by smugglers for hiding contraband, with “up to £200 worth of silk” being concealed there at times.1 They stood next to the still-existing Pound Pond,2 also known to some as the Smuggler’s Pool.3 Until at least 1910 the trees were called the ‘Old Maids’4 – although one source of 1888 referred to them as the ‘Three Old Widows’5 – but later became known as the ‘Smugglers Elms’. A picture of the trees can be seen here.
1. M. W. Hanson: ‘Essex Elm’ in ‘Essex Naturalist’ (New Series) No.10, 1990, p.48
5. J. F. T. W.: ‘Essex Lays and Legends’ (Taylor & Robbins, 1888).
The monk on the mount
Redundant for many years and then vandalized, demolition of St. Michael’s church on Pitsea Mount (TQ738877) began in 1998, leaving only the 16th century tower. Back when the church was still standing, a legend grew up about it – probably popular only among schoolchildren – that a monk had hanged himself there, and that running backwards around it three times would cause him to appear. The apparition of a headless nun was also supposed to haunt the hill.
One of the few monuments surviving in the former St. Michael's graveyard is the tomb of the Freeman family, on the north side close to the base of the tower. One of those buried there is Anne Freeman, born March 30th 1837, died March 20th 1879. Purely on the basis of the inscription, it has for some time been believed locally that the occupant must have been a witch, and haunts the spot. The words inscribed there say:
"Here lies a weak and sinful worm,
The vilest of her race,
Saved through God's electing love,
His free and sovereign grace".
The apparent harshness of the words is difficult to accept nowadays, but each phrase has resonance and meaning in Biblical and other religious writings of earlier times - and certainly do not suggest that the poor woman (who has been found in the census records and is known to have been a servant) was in any way a witch.
A densely-wooded patch beside Walthambury Brook, north of Fitzjohn’s Farm, conceals a spot known as Deadman’s Bank (TL676141). This is actually a dam constructed on the brook to create a mill pond, and was probably the site of Pleshey’s Castle Mill. Traditionally, the name derives from the result of a duel once fought there.
Source: The Essex Way pdf
Most of Pleshey exists within the outer bailey of a Norman castle (TL665144), with the sizeable motte still dominating the village. Eleanor de Bohun died at the castle in 1399 at the young age of 33, having married in 1385 Thomas, first Duke of Gloucester. According to local legend, she had all her treasure placed in a huge chest, then thrown into the deepest part of the moat. But nobody can ever drag it out again: a man tried once with horses, but the chains broke and the chest disappeared once more into the dark waters.1 One source says the chest is "fixed by the power of magic in the moat below".2
1. Pamela Brooks: ‘Ghosts & Legends of Essex’ (Halsgrove, 2010), p.98.
2. D. W. Coller: 'The People's History of Essex' (Meggy & Chalk, 1861), p.279.